Tag Archives: Health

The Corruption of Academic Research

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using r...

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using recombinant DNA technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are supposed to be the new darlings of the academy, so I was slightly surprised when I heard an NPR piece on how researchers are struggling for funding. After all, even the politicians devoted to cutting education funding have spoken glowingly of STEM. My own university recently split the venerable College of Arts & Sciences, presumably to allow more money to flow to STEM without risking that professors in the soft sciences and the humanities might inadvertently get some of the cash. As such I was somewhat curious about this problem, but mostly attributed it to a side-effect of the general trend of defunding public education. Then I read “Bad Science” by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones. This article was originally published in issue 14, 2014 of Jacobin Magazine. I will focus on the ethical aspects of the matters Hinkes-Jones discussed in this article, which is centered on the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980 and was presented as having very laudable goals. Before the act was passed, universities were limited in regards to what they could do with the fruits of their scientific research. After the act was passes, schools could sell their patents or engage in exclusive licensing deals with private companies (that is, monopolies on the patents). Supporters asserted this act would be beneficial in three main ways. The first is that it would secure more private funding for universities because corporations would provide money in return for the patents or exclusive licenses. The second is that it would bring the power of the profit motive to public research: since researchers and schools could profit, they would be more motivated to engage in research. The third is that the private sector would be motivated to implement the research in the form of profitable products.

On the face of it, the act was a great success. Researchers at Columbia University patented the process of DNA cotransfrormation and added millions to the coffers of the school. A patent on recombinant DNA earned Stanford over $200 million. Companies, in turn, profited greatly. For example, researchers at the University of Utah created Myriad Genetics and took ownership of their patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests for breast cancer. The current cost of the test is $4,000 (in comparison a full sequencing of human DNA costs $1,000) and the company has a monopoly on the test.

Given these apparent benefits, it is easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of the act and its consequences. After all, if allows universities to fund their research and corporations to make profits, then its benefits would seem to be considerable, thus making it morally good. However, a proper calculation requires considering the harmful consequences of the act.

The first harm is that the current situation imposes a triple cost on the public. One cost is that the taxpayers fund the schools that conduct the research. The next is that thanks to the monopolies on patents the taxpayers have to pay whatever prices the companies wish to charge, such as the $4,000 for a test that should cost far less. In an actual free market there would be competition and lower prices—but what we have is a state controlled and regulated market. Ironically, those who are often crying the loudest against government regulation and for the value of competition are quite silent on this point.  The final cost of the three is that the corporations can typically write off their contributions on their taxes, thus leaving other taxpayers to pick up their slack. These costs seem to be clear harms and do much to offset the benefits—at least when looked at from the perspective of the whole society and not just focusing on those reaping the benefits.

The second harm is that, ironically, this system makes research more expensive. Since processes, strains of bacteria and many other things needed for research are protected by monopolistic patents the researchers who do not hold these patents have to pay to use them. The costs are usually quite high, so while the patent holders benefit, research in general suffers. In order to pay for these things, researchers need more funding, thus either imposing more cost on taxpayers or forcing them to turn to private funding (which will typically result in more monopolistic patents).

The third harm is the corruption of researchers. Researchers are literally paid to put their names on positive journal articles that advance the interests of corporations. They are also paid to promote drugs and other products while presenting themselves as researchers rather than paid promoters. If the researchers are not simply bought, the money is clearly a biasing factor. Since we are depending on these researchers to inform the public and policy makers about these products, this is clearly a problem and presents a clear danger to the public good.

A fourth harm is that even the honest researchers who have not been bought are under great pressure to produce “sexy science” that will attract grants and funding. While it has always been “publish or perish” in modern academics, the competition is even fiercer in the sciences now. As such, researchers are under great pressure to crank out publications. The effect has been rather negative as evidenced by the fact that the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies.  Far from driving advances in science, the act has served as an engine of corruption, fraud and bad science. This would be bad enough, but there is also the impact on a misled and misinformed public. I must admit that I fell for the antioxidant and omega-3 “research”—I modified my diet to include more antioxidants and omega-3. While this bad science does get debunked, the debunking takes a long time and most people never hear about it. For example, how many people know that the antioxidant and omega-3 “research” is flawed and how many still pop omega-3 “fish oil pills” and drink “antioxidant teas”?

A fifth harm is that universities have rushed to cash in on the research, driven by the success of the research schools that have managed to score with profitable patents. However, setting up research labs aimed at creating million dollar patents is incredibly expensive. In most cases the investment will not yield the hoped for returns, thus leaving many schools with considerable expenses and little revenue.

To help lower costs, schools have turned to employing adjuncts to do the teaching and research, thus creating a situation in which highly educated but very low-paid professionals are toiling away to secure millions for the star researchers, the administrators and their corporate benefactors. It is, in effect, sweat-shop science.

This also shows another dark side to the push for STEM: as the number of STEM graduates increase, the value of the degrees will decrease and wages for the workers will continue to fall. This is great for the elite, but terrible for those hoping that a STEM degree will mean a good job and a bright future.

These harms would seem to outweigh the alleged benefits of the act, thus indicating it is morally wrong. Naturally, it can be countered that the costs are worth it. After all, one might argue, the incredible advances in science since 1980 have been driven by the profit motive and this has been beneficial overall. Without the profit motive, the research might have been conducted, but most of the discoveries would have been left on the shelves. The easy and obvious response is to point to all the advances that occurred due to public university research prior to 1980 as well as the research that began before then and came to fruition.

While solving this problem is a complex matter, there seem to be some easy and obvious steps. The first would be to restore public funding of state schools. In the past, the publicly funded universities drove America’s worldwide dominance in research and helped fuel massive economic growth while also contributing to the public good. The second would be replacing the Bayh-Dole Act with an act that would allow universities to benefit from the research, but prevent the licensing monopolies that have proven so damaging. Naturally, this would not eliminate patents but would restore competition to what is supposed to be a competitive free market by eliminating the creation of monopolies from public university research. The folks who complain about the state regulating business and who praise the competitive free market will surely get behind this proposal.

It might also be objected that the inability to profit massively from research will be a disincentive. The easy and obvious reply is that people conduct research and teach with great passion for very little financial compensation. The folks that run universities and corporations know this—after all, they pay such people very little yet still often get exceptional work. True, there are some people who are solely motivated by profit—but those are typically the folks who are making the massive profit rather than doing the actual research and work that makes it all possible.

 

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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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Ethics & E-Cigarettes

Electronic Cigarette Smoking

Electronic Cigarette Smoking (Photo credit: planetc1)

While the patent for an e-cigarette like device dates back to 1965, it is only fairly recently that e-cigarettes (e-cigs) have become popular and readily available. Thanks, in part, to the devastating health impact of traditional cigarettes, there is considerable concern about the e-cig.

A typical e-cig works by electronically heating a cartridge containing nicotine, flavoring and propylene glycol to release a vapor. This vapor is inhaled by the user, delivering the nicotine (and flavor). From the standpoint of ethics, the main concern is whether or not the e-cigs are harmful to the user.

At this point, the health threat, if any, of e-cigs is largely unknown—primarily because of the lack of adequate studies of the product.

While propylene glycol is regarded as safe by the FDA (it is used in soft drinks, shampoos and other products that are consumed or applied to the body), it is not known what effect the substance has if it is heated and inhaled. It might be harmless or it might not. Nicotine, which is regarded as being addictive, might also be harmful. There are also concerns about the “other stuff” in the cartridge that are heated into vapor—there is some indication that the vapors contain carcinogens.  However, e-cigs are largely an unknown—aside from the general notion that inhaling particles generated from burning something is often not a great idea.

From a moral standpoint, there is the obvious concern that people are being exposed to a product whose health impact is not yet known. As of this writing, regulation of e-cigs seems to be rather limited and is often inconsistently enforced. Given that the e-cig is largely an unknown, it certainly seems reasonable to determine their potential impact on the consumer so as to provide a rational basis for regulation (which might be to have no regulation).

One stock argument in favor of e-cigs can be cast in utilitarian grounds. While the health impact of e-cigs is unknown, it seems reasonable to accept (at least initially) that they are probably not as bad for people as traditional cigarettes. If people elect to use e-cigs rather than traditional tobacco products, then they will be harmed less than if they used the tobacco products. This reduced harm would thus make e-cigs morally preferable to traditional tobacco products. Naturally, if e-cigs turn out to be worse than traditional tobacco products (which seems somewhat unlikely), then things would be rather different.

There is also the moral (and health) concern that people who would not use tobacco products would use e-cigs on the grounds that they are safer than the tobacco products. If the e-cigs are still harmful, then this would be of moral concern since people would be harmed who otherwise would not be harmed.

One obvious point of consideration is my view that people have a moral right to self-abuse. This is based on Mill’s arguments regarding liberty—others have no moral right to compel a person to do or not do something merely because doing so would be better, healthier or wiser for a person. The right to compel does covers cases in which a person is harming others—so, while I do hold that I have no right to compel people to not smoke, I do have the right to compel people to not expose me to smoke. As such, I can rightfully forbid people from smoking in my house, but not from smoking in their own.

Given the right of self-abuse, people would thus have every right to use e-cigs, provided that they are not harming others (so, for example, I can rightfully forbid people from using them in my house)—even if the e-cigs are very harmful.

However, I also hold to the importance of informed self-abuse: the person has to be able to determine (if she wants to) whether or not the activity is harmful in order in order for the self-abuse to be morally acceptable. That is, the person needs to be able to determine whether she is, in fact, engaging in self-abuse or not. If the person is unable to acquire the needed information, then this makes the matter a bit more morally complicated.

If the person is being intentionally deceived, then the deceiver is clearly subject to moral blame—especially if the person would not engage in the activity if she was not so deceived. For example, selling people a product that causes health problems and intentionally concealing this fact would be immoral. Or, to use another example, giving people brownies containing marijuana and not telling them would be immoral.

If there is no information available, then the ethics of the situation become rather more debatable. On the one hand, if I know that the effect of a product is unknown and I elect to use it, then it would seem that my decision puts most (if not all) of the moral blame on me, should the product prove to be harmful. This would be, it might be argued, like eating some mushroom found in the woods: if you don’t know what it will do, yet you eat it anyway and it hurts you, shame on you.

On the other hand, it seems reasonable to expect people who sell products intended for consumption be compelled to determine whether these products will be harmful or not. To use another analogy, if I have dinner at someone’s house, I have the moral expectation that they will not throw some unknown mushrooms from the woods onto the pizza they are making for dinner. Likewise, if a company sells e-cigs, the customers have a legitimate moral expectation that the product will not hurt them. Being permitted to sell products whose effect is not known is morally dubious at best. But, it should be said, that people who use such a product do bear some of the moral responsibility—they have an obligation to consider that a product that has not been tested could be harmful before using it. To use an analogy, if I buy a pizza and I know that I have no idea what the mushrooms on it will do to me, then if it kills me some of the blame rests on me—I should know better. But, the person who sells pizza also has an obligation to know what is going on that pizza-they should not sell death pizza.

The same applies to e-cigs: they should not be sold until their effects are at least reasonably determined. But, if people insist on using them without having any real idea whether they are safe or not, they are choosing poorly and deserve some of the moral blame.

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Why Runners are not Masochists (Usually)

Palace 5KAs a runner, I am often accused of being a masochist or at least having masochistic tendencies. Given that I routinely subject myself to pain and recently wrote an essay about running and freedom that was rather pain focused, this is hardly surprising. Other runners, especially those masochistic ultra-marathon runners, are also commonly accused of masochism.

In some cases, the accusation is made in jest or at least not seriously. That is, the person making it is not actually claiming that runners derive pleasure (perhaps even sexual gratification) their pain. What seems to be going on is merely the observation that runners do things that clearly hurt and that make little sense to many folks. However, some folks do regard runners as masochists in the strict sense of the term. Being a runner and a philosopher, I find this a bit interesting—especially when I am the one being accused of being a masochist.

It is worth noting that I claim that people accuse runners of being masochists with some seriousness. While some people say runners are masochists in jest or with some respect for the toughness of runners, it is sometimes presented as an actual accusation: that there is something mentally wrong with runners and that when they run they are engaged in deviant behavior. While runners do like to joke about being odd and different, I think we generally prefer to not be seen as actually mentally ill or as engaging in deviant behavior. After all, that would indicate that we are doing something wrong—which I believe is (usually) not the case. Based on my experience over years of running and meeting thousands of runners, I think that runners are generally not masochists.

Given that runners engage in some rather painful activities (such as speed work and racing marathons) and that they often just run on despite injuries, it is tempting to believe that runners are really masochists and that I am in denial about the deviant nature of runners.

While this does have some appeal, it rests on a confusion about masochism in regards to matters of means and ends. For the masochist, pain is a means to the end of pleasure. That is, the masochist does not seek pain for the sake of pain, but seeks pain to achieve pleasure. However, there is a special connection between the means of pain and the end of pleasure: for the masochist, the pleasure generated specifically by pain is the pleasure that is desired. While a masochist can get pleasure by other means (such as drugs or cake), it is the desire for pleasure caused by pain that defines the masochist. As such, the pain is not an optional matter—mere pleasure is not the end, but pleasure caused by pain.

This is rather different from those who endure pain as part of achieving an end, be that end pleasure or some other end. For those who endure pain to achieve an end, the pain can be seen as part of the means or, perhaps more accurately, as an effect of the means. It is valuing the end that causes the person to endure the pain to achieve the end—the pain is not sought out as being the “proper cause” of the end. In the case of the masochist, the pain is not endured to achieve an end—it is the “proper cause” of the end, which is pleasure.

In the case of running, runners typically regard pain as something to be endured as part of the process of achieving the desired ends, such as fitness or victory. However, runners generally prefer to avoid pain when they can. For example, while I will endure pain to run a good race, I prefer running well with as little pain as possible. To use an analogy, a person will put up with the unpleasant aspects of a job in order to make money—but they would certainly prefer to have as little unpleasantness as possible. After all, she is in it for the money, not the unpleasant experiences of work. Likewise, a runner is typically running for some other end (or ends) than hurting herself.  It just so happens that achieving that end (or ends) requires doing things that cause pain.

In my essay on running and freedom, I described how I endured the pain in my leg while running the Tallahassee Half Marathon. If I were a masochist, experiencing pleasure by means of that pain would have been my primary end. However, my primary end was to run the half marathon well and the pain was actually an obstacle to that end. As such, I would have been glad to have had a painless start and I was pleased when the pain diminished. I enjoy the running and I do actually enjoy overcoming pain, but I do not enjoy the pain itself—hence the aspirin and Icy Hot in my medicine cabinet.

While I cannot speak for all runners, my experience has been that runners do not run for pain, they run despite the pain. Thus, we are not masochists. We might, however, show some poor judgment when it comes to pain and injury—but that is another matter.

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Picking between Experts

A logic diagram proposed for WP OR to handle a...

A logic diagram proposed for WP OR to handle a situation where two equal experts disagree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One fairly common way to argue is the argument from authority. While people rarely follow the “strict” form of the argument, the basic idea is to infer that a claim is true based on the allegation that the person making the claim is an expert. For example, someone might claim that second hand smoke does not cause cancer because Michael Crichton claimed that it does not. As another example, someone might claim that astral projection/travel is real because Michael Crichton claims it does occur. Given that people often disagree, it is also quite common to find that alleged experts disagree with each other. For example, there are medical experts who claim that second hand smoke does cause cancer.

If you are an expert in the field in question, you can endeavor to pick between the other experts by using your own expertise. For example, a medical doctor who is trying to decide whether to believe that second hand smoke causes cancer can examine the literature and perhaps even conduct her own studies. Being an expert, a person is presumably qualified to make an informed pick. The obvious problem is, of course, that experts themselves pick different experts to accept as being correct.

The problem is even greater when it comes to non-experts who are trying to pick between experts. Being non-experts, they lack the expertise to make authoritative picks between the actual experts based on their own knowledge of the fields. This raises the rather important concern of how to pick between experts when you are not an expert.

Not surprisingly, people tend to pick based on fallacious reasoning. One common approach is to pick an expert based on the fact that she agrees with what you already believe. That is, to infer that the expert is right because you believe what she says. This is rather obviously not good reasoning: to infer that something is true simply because I believe it gets things backwards. It should be first established that a claim is probably true, then it should be believed (with appropriate reservations).

Another common approach is to believe an expert because he makes a claim that you really want to be true. For example, a smoker might elect to believe an expert who claims second hand smoke does not cause cancer because he does not want to believe that he might be increasing the risk that his children will get cancer by his smoking around them. This sort of “reasoning” is the classic fallacy of wishful thinking. Obviously enough, wishing that something is true (or false) does not prove that the claim is true (or false).

People also pick their expert based on qualities they perceive as positive but that are, in fact, irrelevant to the person’s actually credibility. Factors such as height, gender, appearance, age, personality, religion, political party, wealth, friendliness, backstory, courage, and so on can influence people emotionally, but are not actually relevant to assessing a person’s expertise.  For example, a person might be very likeable, but not know a thing about what they are talking about.

Fortunately, there are some straightforward standards for picking and believing an expert. They are as follows.

 

1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.

Claims made by a person who lacks the needed degree of expertise to make a reliable claim will, obviously, not be well supported. In contrast, claims made by a person with the needed degree of expertise will be supported by the person’s reliability in the area. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that a person has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether or not a person has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions.

 

2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.

If a person makes a claim about some subject outside of his area(s) of expertise, then the person is not an expert in that context. Hence, the claim in question is not backed by the required degree of expertise and is not reliable. People often mistake expertise in one area (acting, for example) for expertise in another area (politics, for example).

 

3. The claims made by the expert are consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field.

This is perhaps the most important factor. As a general rule, a claim that is held as correct by the majority of qualified experts in the field is the most plausible claim. The basic idea is that the majority of experts are more likely to be right than those who disagree with the majority.

It is important to keep in mind that no field has complete agreement, so some degree of dispute is acceptable. How much is acceptable is, of course, a matter of serious debate.

It is also important to be aware that the majority could turn out to be wrong. That said, the reason it is still reasonable for non-experts to go with the majority opinion is that non-experts are, by definition, not experts. After all, if I am not an expert in a field, I would be hard pressed to justify picking the expert I happen to like or agree with against the view of the majority of experts.

 

4. The person in question is not significantly biased.

This is also a rather important standard. Experts, being people, are vulnerable to biases and prejudices. If there is evidence that a person is biased in some manner that would affect the reliability of her claims, then the person’s credibility as an authority is reduced. This is because there would be reason to believe that the expert might not be making a claim because he has carefully considered it using his expertise. Rather, there would be reason to believe that the claim is being made because of the expert’s bias or prejudice. A biased expert can still be making claims that are true—however, the person’s bias lowers her credibility.

It is important to remember that no person is completely objective. At the very least, a person will be favorable towards her own views (otherwise she would probably not hold them). Because of this, some degree of bias must be accepted, provided that the bias is not significant. What counts as a significant degree of bias is open to dispute and can vary a great deal from case to case. For example, many people would probably suspect that researchers who receive funding from pharmaceutical companies might be biased while others might claim that the money would not sway them if the drugs proved to be ineffective or harmful.

Disagreement over bias can itself be a very significant dispute. For example, those who doubt that climate change is real often assert that the experts in question are biased in some manner that causes them to say untrue things about the climate. Questioning an expert based on potential bias is a legitimate approach—provided that there is adequate evidence of bias that would be strong enough to unduly influence the expert. One way to look for bias is to consider whether the expert is interested or disinterested. Or, more metaphorically, to consider whether they have “skin in the game” and stand to gain (or suffer a loss) from a claim being accepted as true. Merely disagreeing with an expert is, obviously, not proof that an expert is biased. Vague accusations that the expert has “liberal” or “conservative” views also do not count as adequate evidence. What is needed is actual evidence of bias. Anything else is most likely a mere ad homimen attack.

These standards are clearly not infallible. However, they do provide a good general guide to logically picking an expert. Certainly more logical than just picking the one who says things one likes.

 

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Aesthetic Masochsim

English: Double Stuf Oreos, by Nabisco.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many philosophers, I am rather drawn to science-fiction movies. One of my colleagues, Stephen, deviates from this usual path-while he does not dislike science fiction, his experience with the genre was somewhat limited. After learning that I was “big into sci-fi” he asked me for some recommendations. While he did like some of the films I suggested, he regarded some as rather awful. As should come as no surprise, this got me thinking about the enjoyment (or lack thereof) of bad films.

As my colleague pointed out, one common approach to explaining the enjoyment of bad films is to appeal to the notion that something can be so bad that it is good. On the face of it, bad would seem to be, well, bad. As such, there is a need to sort out what it could mean for something to be so bad that it is good.

One possibility is what could be called accidental aesthetic success. This is when a work succeeds not at what it was intended to be, but rather in being an accidental parody or mockery of the genre. Using the example of science fiction, this commonly occurs when the work is so absurd that although it is horrible science-fiction, it succeeds as an unintentional comedy. Thus the work is a failure in one sense (to borrow from Aristotle, it fails to produce the  intended effect on the audience). But it succeeds in another sense, by producing an unintended but valuable aesthetic experience for the audience.

While this view is certainly tempting, it can also be disputed by contending that the work does not actually succeed. To be specific, while it does produce an effect on the audience, this is a matter of accident rather than intent and hence to credit the work with success would be an error. To use an analogy, if someone intends to defend himself with a devastating martial arts attack, but slips on a banana to great comic effect, then he has not succeeded. Rather, his failure has caused the sort of mocking amusement reserved for failures.

That said, I am willing to extend a certain sort of aesthetic success to works that are so accidentally bad that they are good. There are, of course, works that endeavor to be good at being bad (such as the film Black Dynamite). These works can be assessed at how well they succeed at being good at what is attempted. Intentionally making a work that is good at being bad does open the possibility that the work could fail at being bad in such a way that makes it good in another way. But perhaps in that way lies madness.

Another approach to good badness can be used by drawing an analogy to junk food. Junk food is, by its nature, bad food. At least, it is bad food in terms of its nutritional value. However, people do rather like junk food and regard it as good in regards to how it tastes. The reverse holds for other types of food. For example, as a runner I have tried a wide variety of food products designed for athletes. While such food is often rather good in terms of its nutritional content, the taste is often rather bad (leading to my bad jokes about junk food and anti-junk food).

Going with the food analogy, some works that are so bad they are good could be rather like junk food. That is, they are deficient in what might be regarded as aesthetic nutritional value, yet have a certain tastiness-at least while they are being experienced. As with junk food, the after effects can be rather less pleasant. For example: for me, watching True Blood is like eating a mix of Cheetos and Oreo Cookies washed down with Mountain Dew. Somehow it is enjoyable while it is happening, but after it is done I wonder why the hell I did that…and I feel vaguely sick.

In such cases, I am willing to grant that such works have some sort of aesthetic value, much as I am willing to grant that junk food has some sort of value. However, the value does often seem rather dubious.

One counter to this is to contend that valuing “junk food” aesthetic value is just as big a mistake as valuing actual junk food. While a person might enjoy such experiences, she is making an error. In the case of food, she is making a poor nutritional choice that is masked by a pleasant taste. In the case of art, she is making a poor aesthetic choice, masked by a superficially pleasant experience.

It could be responded that a work might seem to be junk, but that it is actually better than it seems (or sounds, to steal from Twain). Going back to the food analogy, this could have some appeal. After all, food could be bad in one area (taste) but excel in another (nutrition). So, a food could actually be much better than it tastes. However, this sort of approach only works when the thing in question does actually have the capacity to be better than it seems.

In the case of aesthetic experiences it would certainly seem that a work cannot be better than it seems. After all, the aesthetic experience would be the seeming and it is exactly what it is. For example, consider a song that sounds awful. To claim it is better than it sounds would seem to be an error. After all, the song is what it sounds like and if it sounds bad, it is bad. There is nothing beyond the sound that could be appealed to in order to claim that it is better than it sounds. After all, it sounds what it sounds like. This is, of course, in contrast with many other things. For example, it makes sense to say of a wound that it looks worse than it is-the appearance (lots of blood, for example) is distinct from the seriousness of the wound. As another example, it makes sense to say that a car is better than it looks-it  might look like a junker on the outside, but the engine might be brand new.  Naturally, if it can be shown that art has these multiple aspects, then this matter could be properly addressed.

Before moving on, I must note that I am aware that a work of art can be good or bad in various aspects. For example, a song could have great lyrics, but be sung poorly. As another example, a film could have terrible special effects, but a brilliant story. This is, however, a different matter-in the above I am considering the aesthetic experience as a whole. To use an analogy, while a hamburger might have good cheese but a crappy burger, what would be considered is the overall experience of eating the hamburger.

Like other folks I know, I will sometimes indulge in watching a bad sci-fi/horror/fantasy movie that I recognize as being awful and hence prevents any appeal to the idea of good badness. As might be suspected, my colleague asked me why I would waste my time on bad movies that I actually admitted were bad.

My initial response was a somewhat practical one: there are only a limited number of good movies in those genres and when I get a craving for a genre, sometimes the only option is something bad. To use an analogy, this is like getting a craving for a certain food late at night and the only place that is open is rather bad. So, the only options are going without or going bad. In some cases, just as a bad burger is better than no burger, a bad film is better than no film. However, in other cases nothing is better than something bad.

My second response arose from conversations that my colleague and I had about running. While we are both runners, my colleague is the sort of runner who runs for himself and has no real interest in training for or competing in races. I am, however, very much into training and competition. In addition to enjoying the competition, I must admit that I enjoy the painful experience of hard training and running. That is, I obviously have some mild sort of masochism going on in this area which my colleague lacks.

This difference seems to extend beyond running and into aesthetics-I can actually enjoy suffering through a bad movie. Since I know other folks who are the same way, I believe that there is a certain aesthetic masochism that some people possess. I have not worked out a full theory of this, but given the volume of bad films and shows, this does seem like a promising area.

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Mental Illness or Evil?

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When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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Training the Will

In general, will is a very useful thing to have. After all, it allows a person to overcome factors that would make his decisions for him, such as pain, fear, anger, fatigue, lust or weakness. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention that the will can be used to overcome generally positive factors such as compassion, love and mercy as well. The will, as Kant noted, can apparently select good or evil with equal resolve. However, I will set aside the concern regarding the bad will and focus on training the will.

Based on my own experience, the will is rather like stamina—while people vary in what they get by nature, it can be improved by proper training. This, of course, nicely matches Aristotle’s view of the virtues.

While there are no doubt many self-help books discussing how to train the will with various elaborate and strange methods, the process is actually very straightforward and is like training any attribute. To be specific, it is mainly a matter of exercising the capacity but not doing so to excess (and thus burning out) or deficiency (and thus getting no gain). To borrow from Aristotle, one way of developing the will in regards to temperance is to practice refraining from pleasures to the proper degree (the mean) and this will help train the will. As another example, one can build will via athletic activities by continuing when pain and fatigue are pushing one to stop. Naturally, one should not do this to excess (because of the possibility of injury) nor be deficient in it (because there will be no gain).

As far as simple and easy ways to train the will, meditation and repetitive mental exercises (such as repeating prayers or simply repeated counting) seem to help in developing this attribute.

One advantage of the indirect training of the will, such as with running, is that it also tends to develop other resources that can be used in place of the will. To use a concrete example, when a person tries to get into shape to run, sticking with the running will initially take a lot of will because the pain and fatigue will begin quickly. However, as the person gets into shape it will take longer for them to start to hurt and feel fatigued. As such, the person will not need to use as much will when running (and if the person becomes a crazy runner like me, then she will need to use a lot of will to take a rest day from running). To borrow a bit from Aristotle, once a person becomes properly habituated to an activity, then the will cost of that activity becomes much less—thus making it easier to engage in that activity.  For example, a person who initially has to struggle to eat healthy food rather than junk food will find that resisting not only builds their will but also makes it easier to resist the temptations of junk.

Another interesting point of consideration is what could be called will surrogates. A will surrogate functions much like the will by allowing a person to resist factors that would otherwise “take control” of the person. However, what makes the will surrogate a surrogate is that it is something that is not actually the will—it merely serves a similar function. Having these would seem to “build the will” by providing a surrogate that can be called upon when the person’s own will is failing—sort of a mental tag team situation.

For example, a religious person could use his belief in God as a will surrogate to resist temptations forbidden by his faith, such as adultery. That is, he is able to do what he wills rather than what his lust is pushing him to do. As another example, a person might use pride or honor as will surrogates—she, for example, might push through the pain and fatigue of a 10K race because of her pride. Other emotions (such as love) and factors could also serve as will surrogates by enabling a person to do what he wills rather than what he is being pushed to do.

One obvious point of concern regarding will surrogates is that they could be seen not as allowing the person to do as he would will when he lacks his own will resources but as merely being other factors that “make the decision” for the person. For example, if a person resists having an affair with a coworker because of his religious beliefs, then it could be contended that he has not chosen to not have the affair. Rather, his religious belief (and perhaps fear of God) was stronger than his lust. If so, those who gain what appears to be willpower from such sources are not really gaining will. Rather they merely have other factors that make them do or not do things in a way that resembles the actions of the will.

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Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty

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The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.

When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt.  That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.

In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.

On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do.  Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.

One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.

On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.

Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.

As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.

To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.

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Will

As a runner, martial artist and philosopher I have considerable interest in the matter of the will. As might be imagined, my view of the will is shaped mostly by my training and competitions. Naturally enough, I see the will from my own perspective and in my own mind. As such, much as Hume noted in his discussion of personal identity, I am obligated to note that other people might find that their experiences vary considerably. That is, other people might see their will as very different or they might even not believe that they have a will at all.

As a gamer, I also have the odd habit of modeling reality in terms of game rules and statistics—I am approaching the will in the same manner. This is, of course, similar to modeling reality in other ways, such as using mathematical models.

In my experience, my will functions as a mental resource that allows me to remain in control of my actions. To be a bit more specific, the use of the will allows me to prevent other factors from forcing me to act or not act in certain ways. In game terms, I see the will as being like “hit points” that get used up in the battle against these other factors. As with hit points, running out of “will points” results in defeat. Since this is rather abstract, I will illustrate this with two examples.

This morning (as I write this) I did my usual Tuesday work out: two hours of martial arts followed by about two hours of running. Part of my running workout  was doing hill repeats in the park—this involves running up and down the hill over and over (rather like marching up and down the square). Not surprisingly, this becomes increasingly painful and fatiguing. As such, the pain and fatigue were “trying” to stop me. I wanted to keep running up and down the hill and doing this required expending those will points. This is because without my will the pain and fatigue would stop me well before I am actually physically incapable of running anymore. Roughly put, as long as I have will points to expend I could keep running until I collapse from exhaustion. At that point no amount of will can move the muscles and my capacity to exercise my will in this matter would also be exhausted. Naturally, I know that training to the point of exhaustion would do more harm than good, so I will myself to stop running even though I desire to keep going. I also know from experience that my will can run out while racing or training—that is, I give in to fatigue or pain before my body is actually at the point of physically failing.  These occurrences are failures of will and nicely illustrate that the will can run out or be overcome.

After my run, I had my breakfast and faced the temptation of two boxes of assorted chocolates. Like all humans, I really like sugar and hence there was a conflict between my hunger for chocolate and my choice to not shove lots of extra calories and junk into my pie port. My hunger, of course, “wants” to control me. But, of course, if I yield to the hunger for chocolate then I am not in control—the desire is directing me against my will. Of course, the hunger is not going to simply “give up” and it must be controlled by expending will and doing this keeps me in control of my actions by making them my choice.

Naturally, many alternatives to the will can be presented. For example, Hobbes’ account of deliberation is that competing desires (or aversions) “battle it out”, but the stronger always wins and thus there is no matter of will or choice. However, I rather like my view more and it seems to match my intuitions and experiences.

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