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The Slogan-Industrial Complex

University of South Florida Seal

University of South Florida Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Higher education in the United States has been pushed steadily towards the business model. One obvious example of this is the brand merchandizing of schools. In 2011, schools licensed their names and logos for a total of $4.6 billion. Inspired by this sort of brand-based profits, schools started trademarking their slogans. Impressively, there are over 10,000 trademarked slogans.

These slogans include “project safety” (University of Texas), “ready to be heard” (Chatham University), “power” (University of North Dakota), “rise above” (University of the Rockies), “students with diabetes” (University of South Florida), “student life” (Washington University in St. Louis) and “resolve” (Lehigh University). Those not familiar with trademark law might be surprised by some of these examples. After all, “student life” seems to be such a common phrase on campuses that it would be insane for a school to be allowed to trademark it. But, one should never let sanity be one’s guide when considering how the law works.

While the rabid trademarking undertaken by schools might be seen as odd but harmless, the main purpose of a trademark is so that the owner enjoys an exclusive right to what is trademarked and can sue others for using it. This is, of course, limited to certain contexts. So, for example, if I write about student life at Florida A&M University in a blog, Washington University would (I hope) not be able to sue me. However, in circumstances in which the trademark protection applies, then lawsuits are possible (and likely). For example, Eastern Carolina University sued Cisco Systems because of Cisco’s use of the phrase “tomorrow begins here.”

One practical and moral concern about universities’ enthusiasm for trademarking is that it further pushes higher education into the realm of business. One foundation for this concern is that universities should be focused on education rather than being focused on business—after all, an institution that does not focus on its core mission tends to do worse at that mission. This would also be morally problematic, assuming that schools should (morally) focus on education.

An easy and obvious reply is that a university can wear many hats: educator, business, “professional in all but name” sport franchise and so on provided that each function is run properly and not operated at the expense of the core mission. Naturally, it could be added that the core mission of the modern university is not education, but business—branding, marketing and making money.

Another reply is that the trademarks protect the university brand and also allow them to make money by merchandizing their slogans and suing people for trademark violations. This money could then be used to support the core mission of the school.

There is, naturally enough, the worry that universities should not be focusing on branding and suing. While this can make them money, it is not what a university should be doing—which takes the conversation back to the questions of the core mission of universities as well as the question about whether schools can wear many hats without becoming jacks of all trades.

A second legal and moral concern is the impact such trademarks have on free speech. On the one hand, United States law is fairly clear about trademarks and the 1st Amendment. The gist is that noncommercial usage is protected by the 1st Amendment and this allows such things as using trademarked material in protests or criticism. So, for example, the 1st Amendment allows me to include the above slogans in this essay. Not surprisingly, commercial usage is subject to the trademark law. So, for example, I could not use the phrase “the power of independent thinking” as a slogan for my blog since that belongs to Wilkes University. In general, this seems reasonable. After all, if I created and trademarked a branding slogan for my blog, then I would certainly not want other people making use of my trademarked slogan. But, of course, I would be fine with people using the slogan when criticizing my blog—that would be acceptable use under freedom of expression.

On the other hand, trademark holders do endeavor to exploit their trademarks and people’s ignorance of the law to their advantage. For example, threats made involving claims of alleged trademark violations are sometimes used as a means of censorship and silencing critics.

The obvious reply is that this is not a problem with trademarks as such. It is, rather, a problem with people misusing the law. There is, of course, the legitimate concern that the interpretation of the law will change and that trademark protection will be allowed to encroach into the freedom of expression.

What might be a somewhat abstract point of concern is the idea that what seem to be stock phrases such as “the first year experience” (owned by University of South Carolina) can be trademarked and thus owned. This diminishes the public property that is language and privatizes it in favor of those with the resources to take over tracts of linguistic space. While the law currently still allows non-commercial use, this also limits the language other schools and businesses can legally use. It also requires that they research all the trademarks before using common phrases if they wish to avoid a lawsuit from a trademark holder.

The obvious counter, which I mentioned above, is that trademarks have a legitimate function. The obvious response is that there is still a reasonable concern about essentially allowing private ownership over language and thus restricting freedom of expression. There is a need to balance the legitimate need to own branding slogans with the legitimate need to allow the use of stock and common phrases in commercial situations. The challenge is to determine the boundary between the two and where a specific phrase or slogan falls.

 

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College Education for Prisoners

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At one time, inmates in the United States were eligible for government Pell tuition grants and there was a college prison program. Then Congress decided that prisoners should not get such grants and this effectively doomed the college prison programs. Fortunately, people like Max Kenner have worked hard to bring college education to prisoners once more. Kenner has worked with Bard College to offer college education with prisoners and this program seems to have been a success. As might be imagined, there are some interesting ethical issues here.

One approach to college education for prisoners is both ethical and practical. If it is accepted that one function of the prison system is to reform prisoners so that they do not return to crime after they are released, then there seems to be a very good reason to support such programs.

Since 2001 about 300 prisoners have received college degrees from Bard. Of those released from prison, it is claimed that less than 2% have been arrested again. In contrast, 70% of state prison inmates are arrested and incarcerated again within five years of their release. Prisoners who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison than former prisoners who did not participate in such programs.

Given the very high cost of incarceration ($14-60,000, with an average of $31,000 per year), reducing the number of people returning to prison would save the state and taxpayers money. There is also the cost of crime, both to the victims and society in general.

Of course, there is the practical concern that the prison-industrial complex in the United States is a key job and profit creator (mostly transferring public money to the private sector) and having fewer people in prison would actually be a practical loss, economically speaking.

In moral terms, as long as the cost of the programs is not high, then a utilitarian argument can be given in favor of such programs. Using the stock utilitarian moral argument, the benefits generated by the education programs would make them morally correct. There is, of course, also the moral value in having people not committing crimes and being, instead, productive members of the community.

One practical objection to the programs is that the cost of such programs might exceed the benefits. However, this is partially a factual matter, namely weighing the economic cost of crime and imprisonment against the cost of providing such programs. The positive economic value of such programs should be considered as well. The cost to the state can, obviously, be offset if the programs are supported by others (such as donors and private universities). Given the cost of incarceration, practical considerations seem to favor the programs. However, this can be debated.

Another practical objection is that the benefits being discussed arise only when a released prisoner does not return to prison because of the education program. If a prisoner is serving a sentence that will keep him in prison for life, then there would seem to be no practical benefit. The counter to this is that most prisoners are not in prison for life, so this would apply in only a very few cases that would be offset by the cases in which people do leave prison.

It could also be claimed that the education programs are not the cause of the former prisoners remaining out of prison. After all, this could be a case of a common cause (that is, what seems to be a cause and an effect are really both effects of an underlying cause): the qualities that would cause a prisoner to participate in such an education program are likely to be the same ones that would make it less likely that the former prisoner would return. If this is the case, then it could be argued that such programs are not needed since they are not actually the causal factor.

While it is always wise to consider the possibility of a common cause, it does make sense that an education program would have causal role to play in a former prisoner not returning to prison. At the very least, education would increase the chances of the person getting a job and this would have an impact on the likelihood that she would return to crime.

It can also be argued that even if the education did not have this effect (that is, the former prisoners who would have been in the program would not have returned to prison anyway), the value of the education itself would justify the programs. I do believe that education has intrinsic value. However, this is not a view that is shared by all and it can obviously be argued against, usually on economic grounds.

In general, though, the education programs do seem worthwhile, if only on practical grounds. In cases in which the programs are being privately funded, there seems to be no practical reason to oppose such programs, provided that they do have the claimed benefits regarding recidivism.

One moral objection that can be raised against these programs is that resources are being expended on prisoners that could be used to help those who cannot afford an education and are not convicted criminals. One might also add that prisons exist to punish people for their crimes and not to reward them. As such, prisoners should not receive such education. Instead, any resources that might have been spent on educating prisoners should be spent on assisting non-criminals who cannot afford college. Of course, there are those who would not want to assist even non-criminals who cannot afford college.

This moral objection does have some bite. After all, a person in need who has not committed crimes seems more deserving of the assistance of others than someone who has committed crimes. If it did, in fact, come down to a choice between helping a non-criminal or a criminal, then it would seem preferable to assist the non-criminal—just as it would be preferable to spend money on education and infrastructure  rather than on subsidies to corporations. It would also presumably be preferable to spend money on addressing the causes of crime rather than creating a prison-industrial complex.

The reply to this objection is based on the fact that when a person is imprisoned, there will be a significant expenditure to simply keep that person in prison (an average of $31,000 a year in 2010). While it would be preferable to avoid having to imprison people, once they are in prison it would seem desirable to invest a little more to keep them from returning to prison. Calculating this would involve using the cost of the education, the cost of keeping the prisoner in prison, the likely chance of returning to prison and for how long. To use a made up example, if it cost $31,000 for a prisoner to get her degree and $31,000 a year to keep her locked up, then if there is a good chance that her degree would keep her out of prison for another four year sentence, then it would seem to be worthwhile even as a gamble. After all, expending $31,000 is likely to save much more money. If the fact that she is likely to be a contributing member of society is factored in, the deal is even better. So, the gist of the reply is that spending the money education does make sense, provided that it has a good chance of saving money and doing some social good. If the money is not spent on education, then it seems likely that even more will be spent on dealing with recidivism. Either way society pays, the question is whether one should pay more or less or whether to pay for something positive (education) or negative (locking someone up). So, it is not a matter of spending money that could be spent to assist non-criminals, it is a matter of how to spend the money that will most likely be spent either way.

I do, of course, understand how someone struggling to pay for her or her child’s college would be outraged that prisoners are getting an education for free. However, I would simply refer back to the previous argument: paying for the education of a prisoner, assuming it reduced recidivism, is cheaper than paying to keep locking the prisoner up.

It might be objected that the problem should be addressed before people go to prison, that there should be education programs designed to assist people who are at risk for prison, but are also likely to be able to complete college and avoid prison.

In reply, I would say that I agree completely. It is better that a person never go to prison in the first place and education certainly seems to be a much better investment than prison. There are, of course, those who would disagree and argue that it is better to let people end up in prison than to spend public money on college education. Others could argue that while such plans might be good intentioned, they would not work—the money would be spent and the result would merely be educated criminals. These objections are worth considering, but I would still contend that spending on education to keep people out of prison is preferable to spending money to keep people in prison.

 

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Protests, Peaceful & Otherwise

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In response to the nighttime announcement of the Ferguson verdict in which officer Wilson was not indicted, some people attacked the police and damaged property. Some experts have been critical of the decision to make the announcement at night, since the time of day does actually influence how people behave. In general, making such an announcement at night is a bad idea—unless one intends to increase the chances that people will respond badly.

Obviously enough, peacefully protesting is a basic right and in a democratic state the police should not interfere with that right. However, protests do escalate and violence can occur. In the United States it is all too common for peaceful protests to be marred by violence—most commonly damage to businesses and looting.

When considering reports of damage and looting during protests it is reasonable to consider whether or not the damage and looting is being done by actual protestors or by people who are opportunists using the protest as cover or an excuse. An actual protestor is someone whose primary motivation is a moral one—she is there to express her moral condemnation of something she perceives as wrong. Not all people who go to protests are actual protestors—some are there for other reasons, some of which are not morally commendable. Some people, not surprisingly, know that a protest can provide an excellent opportunity to engage in criminal activity—to commit violence, to damage property and to loot. Protests do, sadly, attract such people and often these are people who are not from the area.

Of course, actual protesters can engage in violence and damage property. Perhaps they can even engage in looting (though that almost certainly crosses a moral line). Anger and rage are powerful things, especially righteous anger. A protestor who is motivated by her moral condemnation of a perceived wrong can give in to her anger and do damage to others or their property. When people damage the businesses in their own community, this sort of behavior seems irrational—probably because it is. After all, setting a local gas station on fire is hardly morally justified by the alleged injustice of the grand jury’s verdict in regards to not indicting Officer Wilson for the shooting of Brown. However, anger tends to impede rationality. I, and I assume most people, have seen people angry enough to break their own property.

While I am not a psychologist, I do suspect that people do such damage when they are angry because they cannot actually reach the target of their anger. Alternatively, they might be damaging property to vent their rage in place of harming people. I have seen people do just that. For example, I saw a person hit a metal door frame (and break his hand) rather than hit the person he was mad at. Anger does summon up a need to express itself and this can easily take the form of property damage.

When a protest becomes destructive (or those using it for cover start destroying things), the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force.

That said, the role of rage needs to be considered. When property is destroyed during protests, some people immediately condemn the destruction and wonder why people are destroying their own neighborhoods. In some cases, as noted above, the people doing the damage might not be from the neighborhood at all and might be there to destroy rather than to protest. If such people can be identified, they should be dealt with as the criminals they are. What becomes somewhat more morally problematic are people who are driven to such destruction by moral rage—that is, they have been pushed to a point at which they believe they must use violence and destruction to express their moral condemnation.

When looked at from the cool and calm perspective of distance, such behavior seems irrational and unwarranted.  And, I think, it usually is. However, it is well worth it to think of something that has caused the fire of righteous anger to ignite your soul. Think of that and consider how you might respond if you believed that you have been systematically denied justice. Over. And over. Again.

 

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Bionic Ethics

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Although bionics have been part of science fiction for quite some time (a well-known example is the Six Million Dollar Man), the reality of prosthetics has long been rather disappointing. But, thanks to America’s endless wars and recent advances in technology, bionic prosthetics are now a reality. There are now replacement legs that replicate the functionality of the original organics amazingly well. There have also been advances in prosthetic arms and hands as well as progress in artificial sight.  As with all technology, these bionic devices raise some important ethical issues.

The easiest moral issue to address is that involving what could be called restorative bionics. These are devices that restore a degree of the original functionality possessed by the lost limb or organ. For example, a soldier who lost the lower part of her leg to an IED in Iraq might receive a bionic device that restores much of the functionality of the lost leg. As another example, a person who lost an arm in an industrial accident might be fitted with a replacement arm that does some of what he could do with the original.

On the face of it, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who would claim that the use of restorative bionics is immoral—after all, they merely restore functionality. However, there is still the moral concern about the obligation to provide such restorative bionics. One version of this is the matter of whether or not the state is morally obligated to provide such devices to soldiers maimed in the course of their duties. Another is whether or not insurance should cover such devices for the general population.

In general, the main argument against both obligations is financial—such devices are still rather expensive. Turned into a utilitarian moral argument, the argument would be that the cost outweighs the benefits; therefore the state and insurance companies should not pay for such devices. One reply, at least in the case of the state, is that the state owes the soldiers restoration. After all, if a soldier lost the use of a body part (or parts) in the course of her duty, then the state is obligated to replace that part if it is possible. Roughly put, if Sally gave her leg for her country and her country can provide her with a replacement bionic leg, then it should do so.

In the case of insurance, the matter is somewhat more complicated. In the United States, insurance is mostly a private, for-profit business. As such, a case can be made that the obligations of the insurance company are limited to the contract with the customer. So, if Sam has coverage that pays for his leg replacement, then the insurance company is obligated to honor that. If Bill does not have such coverage, then the company is not obligated to provide the replacement.

Switching to a utilitarian counter, it can be argued that the bionic replacements actually save money in the long term. Inferior prosthetics can cause the user pain, muscle and bone issues and other problems that result in more ongoing costs. In contrast, a superior prosthetic can avoid many of those problems and also allow the person to better return to the workforce or active duty. As such, there seem to be excellent reasons in support of the state and insurance companies providing such restorative bionics. I now turn to the ethics of bionics in sports.

Thanks to the (now infamous) “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorious, many people are familiar with unpowered, relatively simple prosthetic legs that allow people to engage in sports. Since these devices seem to be inferior to the original organics, there is little moral worry here in regards to fairness. After all, a device that merely allows a person to compete as he would with his original parts does not seem to be morally problematic. This is because it confers no unfair advantage and merely allows the person to compete more or less normally. There is, however, the concern about devices that are inferior to the original—these would put an athlete at a disadvantage and could warrant special categories in sports to allow for fair competition. Some of these categories already exist and more should be expected in the future.

Of greater concern are bionic devices that are superior to the original organics in relevant ways. That is, devices that could make a person faster, better or stronger. For example, powered bionic legs could allow a person to run at higher speeds than normal and also avoid the fatigue that limits organic legs. As another example, a bionic arm coupled with a bionic eye could allow a person incredible accuracy and speed in pitching. While such augmentations could make for interesting sporting events, they would seem to be clearly unethical when used in competition against unaugmented athletes. To use the obvious analogy, just as it would be unfair for a person to use a motorcycle in a 5K foot race, it would be unfair for a person to use bionic legs that are better than organic legs. There could, of course, be augmented sports competitions—these might even be very popular in the future.

Even if the devices did not allow for superior performance, it is worth considering that they might be banned from competition for other reasons. For example, even if someone’s powered legs only allowed them a slow jog in a 5K, this would be analogous to using a mobility scooter in such a race—though it would be slow, the competitor is not moving under her own power. Naturally, there should be obvious exceptions for events that are merely a matter of participation (like charity walks).

Another area of moral concern is the weaponization of bionic devices. When I was in graduate school, I made some of my Ramen noodle money writing for R. Talsorian Games Cyberpunk. This science fiction game featured a wide selection of implanted weapons as well as weapon grade cybernetic replacement parts. Fortunately, these weapons do not add a new moral problem since they fall under the existing ethics regarding weaponry, concealed or otherwise. After all, a gun in the hand is still a gun, whether it is held in an organic hand or literally inside a mechanical hand.

One final area of concern is that people will elect to replace healthy organic parts with bionic components either to augment their abilities or out of a psychological desire or need to do so. Science fiction, such as the above mentioned Cyberpunk, has explored these problems and even come up with a name for the mental illness caused by a person becoming more machine than human: cyberpsyhcosis.

In general, augmenting for improvement does seem morally acceptable, provided that there are no serious side effects (like cyberpsychosis) or other harms. However, it is easy enough to imagine various potential dangers: augmented criminals, the poor being unable to compete with the augmented rich, people being compelled to upgrade to remain competitive, and so on—all fodder for science fiction stories.

As far as people replacing their healthy organic parts because of some sort of desire or need to do so, that would also seem acceptable as a form of life style choice. This, of course, assumes that the procedures and devices are safe and do not cause health risks. Just as people should be allowed to have tattoos, piercings and such, they should be allowed to biodecorate.

 

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Eating What Bugs Us

Like most people, I have eaten bugs. Also, like most Americans, this consumption has been unintentional and often in ignorance. In some cases, I’ve sucked in a whole bug while running. In most cases, the bugs are bug parts in foods—the FDA allows a certain percentage of “debris” in our food and some of that is composes of bugs.

While Americans typically do not willingly and knowingly eat insects, about 2 billion people do and there are about 2,000 species that are known to be edible. As might be guessed, many of the people who eat insect live in developing countries. As the countries develop, people tend to switch away from eating insects. This is hardly surprising—eating meat is generally seen as a sign of status while eating insects typically is not. However, there are excellent reasons to utilize insects on a large scale as a food source for humans and animals. Some of these reasons are practical while others are ethical.

One practical reason to utilize insects as a food source is the efficiency of insects. 10 pounds of feed will yield 4.8 pounds of cricket protein, 4.5 pounds of salmon, 2.2 pounds of chicken, 1.1 pounds of pork, and .4 pounds of beef. With an ever-growing human population, increased efficiency will be critical to providing people with enough food.

A second practical reason to utilize insects as a food source is that they require less land to produce protein. For example, it takes 269 square feet to produce a pound of pork protein while it requires only 88 square feet to generate one pound of mealworm protein. Given an ever-expanding population and every-less available land, this is a strong selling point for insect farming as a food source. It is also morally relevant, at least for those who are concerned about the environmental impact of food production.

A third reason, which might be rejected by those who deny climate change, is that producing insect protein generates less greenhouse gas. The above-mentioned pound of pork generates 38 pounds of CO2 while a pound of mealworms produces only 14. For those who believe that CO2 production is a problem, this is clearly both a moral and practical reason in favor of using insects for food. For those who think that CO2 has no impact or does not matter, this would be no advantage.

A fourth practical reason is that while many food animals are fed using food that humans could also eat (like grain and corn based feed), many insects readily consume organic waste that is unfit for human consumption. As such, insects can transform low-value feed material (such as garbage) into higher value feed or food. This would also provide a moral reason, at least for those who favor reducing the waste that ends up in landfills. This could provide some interesting business opportunities and combinations—imagine a waste processing business that “processes” organic waste with insects and then converts the insects to feed, food or for use in other products (such as medicine, lipstick and alcoholic beverages).

Perhaps the main moral argument in favor of choosing insect protein over protein from animals such as chicken, pigs and cows is based on the assumption than insects have a lower moral status than such animals or at least would suffer less.

In terms of the lower status version, the argument would be a variation on one commonly used to support vegetarianism over eating meat: plants have a lower moral status than animals; therefore it is preferable to eat plants rather than animals. Assuming that insects have a lower moral status than chickens, pigs, cows, etc., then using insects for food would be morally preferable. This, of course, also rests on the assumption that it is preferable to do wrong (in this case kill and eat) to beings with a lesser moral status than to those with a higher status.

In terms of the suffering argument, this would be a stock utilitarian style argument. The usual calculation involves weighing the harms (in this case, the suffering) against the benefits. Insects are, on the face of it, less able to suffer (and less able understand their own suffering) than animals like pigs and cows. Also, insects would seem to suffer less under the conditions in which they would be raised. While chickens might be factory farmed with their beaks clipped and confined to tiny cages, mealworms would be pretty much doing what they would do in the “wild” when being raised as food. While the insect would still be killed, it would seem that the overall suffering generated by using insects as food would be far less than that created by using animals like pigs and cows as food. This would seem to be a morally compelling argument.

The most obvious problem with using insects as food is what people call the “yuck factor.” Bugs are generally seen as dirty and gross—things that you do not want to find in food, let alone being the food. Some of the “yuck” is visual—seeing the insect as one eats it. One obvious solution is to process insects into forms that look like “normal” foods, such as powders, pastes, and the classic “mystery meat patty.” People can also learn to overcome the distaste, much as some people have to overcome their initial rejection of foods like lobster and crab.

Another concern is that insect might bear the stigma of being a food suitable for “primitive” cultures and not suitable for “civilized” people. Insect based food products might also be regarded as lacking in status, especially in contrast with traditional meats. These are, of course, all matters of social perception. Just as they are created, they can be altered. As such, these problems could be overcome.

Since I grew up eating lobsters and crabs (I’m from Maine), I am already fine with eating “bug-like” creatures. So, I would not have any problem with eating actual bugs, provided that they are safe to eat. I will admit that I probably will not be serving up plates of fried beetles to my friends, but I would have no problem serving up food containing properly processed insects. And not just because it would be, at least initially, funny.

 

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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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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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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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Getting High for Higher Education

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa...

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two major problems faced by the United States are the war on drugs and the problems of higher education. I will make an immodest proposal intended to address both problems.

In the case of higher education, one major problem is that the cost of education is exceeding the resources of an ever-growing number of Americans. One reason for this is that the decisions of America’s political and economic elites damaged the economy and contributed to the unrelenting extermination of the middle class. Another reason is a changing view of higher education: it has been cast as a private (rather than public) good and is seen by many of the elites as a realm to exploited for profit. Because of this, funding to public schools has been reduced and funding has been diverted from public schools to costly and ineffective for-profit schools. Yet another reason is that public universities have an ever-expanding administrative burden. Even the darling of academics, STEM, has seen significant cuts in support and public funding.

The war on drugs has imposed a massive cost on the United States. First, there is the cost of the resources devoted to policing citizens, trying them and incarcerating them for drug crimes. Second, there is the cost of the social and personal damage done to individuals and communities. Despite these huge costs, the war on drugs is being lost—mainly because “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately, I have a solution to both problems. After speaking with an engineering student about Florida State’s various programs aimed at creating businesses, I heard a piece on NPR about the financial woes of schools and how faculty and staff were being pushed to be fund-raisers for schools. This got be thinking about ways universities could generate funding and I remembered a running joke from years ago. Back when universities started to get into the “businessification” mode, I joked with a running friend (hence a running joke) that we faculty members should become drug lords to fund our research and classes. While I do not think that I should actually become a drug lord, I propose that public universities in Florida (and elsewhere) get into the drug business.

To be specific, Florida should begin by legalizing marijuana and pass a general law allowing recreational drugs that can be shown to be as safe as tobacco and alcohol (that sets the bar nicely low). The main restriction will be that the drugs can only be produced and sold by public universities. All the profits will go directly to the universities, to be used as decided by boards composed of students and faculty.

To implement this plan, faculty and students will be actively involved. Business faculty and students will develop the models, plans and proposals. Design and marketing students and faculty will handle those aspects. Faculty and students in chemistry, biology and medicine will develop the drugs and endeavor to make them safer. Faculty and students in agriculture will see to the growing of the organic crops, starting with marijuana. Engineering students and faculty will develop hydroponics and other technology.

Once the marijuana and other drugs are available, the universities will sell the products to the public with all profits being used to fund the educational and research aspects of the universities. Since the schools are public universities, the drugs will be tax-free—there is no sense in incurring the extra cost of collecting taxes when the money is going to the schools already. Since schools already have brand marketing, this can be easily tied in. For example, Florida State can sell Seminole Gold and Seminole Garnet marijuana, while my own Florida A&M University can have Rattler Green and Rattler Orange.

One practical objection is that the operation might not be profitable. While this is obviously a reasonable concern, the drug trade seems to be massively profitable. Also, by making such drugs legal, the cost of the war on drugs will drop dramatically, thus freeing up resources for education and reducing the harms done to individuals and the community. So, I am not too worried about this.

One health objection is that drugs are unhealthy. The easy reply is that while this is true, we already tolerate very unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, cars and firearms. If these are tolerable, then the drugs sold by the schools (which must be at least as safe as tobacco and alcohol) would also be tolerable. The war on drugs is also very unhealthy for individuals and society—so ending at least part of the war would be good for public health.

One moral objection is that drugs are immoral. There are three easy replies. The first is that the drugs in question are no more immoral than alcohol and tobacco. If these can be morally tolerated, then so can the university drugs. Second, there is the consequentialist argument: if drugs are going to be used anyway by Americans, it is better that the money go to education rather than ending up in the coffers of criminals, gangs, terrorists and the prison-industrial complex. Third, there is also the consequentialist argument that university produced drugs will be safer and of higher quality than drugs produced by drug lords, gangs, terrorists and criminal dealers. Given the good consequences of legalizing university-manufactured drugs, this plan is clearly morally commendable.

Given the above arguments, having universities as legal drug sellers would clearly help solve two of America’s most serious problems: the high cost of education and the higher cost of the ineffective and destructive war on drugs. As my contribution to the brand, I offer the slogan “get high for higher ed.”

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