Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Odd piece of flawed anti-utilitarian research

Hmm, PLoS One has published the results of a social science research project claiming to show that utilitarian moral choices are predictive of low empathic concern. Moral philosophers will be aware of the scenarios that the investigators tested: There's Philippa Foot's trolley example, and a related example using a crying baby in wartime whereby the only way to preserve a whole bunch of people's lives is to smother the crying baby in order to prevent it from alerting enemy soldiers to one's location.

The researchers also had the participants complete Interpersonal Reactivity Inventories. Turns out, the folks making the choices that would have preserved more lives (ie the 'utilitarians') showed lack of empathic concern, courtesy of the IRI.  Now, utilitarians in both scenarios would, of course, opt to preserve the larger number of lives. What's odd is that the PLoS One researchers claim that this this is evidence for their contention that utilitarians lack empathic concern. Obviously, there is a different interpretation, namely that utilitarians, driven by empathic concerns choose to sacrifice (yes, proactively) a smaller number of humans in order to preserve a much larger number of other humans. Considering that the choice makers would be operating in emergency circumstances, this seems entirely plausible to this utilitarian. So, even if, according to IRI survey results, utilitarian responders showed typically a lack of empathy, it ain't clear that that is what drove in the end their choices in the scenarios put to them by the investigators.

It's just odd that the reviewers of this piece didn't realize that the researchers' labelling of a particular set of choices as lacking empathy doesn't prove that empathy is actually lacking by someone who makes such choices that they clearly disapprove of (despite protestations to the contrary - aka neutrality).

Independent of this, even if this experiment had shown that utilitarian moral choices lack empathic concern - which it hasn't! - it failed to show that such choices, given the dire circumstances painted in those scenarios, were not the lesser of two bad choices.

Addendum: A day after I wrote this, a survey of philosophers' views on core philosophical questions was released. Here are some interesting data on the trolley scenario the authors of the PLoS piece celebrated so much:
Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
Trolley problem: switch 68.2%; don’t switch 7.6%; other 24.2%.
Seems you don't have to be a utilitarian/consequentialist to flip the switch, as the authors of the PLoS piece mistakenly believe.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Brief Up-date on Projects

Friends, just a quick up-date on my various writing and editing writing projects. The Wiley-Blackwell book '50 Great Myths About Atheism' that Russell Blackford and I wrote is now at proof stage. Russell and I have received the proofs yesterday and we've got about 4 weeks to check about 300 pages of content, as well as create a good index.

Helga Kuhse, Peter Singer and I have also agreed on the contents to be included in the 3rd edition of 'Bioethics - An Anthology'. We are currently waiting for Wiley-Blackwell to sort out the contract before we hand the goods over to them.

I alsop managed to write the first three chapters of 'This is Bioethics', hopefully forthcoming with Wiley-Blackwell toward the end of next year.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Are paywalls the newspaper industry's salvation?

Ever more newspapers establish paywalls in order to get money out of netizens who happen to check for latest news. To be fair, when Rupert Murdoch started this craze (at the London Times), there was much mockery around, people promising to abandon the site etc etc. Murdoch started charging, of course, many years ago. Since then many newspapers who mocked him for his approach ('you are going from millions of visitors access your website to a few thousand or hundred thousand') are copying him. The thing is, while the newspaper is now read by significantly less people than it was prior to the paywall going up, the paywall is generating more money than the digital ads ever managed to.

Since then man other newspapers have begun doing the same. The Globe and Mail in Canada, The Telegraph in Britain, The Age in Australia are just a few examples for this emerging trend. Many more are following them as I write this. Usually you get a limited number of articles that you may read without paying for access, but then you've got to pay if you want more. Currently there is an easy way around paying. You simply clean your browser history (ie eliminate 'cookies') and you are back to zero as far as the article count is concerned. Realistically, however, some computer wiz employed by the newspapers will stop this subversive behaviour. And frankly, so they should.

Obviously, it is not unreasonable for newspapers to charge for what they deliver. There's a difference between investigative journalism produced by the New York Times and opinion journalism delivered free of charge by the Huffington Post. The problem I foresee, however, is that most people, when deciding to pay for access to a news website, will probably go for the best quality news outlet out there. Accordingly, the New York Times is rapidly racking up on-line subscribers. I cannot imagine the same would occur with regard to papers not delivering the same level of quality. To give you a good example of this: The New York Times has a habit of firing known plagiarists. Compare that to a Toronto based daily paper where a known plagiarist is still in full employ. If you had to decide where to spend your hard earned cash, would you swipe your credit card at the New York Times with its still impeccable standards or an alternative such as the Toronto paper. It seems to be a no-brainer to me. You might grab the few locally relevant pieces from the Toronto paper, but for in-depth journalism you'd spend your money at the New York Times or papers like it (and there are very few).

The other problem for the unnamed Toronto newspaper (and its equivalents in Britain, Down Under, Berlin, and wherever else), is that they are under-resourced, and it is widely known that they are under-resourced. Why would you want to spend your money to access the website of a newspaper that you now already isn't on top of its game due to a lack of journalistic resources?

To me, that seems to be the next problem in the paywall revolution. Many mainstream national newspapers, I suspect, will be going down, because they don't deliver the quality required to stay in the game any longer. Funnily, niche players such as the German taz newspaper (an unorthodox leftish daily paper) might have a decent shot at survival, because they have a dedicated audience not interested in reading only what the New York Times has on offer.

Either way, the paywall revolution might well be the last hurrah of many mainstay newspapers before they disappear altogether. We all will be worse off for it, I suspect. Will this regret make me subscribe to the plagiarist-employing Toronto paper. Who am I kidding?

Monday, April 08, 2013

and a late comer to the Open Access Party ... the New York Times

Just about every outlet in the universe has written about the pitfalls of Open Access digital only 'academic publishing'. Today the New York Times joined the party. It's not a bad piece actually, written by veteran health reporter Gina Kolata. Check it out when you have a minute! It's centered around Beall's list of predatory on-line 'publishers'. What's lacking are reasonable explanations of what made this fiasco possible. Low barriers to market entry anyone?

Meanwhile ever more research funders are rushing headlong into forcing researchers they fund to publish their content in open access outlets. All of this, of course, is giving rise to ever more dodgy 'publishers' opening up their business, aka uploading submitted content to their webserver for a steep fee. Worse, upcoming research assessment exercises force academics in some places to publish their research outputs in open access outfits without providing funding for the uploading activity (aka open access publishing). You better forget about the idea of having reliable publishing histories attached to academic content. Courtesy of Open Access the powers that are have fully embraced a wild west version of what was once known as academic publishing. It'll no doubt come to bite them in their backside, but I suspect those responsible will long have left when the consequences of these ill-considered policies hit the proverbial fan.

Words from the production line

It's been a good couple of weeks, productivity wise. Our upcoming '50 Great Myths About Atheism' is with the typesetters. Russell Blackford, the book's other author, and I should be getting the proofs back by the end of the month. Excellent news. We had the pleasure of working with a copy editor who was absolutely amazing. I can't stress enough her diligence and efficiency. She certainly prevented quite a few mistakes on our part finding their way into print.

Well, the other good productivity news, after working for a few months with Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer on the line-up of the 3rd edition of our textbook 'Bioethics - An Anthology' we are pretty close to sending our proposed new line-up off to the publisher. Helga and Peter kindly invited me to join them as the third editor of what was until they asked me to join them their 'baby'. It's been fun looking for suitable content, trying to think what would, what would work better, and what would not work in the classroom.

Last but by no means least, I've managed to write the first two chapters of 'This is Bioethics', and I've started the eleventh chapter.


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Excited About Nudging?

A reasonably recent fad in public health is the idea of nudging folks to do the right - ie healthy - thing. The idea is basically that you incentivize people to live healthy. Whether such a strategy can work over time probably depends on a whole range of factors, so I'm not here to pass judgment on 'nudging' as such.

What annoys me is lousy reporting (and arguably pointless social science research) in the service of the nudging agenda. The New York Times, one of my preferred daily reads, recently reported about a study involving Mexican gay men at high risk for HIV infection.

The Times tweeted the findings of this study like this, 'Gay Men in Mexico City Would Stay HIV Free for $288, Study Shows'. The study, of course, found nothing of that sort! And that is what annoys me. 

All that the eager social scientists discovered was that gay men they interviewed in Mexico City said they would 'pledge to stay H.I.V.-free, attend a monthly safe-sex talk and take regular H.I.V. tests to prove they were uninfected — all in return for just $288 a year.' That is a far cry from actually staying HIV negative, as the Times tweet misleadingly summarizes. 

Imagine the excitement of our public health people! It costs about 8000 $ to treat HIV-infected folks per year, so getting that deal at 288 $  per year is a bargain, isn't it? 

 Well, what's the catch then: For starters, just because people promise to stay HIV negative doesn't mean they actually will stay HIV negative. Surely living a healthy life instead of going on life-preserving chemotherapy is a better incentive than 288 $ per year! The thing about safe sex is that it requires a tad bit more to succeed than 288$ per year, something that seems to have escaped our social science nudgers. It doesn't seem terribly sensible to base any public policy in this context on such research. It might be possible to get people to test more frequently for HIV, and to pop more frequently into clinics, but it seems far fetched to suggest that a measly 288$ per years would impact greatly on actual sexual behaviours. Answers to hypothetical questions with $$ signs attached to them don't quite cut it, at least in my view. It's one thing to say the right thing in response to a hypothetical question, it's quite another to actually live up to what one's answer suggests one would do if it came to the crunch.