Category Archives: Current Affairs

Animal experimentation: morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?

Following the announcement last week that Oxford University’s controversial Biomedical Sciences building is now complete and will be open for business in mid-2009, the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals for scientific experimentation have been revisited in the media—see, for example, here , here, and here.

The number of animals used per year in scientific experiments worldwide has been estimated at 200 million—well in excess of the population of Brazil and over three times that of the United Kingdom. If we take the importance of an ethical issue to depend in part on how many subjects it affects, then, the ethics of animal experimentation at the very least warrants consideration alongside some of the most important issues in this country today, and arguably exceeds them in importance. So, what is being done to address this issue?

In the media, much effort seems to be devoted to discrediting concerns about animal suffering and reassuring people that animals used in science are well cared for, and relatively little effort is spent engaging with the ethical issues. However, it seems likely that no amount of reassurance about primate play areas and germ-controlled environments in Oxford’s new research lab will allay existing concerns about the acceptability of, for example, inducing heart failure in mice or inducing Parkinson’s disease in monkeys—particularly since scientists are not currently required to report exactly how much suffering their experiments cause to animals. Given the suffering involved, are we really sure that experimenting on animals is ethically justifiable?

In attempting to answer this question, it is disturbing to note some inconsistencies in popular views of science. Consider, for example, that by far the most common argument in favour of animal experimentation is that it is an essential part of scientific progress. As Oxford’s oft-quoted Professor Alastair Buchan reminds us, ‘You can’t make a head injury in a dish, you can’t create a stroke in a test tube, you can’t create a heart attack on a chip: it just doesn’t work’. Using animals, we are told, is essential if science is to progress. Since many people are apparently convinced by this argument, they must therefore believe that scientific progress is something worthwhile—that, at the very least, its value outweighs the suffering of experimental animals. And yet, at the same time, we are regularly confronted with the conflicting realisation that, far from viewing science as a highly valuable and worthwhile pursuit, the public is often disillusioned and exasperated with science. Recently, for example, people have expressed bafflement that scientists have spent time and money on seemingly trifling projects—such as working out the best way to swat a fly and discovering why knots form—and on telling us things that we already know: that getting rid of credit cards helps us spend less money, and that listening to very loud music can damage hearing. Why, when the public often seems to despair of science, do so many people appear to be convinced that scientific progress is so important that it justifies the suffering of millions of animals? Continue reading "Animal experimentation: morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?" »

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Visionary News

A respected scientific magazine just asked me to contribute to:

A survey of major scientific developments to watch for in the coming year. … We’re reaching out to some of the most forward-thinking (dare I say "visionary"?) people we know, in hopes of getting their opinions on what 2009 might bring and what our readers … should be paying attention to. I’m hoping you might have some predictions to make or developments to expect for 2009.

This seems to me to misunderstand what it means to be "visionary."  At best, "visionary" folk see farther or deeper into the nature of what is or could be.  But that skill gives little advantage in forecasting major news events for the coming year.  For example, those of us who foresaw in the late 1980s that the web was coming had little insight into when exactly it would come. 

I suspect most editors and readers really know this deep down – they don’t really want useful forecasts; this is just an excuse to let readers affiliate with impressive thinkers.

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Today’s Inspirational Tale

At a Foresight Gathering some years ago, a Congressman was in attendance, and he spoke to us and said the following:

"Everyone in this room who’s signed up for cryonics, raise your hand."

Many hands went up.

"Now everyone who knows the name of your representative in the House, raise your hand."

Fewer hands went up.

"And you wonder why you don’t have any political influence."

Rationalists would likewise do well to keep this lesson in mind.

Continue reading "Today’s Inspirational Tale" »

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Trust Us!

Few experts in our society could pull off saying:

Emergency!!!  We will suffer terribly if you don’t spend a trillion dollars right now overpaying for stuff from our friends!  No, you don’t have time to study the problem, nor will we present an analysis for your review.  No, other experts in our field cannot actually see this problem, and there will never be data showing the problem really existed.  You just have to trust us and give us the trillion right now!!

US military experts said something similar on Iraq weapons of mass destruction, but at least they admitted we’d eventually be able to see if they were wrong (as they were).  Medical experts implicitly say something similar about the health value of the second half of medical spending that costs a trillion dollars a year, even when our best data show little value, but this is a steady problem not a sudden new problem.  Global warming experts have been trying, so far without much success, to get us to spend similar amounts on their problem, even though other experts can supposedly verify it.

Given how much less respect and deference economists get on most policy topics, relative to docs, physicists, or generals, I’m surprised to see some economists just got away with this sort of thing.  The US has given top government economists, such as Paulson and Bernanke, well over a trillion in mostly blank checks to spend saving their Wall Street friends from ruin, supposedly to prevent another great depression.  But it seems economists looking today at the data available then just can’t find clear evidence a massive buyout was needed.

Continue reading "Trust Us!" »

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Traditional Capitalist Values

Followup toAre Your Enemies Innately Evil?, Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided

"The financial crisis is not the crisis of capitalism.  It is the crisis of a system that has distanced itself from the most fundamental values of capitalism, which betrayed the spirit of capitalism."
        — Nicolas Sarkozy

During the current crisis, I’ve more than once heard someone remarking that financial-firm CEOs who take huge bonuses during the good years and then run away when their black-swan bets blow up, are only exercising the usual capitalist values of "grab all the money you can get".

I think that a fair amount of the enmity in the world, to say nothing of confusion on the Internet, stems from people refusing to contemplate the real values of the opposition as the opposition sees it.  This is something I’ve remarked upon before, with respect to "the terrorists hate our freedom" or "the suicide hijackers were cowards" (statements that are sheerly silly).

Real value systems – as opposed to pretend demoniacal value systems – are phrased to generate warm fuzzies in their users, not to be easily mocked.  They will sound noble at least to the people who believe them.

Whether anyone actually lives up to that value system, or should, and whether the results are what they are claimed to be; if there are hidden gotchas in the warm fuzzy parts – sure, you can have that debate.  But first you should be clear about how your opposition sees itself – a fact which has not carefully optimized to make your side feel good about its opposition – otherwise you’re not engaging the real issues.

So here are the traditional values of capitalism as seen by those who regard it as noble – the sort of Way spoken of by Paul Graham, or P. T. Barnum (who did not say "There’s a sucker born every minute"), or Warren Buffett:

Continue reading "Traditional Capitalist Values" »

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Conspiracy’s Uncanny Valley

A few weeks ago someone [added: Sun Cho] pointed me to the popular internet movie Loose Change, which casts doubts on standard 9-11 accounts.  The movie was more persuasive than I had expected, which put me in an odd position. 

My guess is that standard stories about events like 9-11 are quite wrong about one time in a hundred or thousand, and that due to mole effects they are probably wrong more often on the very largest events.  Loose Change being surprisingly persuasive then had me estimating about a one in ten to thirty chance standard 9-11 accounts were quite wrong on an important point.  And this put me uncomfortably in conspiracy’s "uncanny valley".

Robots that look pretty similar, but not very similar, to humans are said to be in an "uncanny valley" that makes people feel weird.  Similarly, it seems to me that, relative to intermediate confidence levels, we prefer either to be confident a conspiracy theory is false, or to think it pretty likely to be true.  We really want to "pick sides." 

I finally found some time this weekend to review the case of critics, such as the anti-movie Investigate Loose Change.  On reflection I found the critics pretty persuasive, and so now I’m comfortably back to assigning a pretty low probability (say ~1/100).  But I worry that I have rushed this judgment, since I was so uncomfortable in conspiracy’s uncanny valley.  And I vow to be a bit less persuadable by smooth videos.

Added 16Oct: Sigh.  I must admit that digging a bit more again finds surprisingly persuasive material, moving my estimate up to about 2%, back up into uncanny valley land.

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Grateful For Bad News

Speculators were blamed for rising oil prices a few months back, but not for recent falling oil prices.  Short-selling speculators were recently blamed for falling stock prices, and actually banned for a few weeks, but no one proposed banning buying speculators two years ago when stocks were rising.  Now Steven Pearlstein of the Post wants to close financial markets for a week:

What we need to do is to stop making things worse by continuing to over-rely on financial markets and financial institutions that have proven to be incapable of performing their core missions: getting capital to where it needs to go and pricing that capital in a way that reflects the risks and underlying economic values. We have to stop digging. Another week like this one, and there won’t be much left to rescue. 

To begin, the markets could use a timeout just about now, something that lasts longer than a weekend and gives policymakers around the world the chance to get a good nice sleep and evaluate their options without feeling like they have to respond to every movement flashing across their Bloomberg screens.  It would allow some time for passions to cool and for real investors to regain control of markets now dominated by the computerized short-term trading strategies of hedge funds and hot-shot money managers desperate to recoup some of their losses.

I can’t imagine Pearlstein suggesting closing newspapers for a week, or banning them from printing bad finance news for a few weeks.  So Pearlstein doesn’t get it:  financial markets are news institutions, just like newspapers!  The fact that newspapers report a lot less news on this crisis on weekends shows that most crisis news now comes via financial markets.  Don’t blame the messenger for telling you bad news; blame those who caused the bad news, and who keep you from learning sooner.

Continue reading "Grateful For Bad News" »

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Bank Politics Is Not About Bank Policy

Pundits are falling all over themselves to advise us on the banking crisis.  Politics Is Not About Policy predicts that politics in this crisis is also not about policy.  It says that since we will mainly pick the policy recommended by the highest status coalition of advisors, each pundit will rise in status if the policy we choose is similar to the one he suggested.  So pundits are eager to offer reasonable seeming advice.  We listen because we want to see who will win this status battle, and maybe shift the coalition we support a bit to better position ourselves in such conflicts.

You might say we are using status as a clue to policy, since higher status advisors on average suggest better policies.  But if we were serious about getting the most effective policy advice we’d be collecting pundit prediction track records.  Yet I doubt the few who actually did predict this crisis will be listened to more on what we should do about it.  And while pundits etc. are spending fortunes now to push their views, we still won’t spend the million it would take to create a good (e.g., prediction market) system to collect and track pundit banking predictions.

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Doable Green

Since I recently said carbon emissions seemed a lost cause, let me emphasize that cap and trade fisheries are big, green, and feasible:

Two years ago, a team of researchers took a broad look at the world’s commercial fisheries and predicted that excessive harvesting would cause them all to collapse by 2048. Now, three other scientists have taken an equally broad look at how fisheries are managed and come up with a more hopeful view. …

[Researchers show] that stocks are much less likely to collapse if fishers own rights to fish them, called catch shares. If implemented worldwide, they say, this kind of market-based management could reverse a destructive global trend. Says David Festa of the Environmental Defense Fund in San Francisco, California, "This gives definitive, concrete proof that this tool does end overfishing." …

Worm’s team had analyzed all the large marine ecosystems in the world and found that those with declining biodiversity tended to have more collapsed fisheries, defined as yields less than 10% of historical maximums.  .. Each fisher was allocated a number of individual transferable quotas (ITQs), which they can use to catch fish or sell to others. The quotas are a percentage of the total allowable catch, which is set by regulators each year …

Australia, New Zealand, and Iceland, among others, claimed success with this approach, but no one had done a comprehensive analysis. Costello, Gaines, and Lynham examined more than 11,135 fisheries worldwide. Only 14% of the 121 fisheries using ITQs or similar methods had collapsed, compared with the 28% collapsed among fisheries without ITQs. Had all the world’s fisheries implemented catch-share management in 1970, the researchers found, only 9% would have collapsed by 2003. The findings are conservative, Costello explains, because most ITQ systems have been put into place fairly recently; each year of rights-based management makes a collapse 0.5% less likely.

Added 9/26: Global carbon emissions increased 2.9% in ’07!

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How Many LHC Failures Is Too Many?

Recently the Large Hadron Collider was damaged by a mechanical failure.  This requires the collider to be warmed up, repaired, and then cooled down again, so we’re looking at a two-month delay.

Inevitably, many commenters said, "Anthropic principle!  If the LHC had worked, it would have produced a black hole or strangelet or vacuum failure, and we wouldn’t be here!"

This remark may be somewhat premature, since I don’t think we’re yet at the point in time when the LHC would have started producing collisions if not for this malfunction.  However, a few weeks(?) from now, the "Anthropic!" hypothesis will start to make sense, assuming it can make sense at all.  (Does this mean we can foresee executing a future probability update, but can’t go ahead and update now?)

As you know, I don’t spend much time worrying about the Large Hadron Collider when I’ve got much larger existential-risk-fish to fry.  However, there’s an exercise in probability theory (which I first picked up from E.T. Jaynes) along the lines of, "How many times does a coin have to come up heads before you believe the coin is fixed?"  This tells you how low your prior probability is for the hypothesis.  If a coin comes up heads only twice, that’s definitely not a good reason to believe it’s fixed, unless you already suspected from the beginning.  But if it comes up heads 100 times, it’s taking you too long to notice.

So – taking into account the previous cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) – how many times does the LHC have to fail before you’ll start considering an anthropic explanation?  10?  20?  50?

After observing empirically that the LHC had failed 100 times in a row, would you endorse a policy of keeping the LHC powered up, but trying to fire it again only in the event of, say, nuclear terrorism or a global economic crash?

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