Tag Archives: ethics

Emperor Deterrence Has No Clothes

This long Aeon article argues that the idea of nuclear deterrence has never been shown to work, is illogical and immoral.

What we can say is that, as of this morning, those with the power to exterminate life have not done so. But this is not altogether comforting, and history is no more reassuring. The duration of ‘nuclear peace’, from the Second World War to the end of the Cold War, lasted less than five decades. More than 20 years separated the First and Second World Wars; before that, there had been more than 40 years of relative peace between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) and the First World War (1914), and 55 years between the Franco-Prussian War and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815). Even in war-prone Europe, decades of peace have not been so rare. Each time, when peace ended and the next war began, the war involved weapons available at the time – which, for the next big one, would likely include nuclear weapons. The only way to make sure that nuclear weapons are not used is to make sure that there are no such weapons. There is certainly no reason to think that the presence of nuclear weapons will prevent their use. The first step to ensuring that humans do not unleash nuclear holocaust might be to show that the Emperor Deterrence has no clothes – which would then open the possibility of replacing the illusion with something more suitable…

Even when possessed by just one side, nuclear weapons have not deterred other forms of war. The Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions all took place even though a nuclear-armed US backed the overthrown governments. Similarly, the US lost the Vietnam War, just as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan, despite both countries not only possessing nuclear weapons, but also more and better conventional arms than their adversaries. Nor did nuclear weapons aid Russia in its unsuccessful war against Chechen rebels in 1994-96, or in 1999-2000, when Russia’s conventional weapons devastated the suffering Chechen Republic. Nuclear weapons did not help the US achieve its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have become expensive catastrophic failures for the country with the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons. Moreover, despite its nuclear arsenal, the US remains fearful of domestic terrorist attacks, which are more likely to be made with nuclear weapons than be deterred by them.

In short, it is not legitimate to argue that nuclear weapons have deterred anysort of war, or that they will do so in the future. During the Cold War, each side engaged in conventional warfare: the Soviets, for example, in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979-89); the Russians in Chechnya (1994-96; 1999-2009), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014-present), as well as Syria (2015-present); and the US in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1955-75), Lebanon (1982), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989-90), the Persian Gulf (1990-91), the former Yugoslavia (1991-99), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (2003-present), to mention just a few cases.

It goes on like that. I find the arguments compelling. Still, if you are Iran, you can’t help noticing that the U.S. invaded Iraq and Libya after they were convinced to give up their nuclear weapons programs. If you are North Korea, you can’t help but notice that the U.S. has invaded several countries in Asia but is very hesitant to consider military options against you.

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

should we intentionally seed life on other planets?

Some bacteria have been found surviving on the outside of the International Space Station. Tardigrades are an even hardier form of microbe that can supposedly survive even close to absolute zero. They can essentially go dormant in a state very, very near death, then bounce back if and when they find themselves in suitable conditions later on. There is even speculation that life on Earth could have arrived from space in a form like this, and/or life forms originating on Earth could be living on other planets right now.

Space dust collisions as a planetary escape mechanism (In press Astrobiology, 2017)

Hypervelocity space dust is a unique entity in planetary systems like our Solar System, which is able to go past and enter the atmosphere of planets, collect samples of those planets and deposit samples of other planets. The entire system of fast space dust in a planetary system thus contains the atoms, molecules and possibly even microbial life, from all the planets and provides a means to mix them up amongst the different planets. For collecting atoms and molecules that form atmospheres, the mechanism proposed in this paper is fairly straightforward. For collecting life and life related molecules this mechanism has interesting features, but many detailed issues would still need to be studied. The violent collisions involved in this mechanism could make it difficult for life to remain intact. There are several possible collision scenarios that would all need to be explored to get a definitive answer to this problem. But even if life itself does not remain intact, it could still permit the complex molecules associated with life to get propelled into space, and that is also interesting for the panspermia process. Since space dust is ubiquitous all over the Solar System and is believed to exist in interstellar and probably intergalactic space, the mechanism proposed in this paper for propelling small particles into space could provide a universal mechanism both for the exchange of the atomic and molecular constituents between distant planetary atmospheres and for initiating the first step of the panspermia process.

According to Wikipedia, panspermia is “the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroidsasteroidscomets,[1] planetoids,[2] and also by spacecraft in the form of unintended contamination by microorganisms.”

Of course there is still the Fermi Paradox – if life is so common, why haven’t we been able to find any evidence of it, anywhere, even once? There are ethical implications of all this. We would like to perpetuate our human species and current form of civilization, of course, and that means getting into space eventually. But if we don’t manage to pull that off, and all life on Earth is wiped out for one reason or another, panspermia means that life exists elsewhere, and somewhere, sometime, intelligent life will evolve again if it hasn’t already. But if there is absolutely no life anywhere else in the universe, the loss of it on Earth would mean the end of all life forever. That would be too heavy a burden to bear, and would mean we have a strong ethical obligation to get some self-sustaining human colonies out into space as an insurance policy. But there could be a cheaper form of insurance policy – intentionally contaminate space and nearby planets with hardy germs from Earth, and in a few billion years something will survive and evolve, somewhere, into something. Do this enough and again, eventually you will have intelligent life somewhere. But finally, if it turns out there is life on other nearby planets, even very primitive life, then intentionally contaminating them with our germs would not seem like such an ethical thing to do after all.

Sounding the alarm on biodiversity

What’s the elevator pitch to convince a skeptic that biodiversity is important? To people who value nature for its own sake and believe it is immoral to destroy it, maybe it seems as though the pitch should not be needed. But it’s needed, considering the difficulties communicating the practical/economic case against global warming when that case should be fairly obvious (reliability of the food supply; cost of food, energy, and water; cost to protect, relocate or abandon coastal cities; impacts of extreme weather, drought and fire inland).

Of course, the practical/economic case to fight biodiversity loss has to do with how much our civilization relies on free ecosystem services, and has neither the level of technology nor wealth to replace them in the near term. I believe many people will respond to the ethical case too, and more would if we emphasized ethics more in children’s education. But this paragraph is already too long for an elevator pitch now, isn’t it.

Here are a couple articles that talk about bolstering both the science and the communications.





June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

pets and ecological footprint

This article from Alternet asks which pets are the most environmentally friendly. Their conclusion: chickens, ducks, goats, and rabbits. This makes sense, although keeping these in an urban environment could be impractical unless we are going to do it on a communal basis (actually not a bad idea). Dogs and cats are a mixed bag. I have mixed feelings – I think in our highly industrialized, urbanized modern lives that are so unnatural to begin with, pets give us some sense of connection to nature and the natural environment that would otherwise be missing. That they prime our immune systems to some mildly threatening pathogens and allergens could actually be a good thing, particularly for children. I don’t like the idea of cats killing birds, although if the area weren’t industrialized and urbanized there would probably be all kinds of predators going after the birds. There would also be a lot more birds, of course.

I have always wondered about the ecological impact and ethics of keeping semi-domesticated animals that occur naturally in the local environment, or would if it hadn’t been industrialized and urbanized. Collecting them in the wild is clearly wrong in my view, but if they are bred domestically and kept in humane conditions, it doesn’t seem bad at all. I’m thinking small native snakes, turtles, and fish in particular. Even insects and spiders if you are into that sort of thing. Beekeeping is a cool hobby if you have the interest and time. Granted, none of these are furry or cuddly. If you have some outdoor space, I wonder if keeping a semi-domesticated raccoon or de-scented skunk is really that bad. These animals would be around anyway. I don’t like the idea of confining birds at all. They are so easy to attract and enjoy in their wild condition. Butterflies and other pollinators are also easy to attract and fun to watch. For that matter, plants are kind of fun to watch, if you ask me. Watching plants grow forces you to slow your body and mind down to their speed for a few minutes each day, and if you do that for a few minutes each day, the way they grow and change and interact with each other and the environment is really fascinating over the course of the growing season.

free philosophy courses

That’s right, this is a list of free online (or podcast) philosophy courses. I think if more people studied ethics and morality throughout their lives, and really challenged themselves to struggle with it (them?) on a regular basis, the world would be a better place. And no, I am not talking about just business and professional ethics, but personal ethics or morality, whichever you prefer to call it.

Finnish-ing school

Certain countries just lend themselves to English puns. Hungary? Try some Turkey Chile fried in Greece. The Finnish must get particularly tired of this sort of thing. But luckily they can be smug in the knowledge that their schools are good.

Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best…

Children at this and other Finnish public schools are given not only basic subject instruction in math, language and science, but learning-through-play-based preschools and kindergartens, training in second languages, arts, crafts, music, physical education, ethics, and, amazingly, as many as four outdoor free-play breaks per day, each lasting 15 minutes between classes, no matter how cold or wet the weather is. Educators and parents here believe that these breaks are a powerful engine of learning that improves almost all the “metrics” that matter most for children in school – executive function, concentration and cognitive focus, behavior, well-being, attendance, physical health, and yes, test scores, too.

The homework load for children in Finland varies by teacher, but is lighter overall than most other developed countries. This insight is supported by research, which has found little academic benefit in childhood for any more than brief sessions of homework until around high school.

The Sokal Affair

From Wikipedia:

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax,[1] was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmoderncultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.[2]

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”,[3] was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[4][5] On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.[2]

The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of humanistic commentary about the physical sciences; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.

I get that he was trying to expose poor practices in the publishing industry. I still find it unethical that someone would use their own reputation and credentials to publish information they personally know is fake or deceptive.

Sokal also created a Postmodernism Generator, which generates a random article using postmodern buzzwords each time you refresh it. I don’t find this unethical, because it is not pretending to be something it is not. Just for fun, I’ll refresh it just now and give you the first paragraph. But you really should try it for yourself.

Neotextual structuralism in the works of Rushdie

The main theme of Werther’s[1] essay on dialectic
postsemanticist theory is the common ground between class and society. If
Sontagist camp holds, we have to choose between dialectic postsemanticist
theory and neodialectic construction. It could be said that the subject is
interpolated into a neotextual structuralism that includes consciousness as a

The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct

Two academics wrote a joke paper called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct“, submitted it to a peer reviewed social science journal, and got it published. While are a couple excerpts. And I want to say that while I am amused by this, I don’t find it remotely ethical.

We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change…

Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset. This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology. When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.