Change the Moral Calculus

October 14, 2014

I guess I’m trying my hand as a public commentator, because I now have a second piece in Slate. Check it out here. Also, here’s an excerpt:

After the Dallas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan died last week, public comments ranged from expressions of sadness and condolences to his family to vitriolic condemnations of his behavior for lying to airport screeners. It may be helpful to revisit the rationale that likely brought him here, especially in light of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new airport screening procedures, as well as Liberia’s and Texas’ earlier proposals to prosecute Duncan for evading airport checkpoints. Thinking carefully about his mindset can help us understand how better to address this outbreak and keep it from spreading further.


One method of encouraging honesty is to change the self-interest calculus: to penalize those who lie, as was proposed by Liberia and Texas. But if that calculation is off—if, for instance, the stakes are so high that the penalty is not a real penalty in comparison—then there is little risk to the self-interested party. “If I lie, I may survive. If I don’t lie, I stand a much greater chance of staying behind and dying.” Even if you do not believe that you have contracted the disease, there are plenty of excellent reasons, including the collapsing infrastructure of Liberia and ongoing risk of contracting the disease, to leave the country immediately.

A different, but no less important, method of encouraging honesty, however, is to change the moral calculus so that there is no reason to lie. This, remember, is not about shifting one’s calculations of self-interest, but rather about demonstrating that the best, most careful way to keep other people safe is to seek help from competent medical professionals immediately.

This is yet another reason why it is critical to address the Ebola epidemic swiftly and immediately in West Africa. We need to set up non-threatening isolation units and care facilities so that the clearest path for keeping other people healthy—families, loved ones, neighbors—is to enter isolation voluntarily and not to make the trip to other better facilities. What this means, frankly, is that to keep the infection in West Africa we must bring the full expertise of our medical system to West Africa. Any lesser option will permit and encourage more accidental transmissions across borders.


The Mistress May Well be Stirring Again

October 14, 2014

As many of my friends and colleagues know, I’ve been writing a fair bit on Ebola in West Africa recently. After a few years of running this blog, like, five years ago, I grew weary of the regular updates, but now I think I need to come out of hibernation and revive some of the commentary. I have another piece coming out in Slate later today. I’ll repost that here for readers, possibly adding commentary.

Frankly, I’m reticent to return to the blogosphere, as there simply isn’t enough time in the day; but the Ebola crisis is urgent enough, and also reflective of the tremendous and sometimes hostile power of nature, that this seems like an appropriate place to offer cogent, somewhat more theoretical, commentary on the issues.


The Mistress Stirs?

January 14, 2014

Sure, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here, but I may well come back yet. Time will tell. I’m experimenting with a new blog tool. Apologies to those who still have me in their CSS feed. I may be back up and running soon.


The future looks nasty.

January 14, 2014

Our planet could warm by as much as 7.2 Fahrenheit degrees by the end of this century if nothing is done to stop or slow the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature.

Climategate Redux

November 22, 2011

Brace yourselves… BBC has the scoop.

Contents include more than 5,000 emails and other documents, some relating to work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

A similar release in 2009 triggered the “ClimateGate” affair and accusations of fraud that inquiries later dismissed.

Now, as then, the release comes shortly before the annual UN climate summit.

The university has yet to comment on the document cache, which is posted on a Russian server.

A text file included with the batch, apparently written by someone involved in the release and headed “FOIA 2011 – Background and Context”, reads: “‘One dollar can save a life’ – the opposite must also be true. “Poverty is a death sentence. Nations must invest $37 trillion in energy technologies by 2030 to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at sustainable levels.”



November 21, 2011

Worth paying attention to:

Money, in an unwieldy and impossible to read graph.


Geoengineering Trials

September 9, 2011

It will be interesting to see how this geoengineering trial goes. This is for the so-called SPICE trial:

FIELD trials for experiments to engineer the climate have begun. Next month a team of UK researchers will hoist one end of a 1-kilometre-long hose aloft using a balloon, then attempt to pump water up it and spray it into the atmosphere.

Naturally this all worries me, for reasons that I’ve tried to articulate in papers and here on this blog. See, for instance this and this.



September 6, 2011

Christopher was a student of mine a few years back. Can’t wait to see the finished project. Looks awesome!

TINY: A Story About Living Small (Teaser Trailer) from TINY on Vimeo.



May 11, 2011

Los Alamitos school board officials must now demonstrate that their climate change curriculum is balanced:

The high school will begin offering an advanced-placement environmental science course next fall. Based on demand elsewhere in California, district officials expect it to be popular—more than 15,000 public school students enrolled in the class in 2008-09.

Although there is a consensus among scientists, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that global climate change exists, the board of education said the topic is controversial enough to require a change in the district’s policy.

The new class will be the first for which district teachers must prove political balance to the school board.


Ethics, Policy, & Environment Vol 14, Issue 1

April 2, 2011

Our March issue is up. Check out the editorial by Andrew and me.Ethics, Policy & Environment