Archive for March, 2010


File Under “Completely Ridiculous”

March 31, 2010

NPR has an interesting, if largely naive, story out about morality and MRI research. Check this out:

Scientists have found a surprising link between magnets and morality. A person’s moral judgments can be changed almost instantly by delivering a magnetic pulse to an area of the brain near the right ear, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Okay, I see. One can observe, and maybe even manipulate, the brain function of some people such that they get confused and flustered and offer different evaluations about the same scenario. Interesting. So mind control is possible. Awesome, we can make people do all manner of crazy and Manchurian things. Apparently, this is also reason to throw the entire basis of morality (and, ultimately, law) into the dustbin:

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says.

“Moral judgment is just a brain process,” he says. “That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain.”

Is it standard for psychologists to just flip between “morality” and “moral judgment” without a care that the two might be distinct? I would expect more from Josh Greene.


If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.

It’s hard to argue that people have or need a soul even if morality [sic] doesn’t have a mechanical explanation. What the hell?


Data Valid

March 30, 2010

The AP reports that the UK panel charged with investigating the use of CRU data has found that the representations were valid.

LONDON (AP) — A parliamentary panel investigating allegations that scientists at one of the world’s leading climate research centers misrepresented data related to global warming found no evidence to support that charge, a panel announced Wednesday.

But the Science and Technology Committee of the British House of Commons did fault scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit and its director, Phil Jones, for the way they handled freedom of information requests from skeptics challenging the evidence for climate change.

The panel said that Professor Jones and his colleagues could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble by aggressively publishing all their data instead of worrying about how to stonewall their critics.



March 30, 2010

While I often say that graduate school cured me of my fiction affliction, and my wife will attest that it did — I read a fiction novel now about once every several years, in contrast to my several books a month during and immediately after undergraduate college — this new novel from Ian McEwan looks mighty interesting. Here’s a write-up. Might well pick this up as soon as the semester draws to a close.


Say Something Philosophical

March 30, 2010

I was once out to dinner with some friends when an acquaintance, whom I had just met, paused and asked me to “say something philosophical.” Occurrences like that happen more often than I care to recount, but here’s a nice overview of a recent poll distributed to philosophers (including me) that tells much the same story.

The PhilPapers study, by David Chalmers of the Australian National University and David Bourget of London University, surveyed academics at 99 leading philosophy departments around the globe, over 90% of them in the English-speaking world and nearly two-thirds in America. Some 91% of the respondents thought they belonged to the analytic tradition and 4% the “Continental” one. When asked which dead philosopher they most identified with, a clear winner emerged, with 21% of the votes: David Hume, the 18th-century thinker, historian, sceptic and agnostic who was a close friend of the economist Adam Smith. Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein took second, third and fourth places. The next six spots went to philosophers from the 20th century, most recently Donald Davidson, an American who died in 2003. Plato made 13th place and Socrates limped in at 21st.

Read the article for more… and if you’re really brave, you’ll check out the actual poll results.


Mann on E-mails

March 30, 2010

Climatewire offers a quick peek into Michael Mann’s regrets about the CRU e-mails.

“I wish in retrospect I had told him, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t even be thinking about this,'” Mann, a prominent climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said in an interview with The Morning Call. “I didn’t think it was an appropriate request.”


“There are a lot of things we could look back at and say, ‘Gee, I wish I had done this or that,'” Mann said. “The important thing is, I didn’t delete any e-mails. And I don’t think [Jones] did, either.”

The article opens with “Michael Mann has a regret.”

No doubt about it. The question is: what’s the nature of this regret? Is it a regret stemming from the political hysteria that has ensued following the release of the much-ballyhooed e-mails? Or is it a regret about the mistake of not trying nip Phil Jones’ actions in the bud?

Frankly, I think there’s good reason to believe that it’s the former, and I can certainly understand that why it would be the former, the question for me as an ethicist, at least, is how to impress upon other scientists — not just in climate science, but in all branches of the sciences — that it is mighty important to self- police on matters such as this for reasons that extend beyond the potential political repercussions.


A Little Tweak

March 29, 2010

…and lo, people change their behavior. Check out the startling behavioral changes that a teensy-weensy bag tax has inspired in Washington D.C.

In its first assessment of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimates that city food and grocery establishments issued about 3.3 million bags in January, which suggests a remarkable decrease. Prior to the bag tax taking effect Jan 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had estimated that about 22.5 million bags were being issued per month in 2009.

Five cents per bag buys you a reduction from 22.5 million bags/month to 3.3 million bags/month.


James Lovelost on Stupidity

March 29, 2010

This proclamation from environmental sage James Lovelock is sure to help matters.

“I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change,” said Lovelock in his first in-depth interview since the theft of the UEA emails last November. “The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.”

I’m not even sure what it means to say that we (humans) are “too stupid.” Is it that I am too stupid? That my neighbor is too stupid? Or that as a collective (?), we’re too stupid? He must be speaking metaphorically. But then it gets creepy:

One of the main obstructions to meaningful action is “modern democracy”, he added. “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

Oh boy. Abandoning the checks and balances of a (well-run, appropriately structured) democracy seems like a surefire way to destroy the earth. We’d only be rolling the dice on a non-stupid world government. Maybe — only maybe — would such a government be better at resolving the world’s problems.

Tell ya what: let’s not put democracy on hold for a while and instead work to establish structures and procedures that make us accountable for our decisions.