Conflict of interest bias

In discussions about controversial topics such as climate change, vaccine safety, environmental sustainability, pesticide toxicity, chronic Lyme disease, male privilege or homeopathic therapies, we often hear the argument that scientific studies are biased due to financial conflicts of interest of the researchers. The accusation of conflicts of interest is used to discredit studies, but we have to be careful to avoid a conflict of interest bias: an unjustifiable asymmetry where we see the conflicts of interest of the opponent but not the conflicts of interest of those people holding our own views. This conflict of interest bias is a version of the disconfirmation bias, where we are more critical and distrustful towards those people or studies that disconfirm our prior beliefs.

The most extreme example of a conflict of interest bias is probably the case about chronic Lyme disease. There is no evidence that chronic Lyme disease is caused by a persistent bacterial infection that can be treated with long-term antibiotic therapy. Medical associations such as the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) advise against long-term antibiotic treatment, because antibiotics are ineffective in this case and a long-term therapy is expensive and can be harmful. However, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal accused the IDSA of having undisclosed financial conflicts of interests held by several IDSA Lyme disease panelists (however, he did not name those panelists, nor did he clarify the kind of conflicts of interest). There is no evidence for such undisclosed conflicts of interest. Blumenthal and chronic Lyme disease pressure groups reject the guidelines of medical associations such as the IDSA, using the accusation of conflicts of interest as a weapon to discredit their opponents. However, they are not so critical about the possible conflicts of interest of people holding their own views. In the case of antibiotic therapy against chronic Lyme disease, one could equally say that patients involved in those pressure groups have a financial conflict of interest when they argue for insurance coverage of long-term antibiotic therapy. And of course, Big Pharma (the pharmaceutical industry) could generate a conflict of interest, trying to sell their antibiotics to chronic Lyme disease patients. How can the IDSA panelists be profiting financially by recommending to not treat patients with antibiotics?

The case of antibiotics brings us to a second example of conflict of interest bias: homeopathy. Take for example many organic livestock farmers: they often refuse to give their sick animals antibiotics, claiming that those antibiotics are harmful and merely serve the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. Instead, those farmers use homeopathic therapies for their animals. However, not only is there a scientific consensus that homeopathy is less effective than antibiotics in treating bacterial infections (at most, homeopathy has a placebo effect). A lot of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy have conflicts of interest. For example, researchers were paid by companies that sell homeopathic products.

The case of organic farming brings us to a third example of conflict of interest bias. Proponents of organic food claim that a lot of scientific studies that indicate that organic food is not better for our health and the environment, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the non-organic agricultural industry (e.g. with companies like Monsanto). Those proponents overestimate the conflicts of interest of the counterparty and they underestimate the conflicts of interest of their own party. A lot of scientific studies that claim that organic food is better for our health and the environment, or that non-organic genetically modified crops are unsafe, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the organic agricultural sector. Some infamous names include: Charles Benbrook (had undisclosed conflicts of interest: worked at the Organic Center and research was funded by Whole Foods, Organic Valley, United Natural Foods, Organic Trade Association and others), Gilles-Eric Séralini (consultant of Sevene Pharma that sells homeopathic antidotes against pesticides), Judy Carman (her anti-GMO research was funded by Verity Farms and published in a journal sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia) and the Rodale Institute (a research institute that has a commercial interest in organic farming by selling organic products). These (often undisclosed) conflicts of interest are at least as bad as the conflicts of interest of e.g. Monsanto selling GMOs and pesticides. Imagine how environmentalists would react if proponents of GMOs came up with studies that had similar conflicts of interest with Monsanto.

The case of Monsanto brings us to a fourth example of conflict of interest bias. Monsanto sells the herbicide glyphosate, so of course they want to deny that glyphosate is toxic or carcinogenic. Opponents of glyphosate warn that studies showing the safety of glyphosate are biased due to the close ties between scientists and the pesticide industry. However, there are potential financial conflicts of interest among the opponents of glyphosate. For example farmers who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma and who support the environmentalist cause against glyphosate, aim for compensation fees from Monsanto.

Speaking about compensation fees, a fifth serious example of conflict of interest bias can be seen in the antivaccination movement. Opponents of vaccines often claim that studies demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of vaccines are invalid because they are supposedly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry that wants to make profits from selling vaccines. However, a lot of members of the antivaccination movement also have conflicts of interest: they want compensation fees from the pharmaceutical companies for the alleged damages they incurred from vaccines. One influential person in the antivaccination movement is Andrew Wakefield, the author of an infamous study about an alleged link between measles vaccines and autism. Wakefields research about the MMR-autism connection contained undisclosed conflicts of interest, because he was paid by lawyers who were suing for vaccine injuries. Of course, Wakefields studies could help those lawyers in the lawsuits against the vaccine producers. As with the other examples of conflict of interest bias, antivaccination activists focus on the conflicts of interest by their opponent (the pharmaceutical industry) and deny or minimize the conflict of interest of their proponent (Andrew Wakefield).

A sixth example is the problem of male privilege. Feminists often accused men who are critical about feminist issues for having a conflict of interest, in particular a male privilege that they want to protect. However, if male privilege leads to a bias amongst men because they are privileged, it also leads to a bias amongst women. If men want to protect their privilege and are therefore less reliable or credible in some matters, we can as well say that women want to achieve privilege and are therefore also less reliable in those matters. Everyone can be said to have a conflict of interest: those who have power want to keep it, those who do not have power want to achieve it. It is not obvious why the latter would have a weaker conflict of interest and would be more credible.

What about climate change? It is well known that many deniers of anthropogenic climate change have financial conflicts of interest with the fossil fuel industry. But deniers sometimes claim that believers can have two kinds of conflicts of interest. First, climate scientists could have been paid by the low carbon, clean energy industries (e.g. nuclear power and renewable energy sectors), and second, climate scientists could be spreading doomsday scenarios of global warming as a means to ask for more government funding for more research, to secure their jobs. The former conflict of interest with the clean energy industry is expected to be very weak, because that industry is much smaller than the fossil fuel industry, and it becomes less and less likely because fossil fuel companies are investing more and more in nuclear power and renewable energies. The latter conflict of interest is unlikely, because it results in a huge conspiracy theory where all climate scientists have to mislead the governments. That requires an impossible coordination among scientists and a huge effort to keep the truth secret. A few decades ago, climate scientists warned about global cooling and a new ice age. That would have been a better story for securing more future government funds for research, because in that story, humans are not responsible for the climate catastrophes, which means that this story would not have met opposition from huge industries like the fossil fuel industry.

Suppose both believers and disbelievers, proponents and opponents, have conflicts of interest. What should we do then? We are no longer able to use the easy strategy of looking for conflicts of interest and discrediting all studies with such conflicts of interest. Luckily, another easy strategy is to see if there is a scientific consensus. And we have to rely on the more difficult strategy of looking at the content of the scientific studies instead of the backgrounds of the authors.

The most important lesson that we can learn from the conflict of interest bias, is that we have to be fair in our judgments and acknowledge that people (scientists) who hold our own views can also have conflicts of interest. That means we should tolerate some level of conflict of interest. For example, it is important that environmental organizations have the most reliable scientific knowledge, and therefore those organizations should invite scientists to give advice or to speak at environmentalist conferences. In order to attract enough top scientists, it might be an effective, necessary and therefore good idea to pay those scientists, to give them consultancy and speaking fees. Does that mean that those top scientists are no longer allowed to sit in governmental scientific panels or advisory boards, due to their financial conflicts of interest with the environmental organizations? Of course, those organizations would not complain against the panel memberships of those scientists. If those top scientists are not allowed in the panel, the government risks ending up with a small panel with only a few scientists with lower levels of expertise. Now suppose those scientists had similar conflicts of interest with the industry (e.g. giving paid presentations at conferences sponsored by the industry). Now the environmental organizations object. This is unfair. Furthermore, it is also important that the industry can rely on good advice from scientists: the scientists have the knowledge, the companies have the capital, and both are necessary to produce good products. So we should be more tolerant or nuanced towards some conflicts of interest.

Scientists are not only susceptible to financial conflicts of interest, but also to all kinds of cognitive biases. How reliable is a scientist who warns against a synthetic chemical product, if that scientist has a naturalness bias and is a member of an environmentalist organization? How reliable is a scientist who favors a new therapy against an untreatable disease if that scientist has a family member with that disease?

Luckily, the scientific method (with peer reviewed research, statistical methods to detect biases, other scientists testing and retesting hypotheses,…) is the best strategy we have to avoid those biases of individual scientists. Instead of focusing on the biases of an individual scientist, we should look at the broader scientific picture, the validity of studies, the statistics, the meta-analyses, the scientific consensus views, the positions of scientific academies…

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The problem of counting persons and conscious experiences


All else equal, saving two people is better than saving one person, two hours of pain is worse than one hour of pain and an election candidate that has two votes from two people is more likely to win the election than a candidate that has one vote from one person. In all important moral theories, counting people (e.g. votes) and conscious experiences (e.g. pain) matters. But this counting is not always easy or straightforward, and perhaps in the future it will become even more difficult. Two examples demonstrate the problem of counting consciousness.

The temporal counting problem

Different sentient beings can have different brain processing speeds. Consider vision: humans can see at most 60 flashes of light per second. Showing flashes at a higher frequency results in seeing a continuous light. The flicker fusion rate measures how fast a light has to be switched on and off before one sees it as a continuous light. A fly has a flicker fusion rate four times higher than a human, which means a fly can see 250 images or flashes per second. This explains why it is so difficult to swat a fly: a fly sees everything in slow motion, four times slower than we do.

Perhaps not only vision, but also our conscious experiences have a maximum frequency. What is the smallest time interval that we can experience? Suppose an experience of pain is turned on and off. Suppose at this moment you do not feel pain, a second later you feel pain, another second later the pain is gone. That means every second you can have a different conscious experience. But what if we increase the frequency? At this moment you do not feel pain, a millisecond later there is a pinprick. Another millisecond later the needle is removed, and so on. Now you might feel a slight, continuous pain instead of different pain pulses, which means you cannot consciously distinguish milliseconds.

Suppose the flicker fusion rate of your consciousness is 60 experiences per second, as with vision. This is as if you have an internal clock that has a moving hand rotating full circle in 60 steps per second. Every position of the moving hand corresponds with a different conscious state. You can have at most 60 different conscious experiences per second. But some insects may have faster internal clocks. In one real second, they can have 250 different conscious experiences. If you experience pain for one second, you actually have 60 conscious states of pain. But if insects can feel pain and if they feel pain for one second at a higher brain speed, that corresponds with 250 conscious states of pain. It is as if you would experience 4 seconds of pain.

Perhaps the tiny brains of insects indicate that the intensity of their pain experience is lower than the intensity of pain experienced by animals with larger brains. But if their brains are faster, they experience pain in slow motion, meaning that a second of pain appears to last longer for insects. Is 1 second of intense pain for a human as bad as one second of equally intense pain for an insect with a faster brain?

In the future, artificially intelligent conscious computer programs and whole brain emulations of humans are perhaps possible. Suppose we program your whole brain on a computer. If we run this brain emulation program, this computer might generate the same conscious experiences that you experience right now. The computer program becomes conscious. Suppose that computer emulated person committed a crime and receives a sentence of one year imprisonment. Now suppose we run this computer program ten times faster. Perhaps the emulated person generated by the computer program has the same experience as if you would sit ten years in prison.

The temporal counting problem states that if we consider a time interval, how many conscious experiences (or temporally different persons or conscious minds) are there within this interval? If time is a continuum, can we say that one second involves an infinite amount of instantaneous experiences. Or are there only 60 experiences for a human, 250 for a fly and a billion for a brain emulation of a human that runs a billion times faster than its corresponding biological brain?

The spatial counting problem

The possibility of whole brain emulations and conscious artificial intelligence also raises questions about copying minds. It is easy to make copies of computer programs. We can have two different computers (two hardwares) that run the same software. When making a copy of a computer program, we add an extra hardware that allows us to run the copied software program. This extra hardware is spatially separated from the original computer. Like computers, your brain is also hardware and your mind or consciousness is the software. Asking how many conscious minds or persons there are becomes like asking how many Microsoft Windows programs there are: the number of spatially separated Windows computers (hardwares) or the one Windows program (software)?

The possibility of copying minds makes counting persons or conscious experiences very difficult. Here is a thought experiment. Suppose a person Alex is sitting in a room. Now we make a full copy of that room, including a copy of Alex’s brain. In the copied room, there is a person with the exact same brain structure as Alex, with the exact same experiences (the same visual stimuli, the same shape of chair he sits in, the same sounds, and so on). Most people believe there are now two persons, call them AlexA and his copy AlexB, even if those two persons have the same experiences. The persons are different, because they could have had different experiences: it is possible to cause pain to AlexB without causing pain to AlexA. This means that AlexB has a right to vote, and so does AlexA. Two people, two votes. This also means that saving AlexA and AlexB is better than saving only AlexA.

Suppose we could enlarge the skulls of both persons, make them twice their original size. We also stretch their neurons in their brains. Suppose the neurons keep firing in the same way. If brains generate consciousness and conscious experiences are uniquely determined by the neural firing pattern, the experiences generated by the stretched-out brains remain the same. As the skull of AlexA is larger, there is room available for extra neurons. Suppose we put all the neurons of AlexB inside the skull of AlexA, place them in their original order such that their neuron firings remain the same.

How many persons or conscious experiences are now generated inside the skull of AlexA? All we did is moving AlexB’s brain in AlexA’s skull, and moving a brain does not delete consciousness, so we can say there are now two people inside AlexA’s skull. But suppose we now merge one neuron of AlexA with the corresponding copied neuron of AlexB. Both neurons were already lying closely next to each other, so suppose we replace them by one big neuron that again fires in the exact same way as the original neurons of AlexA and AlexB. Now we merge a second neuron of AlexA with its copy from AlexB, and so on. After we have merged all neurons, we end up with one big brain that has the exact same neural firings and patterns as the original brain of AlexA. Again, if brains generate consciousness and conscious experiences are uniquely determined by the neural firing pattern, the big brain has the same experience as the original brain. How many people are there inside AlexA’s skull now? If you believe that there are still two persons, you could equally say that inside your head, at this moment, your brain generates two conscious experiences and there are two persons. After all, we can reverse the process: split all your neurons in halve along their length and disentangle the neurons into two separate brains. Furthermore, we could also include a third copy AlexC, so we could as well say that there are three persons inside AlexA’s skull. Any number is possible. The number of persons becomes ill defined, unless you answer that the one big brain in AlexA’s skull generates only one consciousness. That means somewhere along the line, merging neurons together, the two persons really unite to become one person.

An analogy with playing cards

An analogy with playing cards might clarify the above thought experiment. Just like the question how many persons or conscious experiences there are, we can ask how many aces there are. There are at least three possible answers. At the most abstract or conceptual level, there is only one ace, corresponding to the idea of an ace: the first card. At the functional level, there are four aces, one for each of the four suits (clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds). At the most concrete or material level, there are thousands of aces: if there are thousand decks of cards in the world and four aces per deck of card, there are 4000 aces.

The material level corresponds to the hardware, the conceptual and functional levels correspond to the software. However, the number of aces at the material level (the hardware), is not well defined. I could take an ace of spades and cut it in half. Does this mean there is now one more ace in the world? You can easily say yes. But you can also say no, because the two pieces of the ace of spades still have the same function in a card game such as solitaire. Now suppose I cut all 52 cards in half. Now we are able to play two different games of solitaire: use the left hand side of the cards for one game, and the right hand sides for the other. Note that to play two different games of solitaire, we did not have to cut the joker cards in half.

The analogy between playing cards and brains goes as follows. The number of decks of cards correspond to the number of brains. One deck of card playing one solitaire game corresponds with one brain generating one conscious mind. The set of four aces in one deck of card correspond to the set of neurons that generate consciousness in one brain. The other 48 cards correspond to other crucial neurons (e.g. optical fibers), where ‘crucial’ means that they should also be split before we can generate two different persons. The remaining cards (jokers) correspond to non-crucial neurons and body cells: they do not have to be split in order to create two minds.

The importance of causality

In the above thought experiment, we considered a process where we started with two people (two conscious mind) who had the exact same experiences and ended up with one person. What determines this transition? How can we tell whether there are one or several persons present? This is a crucial question in ethics. The answer has to do with causality. In the initial state with AlexA and AlexB, there are two people, because their two brains are causally independent, even when they happen to have the same neural firing patterns. We can give AlexB a different visual stimulus than AlexA, and from that moment, the brain of AlexB will have a different neural firing pattern and hence generates a different experience than AlexA. On the other hand, when both brains are inside AlexA’s skull and more and more neurons are merged, it eventually becomes logically impossible to give AlexB’s brain a different neural firing pattern that generates a different conscious experience.

This is comparable to the deck of cards. Suppose we start with two complete decks of cards, playing solitaire. Suppose with those two decks of cards, we played the same game of solitaire, with the same starting positions and the same choices. The two games develop in parallel. We can say that these are two games of solitaire (just like there are two persons AlexA and AlexB), because even if the games develop in the same way, we could make other choices such that the games start to diverge from each other. Suppose we take a joker from one deck and glue it together with the corresponding joker from the other deck, just like we merged one non-crucial neuron from AlexA with the corresponding neuron copy of AlexB. We can still play two different games of solitaire. However, once we merge (glue together) for example the two kings of diamonds of the two decks of cards, we are no longer able to play two different games. From that moment, we only have one game, just like we have one consciousness in AlexA’s skull after merging two crucial neurons.

If it is impossible to generate two different experiences at the same time in your brain, your brain generates only one consciousness. If a copy of your brain can generate a different experience, that copied brain creates a different person, even if you both happen to have the exact same experiences. The same goes for your emulated brains on computers: if the hardwares are sufficiently different such that we can cause two different experiences, there are two persons, even if they happen to have the exact same experiences. If the hardwares are sufficiently entangled such that we cannot generate two different experiences, there is only one person present. And the same goes for the temporal differences in consciousness. If it is possible to generate a painful experience a second after a non-painful experience, there are two different conscious experiences, separated in time by one second, just like two hardwares can be separated in space by one kilometer. Even if at this moment you experience the exact same thing as a second ago, we can still say that the two instantaneous minds (your consciousness now and your consciousness a second ago) are different. However, if it is impossible to cause a painful experience within a millisecond after a non-painful experience, because your brain is too slow to experience such rapid differences, those two instantaneous minds are the same and count as one.

Final remarks

In my ethical theory of variable critical level utiliarianism, I argued that we should maximize the sum of everyone’s normalized relative utilities, where those utilities or preferences measure how strongly a person prefers a situation that we can choose. Here we also have to deal with counting consciousness, because we have to take the sum over different persons, so we have to answer the question when two persons (two conscious minds) are different or not. In my view, each individual, instantaneous conscious mind can have a different utility function and hence a different normalized relative utility for the state that s/he experiences. If a human has 60 different instantaneous conscious minds per second, we have to take the sum over all its utilities over that second. If a fly has 250 minds during that second, the sum includes 250 utilities per second for that fly.

Another bizarre consequence of consciousness as the result of information processing from neural firings in the brain, is that also other very complex systems, such as the air in a large room, can perform the same information processing. The patterns of neural firings can be translated in streams of bits (ones and zeros) of information processing. If a room contains enough molecules, also the positions and movements of air molecules can be described in an equally long stream of bits. Both streams of bits can be mapped to each other. For example the sequence ‘011001000…’ representing your conscious experience generated by your brain can be mapped into the sequence ‘111011011…’ representing the air, by a very long rule “the first bit 0 turns into 1, the second bit 1 stays 1, the third bit stays the same,…” This means that the information content of your brain with neurons (and hence the consciousness) and of anyone else’s brain with the same complexity can be mapped into the information content of a sufficiently large room with air molecules. (Technically speaking, the information entropy of the room should be as large as the information entropy of your brain.) So you could say that the air in that room also generates a consciousness (in fact generates all kinds of conscious experiences at once). This is a kind of panpsychism: consciousness is everywhere (in all sufficiently informationally complex systems) and in all forms. There is an infinite number of conscious minds. However, the fact that the air in the room generates conscious experiences is not morally relevant, because we are not causally able to influence those experiences. If I want to give you a happy experience by playing your favorite song, I can causally influence your brain via sound waves that enter your ear and send signals to your brain. If I claim that the position and movements of air molecules in the room also correspond with a process that generates your conscious experiences, you could ask me to do the same with the air in the room: make it happy. But that is impossible for me. Perhaps I will have to follow a very complex procedure, such as: “Shift molecule number 6479532 a little to the right, send molecule 362541115 towards molecule 65893547 if it is in the upper left corner, send those 5 upwards moving molecules downwards, wait five milliseconds and then…” That is not as simple as pushing the play button on a media player to generate the correct sound waves travelling towards your ears. Furthermore, such a procedure is arbitrary, because there is no way to uniquely derive the procedure or determine that it really works.

As a summary: only the conscious experiences that we can causally influence matter morally.

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Being rational about nuclear power

Disclaimer: in the past I did several actions against nuclear power. This article does not reflect the opinions of the environmental organizations I am and was involved in.

Effective environmentalism deals with the irrationalities in the environmental movement. These irrationalities are often caused by emotional attachments and include inaccurate beliefs that result in the choice for ineffective means to reach the environmentalist ends (including values like health, safety, sustainability, intergenerational justice and biodiversity). Examples of irrationalities in the environmental movement include a naturalness bias, a support for organic food and a resistance against genetic modification. Sometimes environmentalist campaigns can backfire and cause more harm than good (such as the campaign to ban glyphosate). Effective environmentalism has some resemblance with ecomodernism.

In this article I want to present another irrationality of the environmental movement: its resistance against nuclear energy. The message is that campaigning against nuclear power is ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. There are much more effective campaigns, such as a campaign to support plant-based diets or support economic measures such as a green tax shift or a cap-auction-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. The effectiveness of environmental organizations is improved if they stop their nuclear campaigns and instead focus on more effective solutions.

The case in favor of nuclear power is made by the following two arguments.

  • Nuclear power has fewer deaths from pollution and accidents than almost all other energy sources. Several sources mention that the deathprint of nuclear is much lower than the death print of fossil fuels and even lower than the deathprint of most renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. The deathprint measures the number of deaths per kWh of electricity produced from a life cycle perspective, just like the environmental footprint measures the environmental impact per kWh. For example, the past decades a trillion kWh of nuclear energy caused less than 100 human deaths, whereas renewable sources (solar, wind and hydro) caused between 100 and 2000 human deaths and fossil fuels caused between 4000 and 100.000 deaths from air pollution and accidents (the deaths from climate change and possible future accidents are not included). Animal deaths (e.g. birds and bats dying from wind farms) are not included in these deathprint statistics. As a consequence, even if a ban on nuclear energy would result in a large shift towards renewable energy sources, a small residual shift towards fossil fuels such as gas and coal (as is the case in e.g. Japan after the Fukushima nuclear power station accident) would result in more deaths overall. By replacing fossil fuels, some researchers estimate that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and has the potential to prevent another 7 million deaths in the future.
  • Nuclear power has one of the lowest carbon footprints of all the energy sources. Looking at several life cycle analyses (e.g. a meta-analysis of low carbon technologies by Ricardo AEA 2013, values from the IPCC, the UK Parliamantary Office of Science and Technology 2011). Nuclear has less than 10 grams of CO2 emissions per kWh, comparable to wind energy, 10 times lower than photovoltaic (solar) energy and around 100 times lower than fossil fuel energy (gas and coal). As a consequence, even if a ban on nuclear energy would result in a large shift towards renewable energy sources, a small residual shift towards fossil fuels such as gas and coal would result in more greenhouse gas emissions overall and hence more future harms from climate change.

For the non-experts, the case in favor of nuclear power is strengthened by extra supportive arguments from authority.

  • A majority of scientists are in favor of building more nuclear power plants. According to a Pew Research Center survey of a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 65% of scientists favor building more nuclear power plants.
  • A lot of effective altruists are in favor of nuclear power. An example of an effective altruist organization in favor of nuclear power is the Founders Pledge. Effective altruists use reason and scientific evidence to do the most good. As they are altruists, they do not have personal (e.g. financial) conflicts of interest with any economic sector, including the nuclear power sector. The difference with a lot of environmentalists is that effective altruists use a lot of critical thinking and are highly aware of their own cognitive biases. They consistently look for scientific evidence and solid arguments and try to avoid fallacies and erroneous judgments. When it comes to very unlikely risks such as the risk of nuclear accidents, we have cognitive biases (e.g. availability heuristic, hindsight bias) that make us overestimate the likelihood of those risk. Also, when environmental organizations invested a lot in antinuclear campaigns, they are susceptible to a sunk cost fallacy. As a consequence, they are less willing to abandon those campaigns. Effective altruists on the other hand are more willing to change their minds and to abandon ineffective actions.

An example of how a fearful reaction about nuclear energy can be irrational and cause more harm, is the population relocation after nuclear accidents.

  • Population relocation after the nuclear reactor accidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima was largely unjustifiable and could cause more harm than good, resulting in more deaths and a lower Life Quality Index. Evacuation after the Fukushima nuclear power station accident in 2011 resulted in more premature deaths (due to increased levels of stress, physical and mental exhaustion, increased suicide rates, elderly people needing nursing care, decreased medical care from evacuating hospitals) compared to the situation where everyone stayed home, for a majority of communities in the 20 km relocation zone, according to a 2017 study in the journal Process Safety and Environmental Protection. Stress of moving resulted in an estimated 1600 premature deaths in the first 3 years after the Fukushima accident. This corresponds to an average loss of life expectancy of one month per relocated person, more than the health risk from radiation exposure when people stayed home, in 8 of the 12 evacuated communities in Fukushima. Moreover, looking at the cost-effectiveness in terms of the J-value (the ratio of the actual sum of money to be spent on protection against a health risk to the maximum that it is reasonable to spend if the quality of life of those affected – measured by the Life Quality Index – is not to be compromised), relocation was unjustified for 75% of the 335,000 people relocated after Chernobyl and for all of the 160,000 people relocated after Fukushima. In other words: the Life Quality Index of the relocated people is lower than if they stayed home. The environmental movement might have contributed to this overreaction and too high levels of scare.

Finally, the arguments against nuclear power are weak.

  • The nuclear waste problem is small. First of all, the hazardous nuclear waste produced by a person using nuclear energy (25 ml per year) is more than thousand times smaller than the non-nuclear hazardous waste produced (around 80 kg per year per person). If we also consider air pollution and greenhouse gases as hazardous waste, nuclear energy produces much less hazardous waste than fossil fuels. Second, the existing amount of nuclear waste is much higher than the newly produced waste. The nuclear industry has already produced more than 60.000 ton of used nuclear fuel and adds about 2000 ton per year. Risks (and costs to avoid risks) may not increase linearly with the amount of waste. Compare it with a bank that has a vault with gold. There is a security risk that the gold gets stolen, comparable to the risk that nuclear waste gets out of the storage sites. If it requires one guard to protect a vault containing one ton of gold, it does not necessarily require two guards if the vault contains two tons of gold. The first units of gold (nuclear waste) may generate the highest risks and marginal security costs. If there is a decreasing marginal risk, and if there is already a lot of nuclear waste, adding an extra 3% of waste increases risks with less than 3%. This means that the extra risks (and extra, marginal security costs to avoid risks) for an additional unit of nuclear waste may become comparatively small. Third, future technologies and new generations of nuclear power plants might be able to process the nuclear waste (this is at least theoretically possible according to the laws of physics). Fourth, keeping nuclear energy would have an impact on society in such a way that in the future other people will be born compared to the situation with a ban on nuclear energy. Those other people owe their lives to nuclear energy (without keeping nuclear energy, they would not have been born). From a certain population ethical point of view, one could say that if those other people have lives worth living, they cannot complain against our decision to keep nuclear energy, even if they are confronted with our nuclear waste risks, and that makes keeping nuclear energy more permissible. Furthermore, keeping nuclear energy results in more economic growth, which allows for more scientific research and wealth accumulation and hence more economic wealth, technological inventions and scientific knowledge for future generations, which makes it more likely that their lives are worth living (and may even be better than ours).
  • The effect of civilian nuclear power on the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation is unclear. The data suggest that there is not much evidence that civilian nuclear power programs increase the likelihood of pursuit of weapons by countries. There are some arguments that civilian nuclear power might even decrease the risks from nuclear weapons. First, nuclear power plants could use uranium and plutonium from nuclear weapons and therefore help in nuclear disarmament. Nuclear power is a safe (more controlled) way to dismantle atomic bombs, so to speak. Second, civilian nuclear power might have countervailing political effects that limit the probability of proliferation. International conventions on civilian nuclear power increase the likelihood that a parallel nuclear weapons program is detected and attracts outside non-proliferation pressures. If a country with civilian nuclear power starts to produce nuclear weapons, it risks non-proliferation sanctions. Due to those trade sanctions, it becomes more difficult for that country to import nuclear fuels. As the country is economically dependent on nuclear power, these sanctions might be so economically damaging that the country prefers to avoid those damages by abolishing its weapons program. Also: civilian nuclear power is not necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.
  • Future (third and fourth) generations of nuclear power technologies, such as molten salt thorium reactors, are safer, more cost effective and more sustainable. They produce nuclear waste that remains radioactive for a shorter time, they have more than 100 times the energy yield of current nuclear power, they use more abundant and easily accessible nuclear fuels, they can burn existing nuclear waste, and they are less susceptible to nuclear accidents (no melt-downs).

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Mutagenese in de ggo-wetgeving

Het Europees Hof van Justitie oordeelde dat mutagenese onder de ggo-richtlijn valt. Mutagenese is een plantenveredelingstechniek waarbij straling of chemische stoffen mutaties veroorzaken in een plantengenoom en daardoor nieuwe genen creëren. Bij genetisch manipulatie (transgenese) worden daarentegen genen van andere organismen ingebracht in het genoom van de plant.

Transgenese valt in Europa onder de strenge ggo-richtlijn, mutagenese tot gisteren niet. Dat was allesbehalve logisch, want mutagenese is vaak risicovoller dan genetische manipulatie: de mutaties gebeuren ongecontroleerd en creëren nieuwe genen die nog nooit elders in de natuur voorkwamen. Transgenese is daarentegen veel preciezer en maakt gebruik van reeds bestaande genen wiens eigenschappen gekend zijn. Mutagene gewassen zouden dus aan strenger onderzoek naar gezondheid en milieuveiligheid onderworpen moeten zijn dan transgene gewassen (ggo’s). Het opnemen van mutagenese in de Europese ggo-richtlijn maakt de regelgeving iets consistenter. Dat mutagene gewassen nog wel toegelaten zijn in de Amerikaanse biolandbouw, toont aan dat mutagenese nu ook weer niet zo gevaarlijk is.

Onze ggo-wetgeving zit vol mutagenese: de vreemde ad hoc regels zijn zoals willekeurige mutaties. Zo vallen mutagene gewassen die al lang hun veiligheid bewezen hebben niet onder de richtlijn, maar geldt dat niet voor ggo’s die al decennialang veilig blijken te zijn.

De vraag om mutagenese op te nemen in de ggo-richtlijn, komt van boerenorganisaties die zich verzetten tegen herbicidentolerante gewassen die bestand zijn tegen onkruidverdelgers. De bezorgdheid is dat die gewassen leiden tot een toename van pesticidengebruik en een machtsconcentratie van de producenten van pesticiden en zaden. Maar uit een overzichtsonderzoek blijkt dat ggo’s het pesticidengebruik net doen dalen. Dan is het onverstandig om alle transgene en mutagene gewassen over dezelfde kam te scheren als de herbicidentolerante gewassen. Er bestaan zelfs klassiek veredelde herbicidentolerante gewassen, dus dan kan men evengoed alle veredeling onder de ggo-richtlijn brengen.

Transgenese en mutagenese kennen veel bredere toepassingen dan herbicidentolerantie, met veel voordelen voor boeren, gezondheid en milieu. Zo zijn er Bt-gewassen: ggo’s die zelf een Bt-insectengif aanmaken en daardoor resistent zijn tegen insectenvraat. Dat gif is onschadelijk voor zoogdieren, komt voor bij bacteriën in de natuur, en is daarom toegelaten in de biolandbouw. Nu blijkt dat op de akkers met Bt-ggo’s meer biodiversiteit is van onschadelijke insecten zoals bijen dan op bijvoorbeeld biologische akkers waar dat Bt-gif gesproeid wordt. Een tweede voorbeeld zijn schimmelresistente ggo-aardappelen, waardoor er minder fungiciden nodig zijn, zoals het schadelijke kopersulfaat dat toegelaten is in de biolandbouw. Genen van wilde aardappelvariëteiten worden in het genoom gebracht, waardoor schimmels minder kans krijgen om die schimmelresistentie te overwinnen in vergelijking met schimmelresistente aardappelen in de biolandbouw.

Volgens het Hof worden door mutagenese en transgenese plantengenomen gewijzigd op een onnatuurlijke wijze. Dat is een naturalistische drogreden, omdat mutagenese in de natuur veel voorkomt door zonnestraling en allerlei natuurlijke chemische stoffen. Zelfs transgenese is niet onnatuurlijk: er zijn aanwijzingen dat mensen wel meer dan 140 nuttige genen hebben die afkomstig zijn van andere soorten (zoals algen, schimmels en bacteriën) en die we waarschijnlijk verkregen hebben door genenoverdracht via virussen. Wij zijn dus minstens 140 keer genetisch gemanipuleerd geweest.

Het verschil met de natuur, is dat biotechnologen doelbewust te werk gaan: ze weten wat ze doen en hebben als doel planten te verbeteren. Die doelgerichtheid maakt de manipulatie niet gevaarlijker, maar wel sneller. Het Hof argumenteert dat nieuwe mutagenesetechnieken veel sneller nieuwe gewassen kan produceren in vergelijking met natuurlijke en klassieke plantenveredeling. Maar wie zegt dat die natuurlijke mutatiesnelheid optimaal is qua veiligheid? Waarom niet alle plantenveredeling vertragen?

De vraag is wat de gevolgen gaan zijn van de beslissing van het Hof van Justitie: gaan nuttige mutagene gewassen minder snel op de markt komen, of gaat de juridische behandeling van transgene gewassen versoepeld worden?

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Oefeningen ter bevordering van je rationele ethiek

Een rationele ethiek bestaat uit het hebben van accurate overtuigingen die je helpen bij het kiezen van effectieve middelen om je consistente doelen te bereiken. We spreken dan van epistemische rationaliteit (hoe goed is onze kennis van de wereld?), instrumentele rationaliteit (hoe goed zijn onze middelen?) en axiologische rationaliteit (hoe goed zijn onze morele doelen of waarden?). Maar telkens zijn er twee soorten van irrationele invloeden die ons parten spelen: verstorende emoties en verstorende gedachtepatronen (spontane denkfouten, hardnekkige vooroordelen). Die twee verstorende factoren creëren allerlei morele illusies en hebben daardoor een negatieve invloed op de drie vormen van rationaliteit. Hier volgen 6 oefeningenreeksen van het Centrum voor Rationaliteit en Ethiek, geschikt om die irrationele invloeden te verminderen.

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Reflections on male privilege

Our biggest concern in ethics is unwanted arbitrariness. That is why I am against all kinds of discrimination (because the victims of discrimination cannot want their arbitrary exclusion). One form of discrimination is sexism. However, the discussion of sexism is often accompanied with the notion of ‘male privilege’. Here I want to reflect on this notion, and argue that it would be better to delete the word ‘male’ and simply speak about ‘privilege’.

Male privilege in the animal rights movement

The notion of male privilege is sometimes used in contexts where a lot of big questions can be raised. The best example is in the context of the animal rights movement. Some activists claim that the AR-movement is not women friendly, basically because of two reasons.

  1. Looking at the top positions in the major AR-organizations, we see mostly men. The same goes for spokespersons and public speakers. For example, most speakers at AR-conferences are men. It is as if men have a privilege to be leaders.
  2. Some male activists in the movement are responsible for sexually transgressive behavior towards women. It is as if men have a privilege to be sexually violent.

First of all, these two reasons should not be confused with each other. The sexually transgressive behavior is generally regarded (also by male activists) as illegal, immoral (a violation of basic rights such as the right to bodily autonomy) and counterproductive (it chases female activists away from the movement), whereas the fact that the CEO or director of an AR-organization is male is not considered as illegal or a basic rights violation. Feminist AR-activists want leadership positions for women, so they want women to have the first kind of privilege (being allowed to be a leader or public speaker). This means a leadership position is not problematic. But the second kind of privilege, the sexually transgressive behavior, is problematic: not even women are allowed to do that, according to feminists. So the two reasons (the two types of privilege) are very different. It is not self-evident that those two reasons are parts of the same ‘patriarchal’ system.

Second, strong claims require strong evidence. The vast majority of members in the AR-movement are female (some speak about 75% or higher). So the claim that a movement where more than 75% of the members are women is women unfriendly, is a pretty strong claim. Let us look at those two reasons in more detail.

The first reason is actually very strange. If 75% of the movement members are women, then why do we not see more women at the top of those organizations? Because they are excluded by the men? No, because those women could as well start their own organizations and become the leaders in those new organizations. They can organize their own conferences and speak at those conferences. Perhaps those women are not allowed to start organizations? No, we are living in a free society with freedom of organization (article 20 of the universal declaration of human rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”) Perhaps those new organizations directed by women would not gain much support? No, because most supporters in the movement are women (they can fund or volunteer at those new organizations). Perhaps those women would not be capable to lead organizations? Definitely not: women are as smart as men, and in our culture women perform better at schools and colleges (more women than men earn a college degree). Because those women doubt that they are capable to lead organizations, because through patriarchy they have internalized their subordinate position? Some people claim this is the answer, but it can be easily interpreted as being disrespectful towards women. Were men really capable to ‘hypnotize’ women into believing that they are not capable to lead organizations? Are we going to say to those women: “Look, even if you believe that you are not capable to lead, I know better than you, so you should go and lead an organization”? Did women really get a kind of Marxist ‘false consciousness’ about their possibilities and capabilities? Did a patriarchal system made women develop an ‘internalized oppression’ that distorts their perceptions? Some people argue that girls are tought in a patriarchal society not to take initiative, not to speak up, not to raise their hands, not to be assertive, and this explains why they become reluctant to become public speakers or leaders. The advice for male animal rights activists would then be to take a step back, to let the women speak, to let the women take initiatives. to wait 10 seconds before intervening in a conversation. However, one could say that men are already completely stepping back with 66% in the animal rights movement. Let us say that the movement has 150 members, 75 of them are female. Now we see that 50 men (66% of the 75 men) are backing off completely: they are absent. Hence we see only 25% men in the movement. But even when men are taking a step back with 66%, women still are reluctant to take initiative, speak up or raise their hands. Can the teachings for girls in a patriarchal society be so powerful?

One can easily think of a straightforward story that could explain what may be happening. 1) Feminists claim that more women should be leaders. 2) Many women say that they do not prefer to be leaders, that they have other ambitions and goals, or that they feel insecure. 3) This does not fit with the feminist story about patriarchal suppression. 4) Some feminists respond that those women have ‘internalized’ their oppression. I suggest, before we start believing that women have developed a kind of cognitive deficit that makes them poor assessors of their own capacities and situations, we first have to do much more scientific research to find very strong evidence for such claims. Otherwise it might be too disrespectful towards women.

My guess is that there is something else going on here, with the question why most leaders are men. Something else than ‘male privilege’ or ‘patriarchy’. That has to be researched further (Steven Pinker has some interesting things to say about this). In our society, we see mostly men in top positions (e.g. politics, businesses). This is often explained as a result of a patriarchal system. However, the fact that a movement dominated by female members also has this male presence at the top might indicate that we have to look for other explanations than patriarchy and other solutions than ‘fighting patriarchy’. Such solutions often remain hollow slogans (just like ‘fighting capitalism’), which means they are lacking concrete, effective actions.

As a reaction to the male leadership problem, some feminist animal rights activists claim that the movement should have at least 75% female leaders (“First, hire women. In a movement that is 75-80% women, no organization should be run by a man. If men are hired to serve as staff, they ought to be hired in proportion to the larger movement – no more than 25%.”) There are several worries with such quota: can the movement become men unfriendly? Doesn’t it violate freedom (letting those who want to be leaders freely strive for leadership positions)? Isn’t this a kind of sexism where women are privileged? Imagine that 75% of AR-activists were men (or consider another movement containing 75% male members), and now there is someone claiming that those organizations should be led by men. Wouldn’t that be considered as highly problematic and sexist? If this becomes problematic, then why would it be unproblematic if we change the rule by writing ‘women’ instead of ‘men’? It is worrisome that some feminist activists propose sexist solutions. Hiring women as staff members, not because of their capabilities, motivation and interests but because they are women, introduces a rule that explicitly refers to gender in a context (leadership) that has nothing to do with gender. Having a vagina or having a female identity is irrelevant for being a good leader or CEO. (Note: one could argue that in organizations with male leaders, there is a stronger risk of employees or volunteers being sexually abused, for example by those leaders, compared to organizations with female leaders. One could then formulate a non-sexist rule that says we have to minimize sexual abuse. This rule is non-sexist because it does not refer to gender. At what percentage of female leaders in animal rights organizations would sexual abuse be minimized? It is possible that it is 100%, i.e. that all leaders should be female. If this policy is based on a non-sexist rule, it is also a non-sexist policy. The question is whether this conclusion is too drastic and whether there are better solutions to minimize sexual abuse, such as appointing independent third party female confidants.)

The above asymmetry indicates a sexism bias. There is an asymmetry when interchanging the words ‘men’ and ‘male’ with ‘women’ and ‘female’ would imply other conclusions and solutions. For example, if a movement would consist of 75% male members, the reaction would be to increase the number of female members, because otherwise the movement is too women unfriendly. But if a movement has 75% female members, who is going to argue that we should increase the number of male members to make the movement more male friendly?

The possibility that antisexist feminists can make sexist judgments or propose sexist solutions, is comparable to the possibility that antispeciesist animal rights activists can make speciesist judgments, for example when it comes to wild animal suffering. Those animal rights activists propose moral rules that explicitly refer to a species, such as the rule that human caused suffering is worse than non-human caused suffering. It is as if non-human animals have more rights to cause suffering. Similarly, those feminists propose rules that explicitly refer to a gender, such as the rule that X% of leaders should be female, or in other words, that male leadership is worse than female leadership. It is as if women have more rights to leadership positions. One thing they have in common, is that their speciesism and sexism are the reverse of the speciesism and sexism they are fighting against. Instead of privileging humans and males, they are privileging non-humans and females. Nevertheless, these kinds of speciesism and sexism remain discriminatory, because the morality of who can cause suffering has nothing to do with species and the morality of who can be a leader has nothing to do with gender.

The second reason – sexually transgressive behavior – is of course a serious concern, because it concerns an immoral violation of basic rights. Animal rights activists are against speciesism, so one would expect that they are against all kinds of discrimination. So it is extra troubling if they exhibit sexist behavior. It is as if they arbitrarily condone some kinds of unwanted arbitrariness.

Luckily, this second concern has a clear, tractable, specific, concrete solution: a prohibition of sexist behavior (with exclusion, punishment or psychological therapy of the perpetrators). It should be easy to do in a movement where 75% of the members are female.

If the culprit is sexual harassment, wouldn’t it be better to speak about sexual harassment instead of using the term male privilege? That would have three advantages: 1) it makes the problem clearer (more precise), 2) men who are not responsible for sexual harassment would not feel accused and 3) it will not be possible to accuse or silence men who do not commit sexual harassment. With the notion of male privilege, one could say to every men (even those who are not sexist): “You have a male privilege,” and conclude that every men has distorted perceptions or biased ideas.

Some people argue that from a tactical point of view, it is counterproductive to treat women as sex objects such that in the end they leave the movement, being afraid of the men. That is not going to help the animals. Even if this argument is true, it is of secondary concern, because if it were the primary concern, we could again interpret it in a women unfriendly (misogynistic) way: it is as if men would believe that they should not rape women, not primarily because that violates women’s rights, but primarily because those women are instrumentally valuable in achieving other goals (such as animal liberation). It is as if women are machines: of course we should not break machines, not because breaking them violates the rights of machines, but breaking them is ineffective or counterproductive.

Finally, speaking about the tactical point of view and counterproductivity: it not only applies to female victims. Also men are being excluded or leaving the AR-movement because they were emotionally or physically harmed. We can collect stories of victimized men, but I’ve seen this happening at a direct action organization I was involved in, where some male activists became disillusioned by how they were treated by other activists (ranging from conspiracies, false accusations, interpersonal conflicts, bullying…). Some men were even physically harmed by other activists in those stressful situations (in general, most victims of interpersonal violence are men). It is like what happens in nature: males competing against males, and the winner is going to rape females. Those outcompeted males do not have a male privilege. Speaking about male privilege might be disrespectful towards victimized men.

Male privilege and conflicts of interest bias

When I wrote an article about a documentary about the men’s rights movement (The Red Pill), I was accused of being biased due to my male privilege. We can first note that the documentary was made by a woman and contains interviews with women who were involved in the feminist movement but changed their minds about men’s rights issues. So my male privilege bias seems to be a too easy an accusation. (By the way, the woman who made the documentary was also accused by feminists.)

If I criticize this notion of male privilege, one could say I have a conflict of interest, because I am a man. Some believe that this decreases my credibility, because my male privilege gives me a distorted perception. However, if male privilege leads to a bias amongst men because they are privileged, it also leads to a bias amongst women. One could say that female disprivilege gives women a distorted perception. If men want to protect their privilege and are therefore less reliable or credible in some matters, we can as well say that women want to achieve privilege and are therefore also less reliable in those matters. Everyone can be said to have a conflict of interest: those who have power want to keep it, those who do not have power want to achieve it. It is not obvious why the latter would have a weaker conflict of interest and would be more credible.

In general, we often have a conflict of interest bias, where we see the conflicts of interests of the opponent but not the conflicts of interest of those people holding our own views. This is a version of the disconfirmation bias, where we are more critical and distrustful towards those people or studies that disconfirm our prior beliefs.

A clear example of conflict of interest bias is organic food: proponents of organic food claim that a lot of scientific studies that indicate that organic food is not better for our health and the environment, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the non-organic agricultural industry (e.g. with companies like Monsanto). Those proponents overestimate the conflicts of interest of the counterparty and they underestimate the conflicts of interest of their own party. A lot of scientific studies that claim that organic food is better for our health and the environment, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the organic agricultural sector. Some names include: Charles Benbrook (had undisclosed conflicts of interest: worked at the Organic Center and research was funded by Whole Foods, Organic Valley, United Natural Foods, Organic Trade Association and others), Gilles-Eric Séralini (consultant of Sevene Pharma that sells homeopathic antidotes against pesticides), Judy Carman (her anti-GMO research was funded by Verity Farms and published in a journal sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia) and the Rodale Institute (a research institute that has a commercial interest in organic farming).

Another example of the conflict of interest bias is the antivaccination movement. Opponents of vaccines often claim that studies demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of vaccines are invalid because they are supposedly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry that wants to make profits from selling vaccines. However, a lot of members of the antivaccination movement also have conflicts of interest: they want compensation fees from the pharmaceutical companies for the alleged damages they incured from vaccines. One influential person in the antivaccination movement is Andrew Wakefield, the author of an infamous study about an alleged link between measles vaccines and autism. Wakefield was paid by lawyers to undermine the MMR vaccine. The same goes for other supposedly harmful products from big industries, such as the herbicide glyphosate (farmers who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma and who support the environmentalist cause against glyphosate, aiming for compensation fees from Monsanto) and the sweetener aspartame.

Male privilege as an ad hominem fallacy

The accusation of having a male privilege is often used as an ad hominem fallacy. Simply because someone is a man, that person loses credibility when accused of having a male privilege. It is an ad hominem, because the truth of the claims that one makes are not dependent on one’s gender, on having a penis or having a male identity. Instead of attacking the argument or idea, with an ad hominem one attacks the person associated with the argument.

Male privilege and the association fallacy

The notion of male privilege makes an ad hominem even worse, because it allows for a guilt by association (the association fallacy): all men can be accused, even the non-privileged. There are more than 10 examples that indicate that the non-privileged men are not better-off than the non-privileged women. But using a notion like male privilege risks associating all men (including the non-privileged) to the same group of males.

Male privilege and falsifiability

Another problem with the male privilege accusation is that it is often unfalsifiable, because one cannot simply change one’s gender. I did not choose my gender, I was not responsible for being born as a man, and we can never know what my beliefs could have been if I were female. Even if I become a transgender person, one could accuse me of being privileged and biased, having inherited this male privilege.

One often claims that male privilege works unconsciously, and that men who are skeptical about the notion of male privilege are (unconsciously) trying to protect their male privilege. According to this fallacious line of reasoning, denying male privilege would prove that one has something to protect, namely male privilege, and that proves that one there is a male privilege. This is the same kind of unfalsibiability as the Freudian unconsciousness (e.g. “If you deny that you have an Oedipus complex, it is because you unconsciously want to suppress those uncomfortoble feelings, and that proves that you do have an Oedipus complex”) or some conspiracy theories (e.g. “If the government denies that it is involved in the 9/11 attacks, it proves that the government has something to hide and hence that it was involved”).

There are however ways to test male privilege or sexism. For example, with job application letters: one group of letters had male names, the other group of letters had female names. If the content of the letters are the same (both groups of applicants had the same experience levels, capabilities, motivations) but the males where more often asked for a job interview, this indicates a gender bias of the recruiter.  If we see such gender biases, we can counteract them, for example by hiring more women at the rate revealed by these bias studies.

Male privilege, intersectionality and the true Scotsman fallacy

Intersectionality is the idea that different kinds of oppression intersect with each other. In the context of male privilege, this intersectionality idea can be misused to make the male privilege theory unfalsifiable. For example, if I claim that male privilege is a misleading concept because there are non-privileged men, such as poor, black men, the proponents add extra layers to the concept, by arguing that they meant rich, white men. If there are still such rich, white men in nonprivileged positions, for example homosexual rich white men, then the proponents add extra layers: heterosexual, cisgender, rich, highly-educated, upper class, not-disabled, white,… men are now the privileged people. In the end, their claim becomes trivial, by narrowing down their concept of privileged people until one could as well say that the privileged men are the privileged. This is a kind of true Scotsman fallacy or ad hoc reasoning.

The mirror image of the above line of reasoning (the true Scotsman fallacy) in intersectionality theory is an oppression Olympics, where we look for the most oppressed person, as if the most oppressed person is the one who is most correct about social justice issues. Look for the homosexual, transgender, poor, poorly-educated, disabled, black woman. Is she the most authentic, unbiased person who is the most credible because she has the least privileges and hence the least conflicts of interest? That is far from clear.


We have seen that speaking of male privilege can sometimes be interpreted as being disrespectful towards women, for example in explaining the high ratio of male leaders in the animal rights movement where most members are female: do women have developed a kind of cognitive deficit that makes them poor assessors of their own capacities and situations, so they start believing that they are not good leaders? Do some feminist animal rights activists know better than these unself-confident women what they can do and want to do? Are those women in our free society really not capable of founding their own organizations?

We have seen that speaking about male privilege might be disrespectful towards victimized men, for example men in the AR-movement who were emotionally or physically harmed.

We have seen that some feminist activists propose sexist solutions to the women unfriendliness of the AR-movement, by putting quota on the number of male leaders where putting quota on the number of female leaders in the reverse situation (e.g. if the AR-movement contained mostly male members) would clearly be considered sexist. These quotas reveal a sexism bias (an asymmetry where conclusions are different for situations where ‘male’ and ‘female’ were interchanged) and they also violate freedom to some degree (by not letting everyone freely decide to become leaders, spokespersons or people in power).

We have seen that the notion of male privilege can generate a conflict of interest bias, where someone sees the conflicts of interests of the opponent (e.g. men) but not the conflicts of interest of those people holding one’s own views (e.g. feminists).

We have seen that the notion of male privilege can often be abused, when used as ad hominem or accusation fallacies. This is disrespectful towards non-privileged men. With intersectionality theory, the notion of male privilege can result in a true Scotsman fallacy.

These problems will all be solved if we deleted the word ‘male’ in the notion of ‘male privilege’, i.e. if we became really gender neutral, focusing on all kinds of privileges and all kinds of discriminations (including those where men are discriminated or victimized and women are privileged). I would say: just don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman. Let everyone (men and women) freely decide whether to take up a leadership position, give a high stakes presentation or become a spokesperson.


PS: if people think that the above means that I deny my male privilege, or that I want to deny it in order to keep it, what privilege am I actually denying? What male privilege do I want to keep for me(n)?

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On the interpersonal comparability of well-being

This is a simplified, introductory text to ‘Why I became a utilitarian’ and ‘Variable critical level utilitarianism.


The problem of interpersonal comparability

Is your feeling of pain stronger than the pain experience of someone else? Are you happier than someone else? How can you tell? How can you find out the answers to such questions?

In ethics, increasing each other’s well-being is a good thing (all else equal). But to find the best choices or actions, we need to be able to tell by how much we can increase everyone’s well-being. If I increase my happiness with one unit, is it as much as your increase of happiness with one unit? Perhaps our units of measurement of happiness are different. That makes an interpersonal comparison of well-being difficult. It is like the old philosophical problem: if you and I see a cloudless sky, do we experience the same color blue, or does your experience or perception of blue differ from my experience? Perhaps your blue corresponds to my green and your green to my blue, even if we both call the sky blue?

The utility function

Our utility is a function of all the things that we value or prefer. We not only value our own happiness and well-being, but we value more things, such as the well-being of others, the fairness of the distribution of happiness amongst people, and so on. These values are all included in the utility function. Hence, if we have different options, we mostly prefer the option that gives us the highest utility. And impartiality implies that we have to pick the option that maximizes total utility (the sum of everyone’s utility). But how do we add up different utilities of different persons if we do not know an interpersonal unit of measurement for utility?

There is an interesting analogy between utility and temperature that I want to explore here. This analogy describes the problem and offers some directions to find a solution.

The analogy between personal utility and room temperature

Suppose there are two rooms, each having a thermometer. One room contains a mercury thermometer, the other a digital thermometer. The readings of the thermometers are different: the mercury thermometer measures the temperature in terms of degrees Celsius, the digital thermometer has other units. You cannot move the thermometers from one room to the other. The rooms can have different air temperatures. How are we going to find out which room is the warmest?

This is the analogous situation of the interpersonal comparison of utility between two persons. The two rooms correspond to the two brains of two persons. The air temperature corresponds to our objective utilities. The readings on the thermometers correspond to the subjective utilities: our subjective valuations or stated preferences. For example, when I feel a little pain from a small scratch, I give it a subjective utility minus hundred. When you feel extremely happy, you give it a subjective utility plus ten. When you feel very depressed, you give it a utility minus ten. These numbers represent our own subjective preferences for different situations. But we cannot simply compare my numbers with yours. My little pain is not ten times worse than your extreme depression.

The point is: our subjective utility function is not uniquely defined. If I multiply all my subjective utility values with the same positive constant number, or if I add a constant value to all my subjective utility values, it describes the same objective utility. The same goes for the thermometers: different thermometers with units in degrees Celsius, Fahrenheit or Kelvin measure the same objective temperature of a room. So we have to figure out a way to compare different subjective utilities, or to compare the readings on the two different thermometers. Specifically, we have to determine the values 0 and 1.

Determining the reference point and the unit of scale

Let us start with determining the value 0 for the thermometers. We have to find a reference value. As mentioned before, if we add a constant value to the temperatures, this still gives us a consistent thermometer that measures temperature. What we can do for the temperatures of the two rooms, is to find an extremal value that counts as 0 degrees. Let us see how far we can cool down the first room. As physicists have discovered, there exists an absolute minimum temperature at minus 273 degrees Celsius. So we can take a new unit of temperature, the Kelvin, such that 0 Kelvin corresponds to minus 273 degrees Celsius (and 273 Kelvin corresponds to 0 degrees Celsius). The same can be done with the digital thermometer in the second room. As a result, in terms of the new units of temperature, 0 degrees in the first room corresponds with 0 degrees in the second room.

Next, we have to determine the unit 1 on the thermometers. We can multiply the values on the thermometer with a positive constant and the result will still be a valid (consistent) temperature scale. So how can we determine whether 1 degree on the first thermometer corresponds with 1 degree one the second?

In the case of the two rooms, we can change the environmental temperatures (e.g. seasonal variations in temperature) or heat the rooms, and see how the two thermometers respond. For each room, we can write down the thermometer values under a lot (ideally all) environmental circumstances. For example, the mercury thermometer in the first room measures temperature in units of Kelvin: 290K in the first situation, 315K in the second, and so on. With all these values, we can calculate the standard deviation, a measure that is used in statistics to quantify the amount of variation or dispersion of a set of data values. Next, we can divide all values by this standard deviation. The same can be done with the thermometer in the second room. Now both thermometers have comparable scalings: their new standard deviations are both equal to 1. For example, if the two thermometers had units in Kelvin and degrees Fahrenheit respectively, we can derive that a difference of 1 degree Fahrenheit corresponds with a difference of 0,556 Kelvin. Instead of using the standard deviation, other scalings are possible. For example, we can look for universal natural processes, such as the boiling of water at constant air pressure. The temperature at this boiling point can be used to rescale the thermometer, to determine the unit.

After determining the reference temperature (the value 0) and the unit of scale (the value 1), the two thermometers are now fully comparable. We can follow the same procedure with our personal (subjective) utilities. But here we can have one extra freedom: each of us can freely choose his or her own reference utility level and unit of scale.

Let us start by fixing the reference value. You can choose your reference value of utility that allows us to calculate your relative utilities: the differences between your personal utility values and your reference value. For example, if an option gives you a utility of 10 units, and you take 20 as your reference, then your relative utility becomes minus 10 units. Both positive and negative relative utilities are possible.

Next, we have to fix the unit of scale for our relative utilities. You can think of all possible situations or options, and for each of them you can give your preference or personal relative utility value that measures how strongly you prefer or dislike that option. This gives us a set of numbers. Now we can calculate the standard deviation of this set, and divide all numbers by this standard deviation. I can do the same thing with my personal relative utilities. As a result, our relative utilities have the same range: they become normalized relative utilities. Now we can compare an increase of one unit of my normalized relative utility with one unit of your normalized relative utility.

Other normalizations for our relative utilities are possible as well. For example, you can take your maximum relative utility, and define that as a normalized relative utility of 1. A normalized relative utility between 0 and 1 now corresponds with a subjective preference between your reference point and your maximally preferred state.

You are free to choose your reference value and unit of scale (normalization method), and so am I. Our normalized relative utilities are now completely comparable, so we can add them. As a result, we can now formulate a utilitarian theory that says that we have the choose the option that maximizes the sum of everyone’s normalized relative utilities.

Population ethics and the relevance of reference points

However, even if you can choose your own reference value freely, you have to be careful. There is a range of possible reference values, from the lowest safe value to the highest safe value.  If you pick a reference value outside of this range, and you calculate your normalized relative utilities with this extreme reference value, maximizing the sum of everyone’s normalized relative utilities might result in the choice for a situation that you strongly dislike, such as a situation where you have a negative well-being or where you do not even exist.

Here we enter the area of population ethics, where our choices determine who will exist in the future. The reference value is important, because it helps us avoiding many problems in population ethics (called ‘repugnant’ and ‘sadistic’ conclusions by population ethicists). The moral theory that gives us a duty to maximize the sum of everyone’s normalized relative utilities, is also called variable critical level utilitarianism, where the critical levels of utility are the reference values. Here we see another analogy with room temperatures. The absolute zero temperature (0 Kelvin) actually corresponds with an ideal vacuum in the room (no air molecules present). This empty room is like a non-existing or permanently unconscious person who has no preferences (no utilities).

From subjective to objective utility

Some problems remain, though. We assumed that people can give their preferences or subjective utilities. Similarly, we assumed that the rooms have thermometers. But what about babies, mentally disabled humans or non-human animals who cannot give us their utility values? What about rooms without thermometers, or with thermometers without displays?

In the case of the rooms, physicists have discovered something very remarkable: the temperature that we can measure corresponds to physical properties of the air in the room. There are several candidates of physical properties: the size of the room, the number of molecules, the velocities of the molecules,…. These are all objective properties that are independent from the readings on a thermometer. It turns out that the temperature is determined by the average velocity of the air molecules (at least if the velocities form a certain statistical distribution of thermal equilibrium). Size matters not: if the number of air molecules increases but they all follow the same velocity distribution, the temperature remains the same. This non-trivial result in physics is very remarkable, because now we can couple the readings on a thermometer with an objective, physical property: the velocities of air molecules.

Can we do the same thing with our utilities? Can we couple our subjective utilities to objective utilities? Is there a connection between your subjective experience of wanting something and some physical properties or processes of your brain? This question is important, for example when we have to compare human well-being with insect well-being. The brains of insects are smaller, so are insects less conscious? Does the size of the brain determine the strength of preferences or the strength of pain experiences? If yes, then the suffering of insects is much smaller than the suffering of whales. But perhaps the strength of preferences and feelings is determined by the speed of neurons firing in the brain? Some insect brains are in some ways faster than human brains (that is why it is so difficult to catch a fly), so that would mean some insects can have stronger experiences (e.g. more pain per second).

The holy grail in neurobiology is finding the connection between brain activities and personal utilities, just like physicists discovered the connection between molecule velocities and room temperatures. When we find this brain-utility connection, we can objectively determine the utility levels of all sentient beings, even of those who cannot communicate their utilities.


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