Sunday, February 28, 2016

In defense of the chemophobe

Today's post is by guest blogger Beth Seacord.

A few months ago a meme was circulating in social media. It went something like this:

Dihydrogen Monoxide. It is found in every lake, river and ocean. It is used in nuclear reactors, corrodes metal, burns human skin, and causes thousands of deaths each year.

People responded with outrage and concern, calling for the ban of dihydorgen monoxide. Only later was it revealed that di-hydrogen (two hydrogen atoms), mon-oxide (one oxygen atom) is just plain water. This ‘chemophobe’ meme implies that the ordinary person is gullible, scientifically illiterate, and because of this, overly sensitive and irrationally fearful of pesticides, artificial food additives, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or other industrial byproducts that make their way into the environment and food chain.

Here is a second example of the ‘chemophobe’ meme. This time, the message is more explicit:

“Nearly every chemical constituent will, in certain concentrations, kill children and adults....Don’t be alarmed by words you don’t understand.…Read. Understand. Reduce the stupid. Science. It reduces the stupid.”

Attacks on the public’s aversion to industrial chemicals are not limited to social media. Frustrated scientists, industry representatives and risk assessors contend that if only the public understood the mathematics involved in calculating risk probabilities, they would realize there is no reason to fear ‘life-bettering’ bio-technology and chemistry.

This criticism rests on two fundamental mistakes. The first is to assume that rational aversion to death and other harms is a linear function of the probability of death and other harms (see Daniel Kahneman, et al)  In other words, it is a mistake to assume that because a particular risk probability is small, the value of avoiding the risk is also small. However, people often have very good reasons for viewing risks of fatality or serious injury in a non-linear way. Here are just two:

First, the value of accepting or avoiding a given risk depends upon the benefits associated with the risk. A person may rationally decide to expose themselves to a greater risk while at the same time choosing to avoid a lower-probability risk because of the benefits associated with each. For instance, I might choose to drive because I need to get to work even though I know that the leading cause of death or serious injury for those in my age group is automobile accidents. The same person who drives to work every day may rationally decide to avoid the lower-probability risk of BPA by using BPA-free water bottles. For example, this would be rational if there were no benefits to be gained by exposing oneself to the low-probability risk. Consider the following example given by philosopher of science, Kristin Shrader-Frechette: You are asked to play a game of Russian roulette where the chances of death are one in ten thousand. It is rational to refuse to play even though the chances of death are small because there is nothing to be gained by playing. Analogously, a person may rationally decide to avoid products with endocrine disruptors like BPA, for example, either because these products are not necessary or because there are safer alternatives available.

Second, it is sometimes rational to view risks non-linearly if the risks are not morally equivalent. It is morally important how one comes to be exposed to a given risk. In other words, there is an important moral difference between risks that are imposed on us and risks that are voluntarily chosen. It seems perfectly rational to be much more averse to risks that are imposed on us without our consent than other risks that are voluntarily accepted. Citizens who are concerned about pesticide residue on produce, artificial food additives and un-labed GMO ingredients, or emission levels from the local factory are concerned about risks that have, in many cases, been imposed on them. It seems rational to have a non-linear risk aversion favoring chosen to un-chosen risks (see, e.g., Kristin Shrader-Frechette's Risk Analysis and Scientific Method).

A second mistake made by the ‘chemophobe’ meme is that it is not clear that the probability of harm from industrial pollution and other toxins is low. While lifetime exposure for each individual toxin might be within acceptable limits, the combined effect of hundreds of environmental toxins may put us at significant risk. For instance, the Center for Disease Control estimates that about 144,000 cancer deaths per year can be traced to non-tobacco related environmental pollution. This accounts for about 30% of all deaths from cancer.

Finally, there are vulnerable people in our population who are more susceptible to pollution than others. Women, children, workers, the elderly, the disabled and the poor are either more vulnerable to pollution or experience greater exposure. One need look no further than our current headlines. In Flint, Michigan the concerns of citizens about the water quality in the city were dismissed, belittled and mocked for months before journalists revealed corruption among the city’s officials. The citizens in Flint were told they were being paranoid.

So am I an “irrational, bored, stupid, alarmist” who is overly fearful about toxins in our water, air and food? On behalf of the 8,000 children in Flint Michigan who have suffered irreversible damage to their brains and nervous systems…on behalf of those in cities like Flint, I am a ‘chemophobe.’

Beth Seacord
Department of Philosophy
Grand Valley State University

Monday, February 22, 2016

Seriously lucky knowledge

The word knowledge, like most words, has many different meanings. Philosophers who claim to study the nature of knowledge - epistemologists, we call them - know this, but most assume that there is one serious meaning, and that this is the one we philosophers have had a bead on since antiquity.

I say no.

Consider the idea of common knowledge. It was once common knowledge that a variety of diseases were curable by bloodletting. Today it is common knowledge that no diseases are curable by bloodletting. Epistemologists are widely agreed that to seriously know that P, it must actually be the case that P. So it follows that common knowledge is not a serious sort of knowledge.

But serious to whom? Scientists are seriously interested in the nature of common knowledge, because it figures centrally in their attempt to understand human cooperation. There are several other serious uses of the term to be found within distinct scientific enterprises. For example, in information science an entity is typically said to have knowledge to the extent that it has information it can put to use. But the usability of the information that P is insensitive to whether P is in fact the case.

The concept of knowledge that interests epistemologists, then, is not the only one that interests people involved in careful, serious and systematic inquiry. Rather, it is simply the one that is meant to handle problems that are of particular interest to epistemologists. We shouldn't pretend differently.

The mother of all epistemological problems is universal skepticism. When the skeptic claims that we know almost nothing about the world, what she is usually saying is that we lack any rational basis for ruling out- or even regarding as improbable -any number of skeptical hypotheses according to which reality is radically different than we believe it to be. In this context, when we object to the skeptic that we do have knowledge about the world, we are asserting that the world is not radically different than we believe it to be, and that we have excellent reasons for saying so.

This is the legitimate origin of the traditional, though now widely disputed analysis of knowledge as justified true belief. It says that I know that P iff:
  • I believe that P;
  • I am justified in believing that P;
  • P
If you’ve been exposed to contemporary epistemology at all, you’ve heard about the Gettier Problem, which can be summarized concretely as follows. Suppose there is a pig in the sty, Wilbur, but you do not see him. What you see is an incredibly life-like pig robot that Fern has put in the pen to keep Wilbur company. In such a case you believe that P (pig in the sty), you are justified in believing that P, and P (because of Wilbur.)

Now, it takes some work, but most philosophy students can be made to agree that this is a counterexample to the above definition. That is, that it clearly satisfies the traditional definition of knowledge, but is clearly not a case of knowing there is a pig in the sty. Why? Well, the crude answer is that you just got lucky. Epistemologists count on us to have a strong feeling that this sort of luck is incompatible with the serious sort of knowledge that we all have in mind.

The Gettier Problem was a seismic event in philosophy, triggering a massive rethink of the concept of knowledge. Almost all of the proposed solutions- and none have emerged victorious- involve creating some condition that would obviate the luck that Gettier counterexamples require.

I think this has been a mistake.

To see why, let’s go back and look more closely at the skeptic’s challenge. She informs us that we have no rational basis for ruling out skeptical hypotheses. Fair enough, that deserves an answer. But there is nothing in this challenge that requires us to build this justification condition into the definition of knowledge itself. It is perfectly open to us to stipulate that whether we have knowledge is one thing; whether we are rationally justified in believing we have it is another. The skeptic's question goes to the latter.

What if we simply removed the justification condition altogether? Then we would end up with a very simple definition of knowledge. I know that P iff:
  • I believe that P;
  • P
If philosophers adopted this definition of knowledge, the problem of skepticism would remain to be dealt with, as it should. But the Gettier Problem vanishes. You do know there is a pig in the pen after all. Lucky you.

It's important to see that we would lose no descriptive power by adopting this definition. We would simply accept the implication that some instances of knowledge are seriously lucky, which means the claim that someone knows that P does not entail an endorsement of the means by which she came to know that P. This becomes a distinct issue.

You'll be unsurprised to find few epistemologists on my bandwagon. For most of my tribe it is just axiomatic that you can not come to know something as a result of, say, blind faith or random guessing. (Students who suggest otherwise are scoffed into submission.)

Note well that I do not suggest that this analysis is completely intuitive. Even to the unindoctrinated, it may sound odd to say that I know there is a pig in the sty under the Gettiered conditions described above. But here is my point: the analysis does not have to be completely intuitive. It just has to satisfy the aims of epistemology. Every serious form of inquiry employs a vocabulary in which familiar sounding terms are given technical meanings for the purpose of clarity and theoretical fecundity.

This is why it is so important to recognize that there is no one serious concept of knowledge. It frees epistemologists to adopt the one that will allow them to get serious about solving the problems that really concern them.

G.Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University

Sunday, February 14, 2016

So you want to eat locally. Now what?

This week's post is by guest blogger Samantha Noll.

It’s hard not to see the effects of local food movements wherever you look. For example, we increasingly see produce labeled “local” or “sustainable” in supermarkets. We’re inundated with documentaries, such as Food, Inc and Cowspiracy, critiquing industrial food production and we frequently encounter articles in newspapers and magazines espousing the virtues of “eating locally.” We may even catch a podcast, NPR interview, or watch a YouTube video by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, or another local food enthusiast on everything from small-scale animal production to the benefits of eating locally. Some businesses, like Chipotle, have begun marketing to conscientous locavores.

So maybe you’re at least partially convinced by the arguments to eat locally and want to support local food. But what does this mean in practice? Do you eat more meals at Chipotle? Do you only purchase products labeled “local” from your grocery store? Do you visit farmer’s markets weekly to get to know your local farmers and to purchase directly from them? What about changing local policies to be more favorable to local food or writing to your elected officials to ask them to support increased funding for local food in the U.S. Farm Bill?

Sounding complicated?  In fact we are just scratching the surface of this issue. The local food movement is not just a single movement but is made up of several distinct food related initiatives. These can be roughly broken down into the following three sub-movements: Individual focused (IF), Systems focused (SF), Community focused (CF). Exploring each of these sub-movements with an eye towards understanding the commitments that guide them could help us better identify what we can do to support the local food movement in total.

The IF sub-movement is the most well-known of the three. In fact, it is often considered to be the “face” of local food, as this flavor of local food is touted by popular local food advocates that highlight the personal benefits of buying locally. Here food purchasing choices made by individuals directly translate into the enjoyment of freshly-picked food, health benefits for family, interactions with farmers dedicated to local food production and consumption, and a greater understanding of the local environment and seasons. For these reasons, IF can be understood as a phenomenon happening at the nexus of local food and “lifestyle” politics. It’s roughly built on the following commitments: 1) that food is a product; 2) that people are individual consumers; and 3) that change happens at the individual level. Many people who buy those Chipotle burritos, do so for personal reasons. This just means that they’re largely supporting individual focused local food projects.

In contrast, SF understands food systems as dynamic (i.e. connected to local ecologies, national politics, and historical contexts) and place-based. Local food initiatives are necessary because they help to stabilize the larger levels of food systems. Like IF, SF conceptualizes “food” as a product that a person can choose to purchase, but also sees these choices as largely constrained by the contexts already prescribed by larger political and economic systems. For example, my choice to buy a locally grown organic apple from Michigan is greatly impacted by agricultural standards, available infrastructure, food policy, ecological factors, and other structural impacts. Indeed, the very shape and taste of the apple is itself a product of these forces. For these reasons, SF initiatives understand change as happening at both the individual level and the more abstract levels of policy. So, for example, people who advocate local standards, so that Chipotle can purchase organic tomatoes and avocados (and thus make them available to customers), largely hold a systems-focused perspective.

Finally, there are community focused initiatives. As noted, IF and SF hold similar definitions of “food” as a commodity and “people” as autonomous agents or consumers. Community focused initiatives stand in contrast to these two sub-movements, as they hold markedly distinct definitions of these two key words. For CF, food is not simply a commodity, but is co-constitutive of culture and personal identity. In this context, the apple, mango, or salmon that a person eats is more than just a product but is a rallying point for communities that see larger food systems as threats to cultural identity, traditional practices, and local systems. For these reasons, CF sees political action, community, and food as inexorably intertwined. CF projects are also largely known as food sovereignty and/or food justice initiatives. From this perspective, a farmer who is able to grow heirloom tomatoes by a process passed down over generations and an urban farmer who has control over the production of her community’s food, can both be seen as part of this third sub-movement. From this position, buying that burrito from Chipotle may actually harm local food, as the choice supports larger industrial systems that may be harmful to local food practices in other countries. This is exactly the position Mark Navin takes on local food and international ethics.

Of course, the above categories often overlap. The choice to buy local could be seen as a decision to support larger structures, which make local production possible. Or it could be seen as an individual lifestyle choice, and even taken to be supportive of more traditional farming practices. It all depends on your values, focus, and perspective. 

Alright, so it looks like thoughtful eaters have more than a few choices to make. There are many ways that people like you and me can get involved in local food. Understanding your own values, and how they map onto commitments that guide various local food sub-movements can help to inform your food choices.  

Samantha Noll
Department of Philosophy
Michigan State University

(See Werkheiser and Noll, 2014 for more information about local food movements).

Friday, February 5, 2016

Robot friends? Ethical issues in social robotics

This week's post is by guest blogger Alexis Elder.

Relationships between robots and humans have fascinated filmmakers and storytellers for decades.
In Blade Runner, several human characters find themselves in relationships with replicants, androids so sophisticated that even they don’t always realize they aren’t human. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data is recognized as artificial by his crewmates, but accepted as a friend, which Data reciprocates in his own robotic way.

Today’s robots are a long way off from such complicated constructs. However, relatively simple but appealingly cute robots are fulfilling companionate roles, from the robotic seal Paro, who keeps senior citizens company in nursing homes, to NAO, a little humanoid robot that holds users’ hands and retrieves small items.

Deciding whether Rachel from Blade Runner could be a friend might require us to decide whether she’s a person, introducing thorny questions about what that involves. Data might just be an example of what it would take for a robot to be both a person and a friend.

But there is another character in Blade Runner whose situation more closely parallels ours: the eccentric inventor J.F. Sebastian.

When Pris, one of the replicants, encounters J.F., who lives in an abandoned building, she comments, “Must get lonely here, J.F.”

“Not really,” he replies. “I MAKE friends. They're toys. My friends are toys. I make them. It's a hobby.” And he does. His living space is populated by an assortment of creatures much closer to Paro or NAO than Pris or Rachel.

Is J.F. right? Are his toys his friends? What should we think of his claim that he isn’t lonely because he’s got them?

These questions aren’t merely speculative. Robots are being used in nursing homes and extended care facilities to alleviate patients’ loneliness, and research suggests that they are effective: patients report less subjective loneliness after interacting with them, and show fewer physical markers of stress.

But although I am a fan of using technology to improve our lives, I have a worry about these technologies, one that dates back to well before we started telling stories about robots. Is what they provide an improvement, on balance?

Grant that these robots can make people feel less lonely. May they, in doing so, introduce another problem?

To answer this, we need to think a bit about the value we place on social relationships versus the feelings they induce in us.

Aristotle claimed that “without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods”. Even if he overstates the case a bit, what he seems to have meant is that, given the choice, we would opt for a life with friends over one that included all the other goods but no friends at all.

In that spirit, imagine being given a choice between two lives. You know at the time of the choice how the lives will differ. But once you begin your chosen life, you will forget – it will be as though things have always been this way.

In one option, the people you consider your friends are actors, although if this life were chosen you wouldn’t discover their illusory nature. These friend-facsimiles would not use the appearance of friendship to exploit you, or betray your confidence. But neither would they care for you or find pleasure in interacting with you. Call this the Truman Show option.

In the other life, your closest friends are exactly as they appear to you to be. Call this the Genuine option. It is my guess that most of us would prefer Genuine over Truman Show.

In Truman Show, “friends” provide the same external appearances as in Genuine. They do not cause harms associated with “false friends”. And yet Truman Show is less choice-worthy than Genuine. It seems the best lives involve reciprocal caring of genuine agents - something today’s robots can’t pull off. (This does not mean it’s always bad to be alone. Some peace and quiet might also be important for the good life.)

Feelings of loneliness can be relieved in many ways, from taking Tylenol to a hot shower, without addressing social isolation. But when lonely patients are at risk for cognitive disorders, social-robotic interventions may be ethically bad. They work because they look and feel enough like companions that they hit the right emotional buttons, in populations that are already predisposed to confusion.

A good movie can hit one’s emotional buttons without being immoral. But social robots are different here, because lonely and compromised residents of long-term care facilities are not in a good position to distinguish the genuine article from a compelling facsimile – one that makes them feel like they’ve got a friend.

About deception and friendship, Aristotle said,
when a man has deceived himself and has thought he was being loved for his character, when the other person was doing nothing of the kind, he must blame himself; when he has been deceived by the pretences of the other person, it is just that he should complain against his deceiver; he will complain with more justice than one does against people who counterfeit the currency, inasmuch as the wrongdoing is concerned with something more valuable.
Causing lonely patients to think they have friends when they don’t makes us counterfeiters of something more important than money. This seems like something we ought to avoid.

To combat this, while taking advantage of the benefits such robots offer, several things will be important:
· Distinguishing treatment of patients’ subjective loneliness from their social isolation. (This is especially important when we must make good decisions on their behalf.) 
· Being aware of individual patients’ susceptibility to mistake robot “friends” for real ones. 
· Where possible, designing robots that are unlikely to fool people. (Paro is a good example of this – we rarely encounter seals in ordinary life. A realistic robot baby or child might more easily confuse geriatric patients.) 

Until robots are capable of real friendship, designing and using them wisely and well will require us to avoid manufacturing false friends.

Editor's note: In case you love this topic, today on The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel writes on an overlapping theme. The problem of making fully conscious robots that will always cheerfully sacrifice themselves for humans.

Alexis Elder
Department of Philosophy & Women's Studies
Southern Connecticut State University