Thursday, March 8, 2012

How Do We Measure Gender Equality?

As I am sure most of you are aware, yesterday was International Women’s Day. This, of course, sparked a number of discussions on the necessity of feminism in Western society. This all reminded me of a previous discussion I had with an acquaintance over what is the best way to measure gender equality. Essentially, it boiled down to whether we should measure equality of representation or equality of opportunity, with my acquaintance arguing the former while I argued the latter. I wish to articulate to you all a point that I tried to impart on my discussion partner. This is that the equality of representation side has a fairly large assumption built into it; namely, that men and women are actually equal in all respects.

Before you fly off into a tirade about how much of a misogynist I am, hear me out. The debate over biological gender difference is one that it still going strong; there are points made on both sides that make it hard to come to any conclusion beyond ‘we don’t know at the moment’. For example, testosterone has been linked to aggression in both males and females and males have higher levels of testosterone simply due to being male. The counterpoint to this is that it has also been found that witnessing and emulating aggressive behaviours can increase testosterone levels. Thus, to take a position on policy (that women and men should be equally represented in all fields) is to run with a conclusion that has yet to be established. Whereas, if your policy position is to remove barriers that prevent women from access certain fields, you allow for both the possibility that men and women are and aren’t equal.

To demonstrate this point, let me present a hypothetical world. In this world, there are no cultural, social or legal barriers to either gender undertaking any task; men can be homemakers, women can be CEO’s and no one bats at eye at either choice. Now, if men and women have equal capabilities/preferences, we would of course see an equal representation of both genders in all fields. However, if there are differences between the averages of the abilities/preferences of each gender, then we would see differences in the representation of both genders. For example, women may actually as a matter of biology rather than culture be more nurturing on average than males. This would lead to an overrepresentation in fields that require a nurturing temperament (healthcare, teaching etc.). This would not be unfair; to the contrary, it would be exactly what the individuals want of their own accord.

It should be noted that I am in no way defending the status quo; there are still many barriers that prevent women from having equal access to the same opportunities that men enjoy and we should make every effort to see that they are eliminated.  My point is more that people need to point to these problems directly rather than point to the difference in representation and infer that there must be a problem because of it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Short and Sharp: A History of Dishonesty

Recently I was involved in a discussion about a claim that was made by Noam Chomsky in his Melbourne lecture. He stated that if the US implemented a public healthcare program similar to other first world nations, they would wipe out their yearly deficit. After much back and forth and number crunching by the ever-patient Dylan Nickelson, it was concluded that this claim is factually wrong. After this, I found myself doubting some of the other claims made by Chomsky. Not that I have outright rejected them; just that I have the feeling that if he had made a mistake on this claim, he might be wrong on other claims too. This is not to say that my feeling is justified or should apply in any intellectual way, but I do think it warrants a discussion.

It seems quite obvious where this feeling would come from; in social settings, an individual’s past history of honesty/dishonesty is generally a good predictor of future behaviour (well, better than chance guessing at any rate). The issue would be whether or not this predictive value translates into the academic world and if it does, whether it should affect analysis of the individual’s future arguments.

I can see two main reasons why an individual would make either a mistaken or intentional false claim; lack of rigorous research and agenda/ideological bias. In both cases, there appears to be the potential for future occurrences; with lack of rigorous research, it implies a lazy methodology and with agenda/ideological bias, it implies that they have a reason to bend or change facts to suit their views.

So the question then becomes ‘how does this affect analysis of a dishonest individual’s claims?’. The most obvious consequence may be a lower threshold for triggering investigation into the validity of their claims. Another possibility is that less in-depth research is required to debunk the individual’s claim; for example, if one or two sources you consult contradict a claim made by a dishonest individual, it is probably wrong as opposed to requiring more for a previously honest individual.

In bringing up these reasons as to why individuals may be dishonest and what should occur because of it, my suggested points of view are more meant as just that; suggestions. I would welcome input from anyone on the following two questions; does a past history of wrong claims by an individual mean that other claims they have made are likely wrong and in what way does this alter how we interact with their claims?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why I Care (And Why You Should Too)

I have been noticing lately that there seems to be certain social taboos around discussing certain topics. The ones I have witness most predominately are religion, politics, philosophy, morality (specifically abortion and gay marriage), medicine vs. alternative medicine and science vs. pseudoscience. On more than one occasion, I have either been told or seen someone else be told to not talk about such issues as the offended individual believed they should not be discussed in polite society. This of course doesn’t sit right with me as these are perhaps my most favourite topics to discuss (and what I write about predominately on my blog). As such, I wish to discuss this phenomenon and offer my take on the situation.

When I have probed individuals who find said topics taboo, the reasons given as to why fall into the following broad categories, to which I will give a response;
  • These are topics that are personal in nature; therefore people should be free to decide for themselves what they wish to believe
This kind of objection has a tinge of a superficial understanding of postmodernist ‘relative truth’ to it; it doesn’t matter what individuals choose to believe as there is no real truth. While, to some extent, I believe that this is the case (or more that, we will never be able to determine what the truth is in any absolute sense), these individuals are ignoring the impact that an individual’s beliefs have on those around them. The decisions we make are based on what we believe; for example, if I believe that gays do not have the right to marry, I will not vote for a politician or party that wishes to allow gays to marry, thus affecting homosexuals who wish to get married. As such, while our beliefs are our own, the fact that they have an impact on those around us obligates us to ensure that these beliefs are indeed correct (or, at the very least, defensible). This necessitates discussions on the issues, specifically public to ensure as many people are exposed to all the possible arguments that exist.
  • These are topics that people will never change their opinions on
I disagree with this line of reasoning two fold; firstly, I think that people can and do change their minds and often do as a result of discussions of said issues. Hell, even I have changed my mind on these issues; I used to be a pro-life, think evolution was wrong and be against gay marriage. Now, I have the polar opposite view on these topics, as well as minor tweaks to my other beliefs. And I would not have changed my mind on these topics if people hadn’t challenged me and pointed out the flaws in my thought process.

Secondly, if you are having a discussion with someone who states that they will never change their position on the topic, you should bring the topic up with them even more. If you are the type of individual who believes you can never have your mind changed, you are by definition closed minded and need to revaluate your life. If you think you have a perfect understanding of reality to the extent that you can’t be wrong, and as such, do not need to discuss the issue, you are quite arrogant.

That being said, I do believe it is possible to reach a point where discussion of a topic between two individuals becomes fruitless. This generally occurs when it has been identified precisely where the point of disagreement arises, both individuals have explained why they disagree with the opposing point of view and still disagree (agreeing to disagree essentially). However, if the discussion has arrived at this point, it has occurred to a sufficient level as to make the original objection irrelevant.
  • These are topics that are too serious to discuss
This objection is often put forward in specific social settings; i.e. Facebook, parties or anywhere where the individual feels should be a causal environment. This objection essentially comes down to taste; what constitutes a topic that is too serious or whether they derive enjoyment from such discussions. I do not find these discussions to be too serious and always enjoy them. As it is an issue of personal taste, there really isn’t much more that can be said other than if you are the only person who appears to find the topic too serious, exclude yourself from the conversation rather than demand others stop for your sake alone. The same is true for the opposite, of course; if you are the only one who wants to talk about these issues, don’t force others to.
  • These topics are unimportant to the individual who does not wish to discuss them
Like the previous objection, this one comes down to a simple taste preference. However, often people underestimate how these topics could affect them. To be fair, there are probably some circumstances where the issue is entirely unimportant to a person; for example, someone who is not homosexual and knows no one who is homosexual would be understandably uninteresting in the topic of gay marriage. However, I think situations like this are particularly rare; in that, most beliefs have an effect on the majority of society. And even if they aren’t, they still require the discussion to determine that they are unimportant; effectively, a meta-discussion about whether the discussion is worth having. If they aren’t even willing to engage in the meta-discussion because they think it could never possibly affect them, it becomes the same as the ‘never change opinions’ objection.

I think after reading this, most people should understand where I am coming from. If, however, you feel I have missed an important reason why discussions of this nature should not occur, please feel free to let me know (if you can; I'm unaware if a meta-discussion about a topic you find taboo would be breaking the taboo).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Short and Sharp - Limitiation of Liberty

I know I’ve been on a kind of ‘ethical bender’ of late, so I promise this will be my last post on ethics for a while (isn’t that what all addicts say?). However, I wish to have a final quick exploration of the topic of limiting the liberty of individuals in a society. I think that by being a member of society, we  agree (explicitly in some cases, implicitly in most) to give up certain rights, such as the right to murder each other, for the safety and benefits that living in a society offers (yes, I am a fan Hobbes, if you can’t tell; at least in regard to social contract theory). The point of this post is to explore what constitutes the line between what can and cannot be limited by society.

While this is related to my last post on bone marrow donation, I’m going to use the example of vaccination to draw out the potential points of disagreement. We all (well, the significant majority) accept the limit that we cannot kill (either intentionally or through recklessness on our part). The same is true for causing harm to others that falls short of killing them (again, both intentionally and through recklessness). So, given these two fair uncontroversial points, why do we allow people, be they adults or children by the choice of their parents, to opt out of vaccination?

For those of you not familiar with herd immunity, this is the phenomenon where when a certain portion of the population is immune to a certain disease, their immunity acts to protect those who are not immune. The percentage of immunity required to reach this threshold varies for every contagion and is based on factors like the route of infection (airborne, food etc.) and the virulence of the pathogen. Within any given population, there are a certain proportion of individuals that, for medical reasons, cannot be given vaccinations (effectively, anyone with impaired immune functions, often due to age, genetic conditions or other factors). So, with an already reduced population to work with, allowing others to opt out of vaccinations further reduces the amount that are immunised, putting everyone at an increased risk of infection.

My point is not that vaccination should be mandatory (I do think that, but that is not the case I am making here), but what reasons are there that we don’t make them mandatory? I’ve heard people suggest that it is to do with liberty, but as I’ve already said, we given up liberties all the time to benefit from living in a society. Does doing something to people rather than asking them not to do something change the issue (positive vs. negative liberty)? Does removing the option to opt out change anything for people who would have chosen to be vaccinated regardless? What is the threshold for what constitutes a significant harm of an action to the public as to reduce the liberty of individuals to undertake said action?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Is Donating Bone Marrow A Charitable Act?

A few weeks ago, the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry contacted and informed me that I have matched with a person who may require a bone marrow transplantation. I told them that I was interested and went in last week for some confirmatory testing. An interesting thing that I have noticed is that a significant number of people who I have told about this have responded with “that is so generous; I could never do that”. This is the idea that I wish to explore. I’d like to begin with an apparently unrelated hypothetical:
A man is out for a late night walk down a country road and he notices a car stopped on the side of the road with its hazard lights on. Upon investigation, he finds a woman breathing heavily and clutching her chest. She tells him she believes she is having a heart attack. Unfortunately, neither of them have a mobile phone on them. She asks him to use her car to drive her to the hospital, as she is in too much pain to do so. The man does have a license. After a few seconds, the man says that he rather not, as the potential risk of crashing the car is too high.
While I cannot say for certain, I think most people would find the justification for not offering help to be quite weak; no one sees driving a car as being too risky as to not offer help to someone who may die without it. To get an idea of the risk associated with driving a car, the world death rate for motor vehicle accidents is 20.8 per 100,000 people (from the Wikipedia page, which quotes WHO statistics).

The point of this hypothetical is to highlight a contradiction in with the way that the people who I spoke of at the beginning think about bone marrow donation. Statistically speaking, donating bone marrow is safer than driving a car. For clarification, there are two procedures used to harvest bone marrow. The first and most common is a peripheral bone marrow harvest’; this is where the donor is given a drug to stimulate their blood marrow to grow and then they give blood and the bone marrow cells are harvested (in the same way as white blood cells are harvested for donation). As such, the risk associated with donating bone marrow by this method has the similar risk to donating blood; that is, a negligible risk. When most people think of a bone marrow donation, they think of extraction from the hip bone. This requires a general anaesthetic in most cases and it is this that presents the only risk of death (in that, no deaths have ever been recorded due to the actual extraction process). However, using even the most conservative figures (i.e. the ones that show the highest mortality rate), the death rate for general anaesthesia is around 14 per 100,000 people (from this study).

So, statistically speaking, it would be safer to give bone marrow to someone that to drive them to the hospital. However, I do not think that the people that I spoke of would change their view of not wanting to donate bone marrow because of this (I specifically did express this point to one of them and they did indeed not change their view). I am not entirely sure why. I see only minor differences in the scenarios and nothing to make them categorically different (well, as far as I can tell). So I throw it open to my highly intelligent audience; is there anything that would make not donating bone marrow more justifiable than not driving someone to a hospital?

[One potential criticism I could see is that I have used the world data motor vehicle accident death rates and, as such, will be much higher than any given country (for example,  the death rate in Australia is around 5 per 100,000; much lower than the world figure). However, the same is true of general anaesthesia figure; the study used data from any published study (excluding only those that were not in English). As such, it would probably be much lower in any given first world country (as is the case with the death rate from motor vehicle accidents).]

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Short and Sharp: What if you're wrong?

If you are familiar with the evangelical style of Ray Comfort and Kurt Cameron, then you will be familiar with the question “what if you’re wrong?”. For those of you who are not, it is a tactic that attempts to highlight in the minds of atheists the repercussions if they are wrong about the existence of the god that Comfort and Cameron believe in (i.e. that the atheist will go to Hell). I have seen many refutations of this argument (which is essentially Pascal’s Wager), however, I am going to actually do the opposite; I think it is a valid question in certain contexts and should be answerable by any person about any belief that they hold.

To demonstrate why I think this is the case, I would like to modify a scenario used by Richard Carrier in his book, Sense and Goodness Without God;  
Suppose a friend told you they had purchased a new car, would you believe them? As this is a fairly unremarkable claim (many people own cars), it would require very little evidence for you to believe them, perhaps even just their word alone. However, suppose now that you were relying on this friend to drive you to a very important meeting. Would you be willing to rely on just their word or would you require more evidence now that the claim has the potential to impact upon your life? If you believe them, and they are wrong (either by lying or just being misinformed; say they thought the car would be ready for their use on that day, but it was delayed), you are now stuck without a way to get your meeting.
The point that I am trying to drive at is that the amount of evidence needed to support a claim is not simply just how ordinary or extraordinary the claim is, but also how much of an impact the claim’s truth or falseness will have. Claims that will have very little effects require less evidence than claims that will have profound effect, all other things being equal. The way in which Comfort and Cameron use this question is still wrong; in that, they are essentially throwing in a possibility, Hell, which has such a low probability of actually existing that it isn’t worth considering. As such, the question is only valid when used in the context of known negative outcomes. However, when used in this way, it is very useful at highlighting how effects can impact upon our evidential standards.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

'Ethical' Egoists

While watching the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy recently, I was reminded of my general distain for ‘ethical’ egoists. These are people who believe it is okay to do what is in the best interests for themselves and their in-group (family, friends, lovers etc.), even if it leads to the otherwise preventable harm of others. As such, it is kind of a very shallow version of ethical egoism; the branch of moral philosophy that says that moral agents should act in their own self-interest. While the actual theory is a lot more detailed than my one sentence summary indicates, I still believe it has problems.

To demonstrate my problem with ‘ethical’ egoists, I’ll explain the scenario that occurred in the episode. Earlier in the season, Meredith had switched a placebo for an active drug in an Alzheimer’s clinical trial she was a part of. This was due to the fact that the patient who was to get the placebo was close to her. In the finale, her deception is revealed and the shit hits the fan. This is because it is a randomised clinical trial; the doctors do not get to assign who gets the active therapy and who gets the placebo. This prevents them from, either intentionally or unintentionally, giving the active treatment to patients they believe are more likely to recover anyway and skewing the results (i.e. making the treatment look better than it really is). So Meredith tampering with who gets the treatment invalidates the whole trial. Now, even after she is informed of this and how now no one will get access to the new drug (due to the trial not being able to go ahead, so it can’t be demonstrated to be effective) she still says she would do it again because it was a person who meant so much to her.

This sort of attitude (which is not at all uncommon) really drives me up the wall; effectively Meredith, and others in similar situations, are giving a big middle finger to everyone else just to help someone they care about. It really shows how self-centred someone is that they can’t step back and realise that while they are trying to help someone they love, so is everyone else. In the case of Meredith, she wanted to help someone she loved, but at the same time prevented hundreds of others from helping their loved ones.

I also ran into a similar phenomenon during an ethics class in my undergrad course; we were given the following scenario and asked whether we thought the decision in it was moral (paraphrased from memory);
An earthquake occurs in China and buries a man’s family in rumble. In the process of digging them out, he discovers that across the road an important official and his family are buried. The man decides to stop trying to rescue his family and rescue the official and his family instead. He successfully rescues them, but his own family die in the process. When asked why he made the choice that he did, he said that by rescuing the official, he could go on to coordinate the rescue effort (by virtue of having extensive knowledge of the local area) and end up saving more people.
Now, as a utilitarian, I said that the action was moral because it could effectively save more lives (increasing the overall well-being). Now while the majority did say they while they would have saved their family had they been in the situation but respected the man for thinking of others (a position I don’t find unacceptable), a small minority believed that he had acted immorally and should have saved his family (invoking duty to family primarily). After some discussion back and forth, I presented them with a new hypothetical to try to demonstrate the point I was trying to make;
A serial killer has you locked in a chair. In front of you is your family in a cage, ten families you do not know in another. You are given the choice of who dies; either your family or the ten families. Which would you choose?
I thought that this scenario was entirely black and white; that only a monster would say that it was moral to choose their family. However, I was wrong. Not only did these individuals say they would choose their families, they were defending it as the moral choice. I mean, I could understand someone saying that they aren’t strong enough to do the right thing, but to actually believe that ten other families dying so yours can survive is moral is downright insane. Could these people not understand that each of those families had people who loved them just as much as they loved their families? What makes them think that their love for their family trumps everyone else’s?

A bit more of a rant than usual, but there it is.