Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Monday, December 11, 2017

Epistemic rationality: Skepticism toward unfounded beliefs requires sufficient cognitive ability and motivation to be rational

TomasStåhl and Jan-Willem van Prooijen
Personality and Individual Differences
Volume 122, 1 February 2018, Pages 155-163


Why does belief in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and various other phenomena that are not backed up by evidence remain widespread in modern society? In the present research we adopt an individual difference approach, as we seek to identify psychological precursors of skepticism toward unfounded beliefs. We propose that part of the reason why unfounded beliefs are so widespread is because skepticism requires both sufficient analytic skills, and the motivation to form beliefs on rational grounds. In Study 1 we show that analytic thinking is associated with a lower inclination to believe various conspiracy theories, and paranormal phenomena, but only among individuals who strongly value epistemic rationality. We replicate this effect on paranormal belief, but not conspiracy beliefs, in Study 2. We also provide evidence suggesting that general cognitive ability, rather than analytic cognitive style, is the underlying facet of analytic thinking that is responsible for these effects.

The article is here.

To think critically, you have to be both analytical and motivated

John Timmer
ARS Techica
Originally published November 15, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

One of the proposed solutions to this issue is to incorporate more critical thinking into our education system. But critical thinking is more than just a skill set; you have to recognize when to apply it, do so effectively, and then know how to respond to the results. Understanding what makes a person effective at analyzing fake news and conspiracy theories has to take all of this into account. A small step toward that understanding comes from a recently released paper, which looks at how analytical thinking and motivated skepticism interact to make someone an effective critical thinker.

Valuing rationality

The work comes courtesy of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Tomas Ståhl and Jan-Willem van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam. This isn't the first time we've heard from Ståhl; last year, he published a paper on what he termed "moralizing epistemic rationality." In it, he looked at people's thoughts on the place critical thinking should occupy in their lives. The research identified two classes of individuals: those who valued their own engagement with critical thinking, and those who viewed it as a moral imperative that everyone engage in this sort of analysis.

The information is here.

The target article is here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Vanishing "Values Voter"

McKay Coppins
The Atlantic
Originally posted December 7, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

For decades, the belief that private morality was essential to assessing the worthiness of politicians and public figures was an animating ideal at the core of the Christian right’s credo. As with most ideals, the movement did not always live up to its own standards. So-called “values voters” pursued a polarizing, multi-faceted agenda that was often tangled up in prejudice and partisanship. They fiercely defended Clarence Thomas when he was accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill, for example, and then excoriated Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

But even when they were failing to hold their own side accountable, they still clung to the idea that “character counts.” As recently as 2011, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” But by the time Donald Trump was running for president in 2016, that number had risen sharply to 72 percent. White evangelicals are now more tolerant of immoral behavior by elected officials than the average American. “This is really a sea change in evangelical ethics,” Robert P. Jones, the head of the institute and the author of The End of White Christian America, recently told me.


“The way evangelicals see the world, the culture is not only slipping away—it’s slipping away in all caps, with four exclamation points after that. It’s going to you-know-what in a handbasket,” Brody told me. “Where does that leave evangelicals? It leaves them with a choice. Do they sacrifice a little bit of that ethical guideline they’ve used in the past in exchange for what they believe is saving the culture?”

The article is here.

These are the Therapist Behaviors that are Helpful or Harmful

Christian Jarrett
Research Digest
Originally published November 23, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The most helpful therapy moments involved specific treatment techniques, such as times the therapist gave the client a concrete strategy they could use in everyday life; instances when the therapist made connections for the client (such as identifying events that affected their depression symptoms); or helped them process their emotions. Other helpful moments involved fundamental therapist skills, such as listening and expressing empathy, offering support or praise, or when the therapist discussed the process of therapy, including what the client wants from it.

The clients said they found these moments helpful because they learned a new skill, felt heard or understood, gained insight and/or were better able to process their emotions.

In terms of hindering therapist behaviours, these often seemed the same, superficially at least, as the helpful behaviours, including instances when the therapist listened, attempted to express empathy, or attempted to structure the session. The difference seemed to be in the execution or timing of these behaviours. The clients said they found these moments unhelpful when they were off-topic (for instance, their therapist listened to them “rambling” on about irrelevant details without intervening); when they felt like they were being judged; or they felt it was too soon for them to confront a particular issue.

The article is here.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Root of All Cruelty

Paul Bloom
The New Yorker
Originally published November 20, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

Early psychological research on dehumanization looked at what made the Nazis different from the rest of us. But psychologists now talk about the ubiquity of dehumanization. Nick Haslam, at the University of Melbourne, and Steve Loughnan, at the University of Edinburgh, provide a list of examples, including some painfully mundane ones: “Outraged members of the public call sex offenders animals. Psychopaths treat victims merely as means to their vicious ends. The poor are mocked as libidinous dolts. Passersby look through homeless people as if they were transparent obstacles. Dementia sufferers are represented in the media as shuffling zombies.”

The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.


But “Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships” (Cambridge), by the anthropologist Alan Fiske and the psychologist Tage Rai, argues that these standard accounts often have it backward. In many instances, violence is neither a cold-blooded solution to a problem nor a failure of inhibition; most of all, it doesn’t entail a blindness to moral considerations. On the contrary, morality is often a motivating force: “People are impelled to violence when they feel that to regulate certain social relationships, imposing suffering or death is necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying.” Obvious examples include suicide bombings, honor killings, and the torture of prisoners during war, but Fiske and Rai extend the list to gang fights and violence toward intimate partners. For Fiske and Rai, actions like these often reflect the desire to do the right thing, to exact just vengeance, or to teach someone a lesson. There’s a profound continuity between such acts and the punishments that—in the name of requital, deterrence, or discipline—the criminal-justice system lawfully imposes. Moral violence, whether reflected in legal sanctions, the killing of enemy soldiers in war, or punishing someone for an ethical transgression, is motivated by the recognition that its victim is a moral agent, someone fully human.

The article is here.

Evidence-Based Policy Mistakes

Kausik Basu
Project Syndicate
Originally published November 30, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Likewise, US President Donald Trump cites simplistic trade-deficit figures to justify protectionist policies that win him support among a certain segment of the US population. In reality, the evidence suggests that such policies will hurt the very people Trump claims to be protecting.

Now, the chair of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, is attempting to defend Congressional Republicans’ effort to slash corporate taxes by claiming that, when developed countries have done so in the past, workers gained “well north of” $4,000 per year. Yet there is ample evidence that the benefits of such tax cuts accrue disproportionately to the rich, largely via companies buying back stock and shareholders earning higher dividends.

It is not clear whence Hassett is getting his data. But chances are that, at the very least, he is misinterpreting it. And he is far from alone in failing to reach accurate conclusions when assessing a given set of data.

Consider the oft-repeated refrain that, because there is evidence that virtually all jobs over the last decade were created by the private sector, the private sector must be the most effective job creator. At first glance, the logic might seem sound. But, on closer examination, the statement begs the question. Imagine a Soviet economist claiming that, because the government created virtually all jobs in the Soviet Union, the government must be the most effective job creator. To find the truth, one would need, at a minimum, data on who else tried to create jobs, and how.

The article is here.

Friday, December 8, 2017

University could lose millions from “unethical” research backed by Peter Thiel

Beth Mole
ARS Technica
Originally published November 14, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

According to HHS records, SIU (Southern Illinois University) had committed to following all HHS regulations—including safety requirements and having IRB approval and oversight—for all clinical trials, regardless of who funded the trials. If SIU fails to do so, it could jeopardize the $15 million in federal grant money the university receives for its other research.

Earlier, an SIU spokesperson had claimed that SIU didn’t need to follow HHS regulations in this case because Halford was acting as an independent researcher with Rational Vaccines. Thus, SIU had no legal responsibility to ensure proper safety protocols and wasn’t risking its federal funding.

In her e-mail, Buchanan asked for the “results of SIU’s evaluation of its jurisdiction over this research.”

In his response, Kruse noted that SIU was not aware of the St. Kitts trial until October 2016, two months after the trial was completed. But, he wrote, the university had opened an investigation into Halford’s work following his death in June of this year. The decision to investigate was also based on disclosures from American filmmaker Agustín Fernández III, who co-founded Rational Vaccines with Halford, Kruse noted.

The article is here.

Autonomous future could question legal ethics

Becky Raspe
Cleveland Jewish News
Originally published November 21, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Northman said he finds the ethical implications of an autonomous future interesting, but completely contradictory to what he learned in law school in the 1990s.

“People were expected to be responsible for their activities,” he said. “And as long as it was within their means to stop something or more tellingly anticipate a problem before it occurs, they have an obligation to do so. When you blend software over the top of that this level of autonomy, we are left with some difficult boundaries to try and assess where a driver’s responsibility starts or the software programmers continues on.”

When considering the ethics surrounding autonomous living, Paris referenced the “trolley problem.” The trolley problem goes as this: there is an automated vehicle operating on an open road, and ahead there are five people in the road and one person off to the side. The question here, Paris said, is should the vehicle consider traveling on and hitting the five people or will it swerve and hit just the one?

“When humans are driving vehicles, they are the moral decision makers that make those choices behind the wheel,” she said. “Can engineers program automated vehicles to replace that moral thought with an algorithm? Will they prioritize the five lives or that one person? There are a lot of questions and not too many solutions at this point. With these ethical dilemmas, you have to be careful about what is being implemented.”

The article is here.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Social media threat: People learned to survive disease, we can handle Twitter

Glenn Harlan Reynolds
USA Today
Originally posted November 20, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Hunters and gatherers were at far less risk for infectious disease because they didn’t encounter very many new people very often. Their exposure was low, and contact among such bands was sporadic enough that diseases couldn’t spread very fast.

It wasn’t until you crowded thousands, or tens of thousands of them, along with their animals, into small dense areas with poor sanitation that disease outbreaks took off.  Instead of meeting dozens of new people per year, an urban dweller probably encountered hundreds per day. Diseases that would have affected only a few people at a time as they spread slowly across a continent (or just burned out for lack of new carriers) would now leap from person to person in a flash.

Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

It took three things to help control the spread of disease in cities: sanitation, acclimation and better nutrition. In early cities, after all, people had no idea how diseases spread, something we didn’t fully understand until the late 19th century. But rule-of-thumb sanitation made things a lot better over time. Also, populations eventually adapted:  Diseases became endemic, not epidemic, and usually less severe as people developed immunity. And finally, as Scott notes, surviving disease was always a function of nutrition, with better-nourished populations doing much better than malnourished ones.

The article is here.

Attica: It’s Worse Than We Thought

Heather Ann Thompson
The New York Times
Originally posted November 19, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

As the fine print of that 1972 article read: “We are indebted to the inmates of the Attica Correctional Facility who participated in this study and to the warden and his administration for their help and cooperation.” This esteemed physician, a man working for two of New York’s most respected hospitals and receiving generous research funding from the N.I.H., was indeed conducting leprosy experiments at Attica.

But which of Attica’s nearly 2,400 prisoners, I wondered, was the subject of experiments relating to this crippling disease, without, as Dr. Brandriss admitted, adequate consent? Might it have been the 19-year-old who was at Attica because he had sliced the top of a neighbor’s convertible? Or a man imprisoned there for more serious offenses? Either way, no jury had sentenced them to being a guinea pig in any experiment relating to a disease as painful and disfiguring as leprosy.

And what about the hundreds of corrections officers and civilian employees working at Attica? Even if no one in this extremely crowded facility was actually exposed to this dreaded disease, one in which “prolonged close contact” with an infected patient is a most serious risk factor, were these state employees at all informed that medical experiments being conducted on the men in their charge?

This is not the first time prisons have allowed secret medical experiments on those locked inside. A 1998 book on Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania revealed that a doctor there, Albert Kligman, had been experimenting on prisoners for years. After the book appeared, nearly 300 former prisoners sued him, the University of Pennsylvania and the manufacturers of the substances to which they had been exposed, but none of the defendants was held accountable.

The article is here.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What the heck is machine learning, and why is it everywhere these days?

Luke Dormehl
Digital Trends
Originally published November 18, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Which programming languages to machine learners use?

Like the question above, there’s no one answer to this. Machine learning is a big field and, with so much ground to cover, there’s no one language that does absolutely everything.

Due to its simplicity, and the availability of deep learning libraries such as TensorFlow and PyTorch, Python is currently the number one language. If you’re thinking about delving into machine learning for the first time, it’s also one of the most accessible languages — and there are loads of online resources available.

Java is a good option, too, and comes with a great community of its own, while C++ and R are also worth checking out.

Is machine learning the perfect solution to all our AI problems?

You can probably guess where we’re going with this. No, machine learning isn’t infallible. Algorithms can still be subject to human biases, and the rule of “garbage in, garbage out” holds as true here as it does to any other data-driven field.

There are also questions about transparency, particularly when you’re dealing with the kind of “black boxes” that are an essential part of neural networks.

But as a tool that’s helping to revolutionize technology as we know it, and making AI available to the masses? You bet that it’s a great tool!

The article is here.

Disturbing allegations against psychologist at VT treatment center

Jennifer Costa
Originally published November 17, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Simonds is accused making comments about female patients, calling them "whores" or saying they look "sexy" and asking inappropriate details about their sex lives. Staff members allege he showed young women favoritism, made promises about drug treatment and bypassed waiting lists to get them help ahead of others.

He's accused of yelling and physically intimidating patients. Some refused to file complaints fearing he would pull their treatment opportunities.

Staffers go on to paint a nasty picture of their work environment, telling the state Simonds routinely threatened, cursed and yelled at them, calling them derogatory names like "retarded," "monkeys," "fat and lazy," and threatening to fire them at will while sexually harassing female subordinates.

Co-workers claim Simonds banned them from referring residential patients to facilities closer to their homes, instructed them to alter referrals to keep them in the Maple Leaf system and fired a clinician who refused to follow these orders. He is also accused of telling staff members to lie to the state about staffing to maintain funding and of directing clinicians to keep patients longer than necessary to drum up revenue.

The article is here.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Turning Conservatives Into Liberals: Safety First

John Bargh
The Washington Post
Originally published November 22, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.

In both instances, we had manipulated a deeper underlying reason for political attitudes, the strength of the basic motivation of safety and survival. The boiling water of our social and political attitudes, it seems, can be turned up or down by changing how physically safe we feel.

This is why it makes sense that liberal politicians intuitively portray danger as manageable — recall FDR’s famous Great Depression era reassurance of “nothing to fear but fear itself,” echoed decades later in Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address — and why President Trump and other Republican politicians are instead likely to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and immigration, relying on fear as a motivator to gain votes.

In fact, anti-immigration attitudes are also linked directly to the underlying basic drive for physical safety. For centuries, arch-conservative leaders have often referred to scapegoated minority groups as “germs” or “bacteria” that seek to invade and destroy their country from within. President Trump is an acknowledged germaphobe, and he has a penchant for describing people — not only immigrants but political opponents and former Miss Universe contestants — as “disgusting.”

The article is here.

Liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another's opinions

Jeremy A. Frimer, Linda J. Skitka, Matt Motyl
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 72, September 2017, Pages 1-12


Ideologically committed people are similarly motivated to avoid ideologically crosscutting information. Although some previous research has found that political conservatives may be more prone to selective exposure than liberals are, we find similar selective exposure motives on the political left and right across a variety of issues. The majority of people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate willingly gave up a chance to win money to avoid hearing from the other side (Study 1). When thinking back to the 2012 U.S. Presidential election (Study 2), ahead to upcoming elections in the U.S. and Canada (Study 3), and about a range of other Culture War issues (Study 4), liberals and conservatives reported similar aversion toward learning about the views of their ideological opponents. Their lack of interest was not due to already being informed about the other side or attributable election fatigue. Rather, people on both sides indicated that they anticipated that hearing from the other side would induce cognitive dissonance (e.g., require effort, cause frustration) and undermine a sense of shared reality with the person expressing disparate views (e.g., damage the relationship; Study 5). A high-powered meta-analysis of our data sets (N = 2417) did not detect a difference in the intensity of liberals' (d = 0.63) and conservatives' (d = 0.58) desires to remain in their respective ideological bubbles.

The research is here.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ray Kurzweil on Turing Tests, Brain Extenders, and AI Ethics

Nancy Kaszerman
Originally posted November 13, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

There has been a lot of focus on AI ethics, how to keep the technology safe, and it's kind of a polarized discussion like a lot of discussions nowadays. I've actually talked about both promise and peril for quite a long time. Technology is always going to be a double-edged sword. Fire kept us warm, cooked our food, and burned down our houses. These technologies are much more powerful. It's also a long discussion, but I think we should go through three phases, at least I did, in contemplating this. First is delight at the opportunity to overcome age-old afflictions: poverty, disease, and so on. Then alarm that these technologies can be destructive and cause even existential risks. And finally I think where we need to come out is an appreciation that we have a moral imperative to continue progress in these technologies because, despite the progress we've made—and that's a-whole-nother issue, people think things are getting worse but they're actually getting better—there's still a lot of human suffering to be overcome. It's only continued progress particularly in AI that's going to enable us to continue overcoming poverty and disease and environmental degradation while we attend to the peril.

And there's a good framework for doing that. Forty years ago, there were visionaries who saw both the promise and the peril of biotechnology, basically reprogramming biology away from disease and aging. So they held a conference called the Asilomar Conference at the conference center in Asilomar, and came up with ethical guidelines and strategies—how to keep these technologies safe. Now it's 40 years later. We are getting clinical impact of biotechnology. It's a trickle today, it'll be a flood over the next decade. The number of people who have been harmed either accidentally or intentionally by abuse of biotechnology so far has been zero. It's a good model for how to proceed.

The article is here.

Psychologist felt 'honest, sincere' before $800K healthcare fraud exposed

John Agar
Originally posted November 21, 2017

A psychologist who defrauded insurance companies of $800,000 spent half of the money on vacations, concert tickets and a mobile-recording business, the government said.

George E. Compton Jr., 63, of Sturgis, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist to 28 months in prison.

Compton, who pleaded guilty to healthcare fraud, said he was "ashamed" of his actions.

"Until this investigation, I did not hesitate to describe myself as an honest, sincere man," he wrote in a letter to the judge. "Seeing myself from a different perspective has been trying to say the least. ... The worst punishment for my admitted crimes will be the exclusion from the very work I love."

The government said he billed insurance companies for counseling sessions he did not provide, from Jan. 1, 2013, until June 30, 2016.

The article is here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lack of Intellectual Humility Plagues Our Times, Say Researchers

Paul Ratner
Originally posted November 12, 2017

Researchers from Duke University say that intellectual humility is an important personality trait that has become in short supply in our country.

Intellectual humility is like open-mindedness. It is basically an awareness that your beliefs may be wrong, influencing a person’s ability to make decisions in politics, health and other areas of life. An intellectually humble person can have strong opinions, say the authors, but will still recognize they are not perfect and are willing to be proven wrong.

This trait is not linked to a specific partisan view, with researchers finding no difference in levels of the characteristic between conservatives, liberals, religious or non-religious people. In fact, the scientists possibly managed to put to rest an age-old stereotype, explained the study’s lead author Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

The article is here.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Japanese doctor who exposed a drug too good to be true calls for morality and reforms

Tomoko Otake
Japan Times
Originally posted November 15, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Kuwajima says the Diovan case is a sobering reminder that large-scale clinical trials published in top medical journals should not be blindly trusted, as they can be exploited by drugmakers rushing to sell their products before their patents run out.

“I worked at a research hospital and had opportunities to try new or premarket drugs on patients, so I knew from early on that Diovan and the same class of drugs called ARB wouldn’t work, especially for elderly patients,” Kuwajima recalled in a recent interview at Tokyo Metropolitan Geriatric Hospital, where he has retired from full-time practice but still sees patients two days a week. “I had a strong sense of crisis that hordes of elderly people — whose ranks were growing as the population grayed — would be prescribed a drug that didn’t work.”

Kuwajima said he immediately found the Diovan research suspicious because the results were just too good to be true. This was before Novartis admitted that it had paid five professors conducting studies at their universities a total of ¥1.1 billion in “research grants,” and even had Shirahashi, a Novartis employee purporting to be a university lecturer, help with statistical analyses for the papers.

The article is here.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Essence of the Individual: The Pervasive Belief in the True Self Is an Instance of Psychological Essentialism

Andrew G. Christy, Rebecca J. Schlegel, and Andrei Cimpian


Eight studies (N = 2,974) were conducted to test the hypothesis that the widespread folk belief in the true self is an instance of psychological essentialism. Results supported this hypothesis. Specifically, participants’ reasoning about the true self displayed the telltale features of essentialist reasoning (immutability, discreteness, consistency, informativeness, inherence, and biological basis; Studies 1–4); participants’ endorsement of true-self beliefs correlated with individual differences in other essentialist beliefs (Study 5); and experimental manipulations of essentialist thought in domains other than the self were found to “spill over” and affect the extent to which participants endorsed true-self beliefs (Studies 6–8). These findings advance theory on the origins and functions of true-self beliefs, revealing these beliefs to be a specific instance of a broader tendency to explain phenomena in the world in terms of underlying essences.

The preprint is here.

Selling Bad Therapy to Trauma Victims

Jonathan Shedler
Psychology Today
Originally published November 19, 2017

Here is the conclusion:

First, do no harm

Many health insurance companies discriminate against psychotherapy. Congress has passed laws mandating mental health “parity” (equal coverage for medical and mental health conditions) but health insurers circumvent them. This has led to class action lawsuits against health insurance companies, but discrimination continues.

One way that health insurers circumvent parity laws is by shunting patients to the briefest and cheapest therapies — just the kind of therapies recommended by the APA’s treatment guidelines. Another way is by making therapy so impersonal and dehumanizing that patients drop out. Health insurers do not publicly say the treatment decisions are driven by economic self-interest. They say the treatments are scientifically proven — and point to treatment guidelines like those just issued by the APA.

It’s bad enough that most Americans don’t have adequate mental health coverage, without also being gaslighted and told that inadequate therapy is the best therapy.

The APA’s ethics code begins, “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.” APA has an honorable history of fighting for patients’ access to good care and against health insurance company abuses.

Blinded by RCT ideology, APA inadvertently handed a trump card to the worst apples in the health insurance industry.

The article is here.