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

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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Artificial Intelligence & Mental Health

Smriti Joshi
Chatbot News Daily
Originally posted

Here is an excerpt:

There are many barriers to getting quality mental healthcare, from searching for a provider who practices in a user's geographical location to screening multiple potential therapists in order to find someone you feel comfortable speaking with. The stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment often leaves people silently suffering from a psychological issue. These barriers stop many people from finding help and AI is being looked at a potential tool to bridge this gap between service providers and service users.

Imagine how many people would be benefitted if artificial intelligence could bring quality and affordable mental health support to anyone with an internet connection. A psychiatrist or psychologist examines a person’s tone, word choice, and the length of a phrase etc and these are all crucial cues to understanding what’s going on in someone’s mind. Machine learning is now being applied by researchers to diagnose people with mental disorders. Harvard University and University of Vermont researchers are working on integrating machine learning tools and Instagram to improve depression screening. Using color analysis, metadata, and algorithmic face detection, they were able to reach 70 percent accuracy in detecting signs of depression. The research wing at IBM is using transcripts and audio from psychiatric interviews, coupled with machine learning techniques, to find patterns in speech to help clinicians accurately predict and monitor psychosis, schizophrenia, mania, and depression. A research, led by John Pestian, a professor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre showed that machine learning is up to 93 percent accurate in identifying a suicidal person.

The post is here.

Why We Should Be Concerned About Artificial Superintelligence

Matthew Graves
Skeptic Magazine
Originally published November 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Our intelligence is ultimately a mechanistic process that happens in the brain, but there is no reason to assume that human intelligence is the only possible form of intelligence. And while the brain is complex, this is partly an artifact of the blind, incremental progress that shaped it—natural selection. This suggests that developing machine intelligence may turn out to be a simpler task than reverse- engineering the entire brain. The brain sets an upper bound on the difficulty of building machine intelligence; work to date in the field of artificial intelligence sets a lower bound; and within that range, it’s highly uncertain exactly how difficult the problem is. We could be 15 years away from the conceptual breakthroughs required, or 50 years away, or more.

The fact that artificial intelligence may be very different from human intelligence also suggests that we should be very careful about anthropomorphizing AI. Depending on the design choices AI scientists make, future AI systems may not share our goals or motivations; they may have very different concepts and intuitions; or terms like “goal” and “intuition” may not even be particularly applicable to the way AI systems think and act. AI systems may also have blind spots regarding questions that strike us as obvious. AI systems might also end up far more intelligent than any human.

The last possibility deserves special attention, since superintelligent AI has far more practical significance than other kinds of AI.

AI researchers generally agree that superintelligent AI is possible, though they have different views on how and when it’s likely to be developed. In a 2013 survey, top-cited experts in artificial intelligence assigned a median 50% probability to AI being able to “carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human” by the year 2050, and also assigned a 50% probability to AI greatly surpassing the performance of every human in most professions within 30 years of reaching that threshold.

The article is here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Hype of Virtual Medicine

Ezekiel J. Emanuel
The Wall Street Journal
Originally posted Nov. 10, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

But none of this will have much of an effect on the big and unsolved challenge for American medicine: how to change the behavior of patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fully 86% of all health care spending in the U.S. is for patients with chronic illness—emphysema, arthritis and the like. How are we to make real inroads against these problems? Patients must do far more to monitor their diseases, take their medications consistently and engage with their primary-care physicians and nurses. In the longer term, we need to lower the number of Americans who suffer from these diseases by getting them to change their habits and eat healthier diets, exercise more and avoid smoking.

There is no reason to think that virtual medicine will succeed in inducing most patients to cooperate more with their own care, no matter how ingenious the latest gizmos. Many studies that have tried some high-tech intervention to improve patients’ health have failed.

Consider the problem of patients who do not take their medication properly, leading to higher rates of complications, hospitalization and even mortality. Researchers at Harvard, in collaboration with CVS, published a study in JAMA Internal Medicine in May comparing different low-cost devices for encouraging patients to take their medication as prescribed. The more than 50,000 participants were randomly assigned to one of three options: high-tech pill bottles with digital timer caps, pillboxes with daily compartments or standard plastic pillboxes. The high-tech pill bottles did nothing to increase compliance.

Other efforts have produced similar failures.

The article is here.

A Lost World

Michael Sacasas
Originally posted January 29, 2017

Here is the conclusion:

Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.

It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”

It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.

The post is here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Trusting big health data

Angela Villanueva
Baylor College of Medicine Blogs
Originally posted November 10, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Potentially exacerbating this mistrust is a sense of loss of privacy and absence of control over information describing us and our habits. Given the extent of current “everyday” data collection and sharing for marketing and other purposes, this lack of trust is not unreasonable.

Health information sharing makes many people uneasy, particularly because of the potential harms such as insurance discrimination or stigmatization. Data breaches like the recent Equifax hack may add to these concerns and affect people’s willingness to share their health data.

But it is critical to encourage members of all groups to participate in big data initiatives focused on health in order for all to benefit from the resulting discoveries. My colleagues and I recently published an article detailing eight guiding principles for successful data sharing; building trust is one of them.

Here is the article.

Don’t Nudge Me: The Limits of Behavioral Economics in Medicine

Aaron E. Carroll
The New York Times - The Upshot
Originally posted November 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

But those excited about the potential of behavioral economics should keep in mind the results of a recent study. It pulled out all the stops in trying to get patients who had a heart attack to be more compliant in taking their medication. (Patients’ adherence at such a time is surprisingly low, even though it makes a big difference in outcomes, so this is a major problem.)

Researchers randomly assigned more than 1,500 people to one of two groups. All had recently had heart attacks. One group received the usual care. The other received special electronic pill bottles that monitored patients’ use of medication. Those patients who took their drugs were entered into a lottery in which they had a 20 percent chance to receive $5 and a 1 percent chance to win $50 every day for a year.

That’s not all. The lottery group members could also sign up to have a friend or family member automatically be notified if they didn’t take their pills so that they could receive social support. They were given access to special social work resources. There was even a staff engagement adviser whose specific duty was providing close monitoring and feedback, and who would remind patients about the importance of adherence.

This was a kitchen-sink approach. It involved direct financial incentives, social support nudges, health care system resources and significant clinical management. It failed.

The article is here.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Social Media Channels in Health Care Research and Rising Ethical Issues

Samy A. Azer
AMA Journal of Ethics. November 2017, Volume 19, Number 11: 1061-1069.


Social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have been used as tools in health care research, opening new horizons for research on health-related topics (e.g., the use of mobile social networking in weight loss programs). While there have been efforts to develop ethical guidelines for internet-related research, researchers still face unresolved ethical challenges. This article investigates some of the risks inherent in social media research and discusses how researchers should handle challenges related to confidentiality, privacy, and consent when social media tools are used in health-related research.

Here is an excerpt:

Social Media Websites and Ethical Challenges

While one may argue that regardless of the design and purpose of social media websites (channels) all information conveyed through social media should be considered public and therefore usable in research, such a generalization is incorrect and does not reflect the principles we follow in other types of research. The distinction between public and private online spaces can blur, and in some situations it is difficult to draw a line. Moreover, as discussed later, social media channels operate under different rules than research, and thus using these tools in research may raise a number of ethical concerns, particularly in health-related research. Good research practice fortifies high-quality science; ethical standards, including integrity; and the professionalism of those conducting the research. Importantly, it ensures the confidentiality and privacy of information collected from individuals participating in the research. Yet, in social media research, there are challenges to ensuring confidentiality, privacy, and informed consent.

The article is here.

Suicide Is Not The Same As "Physician Aid In Dying"

American Association of Suicidology
Suicide Is Not The Same As "Physician Aid In Dying"
Approved October 30, 2017

Executive summary 

The American Association of Suicidology recognizes that the practice of physician aid in dying, also called physician assisted suicide, Death with Dignity, and medical aid in dying, is distinct from the behavior that has been traditionally and ordinarily described as “suicide,” the tragic event our organization works so hard to prevent. Although there may be overlap between the two categories, legal physician assisted deaths should not be considered to be cases of suicide and are therefore a matter outside the central focus of the AAS.



In general, suicide and physician aid in dying are conceptually, medically, and legally different phenomena, with an undetermined amount of overlap between these two categories. The American Association of Suicidology is dedicated to preventing suicide, but this has no bearing on the reflective, anticipated death a physician may legally help a dying patient facilitate, whether called physician-assisted suicide, Death with Dignity, physician assisted dying, or medical aid in dying. In fact, we believe that the term “physician-assisted suicide” in itself constitutes a critical reason why these distinct death categories are so often conflated, and should be deleted from use. Such deaths should not be considered to be cases of suicide and are therefore a matter outside the central focus of the AAS.

The full document is here.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Wisdom in Virtue: Pursuit of Virtue Predicts Wise Reasoning About Personal Conflicts

Alex C. Huynh, Harrison Oakes, Garrett R. Shay, & Ian McGregor
Psychological Science
Article first published online: October 3, 2017


Most people can reason relatively wisely about others’ social conflicts, but often struggle to do so about their own (i.e., Solomon’s paradox). We suggest that true wisdom should involve the ability to reason wisely about both others’ and one’s own social conflicts, and we investigated the pursuit of virtue as a construct that predicts this broader capacity for wisdom. Results across two studies support prior findings regarding Solomon’s paradox: Participants (N = 623) more strongly endorsed wise-reasoning strategies (e.g., intellectual humility, adopting an outsider’s perspective) for resolving other people’s social conflicts than for resolving their own. The pursuit of virtue (e.g., pursuing personal ideals and contributing to other people) moderated this effect of conflict type. In both studies, greater endorsement of the pursuit of virtue was associated with greater endorsement of wise-reasoning strategies for one’s own personal conflicts; as a result, participants who highly endorsed the pursuit of virtue endorsed wise-reasoning strategies at similar levels for resolving their own social conflicts and resolving other people’s social conflicts. Implications of these results and underlying mechanisms are explored and discussed.

Here is an excerpt:

We propose that the litmus test for wise character is whether one can reason wisely about one’s own social conflicts. As did the biblical King Solomon, people tend to reason more wisely about others’ social conflicts than their own (i.e., Solomon’s paradox; Grossmann & Kross, 2014, see also Mickler & Staudinger, 2008, for a discussion of personal vs. general wisdom). Personal conflicts impede wise reasoning because people are more likely to immerse themselves in their own perspective and emotions, relegating other perspectives out of awareness, and increasing certainty regarding preferred perspectives (Kross & Grossmann, 2012; McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001). In contrast, reasoning about other people’s conflicts facilitates wise reasoning through the adoption of different viewpoints and the avoidance of sociocognitive biases (e.g., poor recognition of one’s own shortcomings—e.g., Pronin, Olivola, & Kennedy, 2008). In the present research, we investigated whether virtuous motives facilitate wisdom about one’s own conflicts, enabling one to pass the litmus test for wise character.

The article is here.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Rather than being free of values, good science is transparent about them

Kevin Elliott
The Conversation
Originally published November 8, 2017

Scientists these days face a conundrum. As Americans are buffeted by accounts of fake news, alternative facts and deceptive social media campaigns, how can researchers and their scientific expertise contribute meaningfully to the conversation?

There is a common perception that science is a matter of hard facts and that it can and should remain insulated from the social and political interests that permeate the rest of society. Nevertheless, many historians, philosophers and sociologists who study the practice of science have come to the conclusion that trying to kick values out of science risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Ethical and social values – like the desire to promote economic development, public health or environmental protection – often play integral roles in scientific research. By acknowledging this, scientists might seem to give away their authority as a defense against the flood of misleading, inaccurate information that surrounds us. But I argue in my book “A Tapestry of Values: An Introduction to Values in Science” that if scientists take appropriate steps to manage and communicate about their values, they can promote a more realistic view of science as both value-laden and reliable.

The article is here.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Trump presidency spurs cottage industry of ethics watchdogs

Fredreka Schouten
USA Today
Originally posted November 23, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The groups pursuing Trump say they are trying to keep close tabs on a president who is bucking ethical norms by retaining ownership of his businesses and abruptly firing FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the agency’s probe into the Russian government involvement in last year’s election.

“We are in a crisis of ethics,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington or CREW. “There are ethics a
nd conflicts and influence problems in this administration unlike any we have ever seen. And it began with the president’s decision not to divest from his businesses.”

White House officials this week contended that Trump is operating ethically. As an example, they point to his signing of a far-reaching ethics policy that, among other things, tries to slow the revolving door between government and industry by imposing a five-year cooling-off period before former government appointees can work as lobbyists.

“An organized onslaught from partisan groups committed to undermining the President’s agenda can’t change the fact that he has elevated ethics within this administration,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement.

The information is here.

Navigating Political Talk at Work

David W. Ballard
Harvard Business Review
Originally posted March 2, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Managers should recognize that the current political environment could be having an effect on people, especially if they’re talking about it in the office. Be aware of employees’ stress levels, share information about benefits and resources that are available to help support them, and encourage appropriate use of your company’s employee assistance program, mental health benefits, flexible work arrangements, and workplace wellness activities that can help people stay healthy and functioning at their best.

Senior leaders and supervisors can communicate a powerful message by modeling the behavior and actions they’re trying to promote in the organization. By demonstrating civility and respect, actively using available support resources, participating in organizational activities, and managing their own stress levels in healthy ways, business leaders can back their words with actions that show they are serious about creating a healthy work environment.

Focusing on common goals and shared values is another way to bring people together despite their differences. As a manager, set clear goals for your team and focus people on working together toward common objectives. When political turmoil is creating tension and distraction, focusing on the work and accomplishing something together may be a welcome reprieve.

Finally, step in if things get too heated. If the current political climate is negatively affecting an employee’s job performance, address the issue before it creates a bigger problem. Provide the necessary feedback, work with the employee to create a plan, and point them to available resources that might help. When tensions turn into conflicts between coworkers, counsel employees on any relevant policies related to harassment or incivility, help them find ways to work together, and involve human resources as needed.

The article is here.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tiny human brain organoids implanted into rodents, triggering ethical concerns

Sharon Begley
Originally posted November 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

He and his colleagues discussed the ethics of implanting human brain organoids into rats, including whether the animals might become too human. “Some of what people warn about is still science fiction,” he said. “Right now, the organoids are so crude we probably decrease” the rats’ brain function.

Ethicists argue that “not a problem now” doesn’t mean “never a problem.” One concern raised by the human brain organoid implants “is that functional integration [of the organoids] into the central nervous system of animals can in principle alter an animal’s behavior or needs,” said bioethicist Jonathan Kimmelman of McGill University in Montreal. “The task, then, is to carefully monitor if such alterations occur.” If the human implant gives an animal “increased sentience or mental capacities,” he added, it might suffer more.

Would it feel like a human trapped in a rodent’s body? Because both the Salk and Penn experiments used adult rodents, their brains were no longer developing, unlike the case if implants had been done with fetal rodent brains. “It’s hard to imagine how human-like cognitive capacities, like consciousness, could emerge under such circumstances,” Kimmelman said, referring to implants into an adult rodent brain. Chen agreed: He said his experiment “carries much less risk of creating animals with greater ‘brain power’ than normal” because the human organoid goes into “a specific region of already developed brain.”

The belief that consciousness is off the table is in fact the subject of debate. An organoid would need to be much more advanced than today’s to experience consciousness, said the Allen Institute’s Koch, including having dense neural connections, distinct layers, and other neuro-architecture. But if those and other advances occur, he said, “then the question is very germane: Does this piece of cortex feel something?” Asked whether brain organoids can achieve consciousness without sensory organs and other means of perceiving the world, Koch said it would experience something different than what people and other animals do: “It raises the question, what is it conscious of?”

The article is here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Public’s Distrust of Biotech Is Deepening. Commercialization May Be to Blame.

Jim Kozubek
Originally published November 3, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The high profile patent battle over the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool, often valued commercially at a billion dollars, and the FDA approval of the first genetically modified medicine for $475,000 — a sale price that is 19 times the cost to manufacture it — have displayed the capacity for turning taxpayer-funded research into an aggressive money-making enterprise. More personally, genetics are being used to typify people for cancer risk and age-related diseases, schizophrenia, autism, and intelligence, none of which truly belong to diagnostic categories.

It is therefore no surprise that parents may want to protect their newborns from becoming targets of commercialization.

In truth, genome sequencing is an extension of earlier commercial sequencing tests and standard newborn screening tests. BabySeq has expanded these to 166 genes, which can theoretically predict thousands of disorders and identify several genetic risk variants. For instance, it has identified a dozen newborns to have a genetic variant associated with biotinidase deficiency, which can impact cognition, and be fixed by taking a simple vitamin. Casie Genetti, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, noted researchers found 109 of 125 babies had at least one, and up to six, genetic variants for an autosomal recessive disorder, meaning that if they went on to have children with a partner who had a corresponding gene compromised in a similar way, it could be damaging or life-threatening for their own baby.

Part of the problem is that we all have some measure of genetic variation, and that can be either dangerous or advantageous depending on the cell type or genetic background or environment.

The article is here.

Many Academics Are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals

Gina Kolata
The New York Times
Originally published October 30, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Yet “every university requires some level of publication,” said Lawrence DiPaolo, vice president of academic affairs at Neumann University in Aston, Pa.

Recently a group of researchers invented a fake academic: Anna O. Szust. The name in Polish means fraudster. Dr. Szust applied to legitimate and predatory journals asking to be an editor. She supplied a résumé in which her publications and degrees were total fabrications, as were the names of the publishers of the books she said she had contributed to.

The legitimate journals rejected her application immediately. But 48 out of 360 questionable journals made her an editor. Four made her editor in chief. One journal sent her an email saying, “It’s our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for the journal with no responsibilities.”

The lead author of the Dr. Szust sting operation, Katarzyna Pisanski, a psychologist at the University of Sussex in England, said the question of what motivates people to publish in such journals “is a touchy subject.”

“If you were tricked by spam email you might not want to admit it, and if you did it wittingly to increase your publication counts you might also not want to admit it,” she said in an email.

The consequences of participating can be more than just a résumé freckled with poor-quality papers and meeting abstracts.

Publications become part of the body of scientific literature.

There are indications that some academic institutions are beginning to wise up to the dangers.

Dewayne Fox, an associate professor of fisheries at Delaware State University, sits on a committee at his school that reviews job applicants. One recent applicant, he recalled, listed 50 publications in such journals and is on the editorial boards of some of them.

A few years ago, he said, no one would have noticed. But now he and others on search committees at his university have begun scrutinizing the publications closely to see if the journals are legitimate.

The article is here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What The Good Place Can Teach You About Morality

Patrick Allan
Originally posted November 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Doing “Good” Things Doesn’t Necessarily Make You a Good Person

In The Good Place, the version of the afterlife you get sent to is based on a complicated point system. Doing “good” deeds earns you a certain number of positive points, and doing “bad” things will subtract them. Your point total when you die is what decides where you’ll go. Seems fair, right?

Despite the fact The Good Place makes life feel like a point-based videogame, we quickly learn morality isn’t as black and white as positive points and negative points. At one point, Eleanor tries to rack up points by holding doors for people; an action worth 3 points a pop. To put that in perspective, her score is -4,008 and she needs to meet the average of 1,222,821. It would take her a long time to get there but it’s one way to do it. At least, it would be if it worked. She quickly learns after awhile that she didn’t earn any points because she’s not actually trying to be nice to people. Her only goal is to rack up points so she can stay in The Good Place, which is an inherently selfish reason. The situation brings up a valid question: are “good” things done for selfish reasons still “good” things?

I don’t want to spoil too much, but as the series goes on, we see this question asked time and time again with each of its characters. Chidi may have spent his life studying moral ethics, but does knowing everything about pursuing “good” mean you are? Tahani spent her entire life as a charitable philanthropist, but she did it all for the questionable pursuit of finally outshining her near-perfect sister. She did a lot of good, but is she “good?” It’s something to consider yourself as you go about your day. Try to do “good” things, but ask yourself every once in awhile who those “good” things are really for.

The article is here.

Note: I really enjoy watching The Good Place.  Very clever. 

My spoiler: I think Michael is supposed to be in The Good Place too, not really the architect.

Harnessing the Placebo Effect: Exploring the Influence of Physician Characteristics on Placebo Response

Lauren C. Howe, J. Parker Goyer, and Alia J. Crum
Health Psychology, 36(11), 1074-1082.


Objective: Research on placebo/nocebo effects suggests that expectations can influence treatment outcomes, but placebo/nocebo effects are not always evident. This research demonstrates that a provider’s social behavior moderates the effect of expectations on physiological outcomes.

Methods: After inducing an allergic reaction in participants through a histamine skin prick test, a health care provider administered a cream with no active ingredients and set either positive expectations (cream will reduce reaction) or negative expectations (cream will increase reaction). The provider demonstrated either high or low warmth, or either high or low competence.

Results: The impact of expectations on allergic response was enhanced when the provider acted both warmer and more competent and negated when the provider acted colder and less competent.

Conclusion: This study suggests that placebo effects should be construed not as a nuisance variable with mysterious impact but instead as a psychological phenomenon that can be understood and harnessed to improve treatment outcomes.

Link to the pdf is here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Best-Ever Algorithm Found for Huge Streams of Data

Kevin Hartnett
Wired Magazine
Originally published October 29, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Computer programs that perform these kinds of on-the-go calculations are called streaming algorithms. Because data comes at them continuously, and in such volume, they try to record the essence of what they’ve seen while strategically forgetting the rest. For more than 30 years computer scientists have worked to build a better streaming algorithm. Last fall a team of researchers invented one that is just about perfect.

“We developed a new algorithm that is simultaneously the best” on every performance dimension, said Jelani Nelson, a computer scientist at Harvard University and a co-author of the work with Kasper Green Larsen of Aarhus University in Denmark, Huy Nguyen of Northeastern University and Mikkel Thorup of the University of Copenhagen.

This best-in-class streaming algorithm works by remembering just enough of what it’s seen to tell you what it’s seen most frequently. It suggests that compromises that seemed intrinsic to the analysis of streaming data are not actually necessary. It also points the way forward to a new era of strategic forgetting.

Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist

Sean Illing
Originally posted November 3, 2017

Why do people pretend to know things? Why does confidence so often scale with ignorance? Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive science at Brown University, has some compelling answers to these questions.

“We're biased to preserve our sense of rightness,” he told me, “and we have to be.”

The author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Sloman’s research focuses on judgment, decision-making, and reasoning. He’s especially interested in what’s called “the illusion of explanatory depth.” This is how cognitive scientists refer to our tendency to overestimate our understanding of how the world works.

We do this, Sloman says, because of our reliance on other minds.

“The decisions we make, the attitudes we form, the judgments we make, depend very much on what other people are thinking,” he said.

If the people around us are wrong about something, there’s a good chance we will be too. Proximity to truth compounds in the same way.

In this interview, Sloman and I talk about the problem of unjustified belief. I ask him about the political implications of his research, and if he thinks the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” has amplified our cognitive biases.

The interview/article is here.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Rigorous Study Finds Antidepressants Worsen Long-Term Outcomes

Peter Simons
Originally posted

Here is an excerpt:

These results add to a body of research that indicates that antidepressants worsen long-term outcomes. In an article published in 1994, the psychiatrist Giovanni Fava wrote that “Psychotropic drugs actually worsen, at least in some cases, the progression of the illness which they are supposed to treat.” In a 2003 article, he wrote: “A statistical trend suggested that the longer the drug treatment, the higher the likelihood of relapse.”

Previous research has also found that antidepressants are no more effective than placebo for mild-to-moderate depression, and other studies have questioned whether such medications are effective even for severe depression. Concerns have also been raised about the health risks of taking antidepressants—such as a recent study which found that taking antidepressants increases one’s risk of death by 33% (see MIA report).

In fact, studies have demonstrated that as many as 85% of people recover spontaneously from depression. In a recent example, researchers found that only 35% of people who experienced depression had a second episode within 15 years. That means that 65% of people who have a bout of depression are likely never to experience it again.

Critics of previous findings have argued that it is not fair to compare those receiving antidepressants with those who do not. They argue that initial depression severity confounds the results—those with more severe symptoms may be more likely to be treated with antidepressants. Thus, according to some researchers, even if antidepressants worked as well as psychotherapy or receiving no treatment, those treated with antidepressants would still show worse outcomes—because they had more severe symptoms in the first place.

The article is here.

The target article is here.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

For some evangelicals, a choice between Moore and morality

Marc Fisher
The Washington Post
Originally posted November 16, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

What’s happening in the churches of Alabama — a state where half the residents consider themselves evangelical Christians, double the national average, according to a Pew Research study — is nothing less than a battle for the meaning of evangelism, some church leaders say. It is a titanic struggle between those who believe there must be one clear, unalterable moral standard and those who argue that to win the war for the nation’s soul, Christians must accept morally flawed leaders.

Evangelicals are not alone in shifting their view of the role moral character should play in choosing political leaders. Between 2011 and last year, the percentage of Americans who say politicians who commit immoral acts in their private lives can still behave ethically in public office jumped to 61 percent from 44 percent, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings poll. During the same period, the shift among evangelicals was even more dramatic, moving from to 72 percent from 30 percent, the survey found.

“What you’re seeing here is rank hypocrisy,” said John Fea, an evangelical Christian who teaches history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “These are evangelicals who have decided that the way to win the culture is now uncoupled from character. Their goal is the same as it was 30 years ago, to restore America to its Christian roots, but the political playbook has changed.

The article is here.

And yes, I live in Mechanicsburg, PA, by I don't know John Fea.

Differential inter-subject correlation of brain activity when kinship is a variable in moral dilemma

Mareike Bacha-Trams, Enrico Glerean, Robin Dunbar, Juha M. Lahnakoski, and others
Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 14244


Previous behavioural studies have shown that humans act more altruistically towards kin. Whether and how knowledge of genetic relatedness translates into differential neurocognitive evaluation of observed social interactions has remained an open question. Here, we investigated how the human brain is engaged when viewing a moral dilemma between genetic vs. non-genetic sisters. During functional magnetic resonance imaging, a movie was shown, depicting refusal of organ donation between two sisters, with subjects guided to believe the sisters were related either genetically or by adoption. Although 90% of the subjects self-reported that genetic relationship was not relevant, their brain activity told a different story. Comparing correlations of brain activity across all subject pairs between the two viewing conditions, we found significantly stronger inter-subject correlations in insula, cingulate, medial and lateral prefrontal, superior temporal, and superior parietal cortices, when the subjects believed that the sisters were genetically related. Cognitive functions previously associated with these areas include moral and emotional conflict regulation, decision making, and mentalizing, suggesting more similar engagement of such functions when observing refusal of altruism from a genetic sister. Our results show that mere knowledge of a genetic relationship between interacting persons robustly modulates social cognition of the perceiver.

The article is here.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Going with your gut may mean harsher moral judgments

Jeff Sossamon
Originally posted November 2, 2017

Going with your intuition could make you judge others’ moral transgressions more harshly and keep you from changing your mind, even after considering all the facts, a new study suggests.

The findings show that people who strongly rely on intuition automatically condemn actions they perceive to be morally wrong, even if there is no actual harm.

In psychology, intuition, or “gut instinct,” is defined as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for reasoning.

“It is now widely acknowledged that intuitive processing influences moral judgment,” says Sarah Ward, a doctoral candidate in social and personality psychology at the University of Missouri.

“We thought people who were more likely to trust their intuition would be more likely to condemn things that are shocking, whereas people who don’t rely on gut feelings would not condemn these same actions as strongly,” Ward says.

Ward and Laura King, professor of psychological sciences, had study participants read through a series of scenarios and judge whether the action was wrong, such as an individual giving a gift to a partner that had previously been purchased for an ex.

The article is here.

The Illusion of Moral Superiority

Ben M. Tappin and Ryan T. McKay
Social Psychological and Personality Science
Volume: 8 issue: 6, page(s): 623-631
Issue published: August 1, 2017 


Most people strongly believe they are just, virtuous, and moral; yet regard the average person as distinctly less so. This invites accusations of irrationality in moral judgment and perception—but direct evidence of irrationality is absent. Here, we quantify this irrationality and compare it against the irrationality in other domains of positive self-evaluation. Participants (N = 270) judged themselves and the average person on traits reflecting the core dimensions of social perception: morality, agency, and sociability. Adapting new methods, we reveal that virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities, and the absolute and relative magnitude of this irrationality was greater than that in the other domains of positive self-evaluation. Inconsistent with prevailing theories of overly positive self-belief, irrational moral superiority was not associated with self-esteem. Taken together, these findings suggest that moral superiority is a uniquely strong and prevalent form of “positive illusion,” but the underlying function remains unknown.

The article is here.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Is There a Right Way to Nudge? The Practice and Ethics of Choice Architecture

Evan Selinger and Kyle Whyte
Sociology Compass, Vol. 5, No. 10, pp. 923-935


What exactly is a nudge, and how do nudges differ from alternative ways of modifying people's behavior, such as fines or penalties (e.g. taxing smokers) and increasing access to information (e.g. calorie counts on restaurant menus)? We open Section 2 by defining the concept of a nudge and move on to present some examples of nudges. Though there is certainly a clear concept of what a nudge is, there is some confusion when people design and talk about nudges in practice. In Sections 3 and 4, then, we discuss policies and technologies that get called nudges mistakenly as well as borderline cases where it is unclear whether people are being nudged. Understanding mistaken nudges and borderline cases allows citizens to consider critically whether they should support “alleged” nudge policies proposed by governments, corporations, and non-profit organizations. There are also important concerns about the ethics of nudging people's behavior. In Section 5 we review some major ethical and political issues surrounding nudges, covering both public anxieties and more formal scholarly criticisms. If nudges are to be justified as an acceptable form of behavior modification in democratic societies, nudge advocates must have reasons that allay anxieties and ethical concerns. However, in Section 6, we argue that nudge advocates must confront a particularly challenging problem. A strong justification of nudging, especially for pluralistic democracies, must show that nudge designers really understand how different people re-interpret the meaning of situations after a nudge has been introduced into the situations. We call this the problem of “semantic variance.” This problem, along with the ethical issues we discussed, makes us question whether nudges are truly viable mechanisms for improving people's lives and societies. Perhaps excitement over their potential of nudges is exaggerated.

The article is here.

Moral Hard-Wiring and Moral Enhancement


In a series of papers (Persson & Savulescu 2008; 2010; 2011a; 2012a; 2013; 2014a) and book (Persson & Savulescu 2012b), we have argued that there is an urgent need to pursue research into the possibility of moral enhancement by biomedical means – e.g. by pharmaceuticals, non-invasive brain stimulation, genetic modification or other means directly modifying biology. The present time brings existential threats which human moral psychology, with its cognitive and moral limitations and biases, is unfit to address.  Exponentially increasing, widely accessible technological advance and rapid globalisation create threats of intentional misuse (e.g. biological or nuclear terrorism) and global collective action problems, such as the economic inequality between developed and developing countries and anthropogenic climate change, which human psychology is not set up to address. We have hypothesized that these limitations are the result of the evolutionary function of morality being to maximize the fitness of small cooperative groups competing for resources. Because these limitations of human moral psychology pose significant obstacles to coping with the current moral mega-problems, we argued that biomedical modification of human moral psychology may be necessary.  We have not argued that biomedical moral enhancement would be a single “magic
bullet” but rather that it could play a role in a comprehensive approach which also features cultural and social measures.

The paper is here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The U.S. Is Retreating from Religion

Allen Downey
Scientific American
Originally published on October 20, 2017

Since 1990, the fraction of Americans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled, from about 8 percent to 22 percent. Over the next 20 years, this trend will accelerate: by 2020, there will be more of these "Nones" than Catholics, and by 2035, they will outnumber Protestants.

The following figure shows changes since 1972 and these predictions, based on data from the General Social Survey (GSS):

Catholic Hospital Group Grants Euthanasia to Mentally Ill, Defying Vatican

Francis X. Rocca
The Wall Street Journal
Originally posted October 27, 2017

A chain of Catholic psychiatric hospitals in Belgium is granting euthanasia to non-terminal patients, defying the Vatican and deepening a challenge to the church’s commitment to a constant moral code.

The board of the Brothers of Charity, Belgium’s largest single provider of psychiatric care, said the decision no longer belongs to Rome.

Truly Christian values, the board argued in September, should privilege a “person’s choice of conscience” over a “strict ethic of rules.”

The policy change is highly symbolic, said Didier Pollefeyt, a theologian and vice rector of the Catholic University of Leuven.

“The Brothers of Charity have been seen as a beacon of hope and resistance” to euthanasia, he said. “Now that the most Catholic institution gives up resistance, it looks like the most normal thing in the world.”

Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002, the first country with a majority Catholic population to do so. Belgian bishops opposed the legislation, in line with the church’s catechism, which states that causing the death of the handicapped, sick or dying to eliminate their suffering is murder.

The article is here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What is consciousness, and could machines have it?

Stanislas Dehaene, Hakwan Lau, & Sid Kouider
Science  27 Oct 2017: Vol. 358, Issue 6362, pp. 486-492


The controversial question of whether machines may ever be conscious must be based on a careful consideration of how consciousness arises in the only physical system that undoubtedly possesses it: the human brain. We suggest that the word “consciousness” conflates two different types of information-processing computations in the brain: the selection of information for global broadcasting, thus making it flexibly available for computation and report (C1, consciousness in the first sense), and the self-monitoring of those computations, leading to a subjective sense of certainty or error (C2, consciousness in the second sense). We argue that despite their recent successes, current machines are still mostly implementing computations that reflect unconscious processing (C0) in the human brain. We review the psychological and neural science of unconscious (C0) and conscious computations (C1 and C2) and outline how they may inspire novel machine architectures.

The article is here.

Facial recognition may reveal things we’d rather not tell the world. Are we ready?

Amitha Kalaichandran
The Boston Globe
Originally published October 27, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Could someone use a smartphone snapshot, for example, to diagnose another person’s child at the playground? The Face2Gene app is currently limited to clinicians; while anyone can download it from the App Store on an iPhone, it can only be used after the user’s healthcare credentials are verified. “If the technology is widespread,” says Lin, “do I see people taking photos of others for diagnosis? That would be unusual, but people take photos of others all the time, so maybe it’s possible. I would obviously worry about the invasion of privacy and misuse if that happened.”

Humans are pre-wired to discriminate against others based on physical characteristics, and programmers could easily manipulate AI programming to mimic human bias. That’s what concerns Anjan Chatterjee, a neuroscientist who specializes in neuroesthetics, the study of what our brains find pleasing. He has found that, relying on baked-in prejudices, we often quickly infer character just from seeing a person’s face. In a paper slated for publication in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Chatterjee reports that a person’s appearance — and our interpretation of that appearance — can have broad ramifications in professional and personal settings. This conclusion has serious implications for artificial intelligence.

“We need to distinguish between classification and evaluation,” he says. “Classification would be, for instance, using it for identification purposes like fingerprint recognition. . . which was once a privacy concern but seems to have largely faded away. Using the technology for evaluation would include discerning someone’s sexual orientation or for medical diagnostics.” The latter raises serious ethical questions, he says. One day, for example, health insurance companies could use this information to adjust premiums based on a predisposition to a condition.

The article is here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Will life be worth living in a world without work? Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life

John Danaher
forthcoming in Science and Engineering Ethics


Suppose we are about to enter an era of increasing technological unemployment. What implications does this have for society? Two distinct ethical/social issues would seem to arise. The first is one of distributive justice: how will the (presumed) efficiency gains from automated labour be distributed through society? The second is one of personal fulfillment and meaning: if  people no longer have to work, what will they do with their lives? In this article, I set aside the first issue and focus on the second. In doing so, I make three arguments. First, I argue that there are good reasons to embrace non-work and that these reasons become more compelling in an era of technological unemployment. Second, I argue that the technological advances that make widespread technological unemployment possible could still threaten or undermine human flourishing and meaning, especially if (as is to be expected) they do not remain confined to the economic sphere. And third, I argue that this threat could be contained if we adopt an integrative  approach to our relationship with technology. In advancing these arguments, I draw on three distinct literatures: (i) the literature on technological unemployment and workplace automation; (ii) the antiwork critique — which I argue gives reasons to embrace technological unemployment; and (iii) the philosophical debate about the conditions for meaning in life — which I argue gives reasons for concern.

The article is here.

Medical Evidence Debated

Ralph Bartholdt
Coeur d’Alene Press 
Originally posted October 27, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

“The point of this is not that he had a choice,” he said. “But what’s been loaded into his system, what’s he’s making the choices with.”

Thursday’s expert witness, psychologist Richard Adler, further developed the argument that Renfro suffered from a brain disorder evidenced by a series of photograph-like images of Renfro’s brain that showed points of trauma. He pointed out degeneration of white matter responsible for transmitting information from the front to the back of the brain, and shrunken portions on one side of the brain that were not symmetrical with their mirror images on the other side.

Physical evidence coinciding with the findings include Renfro’s choppy speech patterns and mannerisms as well inabilities to make cognitive connections, and his lack of social skills, Adler said.

Defense attorney Jay Logsdon asked if the images were obtained through a discredited method, one that has “been attacked as junk science?”

The method, called QEEG, for quantitative electroencephalogram, which uses electrical patterns that show electrical activity inside the brain’s cortex to determine impairment, was attacked in an article in 1997. The article’s criticism still stands today, Adler said.

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, Adler reiterated findings, linking them to the defendant’s actions, and dovetailing them into other test results, psychological and cognitive, that have been conducted while Renfro has been incarcerated in the Kootenai County Jail.

The article is here.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why You Don’t See the Forest for the Trees When You Are Anxious: Anxiety Impairs Intuitive Decision Making

Carina Remmers and Thea Zander
Clinical Psychological Science
First Published September 27, 2017


Intuitive decisions arise effortlessly from an unconscious, associative coherence detection process. Hereby, they guide people adaptively through everyday life decision making. When people are anxious, however, they often make poor decisions or no decision at all. Is intuition impaired in a state of anxiety? The aim of the current experiment was to examine this question in a between-subjects design. A total of 111 healthy participants were randomly assigned to an anxious, positive, or neutral multimodal mood induction after which they performed the established semantic coherence task. This task operationalizes intuition as the sudden, inexplicable detection of environmental coherence, based on automatic, unconscious processes of spreading activation. The current findings show that anxious participants showed impaired intuitive performance compared to participants of the positive and neutral mood groups. Trait anxiety did not moderate this effect. Accordingly, holistic, associative processes seem to be impaired by anxiety. Clinical implications and directions for future research are discussed.

The article is here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Did I just feed an addiction? Or ease a man’s pain? Welcome to modern medicine’s moral cage fight

Jay Baruch
Originally published October 23, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

Will the opioid pills Sonny is asking for treat his pain, feed an addiction, or both? Will prescribing it fulfill my moral responsibility to alleviate his distress, contribute to the supply chain in the illicit pill economy, or both? Prescribing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and recommendations from medical specialties and local hospitals are well-intentioned and necessary. But they do little to address the central anxiety that makes this decision a source of distress for physicians like me. It’s hard to evaluate pain without making some judgment about the patient and the patient’s story.


A good story shortcuts analytical thinking. It can work its charms without our knowledge and sometimes against our better judgment. Once an emotional connection is made and the listener becomes invested in the story, the believability of the story matters less. In fact, the more extreme the story, the greater its capacity to enthrall the listener or reader.

Stories can elicit empathy and influence behavior in part by stimulating the release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which has ties to generosity, trustworthiness, and mother-infant bonding. I’m intrigued by the possibility that clinicians’ vulnerability to deceit is often grounded in the empathy they are reported to be lacking.

The article is here.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Court ruling on expert testimony could open door to junk science

Andis Robeznieks
AMA Wire
Originally posted October 20, 2017

The New Jersey Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling soon that may affect more than 2,000 cases before the state’s courts. The court’s decision could have an even more far-reaching impact and might eventually undermine medical research, patient-physician decision making and informed consent.

The issue is whether scientific testimony expressing refuted theories that have not been subjected to peer review and do not follow the traditional hierarchy of scientific evidence should be admissible in litigation involving plaintiffs who claim their inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) was caused by the drug isotretinoin, marketed as Accutane by Hoffmann-La Roche, formerly headquartered in Nutley, N.J.

The first lawsuit on this matter was filed in July 2003. A hearing on whether the plaintiffs’ witnesses would be allowed to testify was held in February 2015, after which trial Judge Nelson C. Johnson barred their testimony. In May 2015, Johnson dismissed 2,076 related cases based on his ruling about the evidence.

This past July, a three-judge panel of the state appellate court reversed both the ruling barring the testimony and the dismissal of the cases. Hoffman-La Roche has requested the state Supreme Court to review this ruling.

The pressor is here.

Genetic testing of embryos creates an ethical morass

 Andrew Joseph
STAT news
Originally published October 23, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The issue also pokes at a broader puzzle ethicists and experts are trying to reckon with as genetic testing moves out of the lab and further into the hands of consumers. People have access to more information about their own genes — or, in this case, about the genes of their potential offspring — than ever before. But having that information doesn’t necessarily mean it can be used to inform real-life decisions.

A test can tell prospective parents that their embryo has an abnormal number of chromosomes in its cells, for example, but it cannot tell them what kind of developmental delays their child might have, or whether transferring that embryo into a womb will lead to a pregnancy at all. Families and physicians are gazing into five-day-old cells like crystal balls, seeking enlightenment about what might happen over a lifetime. Plus, the tests can be wrong.

“This is a problem that the rapidly developing field of genetics is facing every day and it’s no different with embryos than it is when someone is searching Ancestry.com,” said Judith Daar, a bioethicist and clinical professor at University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “We’ve learned a lot, and the technology is marvelous and can be predictive and accurate, but we’re probably at a very nascent stage of understanding the impact of what the genetic findings are on health.”

Preimplantation genetic testing, or PGT, emerged in the 1990s as a way to study the DNA of embryos before they’re transferred to a womb, and the technology has grown more advanced with time. Federal data show it has been used in about 5 percent of IVF procedures going back several years, but many experts pin the figure as high as 20 or 30 percent.

The article is here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Morality and Machines

Robert Fry
Originally published October 23, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

It is axiomatic that robots are more mechanically efficient than humans; equally they are not burdened with a sense of self-preservation, nor is their judgment clouded by fear or hysteria. But it is that very human fallibility that requires the intervention of the defining human characteristic—a moral sense that separates right from wrong—and explains why the ethical implications of the autonomous battlefield are so much more contentious than the physical consequences. Indeed, an open letter in 2015 seeking to separate AI from military application included the signatures of such luminaries as Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky. For the first time, therefore, human agency may be necessary on the battlefield not to take the vital tactical decisions but to weigh the vital moral ones.

So, who will accept these new responsibilities and how will they be prepared for the task? The first point to make is that none of this is an immediate prospect and it may be that AI becomes such a ubiquitous and beneficial feature of other fields of human endeavour that we will no longer fear its application in warfare. It may also be that morality will co-evolve with technology. Either way, the traditional military skills of physical stamina and resilience will be of little use when machines will have an infinite capacity for physical endurance. Nor will the quintessential commander’s skill of judging tactical advantage have much value when cognitive computing will instantaneously integrate sensor information. The key human input will be to make the judgments that link moral responsibility to legal consequence.

The article is here.

You Don’t Find Your Purpose — You Build It

John Coleman
Harvard Business Review
Originally published October 20, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

In achieving professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it. Put differently, purpose is a thing you build, not a thing you find. Almost any work can possess remarkable purpose. School bus drivers bear enormous responsibility — caring for and keeping safe dozens of children — and are an essential part of assuring our children receive the education they need and deserve. Nurses play an essential role not simply in treating people’s medical conditions but also in guiding them through some of life’s most difficult times. Cashiers can be a friendly, uplifting interaction in someone’s day — often desperately needed — or a forgettable or regrettable one. But in each of these instances, purpose is often primarily derived from focusing on what’s so meaningful and purposeful about the job and on doing it in such a way that that meaning is enhanced and takes center stage. Sure, some jobs more naturally lend themselves to senses of meaning, but many require at least some deliberate effort to invest them with the purpose we seek.


Most of us will have multiple sources of purpose in our lives. For me, I find purpose in my children, my marriage, my faith, my writing, my work, and my community. For almost everyone, there’s no one thing we can find. It’s not purpose but purposes we are looking for — the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives. Professional commitments are only one component of this meaning, and often our work isn’t central to our purpose but a means to helping others, including our families and communities. Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose takes the pressure off of finding a single thing to give our lives meaning.

The article is here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Social Origins of Disgust

Joshua Rottman, Jasmine M. DeJesus, and Emily Gerdin
Forthcoming in The Moral Psychology of Disgust (Nina Strohminger and Victor Kumar, Eds.)

Despite being perfectly nutritious, consuming bugs is considered gross in many cultures
(Ruby, Rozin, and Chan 2015). This disgust reaction carries severe consequences. Considering
the negative environmental impacts of the growing consumption of beef, poultry, and fish, the
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has identified eating insects as a sustainable
solution for maintaining protein-rich diets (van Huis et al. 2013), but the prevalent disgust
reaction to this initiative presents a substantial hurdle. What is the function of such an irrational
response, one that may continue to endanger the natural environment? Do people experience
disgust toward insects because of perceived disease risks? Are people reacting to the reminder
that they are eating an animal, in the same way that many people react negatively to eating a
whole fish (with its head and eyes) compared to a fish fillet? We argue that social risks may
instead be motivating this reaction. More broadly, moving beyond the example of entomophagy,
we claim that disgust is much more deeply enmeshed in social and moral considerations than has
been previously acknowledged.

The scientific study of disgust has been predominantly concerned with uncovering its
ultimate adaptive purpose. Theories about the function of disgust abound, ranging from the
abhorrence of disorder and ambiguity (Douglas 1966) to an existential recoiling from reminders
of mortality and animality (Becker 1973; Goldenberg et al. 2001; Nussbaum 2004). However, a
clear front-runner has emerged amongst these diverse proposals: Disgust evolved because it has
helped humans to avoid physical contact with poisons, parasites, and pathogens. In this chapter,
we propose an alternative to the recurrent claim that disgust evolved for the sole purpose of
facilitating the avoidance of toxins and infectious disease (e.g., Chapman and Anderson 2012;
Curtis 2011; Curtis and Biran 2001; Davey 2011; Rozin and Fallon 1987; Rozin, Haidt, and
Fincher 2009; Schaller and Park 2011; Stevenson, Case, and Oaten 2009; Tybur et al. 2013).
Because this paradigmatic idea posits a purely physical (i.e., non-social) reason for the existence
of disgust, we refer to it as the “Physical Origins” hypothesis.

The book chapter is here.

Are religious people more moral?

Dimitris Xygalatas
The San Francisco Chronicle
Originally published October 23, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

For one thing, the ethical ideals of one religion might seem immoral to members of another. For instance, in the 19th century, Mormons considered polygamy a moral imperative, while Catholics saw it as a mortal sin.

Moreover, religious ideals of moral behavior are often limited to group members and might even be accompanied by outright hatred against other groups. In 1543, for example, Martin Luther, one of the fathers of Protestantism, published a treatise titled “On the Jews and their Lies,” echoing anti-Semitic sentiments that have been common among various religious groups for centuries.

These examples also reveal that religious morality can and does change with the ebb and flow of the surrounding culture. In recent years, several Anglican churches have revised their moral views to allow contraception, the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex unions.

In any case, religiosity is only loosely related to theology. That is, the beliefs and behaviors of religious people are not always in accordance with official religious doctrines. Instead, popular religiosity tends to be much more practical and intuitive. This is what religious studies scholars call “theological incorrectness.”

Buddhism, for example, may officially be a religion without gods, but most Buddhists still treat Buddha as a deity. Similarly, the Catholic Church vehemently opposes birth control, but the vast majority of Catholics practice it anyway. In fact, theological incorrectness is the norm rather than the exception among believers.

For this reason, sociologist Mark Chaves called the idea that people behave in accordance with religious beliefs and commandments the “religious congruence fallacy.”

The article is here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

When and why we torture: A review of psychology research.

Shannon C. Houck & Meredith Repke
Translational Issues in Psychological Science
September 2017


There is an ongoing debate about the treatment of detainees, torture use, and torture efficacy. Missing from this debate, however, is empirical research on the psychology of torture. When and why do people justify the use of torture, and what influences torture endorsement? Psychological science has a valuable opportunity to address the applied problem of torture by further investigating when and why people justify its use. Our goals are to (a) contribute to the public debate about torture with empirical arguments, and (b) inform and promote the inclusion of psychological expertise in the development of policy related to torture. With those goals in mind, this article provides an overview of the psychology research on torture to date, and discusses how this research translates to the torture debate and policy-making. Further, we highlight the need for conducting additional empirical research on torture’s ineffectiveness, as well as the need for researchers to engage in the public discussion of issues related to torture.

Here’s how the article ends:

If popular opinion dictates that torture is justifiable in under the right conditions, torture will continue, regardless of policies or ethics. Psychologists’ input is relevant to many topics, however the highest stakes are at risk when it comes to the issue of torture, making the input of psychological researchers of the utmost importance.

The article is here, available for download.

Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded

Barry Meier
The New York Times
Originally published October 17, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

Both Nxivm and Mr. Raniere, 57, have long attracted controversy. Former members have depicted him as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.

Now, as talk about the secret sisterhood and branding has circulated within Nxivm, scores of members are leaving. Interviews with a dozen of them portray a group spinning more deeply into disturbing practices. Many members said they feared that confessions about indiscretions would be used to blackmail them.


In July, Ms. Edmondson filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Health against Danielle Roberts, a licensed osteopath and follower of Mr. Raniere, who performed the branding, according to Ms. Edmondson and another woman. In a letter, the agency said it would not look into Dr. Roberts because she was not acting as Ms. Edmondson’s doctor when the branding is said to have happened.

Separately, a state police investigator told Ms. Edmondson and two other women that officials would not pursue their criminal complaint against Nxivm because their actions had been consensual, a text message shows.

State medical regulators also declined to act on a complaint filed against another Nxivm-affilated physician, Brandon Porter. Dr. Porter, as part of an “experiment,” showed women graphically violent film clips while a brain-wave machine and video camera recorded their reactions, according to two women who took part.

The women said they were not warned that some of the clips were violent, including footage of four women being murdered and dismembered.

“Please look into this ASAP,” a former Nxivm member, Jennifer Kobelt, stated in her complaint. “This man needs to be stopped.”

In September, regulators told Ms. Kobelt they concluded that the allegations against Dr. Porter did not meet the agency’s definition of “medical misconduct,” their letter shows.

The article is here.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Crowdsourced Morality Could Determine the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

Dom Galeon
Originally published October 17, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Crowdsourced Morality

This idea of having to choose between two morally problematic outcomes isn’t new. Ethicists even have a name for it: the double-effect. However, having to apply the concept to an artificially intelligent system is something humankind has never had to do before, and numerous experts have shared their opinions on how best to go about it.

OpenAI co-chairman Elon Musk believes that creating an ethical AI is a matter of coming up with clear guidelines or policies to govern development, and governments and institutions are slowly heeding Musk’s call. Germany, for example, crafted the world’s first ethical guidelines for self-driving cars. Meanwhile, Google parent company Alphabet’s AI DeepMind now has an ethics and society unit.

Other experts, including a team of researchers from Duke University, think that the best way to move forward is to create a “general framework” that describes how AI will make ethical decisions. These researchers believe that aggregating the collective moral views of a crowd on various issues — like the Moral Machine does with self-driving cars — to create this framework would result in a system that’s better than one built by an individual.

The article is here.

Is It Too Late For Big Data Ethics?

Kalev Leetaru
Originally published October 16, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

AI researchers are rushing to create the first glimmers of general AI and hoping for the key breakthroughs that take us towards a world in which machines gain consciousness. The structure of academic IRBs means that little of this work is subject to ethical review of any kind and its highly technical nature means the general public is little aware of the rapid pace of progress until it comes into direct life-or-death contact with consumers such as driverless cars.

Could industry-backed initiatives like one announced by Bloomberg last month in partnership with BrightHive and Data for Democracy be the answer? It all depends on whether companies and organizations actively infuse these values into the work they perform and sponsor or whether these are merely public relations campaigns for them. As I wrote last month, when I asked the organizers of a recent data mining workshop as to why they did not require ethical review or replication datasets for their submissions, one of the organizers, a Bloomberg data scientist, responded only that the majority of other ACM computer science conferences don’t either. When asked why she and her co-organizers didn’t take a stand with their own workshop to require IRB review and replication datasets even if those other conferences did not, in an attempt to start a trend in the field, she would only repeat that such requirements are not common to their field. When asked whether Bloomberg would be requiring its own data scientists to adhere to its new data ethics initiative and/or mandate that they integrate its principles into external academic workshops they help organize, a company spokesperson said they would try to offer comment, but had nothing further to add after nearly a week.

The article is here.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Inside the CIA's Black Site Torture Room

Larry Siems
The Guardian
Originally posted October 9, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Jessen, who interrogated Rahman six times over a two-week period, and Mitchell, who met with him once, claimed throughout the lawsuit that they tried to mitigate the harsh conditions of Rahman’s confinement. But cables show it was Jessen who debated whether to subject Rahman to enhanced interrogations techniques with CIA headquarters, and it was Jessen whose advice held sway when he and Zirbel plotted Rahman’s interrogation. “He could tell that [the site manager] was running all of his suggestions through his ‘bullshit filter,’” the investigator notes from his interview with the psychologist, but “Jessen said he was the guy with all the tricks”.

Zirbel accepted Jessen’s suggestion that when Rahman complained that he was cold, he was using a sophisticated al-Qaida resistance technique. When Rahman “claimed inability to think due to conditions (cold),” “complained about poor treatment,” and “complained about the violation of his human rights”, as a cable recorded after one of Jessen’s interrogations, these were evidence, Jessen said, of a “health and welfare” resistance strategy.

The article is here.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Morally Reframed Arguments Can Affect Support for Political Candidates

Jan G. Voelkel and Matthew Feinberg
Social Psychological and Personality Science
First Published September 28, 2017


Moral reframing involves crafting persuasive arguments that appeal to the targets’ moral values but argue in favor of something they would typically oppose. Applying this technique to one of the most politically polarizing events—political campaigns—we hypothesized that messages criticizing one’s preferred political candidate that also appeal to that person’s moral values can decrease support for the candidate. We tested this claim in the context of the 2016 American presidential election. In Study 1, conservatives reading a message opposing Donald Trump grounded in a more conservative value (loyalty) supported him less than conservatives reading a message grounded in more liberal concerns (fairness). In Study 2, liberals reading a message opposing Hillary Clinton appealing to fairness values were less supportive of Clinton than liberals in a loyalty-argument condition. These results highlight how moral reframing can be used to overcome the rigid stances partisans often hold and help develop political acceptance.

The research is here.

Prince Harry: mental health should be at heart of armed forces training

Caroline Davies
The Guardian
Originally posted October 9, 2017

Prince Harry has said mental health strategies for armed forces personnel are crucial to create a “more confident, focused and, ultimately, more combat-ready military”.

In a speech at the Ministry of Defence, the 33-year-old prince, who spent 10 years in the army, said that as the number of active-duty personnel had been reduced there was a premium on “every individual being fighting fit and deployable”.

Announcing a joint initiative between the MoD and the Royal Foundation, created by the prince and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to tackle mental health issues, Harry said mental health strategies needed to be at the forefront of armed forces personnel training.

“Quite simply, these men and women are prized assets which need to be continually invested in. We surely have to think of them as high-performance athletes, carrying all their kit, equipment and a rifle,” he said. “Crucially, fighting fitness is not just about physical fitness. It is just as much about mental fitness too.”

The MoD said the move would build upon a recently launched government strategy aimed at improving mental health among military workers, civilian staff, their families and veterans.

The article is here.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A fundamental problem with Moral Enhancement

Joao Fabiano
Practical Ethics
Originally posted October 13, 2017

Moral philosophers often prefer to conceive thought experiments, dilemmas and problem cases of single individuals who make one-shot decisions with well-defined short-term consequences. Morality is complex enough that such simplifications seem justifiable or even necessary for philosophical reflection.  If we are still far from consensus on which is the best moral theory or what makes actions right or wrong – or even if such aspects should be the central problem of moral philosophy – by considering simplified toy scenarios, then introducing group or long-term effects would make matters significantly worse. However, when it comes to actually changing human moral dispositions with the use of technology (i.e., moral enhancement), ignoring the essential fact that morality deals with group behaviour with long-ranging consequences can be extremely risky. Despite those risks, attempting to provide a full account of morality in order to conduct moral enhancement would be both simply impractical as well as arguably risky. We seem to be far away from such account, yet there are pressing current moral failings, such as the inability for proper large-scale cooperation, which makes the solution to present global catastrophic risks, such as global warming or nuclear war, next to impossible. Sitting back and waiting for a complete theory of morality might be riskier than attempting to fix our moral failing using incomplete theories. We must, nevertheless, proceed with caution and an awareness of such incompleteness. Here I will present several severe risks from moral enhancement that arise from focusing on improving individual dispositions while ignoring emergent societal effects and point to tentative solutions to those risks. I deem those emergent risks fundamental problems both because they lie at the foundation of the theoretical framework guiding moral enhancement – moral philosophy – and because they seem, at the time, inescapable; my proposed solution will aim at increasing awareness of such problems instead of directly solving them.

The article is here.

A growing share of Americans say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be moral

Gregory A. Smith
Pew Research Center
Originally published October 16, 2017

Most U.S. adults now say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values (56%), up from about half (49%) who expressed this view in 2011. This increase reflects the continued growth in the share of the population that has no religious affiliation, but it also is the result of changing attitudes among those who do identify with a religion, including white evangelical Protestants.

Surveys have long shown that religious “nones” – those who describe themselves religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – are more likely than those who identify with a religion to say that belief in God is not a prerequisite for good values and morality. So the public’s increased rejection of the idea that belief in God is necessary for morality is due, in large part, to the spike in the share of Americans who are religious “nones.”

Indeed, the growth in the share of Americans who say belief in God is unnecessary for morality tracks closely with the growth in the share of the population that is religiously unaffiliated. In the 2011 Pew Research Center survey that included the question about God and morality, religious “nones” constituted 18% of the sample. By 2017, the share of “nones” stood at 25%.

The information is here.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Culture and Business Ethics

Marshall Schminke
Originally published October 3, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

What do most companies overlook when it comes to organizational design?

Supervisors. Despite some high profile missteps, organizations generally do a pretty good job of making ethics a front-and-center issue at the upper levels.  Likewise, they invest heavily in education and training at the level of the rank-and-file worker.  But as with so many strategically important issues, low-to-mid-level supervisors are often ignored.  This is troublesome, because research shows the single most important factor in driving employees’ ethical actions is not what top managers or coworkers say or do.  Rather, it is the immediate supervisor—and whether he or she is capable of creating an ethically supportive work culture that employees experience every day—that matters most.  Yet in most cases, these “sergeants and lieutenants” of the workplace receive relatively little attention when it comes to ethics and ethics training.

How can E&C teams better emphasize ethics vs. compliance?

Culture. It’s not that rules aren’t important.  They are.  And they must be understood and followed.  But complex business environments—and complex ethical rules and standards—cannot address every situation employees might encounter.  Therefore, the only real insurance organizations have for getting the best ethical effort possible from their employees is to bake it into the culture and climate, where it becomes second nature to employees trying to do their best in a tough business world.

What have you learned as a part of the ES culture measurement working group?

As a culture and climate researcher for years, this experience has been truly eye-opening for me.  It has introduced me to different perspectives on culture and, in turn, exposed me to completely different ways of thinking about how to create and maintain effective ethical cultures.  For example, of the eight components of ethical culture identified by the Ethical Systems culture measurement working group, I had only a passing familiarity with the ethical awareness and ethical leadership components.  This experience has not only improved my understanding of those components, but has also heightened my awareness of how they fit and interact with the other six components.

The information is here.

Christian self-enhancement

Gebauer, Jochen E.; Sedikides, Constantine; & Schrade, Alexandra.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 113(5), Nov 2017, 786-809


People overestimate themselves in domains that are central to their self-concept. Critically, the psychological status of this “self-centrality principle” remains unclear. One view regards the principle as an inextricable part of human nature and, thus, as universal and resistant to normative pressure. A contrasting view regards the principle as liable to pressure (and subsequent modification) from self-effacement norms, thus questioning its universality. Advocates of the latter view point to Christianity’s robust self-effacement norms, which they consider particularly effective in curbing self-enhancement, and ascribe Christianity an ego-quieting function. Three sets of studies examined the self-centrality principle among Christians. Studies 1A and 1B (N = 2,118) operationalized self-enhancement as better-than-average perceptions on the domains of commandments of faith (self-centrality: Christians ≫ nonbelievers) and commandments of communion (self-centrality: Christians > nonbelievers). Studies 2A–2H (N = 1,779) operationalized self-enhancement as knowledge overclaiming on the domains of Christianity (self-centrality: Christians ≫ nonbelievers), communion (self-centrality: Christians > nonbelievers), and agency (self-centrality: Christians ≈ nonbelievers). Studies 3A–3J (N = 1,956) operationalized self-enhancement as grandiose narcissism on the domains of communion (self-centrality: Christians > nonbelievers) and agency (self-centrality: Christians ≈ nonbelievers). The results converged across studies, yielding consistent evidence for Christian self-enhancement. Relative to nonbelievers, Christians self-enhanced strongly in domains central to the Christian self-concept. The results also generalized across countries with differing levels of religiosity. Christianity does not quiet the ego. The self-centrality principle is resistant to normative pressure, universal, and rooted in human nature.

The research can be found here.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Psychologists are facing consequences for helping with torture. It’s not enough.

Roy Eidelson
The Washington Post
Originally posted October 13, 2017

In August, two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three former CIA detainees. The psychologists were accused of designing, implementing and overseeing the CIA’s experimental program of torture and abuse (for which their consulting firm received tens of millions of dollars). The evidence against them was compelling: a detailed Senate report, multiple depositions, newly declassified documents and even Mitchell’s memoir . Prior to settling, Mitchell and Jessen denied any legal responsibility, and their attorneys argued their inculpability by comparing them to the low-level technicians whose employers provided lethal gas for Hitler’s extermination camps.

As a psychologist who has spent the past decade working with colleagues and other human rights advocates to reset my profession’s moral compass against torture, I recognize this settlement as an achievement, even if it’s not the damning finding of liability I would have preferred. The case marks the first instance of legal accountability of any kind for psychologists who abandoned ethical standards — and basic decency — while claiming they were merely following government orders on torture. Getting to this point was an uphill battle. And there’s still a long way to go before psychologists’ participation in torture is ended for good.

The article is here.