Category Archives: Science & Technology

July Fourth 2018 Post Red Sox Victory Over The Nationals Ethics Warm-Up: Patriotic Births And Deaths, Siri, Affirmative Action, And A GOP Rep. Wants To Forget The Past…

Happy

Fourth of July!

Sorry for the late Warm-Up: I had to root the Red Sox to victory in an 11 AM game, and will soon celebrate Independence Day by seeing “Jurassic World II”…

1. Ethics Dunce: Siri.  A speech by British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson  in the House of Commons  yesterday was interrupted when Apple’s smartphone digital assistant, which heard her master mention terrorists in Syria, blurted out,  “I found something on the web for Syria!”

2. Good. Let it never be said that the Trump administration didn’t accomplish anything positive. Yesterday the Administration withdrew several Obama Administration policy documents designed to push universities toward admissions policies that involved preferences based on race. Affirmative action, which is government sanctioned race discrimination (because the ends justify the means) has always defied the Constitution, and the Supreme Court has consistently warned that the leash was short, and the breach would not be tolerated forever.  With higher education flagship Harvard University being exposed as grossly discrimination against deserving Asian-American applicants in the interest of “diversity,” and an affirmative action-tender majority on the Supreme Court looking like a thing of the past with Justice Kennedy’s retirement, this relic of the Seventies, a policy that exacerbated racial divisions as much as any factor in U.S. society, needs to be rejected completely and finally, and the announcement from the Education Department is an excellent start. In a related statement, as in the earlier withdrawal of the “Dear Colleague letter” that extorted universities into dispensing with due process and a presumption of innocence in student sexual assault cases, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pointedly rejected this method of abusing power that the Obama Administration fine tuned to an art, saying,

The American people deserve to have their voices heard and a government that is accountable to them. When issuing regulations, federal agencies must abide by constitutional principles and follow the rules set forth by Congress and the President. In previous administrations, however, agencies often tried to impose new rules on the American people without any public notice or comment period, simply by sending a letter or posting a guidance document on a website. That’s wrong, and it’s not good government.”

Exactly. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/3/2018: Remember Pickett’s Charge! Edition [UPDATED]

Good Morning!

1. “General, I have no division!” At about 2:00 pm, , July 3, 1863, by the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee launched his last, desperate and audacious stratagem to win the pivotal battle of the American Civil War, a massed Napoleonic assault on the entrenched Union position on Cemetary Ridge, with a “copse of trees” at its center. The doomed march into artillery and rifle fire, across an open field and over fences, lasted less than an hour. The Union forces suffered 1,500 casualties,, while at least 1,123 Confederates were killed on the battlefield, 4,019 were wounded, and nearly 4000 Rebel soldiers were captured. Lee’s bold stroke had failed spectacularly, and would go down in history as one of the worst military blunders of all time.

That verdict is debatable, but this is not: Pickett’s Charge, as the attack came to be called, holds as many fascinating ethics lessons as any event in American history, and this blog has returned to it for enlightenment time and time again.

There is the matter of the duty to prevent a disaster that you know is going to occur, the whistleblower’s duty, and the theme of Barbara Tuchman’s work, “The March of Folly.” There was Robert E. Lee’s noble and unequivocal acceptance of accountability for the disaster, telling the returning and defeated warriors that “It is all my fault.” The defeat also turned on moral luck, with many unpredictable factors, such as the intervention of a brave and intrepid Union cavalry officer named George Armstrong Custer, who also teaches that our greatest strengths and most deadly flaws are often the same thing, and that the Seven Enabling Virtues can be employed for both good and wrongful objectives.  Pickett’s Charge shows how, as Bill James explained, nature conspires to make us unethical.

Pickett’s Charge also teaches that leadership requires pro-active decision-making, and the willingness to fail, to be excoriated, to be blamed, as an essential element of succeeding. Most of all, perhaps, it illustrates the peril’s of hindsight bias, for without a few random turns of fate, Robert E. Lee’s gamble might have worked.

2. Funny how if you continually denigrate someone based on his color and gender, he will eventually stop respecting you. Stanford University has established a Men and Masculinities Project  that aims to help men develop “healthy and inclusive male identities”—because they obviously don’t have those now.  “We acknowledge that male identity is a social privilege, and the aim for this project is to provide the education and support needed to better the actions of the male community rather than marginalize others,” anti-man-splains Stanford’s gurus. Stanford, of course, is not alone in pushing the ubiquitous progressive narrative that men are toxic, along with whites, making white men the worst of all. Perhaps this might explain why support for Democrats among young white men is falling fast.

Nah, it must be because they are sexist and racist…

3. But..but…settled science! The Economist estimates that as many as 400,000 papers published in supposedly peer-reviewed journals were not peer-reviewed at all. Scientists, scholars and academics are no more trustworthy or alien to unethical conduct than anyone else, but because most of the public (and journalists) don’t  understand what they write about and have to accept what they claim on faith, they are presumed to be trustworthy.

Think of them as the equivalent of auto mechanics. Continue reading

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“Jurassic World” Ethics: Why Movie Reviewers Are Useless

I’m going to see “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” just as soon as I can, as I have seen all of the other “Jurassic Park” films since Spielberg’s first. Of course I am: I love dinosaurs.

I have loved dinosaurs since I was about 4, and my dad brought me a bronze model of  a T-Rex when he returned from a business trip to Chicago. That five-inch model was the first entry into a collection that eventually reached over thirty dinosaurs, greatly abetted by my mom, who was a ceramicist. She would peruse the dinosaur books I borrowed from the library and pick out artwork that she liked. Thus I became the only kid in Arlington, Mass. with ceramic models of a gorgosaurus and a styracosaurus.When I was in the first grade, I gave a talk about my collection and the species they represented—in those days they hadn’t even discovered velocirapters yet, thought dinosaurs dragged their tails, and assumed they were cold-blooded, like reptiles—at theParmenter School sixth grade hobby show.

The more I learned about dinosaurs the more  I loved them. I still can’t get over the fact that these amazing creatures existed, when they look like the results of a fantasy artist’s bad drug trip. I must confess, I also love the fact that dinosaurs drive evolution deniers and Fundamentalists crazy. If the Earth is the only planet with life, doesn’t the fact that God filled it with dinosaurs suggest that they were his favorites too? Might it even suggest that God looks like a T-Rex? My first face to face experience with an intelligent person who simply denied facts that didn’t fit in with her ideology was a U.S. Chamber of Commerce colleague who noted the large, leather pteranodon hanging in my office and said, which a superior smirk, “You don’t really believe those things existed, do you?”

Mostly, however, dinosaurs fill me with wonder, exactly as they did when I was 4.

This was the aspect of the first film that Spielberg captured so well: It’s not a monster movie, but a pro-dinosaur movie. People forget now, but many critics dismissed “Jurassic Park” as junk: they were  enthralled with Spielberg’s other movie that year, “Schindler’s List,” an important movie. The critics didn’t get “Jurassic Park,” and still don’t.

Now they are slamming the fifth in the series, the sequel to “Jurassic World,” which they also didn’t get, because most critics equate dinosaurs with Godzilla. I thought “Jurassic World” was easily the best of the sequels. I loved the attack of the pterosaurs (accompanied by air raid sirens!)—I had models of all of them! I loved the mossasaur—Mom made me a couple of different species—and its surprise role in the film’s climax. I loved how the T-Rex, just like in the first film, became an unlikely rescuer of the human stars. And look! There’s an ankylosaurus! Mom made me one of those! Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 6/20/18: Darrow, Damn Technology And Dunkin’ Donuts

Good Morning!

1. Shameless self-promotion Dept. Once again, I am presenting my three-hour Clarence Darrow and modern attorney ethics CLE program for the D.C. Bar, and later this summer, Virginia CLE will be sponsoring the same seminar in Richmond and Northern Virginia. As always, my partner and collaborator in All Things Darrow is esteemed D.C. actor (and American University law school instructor, and, I am proud to say, my friend) Paul Morella, who has been Darrowing since he premiered my one-man show about the great and flawed lawyer in 2000, for The American Century Theater. His website is here. This is Paul…

Paul is a lot taller, thinner and better looking than Darrow, and unlike Clarence, he also bathes regularly. It doesn’t matter. I can’t recommend his show, which he performs for bar associations and legal groups around the country, more highly, and would feel this way even if I hadn’t written it. Of course, any group that wants Continuing Legal Education credits can also book today’s seminar, which has many of Darrow’s greatest courtroom orations, but also legal ethics commentary from me.

2. Ah-HA! NOW I understand why I’m being sued for defamation!  This is in the “This comes as no surprise” category, but it still explains a lot. The Pew Research Center just released a survey that demonstrates that a large proportion of the public can’t distinguish facts from opinions. The main portion of the study  measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements. Pew found

“…that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion.”

I challenge that last part. It may well be that those who place high levels of trust in the news media could distinguish between fact and opinion in those  ten statements, but it doesn’t change the fact (now this is my opinion, but I still believe it is demonstrably true) that the news media distorts what it represents as facts based on journalists’ biased opinions. Continue reading

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“Bombshell,” Hedy Lamarr, And The Duty To Remember

I alluded to Hedy Lamarr in an earlier post about my favorite celebrities, those who manage to be outstanding in multiple diverse fields at once. The glamorous cult actress is a prime example, being known publicly for her pulchritude and in much more rarefied circles as a brilliant inventor. I had been waiting for the release of the documentary–produced by Susan Sarandon!—about Lamarr, called “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” ever since a friend and commenter here told me that it was in the works. Now it is on Netflix, and I watched it. You should too. I’ll just jot down some loosely connected thoughts about the ethics lessons of Lamarr’s life.

  • The sexual exploitation of young women in films may have been worse in the past than it is now, but Lamarr’s life is a reminder of how excruciatingly slowly cultures change. She was made infamous as the star of a sensational sex film in  Germany, shown naked, and also in an apparently explicit sex scene when she was too young (19) and naive to know what the director was doing.

The episode literally shadowed her life. Yet half a century later, very young actresses like Drew Barrymore and Dakota Fanning were similarly abused by directors, the main difference being that public attitudes now make the resulting stigma less permanent.

  • Antisemitism was sufficiently pervasive in the U.S. that Lamarr denied her Jewish heritage for much of her life.

Living a lie is not an ethically healthy existence, but Lamarr had few reasons to trust that she would be accepted for who she was….fewer than most, on fact.

  • There are few more vivid examples than Lamarr of a brilliant woman who rapidly learned that she had to rely on the favor of men based on her physical charms to have any chance of succeeding. Yet it is a bargain with the devil, for the price is not being taken seriously. The suppressed resentment and anger Lamarr reveals in interviews is palpable.

Sometimes I think it’s a mircale that women didn’t rise up and slaughter millions of men while they slept. They deserved it.

  • Hedy Lamarr is primarily remembered now as a running joke in “Blazing Saddles.”

Think about that. Continue reading

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Ethics Quiz: Operation Paperclip

That’s Wernher in the nice suit…

In the previous post, I discussed the position holding that scientists should be shunned, and even blocked from grants and research opportunities, based on their character flaws, statements, and workplace misconduct.

Operation Paperclip was a secret program of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency that occurred between 1956 and 1959.  The operation  brought more than 1,600 Nazi German scientists, engineers, and technicians, most notably Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket researchers, plus their family members (bringing the total to over 6,000 Germans)  to the U.S. for government employment in the effort to gain a military and scientific advantage over the Soviet Union in the post-war world. The Soviet Union took their own selection of German scientists.

The Ethics Incompleteness Principle states that…

…when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to abandon the system or rule—in that one anomalous case only— and use basic ethics principles and analysis to find the best solution. Then return to the system and rules as they were, without altering them to make the treatment of the anomalous situation “consistent.” No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single ethical system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of The Week: Continue reading

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The Controversial Birthday Toast: If Artists Have An Obligation To Avoid Harming Their Art By Being Jerks (Or Worse) In Public, Does The Same Principle Apply To Scientists?

The title refers to this post, which preceded the surprising development of iconic movie mensch Morgan Freeman being exposed as a workplace harasser (alleged, that is) and suddenly seeing his image degraded to Dirty Old Man, and his movies devalued as “Ew!”  Now even his voice-over work is in peril.

A famous scientist is a different kettle of fish, however.

At a genomics meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York,  the attendees gathered to listen to the keynote speech in an auditorium, where a large painted portrait of  scientist James Watson–who lives in Cold Spring Harbor— hung. It was also Watson’s 90th birthday. Eric Lander, the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, lifted a glass of champagne in hand to toast the famous co-discoverer of the DNA molecule.  Watson has “inspired all of us to push the frontiers of science to benefit humankind,” he said in part.

You would think, would you not, that simply recognizing a giant of science and a crucial and transformative figure in these scientists’ field would be able to escape political correctness and social media controversy, wouldn’t you? Nah, why would you think that, silly? This is 21st century America.

Watson, to catch you up quickly, began tarnishing his reputation years ago with a series of gaffes. Notably, he opined that there was no way to avoid the conclusion that African-Americans weren’t as intelligent, on average, as whites. The furious public backlash sent him into retirement. But he still couldn’t avoid inserting his foot in his mouth: speaking before he was to receive an  Honorary Doctorate from University College Cork (in Ireland) in 2010, Watson told journalists that cancer research was being unnecessarily held back by an obsession with ethics.

So the man has some theories in common with Josef Mengele and David Duke. He also has made some jaw-droppingly sexist comments in his dotage….some that even Morgan Freeman might blanch at.

After the meeting, Caltech’s Lior Pachter  led a furious repudiation of Eric Lander’s toast with a series of tweets documenting various sexist and racist comments by Watson. He later told industry reporters, “That people are willing to celebrate this individual in public was a moment of truth for me of what things actually look like in our community and what might be then happening in nonpublic venues behind closed doors when hiring and other important decisions are being made.”

Lander, since scientists have no more backbone than actors, politicians, comedians and bakery owners, immediately capitulated and grovelled for forgiveness. In an email addressed to the Broad Institute community, Lander wrote that  his brief  comment about Watson being ‘flawed”  to introduce the toast “did not go nearly far enough.”

“I reject his views as despicable,” he wrote. “They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone.”

An article about the foofaraw in the The Scientist amply demonstrates why scientists are no more adept at drawing ethics lines than junior high school students. In the various accounts and arguments, Watson’s legitimately offensive statements are conflated without distinction with more ambiguous ones. For example, he once said, “Should you be allowed to make an anti-Semitic remark? Yes, because some anti-Semitism is justified. Just like some anti-Irish feeling is justified. If you can’t be criticized, that’s very dangerous. You lose the concept of a free society.” What is that? Is he talking about criticism of Israel’s policies, or is he supporting the First Amendment? As I reviewed the debate over Watson along with his own statements, one conclusion was unavoidable. A lot of scientists, including Watson, don’t communicate very clearly. Is that a surprise? They didn’t major in Literature and English for a reason. They are about as skilled at clear, unambiguous expression as I am at quantum physics. Continue reading

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