Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books Read in 2009

Once again, here's my annual list of books I've read in the last year. I did much better in quantity than last year--going back to school helped a bit, even though the vast majority of reading for class was articles that aren't reflected in this list.
  • John Baer, James C. Kaufman, and Roy F. Baumeister, editors, Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will
  • Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists
  • Jeff Benedict, Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage
  • Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide
  • Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
  • Fred P. Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition
  • Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar... Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (not very funny, and thinks "all platypuses are mammals" is analytic and a priori, p. 67--is that what they teach at Harvard?)
  • Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
  • Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
  • Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
  • Douglas R. Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop
  • Jean-Roch Laurence and Campbell Perry, Hypnosis, Will, and Memory: A Psycho-Legal History
  • Penn Jillette, How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard
  • Paul Krassner, In Praise of Indecency: The Leading Investigative Satirist Sounds Off on Hypocrisy, Censorship, and Free Expression
  • Paul Krassner, Who's to Say What's Obscene? Politics, Culture, and Comedy in America Today
  • Oscar Levant, The Unimportance of Being Oscar
  • Oscar Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance
  • Ben Mezrich, Busting Vegas: A True Story of Monumental Excess, Sex, Love, Violence, and Beating the Odds
  • Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future
  • Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
  • Vincent Price, I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography
  • W.V. Quine, Methods of Logic, Fourth Edition
  • Rudy Rucker, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy
  • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
  • John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality
  • Kyrsten Sinema, Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last
  • Jim Steinmeyer, Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural
  • Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia
  • T.H. White, The Once and Future King
I also read significant parts of
  • Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
  • Yaron Ezrahi, The Descent of Icarus: Science and the Transformation of Contemporary Democracy
  • Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch, and Judy Wajcman, editors, The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Third Edition
  • Michael Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity
  • Elliott Mendelson, Introduction to Mathematical Logic (5th edition) (worked through ch. 3 on number theory and Gödel's incompleteness theorems and the appendix on second-order predicate logic, along with Boolos & Jeffrey's Computability and Logic chapter on second-order predicate logic)
  • R.C. Olby, G.N. Cantor, J.R.R. Christie, and M.J.S. Hodge, editors, Companion to the History of Modern Science
  • Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life
(Previously: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sixth stay dog of 2009

We found this little dog, Max, while on our way to do a RESCUE volunteer shift, running around loose in a vacant lot near a school. He was very bedraggled and thirsty, and had apparently been loose for a while (days, at least). Fortunately, he had tags, so I left messages at the number on his personalized tag and at the different number associated with his county tag, which it's easy to look up at An hour or two later, I got a call from the dog's previous owner (to whom the dog is still registered), who sent her husband out to pick him up. They didn't know what had happened to the current owner or why the dog was loose.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 5

Vocab has put up the fifth and final part of his essay on abortion and personhood up at his blog, devoted to Thomson's violinist argument. I don't really have much to say about it--we didn't coordinate our posts in advance, and I've already discussed Thomson's argument myself in my response to part 4. I disagree with Vocab's claim that Thomson's argument proves too much and would allow infanticide--her argument only addresses a physically dependent fetus. And, as I already pointed out in my prior response, the argument doesn't prove as much as it purports to. The violinist case isn't exactly analogous to pregnancy and abortion in a number of ways, and Vocab is right to point out the differences. I agree that if a pregnancy is allowed to go to term (as well as to some earlier point at which there is plausible evidence for personhood on my standard), then that entails at least tacit consent and a moral duty of care. I would still argue, however, that abortion would be legitimate beyond that point for medically justifiable reasons (e.g., endangered health and life of the mother). This position--like the current position of the courts, which I think is approximately correct despite being based on viability--points out that there are more than two polar opposite positions in this debate.

In Vocab's final part, he talks a bit about the work that he and his wife do in caring for foster children. I commend him for that work, which is all-too-rare among opponents of abortion.

Thanks, Vocab, for the debate--and I still would like to hear a response from you in the comments on some of the issues that have been left hanging (e.g., in the comments on part 3).

UPDATE: It would probably be better to end this discussion with a summary that I already made in the comments on part 3:
We don't disagree that there is continuity of organism (just as there is continuity of a population of organisms over time)--all life on this planet is connected in that way. But just as we don't count every species as human, even in our own genetic lineage, we don't count every life stage of individual human organisms as persons. There's a sense in which "I" was once a zygote that had my same DNA, but at that stage there was no "me" there yet--there was nothing that it was like to be a zygote, to use Thomas Nagel's expression. In that same sense that "I" was a zygote, "I" will be a dead body in the future, even though there will at that point be nothing that it is like to be me, and the person that I am will be gone from the world though my body will briefly remain.

I think we understand each other's positions. You think that being a human organism is the same thing as to be a person, while I think personhood is a feature that comes into existence and persists for a subset of the life of an organism, that requires capacities of sentience or self-awareness.

But I think I can give reasons to support why my view makes moral, legal, and practical sense, and why human cultures and practices are more consistent with my view than yours. I don't think you can give such reasons, other than the brute assertion that human organisms are persons from start to finish. Your view has no need of the notion of person, yet it seems to me that there are all sorts of practical, moral, and legal reasons why we do need and use such a notion.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 4

Vocab Malone has posted the fourth part of his essay on abortion and personhood, addressing the arguments from viability and wantedness. These are two more arguments that I don't place a whole lot of stock in, though perhaps some commenters will want to say more about.

The viability criterion is significant in that it's the basis of current federal case law on abortion since Roe v. Wade, but Vocab correctly notes that viability changes with the availability of technology, and that doesn't seem like a feature that should be relevant to whether one is a person. On the other hand, it is relevant to the notion of dependence--pre-viability is a time where, if you do grant that a fetus is a person, it's a person that is dependent for its existence upon another person. This raises questions of when it is morally permissible for a person upon whom another is dependent for their life to sever that dependence. Judith Jarvis Thomson's argument on abortion, which I referred to earlier in my response to part 1 of Vocab's essay, presents the following scenario:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him."
My intuition is that in this scenario, it is morally supererogatory to remain connected to the violinist--it is not a moral requirement. The problem with this scenario is that it isn't quite analogous to pregnancy except in case of rape. If one gave voluntary consent to be connected to the violinist to save his life, it seems that one would have a moral duty to see it through. That raises the question of what constitutes "voluntary consent" with respect to pregnancy, which may occur accidentally or unintentionally despite use of contraception, for example. And note again that this scenario only applies in the case where personhood is taken as given, which I've been arguing is definitely not the case in early stages of a pregnancy.

The argument from wantedness, like the argument from viability, doesn't appear to be offer a criterion of personhood, but it is of course relevant to the overall abortion debate. Bringing into being persons who are not wanted and aren't going to be cared for is something that should be avoided, since the odds are not good for children in such circumstances. A controversial argument in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics is that there's a correlation between abortion rates and declining crime rates--i.e., the authors argued that a consequence of the unavailability of abortion is more unwanted children who become criminals. If that argument is correct (and I personally wouldn't bet on it), that's a form of evidence in favor of the availability of legal abortion, though I don't think it trumps a personhood argument. [NOTE (added Nov. 24, 2012): Levitt and Dubner's argument is thoroughly debunked in chapter 3 of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (pp. 119-121).  Freakonomics in general is found to be filled with errors in a review in the American Scientist by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung.]

Vocab quotes from a book by abortion doctor Suzanne Poppema about her own abortion, in which she says to her embryo, "I’m very sorry that this is happening to you but there’s just no way that you can come into existence right now." He identifies this as "confused logic," since clearly the embryo already exists. I agree with Vocab that she has written this statement in an apparently confused way, but it could be made coherent if she had written of the embryo developing into a person or of a person coming into existence, which is probably what she meant to imply.

Continue to part five.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Who are the climate change skeptics?

One of the courses I took this semester was a seminar on the human dimensions of climate change, a geography course that briefly looked at the scientific evidence for climate change and then focused primarily on the social science aspects of the problems of mitigation and adaptation. The paper I wrote for the class was about the philosophical problem of how a layman can identify relevant expertise and evaluate the debate without being an expert, by looking at features such as relevance of expertise, consensus within fields, credentials and institutions, track records, logical validity and cogency of arguments, and so forth, and then applying these criteria to the IPCC scientists vs. the climate change skeptics.

What follows is a list of some of the organizations promoting skepticism about anthropogenic climate change and some of the individuals associated with them, with some information about their credentials and activities. It's my impression that those with the best reputations tend to agree that there is a global warming trend and that human emissions of greenhouse gases are a contributing factor to that warming, but the organizations tend to promote a more skeptical view (fairly characterized as "denial"), as exhibited by such evidence as expressions of apparent pleasure at the recent 2009 Pew survey result that showed a decrease in American acceptance of global warming.

Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC)
One comparison I made was between the scientists of the IPCC and the scientists of the NIPCC, a group sponsored by The Heartland Institute. I compared the fourth-most-cited paper of the top 83 scientists of the former to the fourth-most-cited paper of all of the 2008 NIPCC participants, using Jim Prall's excellent website of citation counts for climate scientists. Of the 619 scientists of the AR4 (2007) Working Group 1 on the physical science basis of climate change, the top 83 each have more than 200 citations to their fourth-most-cited paper. There are only thirteen climate skeptics with that level of citation, most of whom received those citations for papers having nothing to do with climate science, and none of whom were involved with the 2008 NIPCC report. (In 2009, William Gray, who is in that category, participated in a second NIPCC meeting, but I didn't review that for my paper.)

The top scientist of the 2008 NIPCC report with publications containing the word "climate," the organizer and editor of the report, S. Fred Singer, has 31 citations to his fourth-most-cited paper. He's a retired physics professor (Ph.D. earned in 1948) who is not only a skeptic about climate change but about the health effects of second-hand smoke, the link between CFCs and the ozone hole, and has received tobacco and oil company funding for his work. His name pops up frequently when it comes to attempts by corporations to block environmental regulation. There were 24 participants listed as authors on the 2008 NIPCC report, six of whom have no academic credentials or affiliations and no published academic work of relevance to the climate change debate (Dennis Avery, Christopher Monckton, Kenneth Haapala, Warren Anderson, Klaus Heiss, and Anton Uriarte). The top-cited scientist, Lubos Motl, has 150 citations for his fourth-most-cited paper, but he's a theoretical physicist with no publications containing the word "climate." The next guy after Singer, George Taylor, has an M.S. in meteorology and 25 citations for his fourth-most-cited paper. There are a few people on the list with relevant credentials, but none are top names in climate science. The majority with scientific credentials have little or no relevant expertise, like Fred Goldberg, with a Ph.D. in welding technology, and Tom Segalstad, a mineralogist with a Ph.D. in geology.

It should be noted that the climate skeptics with the best credentials in climate science tend to be participants in the IPCC process, such as John R. Christy, who was a lead author on the Working Group 1 reports in 2001 and 2007. Robert Balling of ASU has also participated in the IPCC process, and despite being often regarded as a skeptic, agrees that there is global warming and that it has a human component, and told me that the IPCC report is the best place for the layman to find accurate information about climate science (see my summary of his recent talk at ASU).

The Heartland Institute
The Heartland Institute, founded in 1984, was the sponsor of the NIPCC (above) and has its own category at this blog. Between 1998 and 2005, it received $561,500 in funding from ExxonMobil, 40% of which was designated for climate science opposition (see the Union of Concerned Scientists Exxon report (PDF)). In April 2008, it published a list of “500 Scientists With Documented Doubts of Man-Made Global Warming Scares” compiled by Dennis Avery, participant in NIPCC and co-author of a 2007 anti-AGW book with S. Fred Singer which attributes periodic warming to a 1500-year solar cycle. The publication of this list resulted in protests from 45 scientists on the list who stated that they are not AGW opponents and requested that their names be removed. Rather than remove the scientists from the list, The Heartland Institute changed the title of the list to “500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares." The Heartland Institute's list of 138 climate change experts contains many individuals with no relevant expertise or credentials.

Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)
Singer has another organization devoted to arguing against human-caused climate change, the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), which he founded in 1990. That organization also opposes the ban on CFCs and other EPA regulations. There are nine people listed on SEPP's board of science advisors, of which five are dead (Gerholm, Higatsberger, Mitchell, Nierenberg, and Starr). Ames is a well-known scientist in his field, molecular genetics, which has nothing to do with climate change. The others with the most citations are elderly or dead physicists (Starr, 1935 physics Ph.D.; Böttcher, 1947 physics Ph.D.; and Mitchell, 1951 physics Ph.D.). The rest have only single-digit citations to their fourth-most-cited paper.

George C. Marshall Institute
The George C. Marshall Institute was founded in 1984 to support Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, but since 1989 has been active in opposing AGW. The current board of directors, according to its website, are William Happer (Princeton physics professor), William O’Keefe (former executive VP and COO of the American Petroleum Institute and president of a consulting company), Gregory Canavan (physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory), John H. Moore (former president of Grove City College, former economics professor, and former Deputy Director of the NSF), Rodney W. Nichols (former president of the New York Academy of Sciences), Milan Nikolich (electrical engineering Ph.D., a nuclear weapons program consultant associated with CACI, a defense contractor), and Roy Spencer (climate scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville). Of these, only Spencer, who is also a Bible-believing anti-evolutionist, has a climate science background. (Happer is a highly-cited particle physicist.) The George C. Marshall Institute has published works by some of the more reputable AGW opponents with a high level of citations for their fourth-most-cited publication--e.g., Richard Lindzen of MIT (274), Roger A. Pielke, Sr. (129), Roy Spencer (124), and John R. Christy (88). Others with relevant credentials but not quite the high level of citations include Patrick Michaels (37), Robert Balling (29), and Timothy Ball (8). The George C. Marshall Institute has also published and promoted the work of Stephen McIntyre of the ClimateAudit blog, a former mineral exploration executive with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, and economist Ross McKitrick.

Former George C. Marshall Institute executive director Matthew Crawford left the organization after five months when, he said, he realized it was “more fond of some facts than others” and that his job “consisted of making arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with the positions taken by the oil companies that funded the think tank” (Carolyn Mooney, "A Hands-On Philosopher Argues for a Fresh Vision of Manual Work" (PDF), The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2009).

Cato Institute
The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank founded in 1977 by Edward Crane and Charles Koch. Charles and David Koch are co-owners of Koch Industries, which is one of the largest privately owned companies in the U.S. (often #2, but has occasionally been #1). Koch Industries has major holdings in petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Patrick Michaels (already mentioned in connection with the George C. Marshall Institute) is the Cato Institute Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies and their only climate science expert on staff, though Cato has also published articles co-authored by Michaels and Robert Balling.

Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI)
The SPPI was founded in 1994 by chairman George Carlo, former assistant football coach for the Buffalo Bills who subsequently entered the public health field and earned a Ph.D. and law degree. He is an advocate for the view that cell phones cause substantial health risks, including cancer and autism. [That's a different SPPI; see John Mashey's comment below.] The SPPI’s chief science advisor is Willie Soon, a Harvard astrophysicist also associated with the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine (about which more will be said below). Other science advisors include William Kininmonth, Robert M. Carter, David Legates, Craig D. Idso, James J. O’Brien, and Joseph D’Aleo, all of whom except O’Brien and Legates were involved with the 2008 NIPCC report. The chief policy advisor is Sir Christopher Monckton, an AGW opponent from the UK with no relevant science credentials, also involved with the 2008 NIPCC report. Legates, the Delaware State Climatologist, was a commenter on Patrick Michaels' most recent climate change skepticism book at an event at the Cato Institute, and is a climate scientist whose fourth-most-cited paper has received 226 citations. D'Aleo, first director of meteorology for The Weather Channel, has a 1970 M.S. in meteorology and has not published any academic work since. Kininmonth, with an M.Sc. degree (not sure in what) was the former head of the Australian National Climate Center. Craig Idso has a Ph.D. in geography from Arizona State University and is founder and chairman of the board of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change; his fourth-most-cited paper has received 20 citations.

Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change
This is a small Phoenix-based nonprofit run by Craig Idso (chairman) and his father Sherwood B. Idso (president) which argues that increasing CO2 levels are beneficial. The organization has received $90,000 in funding from ExxonMobil. Both Idsos and Craig's brother Keith have also been on the payroll of the Western Fuels Association. Sherwood Idso, a 1968 physics Ph.D. who was a research physicist for the USDA's Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory starting in 1967, has a fourth-most-cited scientific paper which has received 189 citations.

Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine (OISM)
The Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine (OISM), a private research organization run by Arthur Robinson and his two sons Noah and Zachary Robinson, was founded in 1980. The OISM faculty listed on their website are the three Robinsons, Martin D. Kamen (a deceased chemist), R. Bruce Merrifield (a deceased chemist), Fred Westall (a biochemistry professor), Carl Boehme (who has an M.S. in electrical engineering), and Jane Orient (a medical doctor). The OISM sells DVDs on “nuclear war survival skills” and civil defense, as well as a home schooling curriculum, and has taken over the publication of the late Petr Beckmann’s Access to Energy newsletter which defends nuclear energy and now also criticizes AGW. (Beckmann was a physicist who became an electrical engineering professor at the University of Colorado, and in addition to promoting nuclear energy also challenged Einstein’s relativity and published a journal for that purpose called Galilean Electrodynamics.)

The OISM Petition Project was set up to oppose U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Treaty and currently has over 31,000 signatures of Americans with degrees in a scientific subject. The initial call for signatures was sent out with a letter from Frederick Seitz while he was still president of the National Academies of Science, along with a 12-page “Research Review of Global Warming Evidence” by Arthur and Noah Robinson and Willie Soon which was formatted to look like a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The petition was originally billed as a “survey,” but it has not been reported how many solicitations were sent out compared to how many were returned, nor how many scientists disagreed with the statements on the petition (as pointed out by Gary Whittenberger in eSkeptic). The signature breakdown by level of education was 29% Ph.D., 22% M.S., 7% M.D. or D.V.M., and 41% B.S. or equivalent. By field, it was 12% earth science, 3% computer science or mathematics, 18% physics and aerospace sciences, 15% chemistry, 9% biology and agriculture, 10% medicine, and 32% engineering and general science. The percentage of Ph.D.s in relevant areas isn’t available, but it’s clear from the breakdown that at least two thirds have less than a Ph.D. and at least 80% do not have education in a relevant field. (Blogger Chris Colose has looked at a subsample of names on the petition, without finding any with climate-related publications.)

One of the other “faculty” at the OISM is Dr. Jane Orient, M.D., of Tucson, Arizona, whom I’ve heard speak in opposition to AGW. She is the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a conservative organization that publishes the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (JPANDS). This journal published an anti-AGW articles by Arthur Robinson, Noah Robinson, and Willie Soon (2007), and by Arthur Robinson, Sallie Baliunas, Willie Soon, and Zachary Robinson (1998), as well as articles opposing vaccination of children, claiming that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, that homosexuality causes crime and disease, opposing fluoridation of water, accusing the FDA of fraud for banning DDT, and criticizing the theory of evolution (see evaluations by Kathleen Seidel and Orac). The Robinson et al. (1998) article is apparently a version of the article originally distributed with the Oregon Petition, and another anti-AGW article by the same authors was published in the journal Climate Research (Soon et al. 1998). Arthur Robinson has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Caltech and was an associate of Linus Pauling. Noah Robinson also has a chemistry Ph.D. from Caltech, and Zachary Robinson is a veterinarian with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. None has relevant climate science expertise.

Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas (1980 Ph.D., astrophysics) are astrophysicists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who study solar variability, both have also been associated with the George C. Marshall Institute and the Heartland Institute; Soon is the chief science advisor for the Science and Public Policy Institute (above). Baliunas received the Petr Beckmann Award for Scientific Freedom from Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (DDP), a group associated with OISM (Jane Orient is president of DDP). In 2003, Soon and Baliunas published an anti-AGW article (arguing that warming was due to solar variation) in Climate Research that led to protests from 13 of the authors cited that their work had been misrepresented and misused. Subsequently the new editor-in-chief, Hans van Storch, resigned along with two other editors when the publisher refused to print an editorial about improvements in the journal review process. Baliunas' fourth-most-cited paper has 230 citations; Soon’s has 68. Timothy J. Osborn and Keith R. Briffa (2006) repeated Soon and Baliunas’ methodology in a paper published in Science that did not reproduce their results. Osborn and Briffa are both climate scientists associated with the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University; Osborn's (1995 Ph.D., environmental sciences) fourth-most-cited paper has received 152 citations and Briffa's (1984 Ph.D., dendroclimatologist) has received 250.

I've given special attention to OISM and AAPS because of the extent of crankery associated with them.

Three Miscellaneous Items
My last three items are not organizations but are worthy of further note. (1) This year, S. Fred Singer circulated a petition to attempt to get the American Physical Society to revise its statement on global warming from being supportive of AGW to be in opposition to it. He collected 206 signatures from APS members, about 0.45% of its 47,000 members, and the petition was rejected. John Mashey analyzed the social network of the first 121 signers (PDF), and found that the initial signing clustered around the SEPP, the George C. Marshall Institute, the Heartland Institute, and the Cato Institute, along with other interesting demographic information. (2) Ian Plimer, a prominent Australian geologist, published a book in early 2009 opposing AGW, titled Heaven and Earth: Global Warming-The Missing Science. Plimer has in the past been an active public critic of creationism in Australia, and was criticized by me for using inaccurate and misleading claims in his arguments, and by me and Jeff Shallit for plagiarism in a prior book. Plimer’s new book has been similarly found to contain not only inaccurate statements and misrepresentations, but plagiarism. (3) The Center for Inquiry's Credibility Project was a review of the scientific credentials of the signers of global warming denier Sen. James Inhofe's Senate Minority Report on Global Warming, which found, similar to what I report above, that most of them have no relevant expertise or credentials.

The above doesn't demonstrate that climate skepticism is without merit, but it does demonstrate that there are reasons to be skeptical--and in many cases extremely skeptical--about some of the organizations and individuals promoting climate skepticism, independently of their arguments. In my view, the arguments for climate skepticism in most cases just increase the grounds for skepticism. I recommend the RealClimate blog and Skeptical Science blog as two good sources of information about those arguments.

To really dig into the details, read the IPCC WG-1 Report.

UPDATE: Also worthy of note is Wikipedia's list of scientific organizations which have issued statements on anthropogenic climate change. Noteworthy for its absence is any organization with a statement arguing against anthropogenic climate change; since 2007 only the American Association of Petroleum Geologists has had a noncommittal statement. Wikipedia also has a nice list of scientists who oppose the consensus views and what their actual positions are. (Like JFK assassination conspiracy theorists, they do not have a consensus view of their own.)

I also neglected to mention a paper that I cited in the paper I wrote for my climate change class, a 2008 study that examined 141 “English-language environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005” found that over 92% of them were connected to conservative think tanks, either published by them or authored by persons directly affiliated with them (Peter J. Jacques, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman, "The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism," Environmental Politics vol 17, no. 3, June 2008, pp. 349-385). In the above list, is there any organization or individual that does not come from a conservative or libertarian political ideology?

UPDATE (December 17, 2009): Other posts at this blog on climate change include:

"Climate Research Unit email scandal" (November 23, 2009)
"Roger Pielke Jr. on climate change adaptation" (November 7, 2009)
"Roger Pielke Jr. on climate change mitigation" (November 6, 2009)
"Robert Balling on climate change" (October 30, 2009)
"Ian Plimer on climate change" (May 22, 2009)
"Reason to be skeptical about anthropogenic climate change" (April 26, 2008)
"Garbage in on climate change measurement" (October 25, 2007)
"Lomborg, global warming, and opportunity costs" (September 15, 2007)
"The consensus for anthropogenic global warming" (August 19, 2007)
"David Friedman on global warming" (March 15, 2007)
"Taxonomy of questions about global warming" (March 13, 2007)

Among several others. Those who are accusing me of obvious liberal bias might want to take a look at these. I have my share of political biases, but I do my best to defer to the best arguments and evidence over political ideology.

UPDATE (December 19, 2009): Peter Staats, in the comments, suggested that belief in anthropogenic global warming is entrenched among scientists and will disappear as the older generation dies (citing Planck, whose point is also made in Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions). I responded that I thought he has it backwards--that AGW has become more and more supported, and the holdouts tend to be older, as some of the data about the anti-AGW organizations above already suggested. So I tested our respective hypotheses against Jim Prall's data, for IPCC WG1 scientists vs. the signatories of the AGW-skeptical documents. I looked at the average year of the last academic degree awarded, first for those with citation counts for their fourth-most-cited paper >= 200, then, since that was such a small sample for the climate skeptics, for citation counts >= 100, and then for all the 623 IPCC WG1 scientists vs. the 469 signatories of AGW-skeptical documents. Here are the results:

Citation counts of 4th-most-cited >= 200:
IPCC WG1: N=83, 12 w/o year, N=71, average year of last degree = 1981
Skeptics: N=13, 4 w/o year, N=9, average year of last degree = 1965

Citations counts of 4th-most-cited >=100:
IPCC WG1: N=201, 51 w/o year, N=150, average year of last degree = 1983
Skeptics: N=38, 15 w/o year, N=23, average year of last degree = 1968

All IPCC WG1 vs. AGW-skeptical document signers:
IPCC WG1: N=623, 208 w/o year, N=415, average year of last degree = 1989
Skeptics: N=469, 346 w/o year, N=123, average year of last degree = 1973

BTW, for this last group, there's more info on degree breakdowns than year of degree (note that those without degrees are excluded along with the n/a, no web, and no cv categories--there were several of those among the skeptics and one undergrad in the IPCC scientists, not counted here):

IPCC WG1 scientists:
Ph.D.: 474 (94.0%)
M.Sc.: 13 (2.6%)
Cand.: 5 (1.0%)
D.Sc.: 2 (0.4%)
D.Phil.: 2 (0.4%)
Sc.D.: 2 (0.4%)
C.Phys.: 2 (0.4%)
B.Sc.: 2 (0.4%)
And one each (0.2%) of Nobel laureates and Ph.Lic.

Ph.D.: 254 (78.9%)
M.Sc.: 25 (7.8%)
B.Sc.: 13 (4.0%)
B.A.: 4 (1.2%)
M.S.: 3 (0.9%)
B.S.: 3 (0.9%)
M.D. and Ph.D.: 1 (0.3%)
And one each (0.3%) of M.D., D.Eng., Tekn.D., Dipl., M.Eng., M.A., P.E., Dipl.Bio., M.C., D.Env., B.E., R.P., "Doctorandus", B.S.E.E., Dip.ES., and J.D.

UPDATE (December 21, 2009): Theoretical physicist (a string theorist), former Harvard physics professor, and climate skeptic Lubos Motl, referred to above as the most-cited scientist involved with the 2008 NIPCC report, has just demonstrated the quality of his reasoning at his own blog. In a post about James Randi's expression of skepticism about AGW and his temporary (and quickly retracted) suggestion that the Oregon Petition Project seemed legitimate, Motl infers that this must have been the cause for Phil Plait being fired as president of JREF--an event which didn't happen. When Randi himself showed up to point out that Plait is still president of JREF and had already given notice of his departure at the end of the year prior to these events, Motl's response was "If you have been truly violently, physically blackmailed and harassed by the AGW fanatics, I could understand what you just wrote. If you were not, let me just state that in that case, you became a morally worthless human in my eyes." Way to be reasonable, Motl! He continues: "The 'denialist' dictionary you adopted and the attacks against the Oregon Petition are pretty disgusting."

UPDATE (December 25, 2009): I'm reading Steven Epstein's book, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge, 1996, Berkeley: University of California Press, which I had previously read chapter 6 of for one of my classes. In ch. 4, "The Debate That Wouldn't Die," about Peter Duesberg and those who deny that HIV causes AIDS, I just read about Project Inform's "Discussion Paper #5" of 3 June 1992, which was titled "Who Are the HIV Heretics?", which sounds fairly analogous to the this blog post. I've not been able to find a copy online, but I would love to see that document.

Epstein, pp. 156-157:
The seriousness with which Project Inform took the resurgence of interest in the causation controversey was indicated by the publication in early June of a six-page 'Discussion Paper' devoted entirely to the topic. The report began by blasting the media for their irresponsibility and sensationalism. Why do reporters love the HIV dissenters? Why have they confused Montagnier's position with Duesberg's, despite Montagnier's own disavowals? "Apparently because it makes a good story--'Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong! Top Scientists in Error Ten Years! Secrets! Coverup! Big Business, Big Science Collusion!' ... Such is the sorry state of AIDS reporting in some circles today."

Focusing on four groups opposing the HIV hypothesis--the New York Native, Spin magazine, assorted journalists, and certain scientists--Project Inform was at pains to question the credibility of each and to uncover motivations for adopting heretical stances. ... In considering the fourth, crucial group of HIV dissenters--the scientists--Project Inform's report similarly emphasized the issue of credibility. Root-Bernstein "works in a field not directly related to AIDS" and "has not conducted or published any AIDS research other than editorials," yet "Spin calls him 'one of the leading AIDS researchers in the US.'" Kary Mullis, while "obviously a serious scientist," was similarly "an outsider to AIDS research"; furthermore, his PCR test "has, if anything, helped to bolster the case for HIV." Of all the heretical scientists, only Sonnabend "is professionally involved with AIDS," but "primarily as a clinician": "While Dr. Sonnabend has earned respect in many ways, his arguments against HIV are no more valid than the others."
In focusing on formal credentials, Project Inform walked a fine line. This, after all, was a grassroots organization staffed by self-educated AIDS experts; its executive director, before the epidemic came along, had been a business consultant. A big part of Project Inform's work involved disseminating highly technical knowledge about AIDS to laypeople in order to create what might be called a mass-based expertise. In its reckoning of the tokens of expertise, Project Inform was not about to argue that academic degrees or journal publications are everything. Lacking the right credentials, Peter Duesberg could still be considered an AIDS expert of sorts--but not in a way that would make him stand out from the crowd: "Perhaps his most relevant work is that he has studied the medical literature on AIDS (as have thousands of patients, physicians, and activists), and this qualifies as a form of expertise." But "Duesberg's supporters and the media spread misinformation when they present him as an 'AIDS researcher' in the sense that phrase is usually meant." His published writings on AIDS were "simply editorials."

Project Inform noted that there was a "legitimate" scientific question that had been "lost in the fog" generated by media fascination with Duesberg and other dissenters: How does HIV cause AIDS? Following the lead of Gallo and others, the report emphasized that pathogenesis was separate from etiology; while part one of the report was entitled "Is HIV the Cause of AIDS?" part two was called "How Does HIV Cause AIDS?"
There are lots of interesting parallels here, including political. Epstein notes (pp. 158-159) HIV dissenters and promoters of their views being libertarian (Charles Thomas) and conservative (Phillip Johnson, Bryan Ellison, Tom Bethell, Patrick Buchanan). Johnson, Bethell, and Buchanan are also anti-evolutionists; Bethell and Buchanan also deny that there's anthropogenic global warming.

UPDATE (December 28, 2009): The Center for Public Integrity's project, "The Climate Change Lobby," identifies who's lobbying the U.S. Congress on climate change.

UPDATE (January 3, 2010): This Republican Party PR firm memo from 2000 about how to "win" the global warming debate by continuing to stress uncertainty as the case for warming become stronger is interesting in its similarity to the Tobacco Institute's PR strategy about the evidence that smoking causes cancer.

UPDATE (January 5, 2010): Donald Gutstein's "This is How You Fuel a Community of Climate Deniers" covers similar ground to the above (with some familiar names), with a Canadian focus.

UPDATE (January 7, 2010): Jeffrey Masters' "The Skeptics vs. the Ozone Hole" shows how a similar debate came out in the 1970s, which included S. Fred Singer arguing that CFCs don't deplete the ozone layer. That article notes that Singer's atmospheric science work has been negligible since 1971.

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 3

Vocab Malone has posted the third part of his argument against abortion at his blog, focusing on what he calls "the argument from size." As I don't think there's any plausibility to this argument, I won't spend any time with it, but there are still a few things in his post that I think demand response. The first is the assertion Vocab quotes from "prolific pro-life trainer and speaker Scott Klusendorf" that he always encounters this argument when he speaks at Christian schools. I find this assertion very difficult to believe--I don't think I've ever encountered this argument anywhere, and I suspect that Klusendorf is either intentionally or unintentionally misconstruing some other argument as this argument. (Would he consider Randy Newman's song, "Short People," to be an instance of the argument, given its lyric, "short people got no reason to live"?)

The instance of the argument Vocab suggests is nothing of the sort, though at least he admits that it is an argument about another subject. Here's the quote as Vocab presents it:
From the other end of things, a recent New York Times article featured a similar argument (although his piece was on a broader topic than abortion):
Look at your loved ones. Do you see a hunk of cells or do you see something else? … We do not see cells, simple or complex – we see people, human life. That thing in a petri dish is something else. [2]
The quote is from a New York Times editorial by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga about the difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Here's the quotation in context; it's the ending of the piece:

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush went on to observe that "human life is a gift from our creator — and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." Putting aside the belief in a "creator," the vast majority of the world's population takes a similar stance on valuing human life. What is at issue, rather, is how we are to define "human life." Look around you. Look at your loved ones. Do you see a hunk of cells or do you see something else?

Most humans practice a kind of dualism, seeing a distinction between mind and body. We all automatically confer a higher order to a developed biological entity like a human brain. We do not see cells, simple or complex — we see people, human life. That thing in a petri dish is something else. It doesn't yet have the memories and loves and hopes that accumulate over the years. Until this is understood by our politicians, the gallant efforts of so many biomedical scientists, as good as they are, will remain only stopgap measures.

Vocab has removed a critical piece of what Gazzaniga wrote--he's not making anything like an argument from size, but rather an argument much more like my position, as seen in what Vocab omitted with his ellipsis and immediately following what he quoted. The piece as a whole is taking issue with the conflation of reproductive and therapeutic cloning, with the idea that the latter involves creating cloned people, and Gazzaniga's position seems to be that this confusion occurs because people are thinking of and talking about undifferentiated cells as though they are people--the same thing that is occuring in this very debate. (BTW, the president's Council on Bioethics, of which Gazzaniga was a member, argued that therapeutic, but not reproductive cloning should be permissible. My view is that while there are currently issues of knowledge and technology that could result in harm to cloned people, in the long run I don't see any ethical difference between reproductive cloning and natural reproduction, so long as the products of each get equal treatment on the same standard of personhood.)

Vocab suggests it would have been better to call this the "just a bunch of cells" argument, but that's really not an argument based on size, but rather an argument based on structure, function, and capacity--which is a good argument! I suspect that this is, in fact, the sort of argument that Klusendorf is misconstruing.

Next Vocab gives an argument from essences:

can any living being become anything else besides what it already is? How can something become a person unless its essence is already personhood? If the color blue is only blue and not the color red in the same way at the same time, its very essence – its fundamental property – must be blue and not red. Another example is that of the tadpole and frog. The tadpole is simply a name for a specific stage during a frog’s development. If one were to terminate a certain tadpole, then a certain frog would be terminated and no longer exist. This means you did not come from a fetus you once were a fetus.

The answer to the first question is clearly yes--there are all kinds of metamorphoses that occur in living things while they are alive, including changes of shape, color, size, and sex. And when they die, they can become parts of other things--just as other things become part of them when they come into existence, develop, and change. The second question is, I think, flawed. First, I don't think it's correct to regard personhood as a fixed, unchanging property. Douglas Hofstadter's book, I Am A Strange Loop, argues that self concepts not only develop over time, but can be shared across persons. Second, the question implies that anything that is a person is always and eternally a person and cannot be constructed out of something else. But on everybody's views, human beings are biological organisms, which come into and go out of existence in virtue of the states of their underlying components. Both the view Vocab has been defending and mine say that there are biological components which are not persons, which through some change of state subsequently become persons. If Vocab wants to hold a view by which personhood is an essential property of a simple substance, then he can do that by holding a dualistic view of an eternal soul which is a person that attaches at some point to a human as a biological animal. But if that's his view, then that's the argument we should be having, rather than one in which Vocab is defending a view like animalism.

Vocab makes a subsequent statement that I think vividly illustrates the error in his view:
One way to think about the idea of probability (or potentiality) is that every adult was once an unborn person, just as every oak tree was once an acorn. An acorn is simply a mini-oak tree, just as a microscopic person is a mini-human.
But that last sentence is just false. Acorns are not miniature oak trees and zygotes are not miniature people. That's precisely the error that Gazzaniga is warning against in his article.

Vocab subsequently makes a point about skulls being crushed in an abortion procedure, and on that point he's correct--embryos do develop into fetuses, they do develop identifiable distinct parts and functions, and at some point they do become miniature people, but they don't pop into existence as such.

Continue to part four.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 2

Vocab Malone has posted a second set of arguments, addressing more directly the argument that some sort of capacity for sentience is a proper criterion for personhood.

He begins with a few quotations, none of which address the question of personhood. The first, from Millard Erickson, says that abortion involves "the taking of a human life." That's correct. The second, from Jerome Lejeune, says that abortion "kills a member of our species." That's also correct. The third, from R.C. Sproul, says, "abortion-on-demand is evil, no one has the moral right to choose it. If it is an offense against life, the government must not permit it." This doesn't actually follow, if one thinks that it is possible to morally use lethal force in self-defense, in war time, and as a form of legal punishment. As it happens, Sproul does think that it is legitimate for governments to engage in just war and capital punishment. I'm not certain how he reconciles his views on those topics with the quoted statement, but I suspect he says that these forms of taking human life do not constitute "an offense against life" and are not evil.

Vocab gives four arguments that he says he's seen used to argue for the moral legitimacy of abortion:
  1. Sentience makes a person and the unborn are not sentient
  2. Size makes a person and the unborn are too small
  3. Viability makes a person and the unborn are not viable on their own
  4. Wantedness makes a person and the unborn are not wanted
#1 is essentially my position. #3 is close to the U.S. Supreme Court's position, but I don't think it's quite accurate. #2 and #4 strike me as completely implausible.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states may not prohibit abortion for any reason prior to viability, the time at which a fetus can survive on its own independently of the mother (including with artificial assistance), or after viability when abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. The point of viability is something that has shifted as technology has improved, and could potentially become completely meaningless, so I don't see it as a plausible ethical criterion.

So what does Vocab think is wrong with #1? He writes: "A component of this argument is it implies the pro-life position is weak because abortion is not cruel because the fetus cannot feel pain. Does this mean if I am unconscious or sleeping, I have lost my personhood?"

This response misconstrues my position. Sentience is significant not just because it involves the possibility of actual perceptions at a given time, but because it allows for the sort of being that can have beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests. The absence of such a capacity entails that a being cannot have beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests. This doesn't mean we cease to have those things when we are temporarily unconscious. When I sleep, I may not be conscious of the external world (though I sometimes do perceive external stimuli in lucid dreams), but I still have the capacity for such conscious awareness, and continue to maintain beliefs, desires, intentions and have interests. A better objection to my position would be a case where I sustain some kind of brain damage which puts me into a persistent vegetative state, yet there is still some possibility of recovery. In my opinion, the only way I would have some possibility of recovery and be the same person would be if I continued to have beliefs, desires, and intentions represented in my brain even in the persistent vegetative state. If those were all lost, and biological recovery were still possible--say, through some therapy made possibly by embryonic stem cells transplanted into my brain, which ironically, Vocab's view would likely make unethical--the person who would then come into being would be starting over afresh as a new person.

Vocab quotes Scott Rae observing that a person who has their legs cut off is harmed even if they feel no pain in the process, and even if their legs are not useful for locomotion. That is no objection to my position--I agree that there is harm there, because it is done to a person in conflict with their beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests, without their consent.

Next, Vocab says that a fetus is "sensitive to touch at ten weeks and eleven weeks" and "most certainly does feel pain" by the third month. I believe it is a mistake to conflate "sensitive to touch" with "experiences sensations." Reflexive actions don't identify experiences. Further, I haven't identified the ability to experience sensations with personhood, since I've already observed that animals can experience pain, but don't think that necessarily entails the immorality of killing animals for food or other reasons (though I do think it probably entails a moral requirement for humane treatment).

Vocab goes on to complain that a "developmental view, in which the basic thesis is humans become persons by some ability they acquire and not by the kind of entity they already are" is rarely "defend[ed] ... with any rigor" and asks "Who says they get to lay out the qualification for personhood?" Regarding the first point, Vocab's view is also one which attributes a right to life at a particular point, when two living haploid cells, a sperm and an egg, meet. He's defended this by reference to two features, (1) that at this point there is a complete set of DNA and (2) left to itself, it will (if all goes well) develop into what we all would agree is a human being. (1) is clearly insufficient, since any somatic cell sloughed off a person's skin has that property as well, and (2) only carries any persuasive weight from its appeal to future status rather than present. His subsequent question seems to assume that arguments for a view of personhood are dependent upon a claim to authority or power, rather than for their own intuitive force--and I think that's just mistaken.

He then asks, "Shouldn't a civilized and ethical society desire to err on the side of life?" In the way this is written, I can't agree--for the cycle of life requires death. I do agree that we should err on the side of protecting persons and treating humanely creatures that can experience pain, but that gives no reason to think the boundary line is where Vocab draws it.

He writes that "It is an artificial and arbitrary distinction with no scientific grounding. One more reason the human/person distinction is artificial is because I have never met a person who is not a human, nor have I ever met a human who is not a person. Is this even possible?" I disagree completely with this description. The question of sentient capacities is one with very strong scientific grounding, though we are uncertain of exactly where the boundary is. The fact that Vocab only recognizes humans as a clear-cut case of persons on earth today just shows that he isn't taking seriously the ideas that some other contemporary species (such as chimpanzees, dolphins, and whales) might meet reasonable criteria of personhood, some past species (Neandertal) probably did meet reasonable criteria of personhood, and extraterrestrial intelligent life might meet reasonable criteria of personhood. Suppose for a moment that we found out that a subset of human beings turned out to be a different species, incapable of interbreeding with the rest of us. It's a consequence of Vocab's view that this subset would not be persons. My intuition is completely to the contrary--creatures that are like us to the extent that they have beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests are persons, regardless of their biological makeup.

Vocab's final argument is his strongest, which is that my view has the potential consequence that some forms of infanticide and euthanasia--namely, those in cases where the conditions for personhood are not met--may be ethical. This is correct, presuming that personhood is the only justification for not permitting killing. I suggest that there are at least two other possibilities. One is just a recognition of the epistemic limits of determining personhood--that is, I believe, a reason for erring on the side of caution, and setting legal limits outside the boundaries of personhood. Another is a consequentialist argument about public policy considerations, which also argues for erring on the side of caution. While policies of permissible infanticide have been not been uncommon in history, they raise possibilities for brutalization or desensitization of the killer, among other negative consequences that go beyond the immediate act. This is itself a possible argument against abortions of fetuses that have recognizable human form.

Early on in this post, Vocab wrote "It's not as if there is a strong consensus, anyway." On the contrary, I think there is virtually no support for Vocab's view in history, from religion, from philosophy, or from science. In the United States, complete bans on abortion only became common after the Civil War, with the first post-quickening abortion prohibitions starting earlier, in the 1820s.

I don't think Vocab has come anywhere near making his case. He's not addressed many of the points I brought up in my prior post, and though he cited Judith Jarvis Thomson, he hasn't addressed the case of a conflict between two rights-holders, where one is dependent upon the other, which her violinist example brings up in an argument for the moral permissibility of abortion even if the fetus is counted as a person. Nor has he addressed the harm to non-actualized twins, or the case of cloned human beings who might develop without the process of fertilization (though I suspect he would identify them as persons at either the point of nuclear transfer or electric shock, and would probably have some reason for calling the process itself unethical). His view entails that IUDs, morning-after pills, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell research are immoral. His view suggests that if a building containing frozen embryos and small children were on fire, one should not give any preference to rescuing the children over the embryos. His view entails that a particular genetic makeup, rather than features like having beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests, is what's relevant to personhood. His view doesn't make sense of the idea of non-human persons.

I see no plausibility to the idea that fertilization is a morally relevant event or that having a particular genetic makeup is the morally important part of being a person.

UPDATE (December 14, 2009): Corrected sentence about U.S. abortion laws and added reference link to Wikipedia.

UPDATE: It should be noted that Vocab misconstrues Peter Singer's position on the relative worth of humans and animals; Singer speaks for himself on the subject on an episode of the Ethics Bites podcast:

Nigel: And it’s interesting that many of your critics focus on descriptions of a situation where you’re playing off a human being who’s less than a person, against an animal which is a person.

Peter: I think that’s a tactic. Maybe it’s quite an effective tactic with some audiences. They try and say that animals in some circumstances deserve more consideration than humans do. It’s accurate that there are some situations, though I think they are quite rare ones, where that would be true, where the human was so intellectually disabled or incapable of understanding things where you would want to give preference to the non-human animal; it would have greater interest in going on living or not suffering in a certain way. But it’s really completely irrelevant to the vast majority of cases in which we are interfering with animals, that is where we’re producing them for food where obviously they’re suffering, and it’s not at all necessary for me to say that somehow they have the same let alone a superior status to humans to point to the fact that we’re inflicting unnecessary suffering on them, and that should be enough to make it wrong given that we’re not doing this in order to save human lives but just because we like to eat a certain kind of food.

I also think Vocab errs in claiming that PETA is being more consistent in holding animals above humans--that is not a consequence of my or their position, and I believe they are more concerned with publicity than consistency, as they euthanize adoptable animals by the thousands.

UPDATE (January 3, 2010): A story from the Sunday Times today argues that "dolphins should be treated as 'non-human persons'":
Dolphins have long been recognised as among the most intelligent of animals but many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioural studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.

It has also become clear that they are “cultural” animals, meaning that new types of behaviour can quickly be picked up by one dolphin from another.

In one study, Diana Reiss, professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, showed that bottlenose dolphins could recognise themselves in a mirror and use it to inspect various parts of their bodies, an ability that had been thought limited to humans and great apes.

In another, she found that captive animals also had the ability to learn a rudimentary symbol-based language.

Other research has shown dolphins can solve difficult problems, while those living in the wild co-operate in ways that imply complex social structures and a high level of emotional sophistication.

Continue to part three.

Fifth stray dog of 2009

Although we've seen quite a few, our fifth stray dog of 2009 that we actually caught and turned in came only yesterday, almost ten months after the fourth. The frequency dropped way off after the first couple of months of the year--a sign of economic recovery, perhaps? (I wonder what the fact that we now regularly see coyotes in our neighborhood means...)

We found this beautiful brindle-coated female dog at Shawnee Park in Chandler, running around loose with a collar and no tags, while we were out with a dog from Arizona RESCUE (Scout, a Dane mix, another great dog). Nobody in the area knew who she belonged to, so we took her to the east side pound and put her picture up on Pets911.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 1

Vocab Malone has put up his first post arguing for the position that "the unborn human embryo is a full person at the moment of conception and should be afforded the full rights due human beings by their very essence."

Criteria of Personhood or Humanity
He starts by looking at the question of what it is to be human or to be a person, citing a few historical references of individual characteristics--being rational, being "in relationship," and "the capacity for self-objectification." He expresses doubt that any single characteristic is appropriate, on the grounds that human beings undergo changes of state such as being asleep or being drugged, or not thinking. I agree with him that the characteristics he has listed won't do the trick, and I also agree with him that features that go away when we sleep are inadequate. But it doesn't follow that there is no single feature that can do the trick--if the feature is a capacity that we have, for example, that capacity doesn't cease to exist when it's not being used.

He goes on to note that lack of personhood doesn't entail that any treatment is morally permissible, pointing out animals as examples of nonpersons that deserve humane treatment. Again, I agree with him--and observe the converse, that possession of personhood doesn't mean that there are no cases where it can be moral to kill a person--cases of self-defense, euthanasia, capital punishment, or war come to mind as possibilities. But what makes animals deserve humane treatment is that they have certain capacities and interests, such as an inner mental life that includes at the very least the ability to feel sensations--and note that humane treatment doesn't necessarily entail a right to life on the part of an animal, or a duty on our part not to kill them.

Vocab appears to want to lay the groundwork for rejecting the use of a criterion of personhood in favor of a criterion of humanity as his standard for arguing against abortion, but here he only offers a promissory note and doesn't provide an argument to that effect. I think this is a mistake, however, because ethical distinctions should be based on morally relevant features, and I don't believe species membership is any more relevant in and of itself to being the holder of rights or of being the object of duties than is race or gender. If a member of an intelligent alien species capable of language were to make contact with us, my intuition is that we would attribute personhood to that entity and give it the same consideration as a human being. Likewise if we manage to build artificially intelligent, self-directed machines with beliefs, desires, and intentions, though the intuition is not as strong there unless I imagine them to have mental lives similar to our own.

Conception: Fertilization
Even though Vocab hasn't yet given a reason to reject a personhood criterion in favor of a human being criterion, the rest of his case is solely about human life rather than personhood, which I think is the wrong issue for the reasons I just gave. He argues that human life begins at conception, and clarifies that he means fertilization rather than implantation. This choice means that 30-50% of human lives are spontaneously aborted due to the failure of the fertilized ova to implant in the uterine wall. If Vocab thinks that this loss of human life is the loss of beings with rights and interests to whom we owe a duty to enable them to live out normal lives, then he has some explaining to do. First of all, why would a loving God create a human reproductive system that resulted in such a Holocaust of lives lost before they get a chance to start? Second, why has no one considered this to be a serious ethical problem that we need to urgently devote medical resources to address? We can call this the problem of natural abortion, which has both a natural evil and human evil component that requires justification.

Complete at Fertilization?
Vocab says that at conception (by which he means fertilization), "every human is complete and alive." I agree that a fertilized human ovum is alive--as life is a continuous process, arising from living components, at least until synthetic biology gets to the point of creating life from entirely nonliving components. Sperm and ova are also alive. But it is certainly not complete--zygotes have no brains, no central nervous systems, no organs, no body parts other than undifferentiated, identical cells.

An Individual at Fertilization?
Vocab also says that at fertilization and pre-implantation, "it is not merely a collection of cells lumped together but an actual individual." This also need not be the case. At fertilization, a zygote is an undifferentiated cell that undergoes a process of division without changing size for several days, to become a blastocyst by about the fifth day. During this period each of its cells is totipotent, meaning that each individual cell has the potential to become a full human being. Sometimes more than one of the cells does become a separate human being, as in the case of identical twins. In the case of identical twins, if they don't split completely, they may become conjoined twins or parasitic twins, or one twin may be completely absorbed into the other or otherwise fail to develop and become a vanishing twin. Where a vanishing twin occurs with fraternal twins, the resulting individual can be a chimera, with two sets of DNA. Should we also grieve for those twins who fail to develop, either due to failure to split off or failure to develop?

The science fiction scenarios of teleportation that create interesting philosophical puzzles for the notion of personal identity are real puzzles for a view that attributes personhood to zygotes, though without the additional problem of memories and experiences, since zygotes are undifferentiated cells.

Once the zygote becomes a blastocyst, it forms into an outer layer of cells, which later becomes the placenta, and an inner cell mass of pluripotent embryonic stem cells, each of which is capable of differentiating into any kind of human cell. Only after this stage does the blastocyst implant in the wall of the uterus, about a week after fertilization, and begin taking nutrients directly from the blood of the mother--a dependency that can itself be of moral significance, as Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist argument shows. As already mentioned above, a great many fertilized ova do not reach this stage. Further, the percentages of implant failure are higher for in vitro fertilization (IVF), a procedure which Vocab's criteria would have to declare unethical, even though it is the only way that many couples can have their own biological offspring.

It should also be noted that the process of therapeutic cloning involves taking a female ovum (which Vocab doesn't seem to indicate he considers to be a bearer of rights on its own), removing its haploid DNA, inserting the nucleus from a (diploid) human somatic cell (this is called somatic cell nuclear transfer), and giving it a shock to cause it to start dividing just like a fertilized egg. This occurs without fertilization by a human sperm. Once it reaches the blastocyst stage, its inner cell mass is harvested for embryonic stem cells, which destroys the blastocyst in the process. The natural process of fertilization never takes place, but there's little doubt that reproductive human cloning is possible via this process. Vocab's choice of fertilization as key suggests that there is no moral issue with this process, even though it also has some potential to become a human being. Further, if fertilization is a necessary, not just a sufficient, condition for rights, Vocab's view suggests that human clones would have no rights.

Fully Programmed?
Vocab goes on to say that "the embryo is already 'fully programmed' (to use computer language). This means the pre-implanted embryo needs no more information input at any further point in its development." While this was formerly believed to be the case about the individual embryo's biology, we now know that the environment of development can play a role in the characteristics that will come to be exhibited, such as from mRNA supplied from the mother to a developing embryo after fertilization and prior to zygote formation. But in any case, I would maintain that it's not our cellular biology that gives us moral value, as opposed to our capacities to have interests, desires, intentions, plans, sensations, and so forth--all capacities that zygotes lack.

Vocab ends this piece with some anthropomorphizing of zygotes, which appears to me to be a highly misleading form of argument--his analogies cannot be taken literally, since zygotes have no mental processes.

Human and Living = Human Being?
I agree with Vocab that a fertilized human ovum is living, that it's human, and that, if all goes well, it will become one (or more) individual human beings. I don't agree that it's yet a person or a "human being," since it lacks the requisite parts and capacities.

To sum up:
  1. Vocab hasn't given a reason to favor a criterion of "being human" over personhood for determining when it's legitimate to attribute rights or incur duties on our part.
  2. His choice of fertilization as the point at which rights begin is not when life begins (as it is continuous) and implies that a large percentage of rights-bearing entities die without any apparent concern from God or those who share Vocab's views, an inconsistency requiring justification and explanation.
  3. A zygote has the potential to be not just one person, but multiple. The same lack of concern over non-actualized multiples that could have been born requires explanation.
  4. Vocab's view suggests that IVF, which similarly loses even more zygotes or blastocysts (not even counting the embryos that are left frozen or discarded), is unethical.
  5. Vocab's view so far gives no reason to classify human therapeutic or reproductive cloning as unethical--but might even entail that human clones have no rights, since there's no fertilization by a human sperm, if he thinks that fertilization is both a necessary and sufficient condition for rights.
  6. In the stages of life described so far, we've gone from completely undifferentiated totipotent cells to a differentiation between two types of cell, the outer wall of the blastocyst (which we both agree is neither a person nor a human being, but what becomes a placenta) and an inner cell mass of embryonic stem cells. Vocab hasn't given a reason why we should give that rights or moral value.
  7. At this state, the embryo is dependent upon the mother for its existence; Vocab will need to give an account of how the mother's rights are weighed against the embryo's in light of arguments like Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist example.
  8. Vocab calls a fertilized zygote a "complete" human being and implies that it has everything it needs to determine its future state, but this is neither the case biologically (given maternal effects on development, for example) nor regarding features that we consider quite important for human value, such as those that develop as a result of acquisition of language, ideas, experiences, and so forth.
  9. Vocab has used some anthropomorphic language in describing the implantation process which is misleading since zygotes have no mental processes.
Continue to part two.

UPDATE (December 12, 2009): Added the sentence on chimeras.

UPDATE (December 13, 2009): Vocab has posted a brief rebuttal to this post.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Discussion on abortion and personhood w/Vocab Malone

Local Christian hip-hop artist and slam poet Vocab Malone, who I've interacted with online and met when Daniel Dennett spoke at ASU early this year, asked me in January for my thoughts on abortion and personhood. He's now written a paper on the subject which he's asked me to critique, and we thought it would be interesting to see how it would work out to do it in a public manner via our respective blogs. The plan is that he will post successive sections of his paper on his blog, and I'll respond here, with cross-links to share some traffic and discussion. Both of us allow blog comments; it probably makes the most sense to post your comments at the blog for the person you'd like to see a response from.

Vocab has posted an introduction and the comments that I originally sent to him on the subject at his blog, Backpack Apologetics. He's taking a position that I think is very difficult to justify, that full personhood and human rights are acquired at the moment of conception--we'll have to see which definition of conception he chooses, fertilization or implantation.

Just to throw out a little issue I raised this semester in one of my classes--some have argued that climate change raises the ethical issue of a duty to future generations. If we can have moral duties now to people who don't exist at all yet, what does that imply about duties to embryos?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Reed Esau on "Taking Ownership in Skepticism"

SkeptiCamp founder Reed Esau has finally taken the plunge and started blogging at "an illustrative account"--check out his interesting post on "Taking Ownership in Skepticism."