The Ethics Of… Vaccinations and Autism

An enjoyable read. Less about vaccinations and autism, but more about the value of science and the nature of belief. Also whether or not all controversy represents an ethical dilemma.

The Ethics Of

Y’know, life never fails to amaze me. Here I am, having spent the last 15 years exploring some of the fundamental questions of human existence, snuggling into a nice deep nest of cynicism and then BAM! Massive controversy from the one source I’d never in a million years have predicted.

People are opposing vaccinations now?! In a time when the benefits of vaccines were considered so blindingly obvious that they’re just a normal part of life, the idea that they might be harmful for you was pretty damn shocking to say the least. And the idea that they might be so dangerous that they’re not worth the benefits, was like waking up and being told that ‘exercise is bad for your health and we should all be getting fat instead’.

But despite (or perhaps because of) this massive shock-value, the anti-vaccination movement has grown from a fringe idea to

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Science…not Science

I read a couple of troubling articles today about some forensic techniques that were used by the FBI that were used as evidence in criminal cases and were sold by the FBI as reliable techniques, but as it turns out were not the case.  Those articles can be found here, and here.

In a horrible fit of madness I looked at some of the comments, and of course there are plenty of conspiracy people there, but what was more interesting is how many people thought that this was confirmation that scientific consensus doesn’t mean anything, or how science is unreliable, and many of these people were clearly conservatives who are climate change deniers.  It annoys me to see science and logic so misunderstood, so I thought I just write down a few thoughts.

First of all it’s important to remember that one case of science being misused is not evidence that all science can’t be trusted.

Second, this is not a case of science being misused.  The science was correct the entire time, it’s the FBI that lied about the science.  Whether it was the forensics people themselves who misrepresented the science or lead investigator in charge of the case is unclear, but it was actually objective scientific investigation that showed the corruption of the FBI.  There were actually peer-reviewed publications that demonstrated the lack of reliability of these techniques, just as there are 1000’s and 1000’s of peer-reviewed journal articles that establish the truth of human-induced climate change and this is much different than someone having the truth in a journal article, but then lying about it in terms of how that knowledge is applied.

Third, you could call what the FBI is doing bad science, but you can also see how easily that bad science was uncovered by the recent investigation.  However when it comes to climate change, even their own scientists agree about the evidence for human-induced climate change.  The party just refuses to listen.

More careful investigation of this exposure of the FBI’s techniques is  not an indictment of science, but rather something that reveals it’s value at uncovering bias.

 

 

The Moral of the Story

I was ‘talking’ with a fellow blogger who is a nurse, and as I am a meteorologist we were trying to figure out who had it worse.  Was it more annoying to deal with the “climate change deniers” or the “anti-vaxxers”.   I agreed his was more annoying, because while human induced climate changed is well-evidenced it is always going to receive a lot of political blowback in a fossil fuel dependent world and it is both a complex and new problem facing us.  Vaccinations on the other hand have worked so well and have eradicated disease so completely that people don’t remember why they even get them and instead have invented dangers to receiving them because they can no longer see the purpose.    It’s as routine as opening your mouth and saying “Ahhh”.  People don’t really question that, but it doesn’t inject anything into you and is sort of hard to get upset about, but I think when some medical advancement has been around so long and so successful we forget the reason and just see it as possibly something that isn’t necessary.

This led me to wonder if the same thing wasn’t true for how we understand morals.  One of the common things you hear from atheists is that many theists are under the impression that we do not have a moral and ethical code.  That such thing is not possible if we don’t have God and some supernatural system of punishment and reward.  I remember my mom, who is Christian, telling me at some point that our sense of right and wrong must come from God or else where would we get it from?  The general answer is easy of course, we are taught them by our parents and others.  We have authority figures that tell us what is right and what is wrong (even though you can convince a child that things that are wrong are actually write, like prejudice and intolerance).  The point is if as children we seem to get our morality from the authority figures in our life, perhaps it’s not surprising that many people, especially those who have no qualms about relying on the “rightness” of authority, that morality comes from what many consider the ultimate authority, God.  But it seems obvious to me that morality can easily be derived through scientific investigation.  Morality though has been around well before the scientific method, but humans have been around for a long enough time that we’ve been living a social experiment of morality and have simply been learning.  At one time the things we take as obvious might not have been overtly obvious, even though I think some of the big ones we could figure out rather quickly as they would not be a beneficial for survival.  Just like we stopped questioning why vaccines are important, perhaps we stopped questioning why certain immoral acts are wrong, such that people assume that it all must have come from some other plane of existence.

Some morals are certainly cross-cultural, like physical and sexual harm to other people’s children.  This one would be a pretty obvious natural (perhaps genetic) trait because our survival does depend on the survival of the next generation.  Anything that threatens that would be considered immoral.  Unfortunately in many places physically or psychologically hurting your own child is not seen as wrong.  It wasn’t so long ago here that, unless something got really severe, you were hardly considered in the wrong for disciplining your child with a belt or the back of your hand.  Some people still adopt that attitude unfortunately in North America, and it can be worse in other countries.  Regardless though we generally do go to ridiculous (and perhaps psychologically detrimental) lengths to protect children.  In general though killing is not quite viewed the same way.  Many think it’s okay to kill criminals (apparently it sometimes doesn’t even matter the crime…resisting arrest is enough), and killing in war is not only tolerated, but often cheered about.   For some time killing your wife in a crime of passion was often considered justifiable.  And many civilizations have committed genocide in our past and that has gone unpunished.   So even of the most basic commandments “thou shall not kill” isn’t clear cut, so this obvious sense of right and wrong we are supposed to get from God looks pretty muddy.  And if we are worried about some sort of eternal punishment system it’s amazing the ways we can justify killing when we need to dodge that one.

But let’s look at it from the perspective of “unlawful killing” which is why modern translations say “murder” instead of kill in the 10 commandments.  Thus we already have human law deciding what killing is lawful and unlawful.  This is not an overly divine commandment already.  We know that before civilization we roamed in smallish hunter gatherer bands.  Maybe a few hundred people at most.  This was a time before Christianity, before the 10 commandments, so let’s assume this group doesn’t know right from wrong.  Like a small town, in these small groups, you knew everyone.  Surviving in the wild is not easy and everybody had a role to play, and everybody shared and worked together.  Studies of hunter-gatherer tribes today show them to be rather egalitarian in compared with much of civilized society so let’s look at this as a group that gets along.  So we have a group of a few 100 people, and because they have no God to tell them between right and wrong they think murder might be just something that’s okay to do.  What would be the results of a few people that decided to commit a murder every once in awhile:

  1. Population decline and lack of genetic diversity – We could at the very least learn that there is a murder rate that is not healthy for the survival of the group. Through cooperation, life was made easier, but the group gets smaller, things get harder. Population can only increase so fast. So at the very least, if murder is okay, we can’t do it too often.
  2. Loss of those with specialized or exceptional skill. While daily tasks required teamwork there would have been certain people with more extraordinary skill. A tribe may also only have one person who does a particular job. Murder could reduce the chance for survival if such people are killed.
  3. Growing fear and distrust. If people are being murdered, people are less likely to cooperative. Some people will simply be scared they will be next and be more cautious and protective. Some people will be angry at the loss of their child, brother, sister, etc. This will cause others to fight back. There may be false accusations, which builds more anger and distrust.
  4. They are diminishing their own chance for survival. Once a murderer is discovered, those that committed the murders may find themselves a victim.

Now there are probably even more things that could be listed as to why murdering would not be a good idea, the least of which that we are by definition a social species for whom survival depends on our being in a group, and being able to work well in that group.  It simply isn’t in our nature to murder our own, and there is a lot of good reasons why murder would not be a good idea.  However when it comes to other groups, all bets are off.  We may be xenophobic due to bad experiences with other groups before, or simply be xenophobic because someone who we don’t know simply isn’t somebody we can implicitly trust, and thus we can justify killing others that are not part of our society.  This is why war is not against the law, but murder is.  We can do similar thought experiments with many other basic things that cause harm, like stealing, or any action that causes harm both physically and emotionally.   But even if it was not in our nature, this social experiment has been going on for some time and it seems quite reasonable to assume that even if there was not a morality inherent in us through birth, if at the very least we have a driving force to survive then many of the morals we have today would result through experience and observation and concluding how to survive better.

As a population we continue to adjust.  Different groups share moral truths just as they would share any other type of knowledge.  And so perhaps much of what we consider right and wrong is handed to us without that rediscovering process, but you can still see the impact of people doing the right thing and wrong thing today.  Because even though I think that on average humans are more moral in civilized society today than in the earlier days of civilization, we still have a ways to go.  People who are doing good and bad things are not of one particular faith or philosophy.  If you have compassion and care about how you make others feel, you will discover yourself how to behave in a way that’s more positive everyday as you grow and learn also.  It is the scientist in us that helps us become more moral.  If anything, the Bible demonstrates this more completely as the old testament has very much an eye-for-an-eye mentality, but the new testament is very much about forgiveness, redemption, and compassion.  Even God seemed to find a more moral way of dealing with enemies. Thus I don’t think it’s surprising that morality should progress in the same way that science does.

 

Tin Foil Hats

Hey, Travis, when everybody is out to get you, paranoid is just good thinking!

– Dr. Johnny Fever

 

If there is one group of people that I despise arguing with, it is conspiracy theorists.  I find it even more frustrating than debating someone with strong religious convictions.  Maybe it’s just because I can sympathize better with people with strong religious beliefs because I have been exposed to religion and have had family who have strong religious beliefs.  Now both types of people are belief driven and in many ways there is no difference at least in terms of how neural pathways are formed and how the impact of reinforcing those neural pathways impacts the brain, but there is something about conspiracy theorists that seems more concerning.  Maybe this is true only for religious fundamentalists in the west.  In other areas of the world I would fear religious fundamentalists much more, but maybe it’s because with religion the crux of the debate falls to the supernatural and with the supernatural there is no way to disprove it.  For those who have faith it’s tangible and real and this is what governs their thinking.  A lot of times if you bring into the realm of the real world you can often find common ground and agree on things, even if you disagree on the mechanism.  In fact I’m pretty sure I’d be less surprised if someone found actual evidence of the existence of God than some of the conspiracy theories that some people believe in as being real.

When it comes to conspiracy theorists, the troubling part to me is that all of what they believe is easily disprovable.  There are no supernatural forces at work; it’s a conspiracy that involves this plane of existence.  It’s physical and tangible in a very real sense.  We can actually settle the debate.  With God, you’re never going to settle it, because God cannot be disproven in a strictly logical sense (of course that’s because for something to exist the onus for proof is on those that would assert its existence).

I was talking to a colleague recently who is a geologist.  He had told me before that his father was very conservative and does not think evolution is real.  More than not accepting the scientific evidence he has invented a conspiracy theory in which all fossils are fabricated and made in a factory somewhere and then scientists plant them around the world so that they pretend they have evidence.  It just blew my mind when he told me.  The amount of fossils we have is enormous and the time and energy to make all of those, plant them all over the world, all so that we could tell a false narrative about the origins of life are astronomical for me to even wrap my head around it.  Of course I’ve heard the general theme before that evolution is just a conspiracy to try and disprove the Bible and I literally don’t understand.

As an atmospheric scientist of course the one I deal with the most is the conspiracy associated with global warming.   Thousands and thousands of scientists all banding together trying to get greedy off that alternative energy money and trying to destroy the poor fossil fuel companies who apparently are struggling to make ends meet.  Debates usually go something like this:

Me. “As somebody who studies this and understands how the atmosphere works…” I list a lot of hard evidence, and explain how the greenhouse effect works.

CT (Conspiracy Theorist)  Evidence ignored and the grand retort is “But other people are experts too and they disagree”.

Me. Thinking, ohh they want to try to take that right now  “Actually not really, few people who deny climate change are actually atmospheric scientists, and none of them have been able to publish any scientifically sound papers in peer-reviewed journals on the subject.  Such scientist’s research is always funded by oil companies.”

CT:  “That’s because the journals are controlled by the IPCC and they prevent any contrary evidence from getting published.”

Me: *bangs head*

The back and forths are usually longer, but this was just a glimpse. One thing I have noticed that is common with all these debates is that they never address any scientific evidence you present directly.  So in retrospect, debate is a bad word.  They have no defense on the workings of antigens, the physics behind the greenhouse effect, or the random mutations of genes.  There is always some larger organization involved pulling the strings, shadow networks, cover-ups, secret e-mails, vast sums of money involved.  They post links to sites that reference other articles written by someone with equally little knowledge of what they are talking about.  There are vague references to events that never happen, or if they did happen there is no way to prove that they happened.   And why do these conspiracy theories always involve the government or scientists?

Governments are for the most part, simply incompetent.  The level of organization they need to have to pull some of the shit off that people give them credit for is truly astounding.   The really corrupt ones are so obviously corrupt and drunk on power there is no need of secrecy they do it right in front of your face.  And of course I know many scientists.  They are some of the finest people I know: curious, intelligent, and for the most part noble and compassionate.   Corrupt scientists are few and far between and are easily exposed because scientists believe that what they are doing is valuable and important and have zero tolerance for those that would make a mockery of the scientific process and allow bad science to flourish.

Now certainly you might say at this point, while we have never proven the existence of a supernatural deity, there have been conspiracies.  To that, I say most definitely and in fact that’s what makes conspiracies relatively short-lived and small.  Because people are generally good and if there is some conspiracy that is causing harm to people, and lying to people it’s not long before somebody’s conscience gets the better of them and they get the message out.  In fact, this would seem to put a natural limit into how large a conspiracy can grow.  Once it gets too big or too harmful, whistleblowers will come out of the woodwork.  And there will be tangible evidence of this conspiracy and unsubstantiated hypotheses are no longer necessary.

I have decided that I need to stop engaging such people.  But it’s hard, because there some of the conspiracy theories, if allowed to spread, can cause real harm.  Like ones related to climate change or vaccinations and then I find it hard to keep quiet because lives are literally at stake.  Ultimately it feels like people who purport conspiracy theories enjoy the attention, the feeling of importance that they are part of the minority and they get it and everybody else has been duped.  Perhaps it’s just ego.  Perhaps it’s just pure and utter fear of a world they don’t understand. Perhaps it’s just people wanting to believe in something do badly that they will invent anything to rationalize that belief.  I don’t know.  I’d be curious to learn how some of my other readers deal with conspiracy theorists.

 

Note:  A study was conducted to determine whether Tin Foil Hats really protect your thoughts being read.  Turns out it makes it worse.  At least that’s what “physics” tells us. (That’s the punch line if you don’t want to read the article).

The Ethics Of… Social Justice Warriors

An excellent companion piece to my last blog post, but by a far wittier writer. 🙂

The Ethics Of

Along with any sane person who spends a lot of time online, I have a love-hate relationship with the internet. On the one hand it’s an invention right up there with fire and public sanitation in terms of its significance to human development. And on the other, its labyrinthine and anonymous nature provides the perfect breeding ground for some of the most insanely ridiculous drama you can possibly imagine. Drama so petty, complex and extreme that it would be near impossible for it to come into being offline, because everyone involved would be shunned so hard by society that they would spontaneously go into orbit.

If only that were an option here, I wouldn’t have to be writing this article. Even if the drama could just stay online, I would be so happy. The pre-teens, basement dwellers and narcissists could have their flame war, and while I would find it…

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The 4th Age of Sand

As I have immersed myself more into the world of social media, commenting on articles, the blogosphere there’s a very real attraction to it for me.  I like putting ideas out there, I like being social, meeting people I never would have met.  Overall I’m very positive about the way we communicate.  Douglas Adams in a wonderful speech he gave (transcript here) talked about how humanity has made enormous leaps via, what he calls, the four ages of sand.  Sand being made of silicon he outlines the 4 ages as:

1) Using silicon to make glass for the telescope

2) Using silicon to make glass for the microscope

These two allowed us to see the macro and micro universe around us.

3) The silicon chip.  Computers with their ability to do many calculations quickly allowed us to model the process of how things work.

4) Silicon for fiber optics in the communication age.

From http://www.cbstelephone.com

Although of course at the time of the speech we didn’t use satellite as much as we do today, but there are still a lot of computer chips involved in those!  The point is that Douglas Adams saw the power of being able to communicate with people remotely as a powerful tool.

Yet when we look at this great age where the world is being connected we tend to get overwhelmed by stories of social media addiction, the loss of time spent in the physical world, face to face communication, and some often harmful interaction.

It is this last one that is on my mind right now.  I watched the interview recently with Jon Ronson on The Daily Show and he has a new book where he talks about internet shaming.  One of the people he focuses on in his book is Justine Sacco.  You may remember her, she was the one who made a joke tweet on her way to South Africa from Heathrow and from only having 170 followers to a landslide of people waiting to lambaste her at the end of her flight.  His book looks at the history of shaming and what it means in todays day and age.  He wrote a good piece in the New York Times if you don’t want to read the book.  It’s a great article, long, but most definitely worth a read.

After years of using digital media for communication there are many challenges to overcome.  I think that ultimately when you write things that people are going to read, you have to be a great writer.  Without our physical gestures and voice intonation it’s easy for meaning to get lost.  It’s easy for a joke to sound serious.  It’s easy for well meaning advice or information to sound condescending.  It’s easy for sincerity to be taken as sarcasm.  But I was thinking that good writers are not so unambiguous and we pick up things like sarcasm and sincerity better.  Maybe when we communicate through writing we need to think about how we say it more deeply before we do so.  I think part of the illusion lies in the fact that we think we are actually having a conversation and try to type out things like we are, but in fact communicating through writing is not very much like a face to face conversation at all.  Justine Sacco’s life was destroyed for making a joke to her few twitter followers, poking fun at white privilege and walked out of a plane into an absolute hellscape of a virtual mob who wanted her to hang.  Someone on twitter was even there to take her picture as she walked off the plane.

This story also reminded me of recent events concerning the pizzeria owners who said they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding.  A friend of mine linked me an article about how we really don’t benefit from publicly shaming those owners regardless of how discriminatory and prejudiced their views might be.  Seeing that those bigots had over $800,000 raised in their name infuriated me and I could feel the anger rise in me and wanted to join the mob of people shaming the for their views.  Luckily it occurred to me that being upset and shaming bigots doesn’t really change anything and that it would be better to put goodness into the world instead and decided to set up a fundraising account for an LGBT youth group in Indiana that does a lot of good work in schools and for young members of the LGBT community.

It’s amazing how easily we can succumb to being part of “the mob” through digital media.  I’ve been caught up in it and I am sure many who read this have as well.  When you reflect on it, it’s an empty feeling though.  You get to feel bold for being part of

From http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com

a righteous fight, and yet remain anonymous in that sea of virtual people calling out for someone’s blood.  This is the other facet of the age of the internet is that posting comments behind the veil of a computer screen, or smart phone screen is that we feel protected and thus we say and do things we wouldn’t normally do.  Everybody is familiar with “trolls” and the divisiveness they cause with their comments.  In the end best advice really is “don’t feed the trolls”, but someone always does and arguments ensue.  I know for me the internet allows me to be bolder than I am perhaps in real life and while sometimes I think it helps me gain some additional confidence in myself, more often I just use the internet as a shield to give compliments and say things I am too shy to say in person.  Too often I also find myself assuming a more negative intention in the comments of others because the internet is full of people saying things that I don’t think they would say to your face.  It’s kind of like how drinking affects people.  Some people become open and honest in a kind way, others become belligerent and mean.  For me I feel that it’s something I have improved on and need to keep improving to be the man on the internet that I am in real life.

I am not down on the communication age, I just feel like we’ve invented an important bit of technology that we haven’t figured

from http://harvardpolitics.com

out how to use to the best of its ability yet.  I think that there are a lot of important ways that the internet can be used that our too valuable to ignore.  We can learn about issues all over the world that can foster our love of humanity and can help us see that we do truly live in a global community.  Social media was used to organize a revolution in Egypt to overthrow a terrible dictator (sorry Egypt it hasn’t gotten much better), when in the past there would have been no easy way to send the message to everybody simply through a land line.  Social media has been used to bring things to the light that would have caused more harm.  A video of cop shooting a man in the back, racist chants from a sorority in Oklahoma, a video of a NFL football player knocking out his wife (not really about exposing the football player, but how it helped exposed how the NFL organization tried to cover up evidence they had about the incident) are examples of how the sharing of certain information has value.  But I think we owe it to ourselves to try and take ourselves away from the mob mentality.  What if Justine Sacco had made her joke to your face.  Even if you weren’t clear that it was a joke would have you ran down the halls calling her a racist?  You probably would have just removed yourself from her social circle, but you could have also taken her aside and turned it into a teachable moment about why her joke might not be found as funny, or asked follow up questions to understand her intention.  Shaming is a terrible thing and how many of us have made jokes or comments we regret?  How many times have we been wrong in our attitude or thinking and needed a chance to learn from our mistakes to come out better on the other side?  Doesn’t everybody deserve that chance?  Is it necessary to traumatize somebody for a few thoughtless words?  Let’s instead try turn negatives into positives.  Let’s try to teach instead of shame.  Let’s try to understand instead of judge.  I am no saint in this area, but I’m going to keep trying, because the benefits of this communication age I think are enormous.  It is our disconnection from each other that leads to fear and mistrust I believe, and we can know and understand so many more people and issues today than we could 30 years ago and I truly believe that the power of the internet can lead to a new golden age for humanity.

 

 

The Right Way To Answer

Instead of just getting upset and complaining I have decided to be proactive. I recently posted about the Indiana business owners who openly admitted to not wanting to serve gay people and received $500,000 dollars in donations. While such support for hateful attitudes upsets me, I have decided the best way to answer this was to try and match that by raising money in an equal amount and support a local organization in Indiana who is trying to make things better for the LGBQT community. So I started a charity fundraiser page. While a goal of $500,000 may be ambitious, and perhaps other people had the same idea, even if I raise only the money I have donated to start things off, then at least I am doing something positive I figure.

So I’m asking that you please give what you can and share this message on social media, blog sites, personal webpages, and/or e-mail.  If finances won’t allow for a donation at this time, I hope you can still pass this post along and ask your friends to donate if they can. Thank you all for loving!  Below is the link for donating:

https://www.justgive.org/matchinghatewithlove