Once again, this subject choice is brought to you courtesy of Coursera, this time spurred on by an assignment in the course I’m currently undertaking on Philosophy and The Sciences, given in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh and EIDYN: The Edinburgh Centre for Epistemology, Mind and Normativity. Perhaps one of the key contributions which modern philosophy and philosophical thinking (I use this distinction, as our current understanding of physical sciences can be understood as having evolved from “natural philosophy” in the first place) can make to the physical sciences is a better and more rigorous understanding of the underpinnings of scientific paradigms by way of falsifiability, and the use of such criteria to better differentiate “real” science from pseudo-science. Many consider this differentiation a key factor in the difficulties facing science education, particularly in the US, regarding the inability of students, as well as the population at large, to differentiate between popular pseudo-scientific ideas and accepted scientific theories. Continue reading Natural Philosophy: Falsifiability and Pseudo-science
UPDATE 05/01/12: For those of you searching for information about the “Copyright Meme” hoax of January 2015, I have written a new post dealing more specifically with that incident, but also drawing heavily from the warnings and advice I give here regarding having a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to Facebook status updates, and how to actually protect your digital self, see “Digital Panic 2.0! Facebook Are Still Not Going To Steal Your Copyright / Identity / Soul!”
Just because the fourth instance of people reacting to the changes regarding the Facebook app and Facebook messenger app has come to my attention, I think I should make this clear; Articles and posts saying that Facebook can now spy on you and take pictures of you are sensationalist nonsense. There are a lot of people deleting the Facebook messenger app, and exhorting their comrades to do likewise in a fit of data-security-conscious zeal…. Perhaps missplaced zeal though, as to people like me, the “changes” in these app permissions don’t seem all that new or nearly as evil as they have been portrayed. If you already use the normal Facebook app, or even use Facebook at all, the permissions you are giving for the messenger app are really nothing new. If you’re truly worried about data protection and misuse of data, don’t use Facebook. My first piece of advice is that you read the Snopes.com page on this latest situation – “Facebook Messenger“. Indeed, any time you read something online which you think sounds a bit over the top, you should most definitely check Snopes to get a better idea of how well researched these ideas are. Continue reading Digital Panic! No, Facebook is Not Spying on You Through Their Messenger App
Slippery Slopes and Euthanasia
A ‘slippery slope argument’ (SSA) is a particular style of argument which particularly raises my ire (a phrase I’ve always wanted an excuse to employ) as they are so often raised against points I am trying to make, but also worries me in the frequency and potency of its use. These arguments are used to disrupt or even halt debate on some particularly controversial and important themes, and – tragically – are often simply accepted at face value, as they seem powerful at first glance, but perhaps do not stand up to logical scrutiny. In its most basic form, the Slippery Slope Argument suggests that if we allow position A to come about then it is highly likely, even certain, that, through some direct or indirect connection, position Z will eventually also come about. However, the validity of many of these arguments is questionable at best; David Enoch goes as far as to point out that they are often referred to as ‘slippery slope fallacies’. Nonetheless, these types of argument have been used in the legal, philosophical and political spheres for many years and in debates ranging from conspiracy theories about a One World Government to the question of stricter firearms control in the US to discussion about abortion law reform. A key aspect of SSAs is that position A is often regarded as not inherently wrong, or at least not nearly as wrong as Z, and yet it is argued that A should not be allowed happen because it may lead to Z – the primary reason for prohibiting A itself in fact has very little to do with the characteristics of A alone. Continue reading Bioethics and Bad Reasoning: The Slippery Slope of Using Slippery Slope Arguments
Whenever justifying to myself and others precisely why I spend several hours a week taking part in online classes with Coursera rather than actually working on more pressing responsibilities, such as my job as a research fellow at the German research centre for consumer law or my nascent PhD thesis, I inevitably turn to the excuse that these courses are part of a broader continuing education, as well as being of interdisciplinary (such a useful term) relevance. Imagine my pleasant surprise then recently, at a conference co-organised by our research centre (Forschungsstelle für Verbraucherrecht) on consumer protection and investors, to find that not only once, but at multiple points during the conference my most recent sources of undisciplined distraction were of direct relevance to the talks being given. In a room packed with legal academics, practising lawyers, economists and various consumer protectors it is perhaps not that surprising that my new-found interest in behavioural economics, thanks to Dan Ariely’s fascinating “Beginners Guide to Irrationality” class, became extremely useful; furthermore, and somewhat surprisingly given the reputation of us legal-types for being amoral argumentative robots, my recent experiences of Paul Bloom’s “Moralities of Everyday Life” turned out to be relevant. The latter was discussed in reference to Daniel Kahneman‘s dual process theory of human reasoning – (1) intuition, and (2) reasoning – which I first encountered as a way of judging how and why we initially judge something as moral or immoral, but which of course is also of the utmost relevance when discussing how consumers reach decisions in a behavioural economics world. The former was discussed repeatedly as speakers discussed the failings of current preconceptions about the behaviour of “rational” consumers. Continue reading Homo Irrationalis: Consumer Policy, Information and Irrationality
As I’m currently in the process of writing something a little more substantial about the ethics of donations, in particular donations connected with incentives, I found the assignment set this week by Dan Ariely in his Coursera class on Irrationality particularly interesting. Dan asked us to come up with a theoretical solution to a real world problem using some of the observations and experimental results regarding people’s irrational behaviour. I found the reading regarding organ donation particularly fascinating, especially the fact that, despite people being sure that they would only reach such an important decision after careful consideration, most of us in fact do make snap decisions about certain big decisions and are heavily influenced by our environment. This opens up interesting policy questions about to what extent we can or should use our understanding of people’s behaviour to influence their decisions. I, for one, have found myself more than once debating whether an “opt-out” or “mandated choice” system should be implemented at national level (incidentally, I think the standard “opt-in” model to be far too ineffective to defend, and in fact, due to its connection to sadly low levels of organ donation, unethical to leave in place). You can read my short suggestion below, keeping in mind I wrote this quickly at the end of the work-day, as I was about to leave the office. Nonetheless I think it might be a point worth exploring.