The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Racism

When Not To Let The Skies Fall

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The search for scientific knowledge is a glorious and essential enterprise. But is it always? Are there some topics for scientific enquiry that are morally wrong to pursue? Are there situations where it might be irresponsible or harmful even to ask a question?

This breaks down into two questions:

1) Are there some experiments the carrying out of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

2) Are there some experiments the outcome of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

The first question is so easy it’s uninteresting. Of course there are limits to how far a scientist can justifiably go in the pursuit of knowledge – just like there are limits to what a businessman can do in the pursuit of money, or a policeman in the pursuit of criminals. A scientist might want to know how long a virus takes to kill a child; but to deliberately infect the child and stand there with a stopwatch would be totally unacceptable. Being a scientist does not excuse you from social responsibilities and obligations.

So question 1 is easy. But what about question 2? Are there questions we should not answer, because it is better to be ignorant than know the truth?

One might be tempted to quote the phrase from antiquity, “Do justice and let the skies fall.” But this is a cop-out. Sometimes knowing the truth about something is actually measurably harmful. There might be good medical reasons for giving a patient a placebo for pain management; informing the patient that it is a placebo might inflict harm on the patient.

This is perhaps a special case. Nevertheless, a scientist must be aware of the consequences of his actions, even if the only action is inquiry. In a society in which racism is prevalent, investigation into correlations between race and intelligence might be used as ammunition for white supremacists. Investigation into the potency of a new strain of virus might cause a panic that harms more people than the knowledge saves.

Ultimately, the truth is worth knowing precisely because it is true. It is a deeply flawed society that can’t handle some unpleasant truths, or that misinterprets truths so badly that people get hurt for no logical reason; and yet that is the society in which we live, unjust, dangerous and full of misconceptions. To proceed blindly in any activity ­– scientific or not – without acknowledging this fact is deeply irresponsible.

Much is made of the need to educate the public about science, and I can’t agree more. Life is made so much richer by understanding, and knowledge is good for the soul. But I feel that what is needed today is not to teach people facts, but to teach people method – not what scientists know, but how they think. Facts about race or risk are less dangerous to a public that understands statistics, that knows what a randomised controlled trial is. There is no better armour for harsh truths.

Written by The S I

September 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Maths With Morals

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The S I is proud to present Bayes’ theorem, a mathematical treasure and ethical dilemma all in one:

This equation gives us a mathematical formalism for updating old opinions with new evidence.

We begin with our initial hypothesis, H, and the probability, in our opinion, that H is true, p(H). Say you’re sitting next to a young man on a bus. Does this man want to kill you? Probably not, you think. Most people are not killers, so the chance of having one sitting next to you is very slight ­– p(H) is low. Note that this number p(H) is a knowable fact: it comes from crime statistics.

But then he reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a sharpened axe. This provides new evidence, E: our man has an axe.

Now, not everyone who carries an axe is a killer. Some are, some are not. But it certainly changes your assessment of the situation. What is your new assessment? In the equation, it is written as p(H|E) ­– the probability of hypothesis H being true given new evidence E. We base the calculation on one more term, p(E), which basically translates to ‘how often killers carry axes with them’. This number is also a fact, and can be found from case studies of murders.

Putting these numbers together allows you to determine, with mathematical exactness, just how worried you should be when your scary-looking travel companion starts to grin at you and make suggestive slashing motions.

Bayes’ theorem is used all the time in science, finding uses in artificial intelligence, drugs testing, even searches for archaeological ruins. So why did I say it was an ethical dilemma? The answer is easy enough to see when you repeat the story given above, but change E. You are sitting by yourself on the bus when someone sits next to you. Probably not dangerous. But you look up and learn new information: the man is ­– well, pick your prejudice. Black? White? Muslim? Christian? Homeless?

Isn’t it the case that Bayes theorem takes knowable facts about the world, and turns them into a kind of statistically valid and logically justified racism?

No. Yes, the reasoning is sound, and in some cases when time and resources are extremely scarce it is unfortunately necessary to treat people as representatives of groups rather than individuals.* But this is always evil ­– sometimes necessary, but always evil. And what makes the racists different is that they are content with it. If, facing a selection of candidates for a job, with all the time in the world do make a decision, you don’t look at their CVs because you are satisfied with what race alone tells you – that is racism, and rotten to the core.

As is so often the case, Hitchens says it best:

“It especially annoys me when racists are accused of ‘discrimination.’ The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.”


Christopher Hitchens ­– Letters to a Young Contrarian

Also Richard Dawkins’s chapter on racism in The Ancestor’s Tale is highly recommended

* Blood donation is a good example. In the UK, people from South America are not allowed to give blood because of their higher probability of carrying Chagas disease. This is a decision to treat everyone from one ethnic group in the same way. Of course the ideal solution would be to test everybody for the disease wherever they come from; but in a world of scarce resources, time spent testing is time that could also be spent collecting more blood from ‘safe’ groups. So high-risk groups are eliminated out of hand, ignoring the individuals, so that lives can be saved. Evil, but necessary.

Written by The S I

July 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm