Questions for the scientists in the audience.

Today in my “Ethics in Science” class, we took up a question that reliably gets my students (a mix of science majors and non-science major) going: Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have?

Naturally, there are some follow-up questions if you lean towards an affirmative answer to that first question. For example:

  • What specifically are those special obligations?
  • Why do scientists have these particular obligations when non-scientists in their society don’t?
  • How strong are those obligations? (In other words, under what conditions would it be ethically permissible for scientists to fall short of doing what the obligations say they should do?)

I think these are important — and complex — questions, some of which go to the heart of what’s involved in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. But, it always helps me to hear the voices (and intuitions) of some of the folks besides me who are involved in this sharing-a-world project.

So, for the scientists in the audience, I have some questions I hope you will answer in the comments on this post.*

1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don’t have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world have to you?

Who counts as a scientist here? I’m including anyone who has been trained (past the B.A. or B.S. level) in a science, including people who may be currently involved in that training and anyone working in a scientific field (even in the absences of schooling past the B.A. or B.S. level).

That means I count as a scientist here (even though I’m not currently employed as a scientist or otherwise involved in scientific knowledge-building).

If you want to say something about these questions but you’re a non-scientist according to this definition, never fear! You are cordially invited to answer a corresponding set of questions, posed to the non-scientists with whom scientists are sharing a world, on my other blog.
* If you prefer to answer the questions on your own blog, or in some other online space, please drop a link in the comments here, or point me to it via Twitter (@docfreeride) or email (

Why reporting abusive tweets to the twit’s mother might not work.

Folks have been tweeting about a particular exchange on Twitter in which:

  • One person tweeted something abusive at another Twitter user
  • A third Twitter user offered to provide the target of the abuse with the mailing address of the first person’s mother, the better to print out and mail her the abusive tweet her darling son had sent
  • The first person tweeted what he said was a sincere apology for the abuse in his earlier tweet

The conclusion some have drawn from this one exchange is that Twitter needs a “report this tweet to the tweeter’s mom” button, which will seriously cut down on Twitter abuse.

Now, I chuckled at the abusive twit’s speedy about-face, but it only takes a few moments’ reflection to recognize that this strategy for reducing online abuse has problems. Here are just a few from the very top of my head:

  1. It’s not a sure thing that Mom will have any problem with the offspring flinging abuse at others. (Maybe Mom flings online abuse herself! Maybe that’s where Mom’s offspring learned how to fling abuse!)
  2. It’s not a sure thing that the offspring flinging abuse actually cares whether Mom knows about it. There seem to be significant stretches of the lifespan during which Mom’s approval isn’t a goal worth putting any kind of effort toward.
  3. Even if the offspring flinging abuse does care if Mom knows about it and disapproves, tasking Mom with communicating her approval — especially to offspring no longer living under Mom’s roof — is just giving her more work. When will Mom’s thankless work be over?
  4. For some Twitter users one might try to shame, there’s a decent chance of misidentifying the corresponding Mom. Now you’re giving that misidentified Mom thankless work generated by some other Mom’s offspring, which is not cool at all.
  5. Maybe Mom has shuffled off this mortal coil. How are you going to shame her surviving offspring into behaving online now?
  6. Maybe the offspring flinging abuse is not using a real name online.
  7. Maybe the mother of the offspring flinging abuse is not using a real name online. Are you going to compromise her anonymity (for which she may have very good reasons), including providing her actual mailing address to a stranger, simply to deal with her offspring’s online behavior? That’s not cool.
  8. Where the hell is Dad is all of this? Why is Mom presumed to be the only parent capable of exerting a civilizing force on offspring?

So, nice try, but we’re going to have to think harder about how to share online spaces and how best to prevail on people not to be abusive jerks to each other. This is just a subset of the project of being a grown-up who is also a decent human being, and Mom would really like you to figure out how to do this without her constant intervention.

(Plus, would it kill you to sit up straighter while you’re online?)

Musing about boycotts (or, the challenges of effectively living your values without being overwhelmed).

This summer it seems like boycotts are on a lot of people’s minds.

In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Stevie Wonder announced that he won’t perform in Florida until its Stand Your Ground laws are repealed.

Author John Scalzi announced that he will no longer be a participant, panelist, or guest of honor at any convention without a harassment policy. But he also announced that he’s disinclined to join in a boycott of the Ender’s Game movie, despite the fact that he thinks the views of Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card (who is also a producer of the movie) on same-sex marriage and on LGBT folks more generally are “completely, totally and egregiously wrong.”

There is, in the field of philosophy, an ongoing Gendered Conference Campaign asking people to decline to participate in conferences all of whose announced speakers are male.

Individual academics have also engaged in boycotts of specific journals and publishers on account of their objections to their editorial practices or to the other kinds of business in which they engage. University libraries have also announced plans to boycott publishers whose institutional licensing agreements they felt approached extortion.

There’s a lot of back and forth in almost all these instances (and in the many others not mentioned here) about whether boycotts are an effective way to communicate your objection to the target of the boycott, whether they hurt others who really aren’t responsible for the thing you object to, even whether organizing or engaging in a boycott is a display of intolerance.

It’s a complicated tangle of things to worry about, at least if you’re a person who wants to live something approaching an ethically consistent life.

If you value X, you don’t want to give material support to a person or organization actively working against X. If you view Y as a great harm, you don’t want to have your consumer choices reinforce a system that perpetrates or enables Y. But chains of cause and effect can be complicated, and sometimes what people or organizations are working for or against can be obscure.

Sometimes boycotts have been effective, either leading organizations to change their practices of their own volition or bringing political pressure upon them to do so. In other cases, boycotts seem to have little effect beyond giving their participants something about which to feel themselves superior.

My own personal consumer choices are pretty motley.

There are pizza franchises that will never get my business (even if they were, some day, to make a palatable product) on account of the political donations of their founder. There are big-box stores whose threshold I will not cross (and have not since … the 1980s, I think?) owing to their abusive labor practices. In my immediate neighborhood, there are two gas stations I feel passable comfortable using; the others are off the table owing to the corporate owners’ involvement with environmental disasters, human rights violations, and lobbying against reasonable clean air standards in my state.

But I still use computer hardware from a company that I feel has a pretty lousy concept of corporate social responsibility, one that has gone to great lengths to avoid paying its fair share of taxes in states like California. I still buy chocolate, despite the environmental harms and labor atrocities involved in its production. (The fact that I don’t buy Hershey’s chocolate probably does’t get me off the hook.) And there are plenty of goods I buy from any number of corporations where I have no clear idea what the production of those goods entailed, nor what sorts of actions those corporations are engaged in or are supporting with the proceeds of their business. I’m making choices in a condition of radically incomplete information, and even what I do know indicates that some of my choices are quite a bit less than optimal.

It’s not obvious to me that my individual consumer choices make a whit of difference to large multinational corporations. They probably are more hassle for me than for the businesses I’m patronizing (although honestly, in a world where there are fewer places I’m comfortable buying gas, my response is to drive less whenever possible — and that’s probably a good effect).

I don’t believe we’re going to save the world with our consumer choices. I’m not entirely comfortable equating money with speech.

Then again, until I’ve entered into an agreement to secure a good or service, I don’t believe anyone has a right to my money.* Thus, ethical issues seem like as good a reason as any to opt out of buying a particular product or patronizing a particular business.

If you’re going to tell me it’s wrong to opt out of buying tickets to see “Ender’s Game,” you’re going to need to give me a positive argument.

Beyond that, despite how thoroughly we are cast as creatures of consumption (usually by someone who wants to sell us something), I suspect that the real action in the marketplace of ideas takes place at some remove from the exchange of currency for goods and services. Some of it is happening where people are interacting and actually exchanging ideas and opinions.

And here, the choices get a lot trickier for me than they do when I’m deciding where to get my groceries or gas.

For example, there are people with whom I interact because our kids are involved in some of the same activities. I am aware that some of these people belong to organizations whose aims I think are not good — to organizations that see some people as less than fully human, and that put lots of money into political campaigns to restrict their rights.

If these people were businesses, I’d drive right by them. But they are parents of my kids’ peers — of their friends.

Usually we don’t talk directly at all about the political divides. It’s possible (although I haven’t taken steps to find out) that they are opposing some of these organizations from the inside; I’m related to some people who do that, and I think they’re fighting the good fight.

I’m not engaging in a fight. How I’m playing it right now is that I’m trying to be someone who interacts with these folks, someone who interacts with these kids, someone who they know to be caring, trying to be a help …

… so that by the time they connect the dots and notice that I fit in one of the groups targeted by their organization (or that people I care about with the same regard I show to them are so targeted by their organizations), they’re going to have to reevaluate whether they stand behind what their organizations are doing.

This all depends on the assumption that growing to care about actual people in their lives can make a difference to the organizations and activities they support. It turns on the assumption that getting to know the “other” makes it harder to treat the issues as abstractions. It recognizes that people are complicated — that almost all of us have contradictory views and commitments in our heads, and that most of us haven’t put lots of effort into noticing this or trying to sort out which views or commitments we really endorse.

And it is helped by the fact that, so far, these folks I know haven’t displayed values or views so repellent that I give up engagement with them as a lost cause. That could still happen. I’m hopeful that it won’t, but I’m watchful.

But honestly, the complications of personal entanglements in a marketplace of ideas make decisions about how ethically to spend one’s money look a lot more straightforward. That seems like a weird outcome.

*Except the state (at the relevant level), since I partake of the goods the state offers, and thus have an obligation to pay my share to support those goods.

Anonymous defenders of Colin McGinn don’t care for feminism, apparently.

I do not know what it is about the train wreck of a comment thread on this post at the Philosophy Smoker that has rendered me unable to close the browser tab.

In addition to about 500% of the recommended daily allowance of Colin McGinn apologist nonsense (the build-up of which in one’s organs cannot be good — and sadly, the apologia is only sparingly soluble in ethanol) and the persistent difficulty in distinguishing continuing participants in the conversation from drive-by commenters (since the majority of the 200+ comments there are posted under the name “Anonymous”), it turns out there are people posting who have some issues with feminism.

Of course, it could just be one person (posting as “Anonymous”) who has the issues, but in a discipline 80% of whose practitioners are male, that strikes me as unlikely … especially given what I’ve observed of philosophers in situ.

A selection from the comments (all bold emphasis added):
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SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Computation and Simulation

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Computation and Simulation

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 29, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions VII

  1. First up, Catherine Stinson, “Computational models as experimental systems” #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Plenary session #4: Sergio Sismondo

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #4: Sergio Sismondo

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 29, 2013.

  1. Last plenary of conference: Sergio Sismondo, “Toward a political economy of epistemic things,” starts in ~10 min #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  2. Knowledge as a quasi-substance (takes work, resources to make; requires infrastructure; moves w/ difficulty) #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions VI

  1. This was a session, by the way, in which it was necessary to confront my limitations as a conference live-tweeter. The session was in a room where the only available electrical outlets were at the front (where the speakers were), and my battery was rapidly running out of juice.  And my right shoulder was seizing up.  And I ended up in Twitter Jail (for “too many tweets today!” per Twitter’s proprietary algorithm), which meant that the last chunk of tweets I composed for the second talk got pasted into a text file and tweeted hours later, while my notes for the third talk in the session went into my quad-ruled notebook.

    With multiple live-tweeters in a given session, this trifecta of fail (in my tweeting — the session papers were a trifecta of good stuff!) would have been less traumatic for me.  But philosophers are not quite as keen to live-tweet as, say, ScienceOnline attendees … yet.
    There was, however, a bit of backup!  Christine James was driving SPSP’s shiny new Twitter account,   SocPhilSciPract, and she happened choose the same session of contributed papers to attend and to tweet.  She also tweeted some pictures.
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SPSP 2013 Plenary session #3: James Griesemer

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #3: James Griesemer

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 2013.

  1. Getting set for Plenary 3 at #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto which will be James Griesemer, “Model Taxa as Platforms for Biological Research”
  2. That there’s a story (and a set of tweets) for Plenary 1 and also for Plenary 3 raises an obvious question:
  3. “Why no tweets for Plenary 2?” you ask? Because my laptop was used by the esteemed Rachel Ankeny for her slides #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  4. Assisting the speaker in achieving the conditions required to project her slides is a good thing, yes?
  5. Have taken notes in the quad-rule notebook for sessions not tweeted. Will try to tweet or blog them when I can #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Symposium S10: Talking Junk about Transposons: Levels of selection and conceptions of functionality in…

SPSP 2013 Symposium S10: Talking Junk about Transposons: Levels of selection and conceptions of functionality in…

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions V

  1. As an audience member in this session, I had much less relevant background knowledge than I did in some others.  But I was pretty aware, from goings on in the science blogosphere, that there has been some amount of disagreement about what to say about “junk DNA,” the ENCODE project’s findings, and the coverage of it all by science journalists.
  2. Waiting for Symposium on “Talking Junk abt Trasposons: Levels of Selection & conceptions of functionality…” #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  3. First up: T. Ryan Gregory, “Junk and the genome” #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto