Reeling After the Orlando Massacre

Once again the United States needs to have a serious discussion about gun law reform. But in addition, there needs to be honest talk about the consequences of specific intolerant beliefs.

For example, the Charleston church shooting a year ago was fueled by an individual’s racist beliefs, so it was entirely appropriate for the national conversation to focus on the behavioral consequences of systemic and entrenched racism.

Similarly, after the countless Islamist terrorist attacks around the world — from Paris to Brussels to San Bernardino to Orlando, not to mention the daily atrocities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere — it’s entirely appropriate to have a conversation about the behavioral consequences of specific religious beliefs.

Intolerant and illiberal doctrines related to martyrdom, blasphemy, honor and apostasy reliably lead to oppression and violence against women, homosexuals, freethinkers, liberals and even other Muslims.

An honest and mature public conversation about the consequences of specific beliefs, religious or otherwise, is not “Islamophobic,” nor is it bigotry against individuals as people. It is intellectual honesty. And, at this point, it’s also essential for the maintenance of civil society.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

An Eco-moo-dernist Manifesto: Technology, meat, and the future of food

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Humans are naturally novelty-seeking animals. Most people, most of the time, are rarely satisfied with the way things are. We want new, and we want it now. The mantra of “new is better” is assumed to be a foregone conclusion and often goes unchallenged.

This is particularly true for technology. Many people become reflexively obsessed with any and all new technologies, regardless of their utility or the benefits they actually provide. The latest iPhone can be launched with giddy enthusiasm, and not even a day will pass before people become dissatisfied, asking, “When can I get one that’s even better?” It’s a constant grasping for more, an anticipation of what’s next, a hope for something more fulfilling. It’s a symptom of all human minds

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Our Last Invention

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Many people — specialists and laypeople alike — celebrate the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) as a means to render work as we know it obsolete. While AI has the potential to provide many labour-saving benefits, not to mention the ability to solve many of our current problems related to economics and ecology, it also holds many ethical – and potentially existential – risks. Continue reading

Facts and values: On science, ethics and climate

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As someone who has greatly admired Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, I very much enjoyed reading the story about his life’s journey in the world of journalism and science communication that was recently published in Issues in Science and Technology. However, I took issue with one of the claims he makes about science.

Revkin claims, as if it were self-evident, that a major hurdle in our response to climate change is that “science doesn’t tell you what to do”. He then invokes the “is-ought” problem coined by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume which states that no description about the way the world is (facts) can tell us what we ought to do (values). I would argue, however, that this separation between facts and values is a myth. Values are reducible to specific kinds of facts: facts related to the experience and well-being of conscious creatures. There are, in fact, scientific truths to be known about human values (a view defended most notably by the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values). Continue reading

Can’t put a price on the wonder of nature

I share George Monbiot’s concern about attempts by some to “put a price on nature” by introducing financial tools such as “biodiversity offsetting” and by monetising ecosystem services (Nature Studies, 17 November). The term “ecosystem services” presumes that natural systems and processes can be quantified merely by the extent with which they provide a service to Homo sapiens.

These metrics can be useful in the proper context; but reducing the living world to its monetary value runs the risk of diminishing its intrinsic value, one that cannot be quantified. I think most people would agree that they aren’t moved to protect the living world because of what it will do to their bank account; they care about it because of love, wonder, and beauty.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Independent.

On value

Stepwell (Edward Burtynsky)

The president of the University of Windsor, Alan Wildeman, wrote an op-ed stating the case for a liberal arts education, sending a warning that we ignore the humanities at our peril. Even though I’m trained as an engineer, I fully agree with this sentiment. However, I found that unlike many prominent journalists who have also recently defended the liberal arts (for example, see Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of a Liberal Education”, Nicholas Kristof’s “Starving for Wisdom” and Frank Bruni’s “College’s Priceless Value”), Wildeman falls prey to the very type of reductionist mindset that a liberal arts education supposedly seeks to overcome: that of unfettered, neoliberal, free-market capitalism. This betrayal of the very values he seeks to defend is unfortunate and exasperating, particularly since he is by no means alone.  Continue reading