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People Are Strange June 30, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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Research reported in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates that when a customer is perceived to share a characteristic with a salesperson, even something as trivial as a birthdate, this perception increases the probability that the customer will purchase something.

If that sounds irrational consider this (via Ars Technica):

It has been well established that people are not coldly rational when money is at stake. They will make financial sacrifices in order to punish behavior deemed to be unfair.

One person is given a stack of cash, and told to divide it between themselves and a second party. That second party is then given the chance to accept or reject the offer; if it’s rejected, neither of them get any money. Clearly, any of this free money should be better than nothing, so under assumptions of strictly rational behavior, you might expect all offers to be accepted.

They’re not. Things in the neighborhood of a 50/50 split are accepted, but as the proportions shift to where the person issuing the ultimatum tries to keep seventy percent of the total, rejections increase. By the time they hit an 80/20 split, nearly 70 percent of the offers are rejected, even though that 20 percent of the total cash would leave the recipient better off than where they started.

New research shows that people will reject unfair transactions even when they punish only themselves. In this new research:

…the person making the offer gets their share of the cash regardless of whether the offer is accepted or not. In this game, the only consequence is the potential for guilt caused by the knowledge that an offer was rejected. Rejection rates do drop, but they remain substantial—offers of an 80/20 split got rejected over 40 percent of the time (down from around 70 percent) despite the lack of real economic consequences.

To really nail things down, the authors conducted tests of a Private Impunity Game, in which the person who made the offer wasn’t even informed of whether it was rejected or not—they simply walked away with their share of the cash. Here, even the nebulous hope that the person making the offer would feel pangs of guilt from its rejection was removed. Rejection rates were essentially unchanged. People keep rejecting offers they perceived as unfair, even if, like the proverbial tree in the forest, no one will hear their rejection.

Even when participants were forced to think through the logic of their behavior through a series of if/then statements, their behavior was unchanged.

What is the explanation for this strange behavior?

The lack of objective analysis is also demonstrated by a number of results that indicate that changes in the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters—testosterone, serotonin, and oxytocin, for example—can all skew the statistics by changing the average response to unfair offers.

Given the fact there’s essentially no way to provide a rational actor gloss to these results, the authors attempt to explain it through an emotional response that sounds much like a gorilla’s chest beating. Our emotions commit us to these sorts of displays despite their irrational nature, and force us to follow through on them often enough to make sure everyone knows it’s not an idle threat. Nine times out of 10, the chest beating may just be a display, but is anyone willing to risk the chance that a given instance will turn out to be the exception?

The problem with this explanation is that it adds a layer of complexity—a mechanism that ensures a degree of commitment to an emotional response—on top of what’s essentially a simple situation: people act without thinking. Earlier this year, I attended a discussion entitled “Evolution and the Ethical Brain” in which researchers argued that our ethical decision making (such as how to respond to unfair financial offers) is performed by a system that operates in much the same way as those that respond to sensory input: they make snap judgments that allow us to respond quickly and get on with things. The more elaborate ethical debates that we engage in are largely attempts at post-hoc rationalizations of our earlier decisions.

Within this perspective, the snap judgment is that an offer is unfair. Sometimes, we can engage the post-hoc rationalization, in this case involving the economics of the situation, and override our ethical calculations. But, in a substantial fraction of the cases, we never get the chance, as we act on our snap decisions before that process can occur.

Yet my students keep insisting we have free will!


Women in Science June 30, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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Via Ars Technica:

A new study commissioned by Congress and carried out by the National Academies of Science shows that, in 2005, women received nearly 38 percent of the doctorate degrees in science and engineering, but only between six and 29 percent of associate and full professors in these fields were women.

However, women were hired and granted tenure at a rate roughly equal to men. Thus, the disparity has to do with the small number of women applying for these jobs. In biology, 45 percent of the PhDs awarded went to women, but they only accounted for 26 percent of the tenure track applications.

The study found that both sexes have comparable access to institutional resources such as start-up packages, travel funds, and grad students and postdocs to employ. Nevertheless, in all six fields, women were underrepresented at all three levels of the tenure track. On the positive side, those who were up for tenure were at least as likely to receive it as men.

Women are getting degrees in science but not going into academia. What explains this?

The obvious hypothesis is that the tenure clock is unfavorable to women who want to have families.

Health Care Is Already Rationed But Not Rationally June 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, politics.
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In the Senate’s health care debate, Republicans are stonewalling progress by complaining about the health care rationing that is part of Obama’s plan to reduce medical costs. Obama wants to use Comparative Effectiveness Research to determine which procedures and medications are most effective and direct publicly administered insurance plans to pay for only those procedures that pass this test.

A group of Republican lawmakers led by Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) are introducing a bill that would prohibit any move by the federal government to ration health care based on results derived from federally funded comparative effectiveness research.

But this is silly. We already ration health care

In our present system, medical decisions are guided not by evidence of results, but by what will produce profits for the medical community. Prevention, inexpensive generic drugs, and the avoidance of mistakes are deemphasized because there is little money to made on them. And people who lack insurance get very little care because there is no money to made treating them.

By contrast, people with expensive health plans are over-treated and undergo unnecessary procedures because someone does make a profit on these. This is because all the incentives in our health delivery system are centered around profit rather than what will produce better health.

This is rationing.

To make matters worse, insurance companies make their money by refusing much needed care.

Here is a summary of testimony before the Commerce Committee by Wendell Potter, a former head of corporate communications for CIGNA, the country’s fourth-largest insurer. Via Ezra Klein:

What drove Potter from the health insurance business was, well, the health insurance business. The industry, Potter says, is driven by “two key figures: earnings per share and the medical-loss ratio, or medical-benefit ratio, as the industry now terms it. That is the ratio between what the company actually pays out in claims and what it has left over to cover sales, marketing, underwriting and other administrative expenses and, of course, profits.”

Think about that term for a moment: The industry literally has a term for how much money it “loses” paying for health care.

The best way to drive down “medical-loss,” explains Potter, is to stop insuring unhealthy people. You won’t, after all, have to spend very much of a healthy person’s dollar on medical care because he or she won’t need much medical care. And the insurance industry accomplishes this through two main policies. “One is policy rescission,” says Potter. “They look carefully to see if a sick policyholder may have omitted a minor illness, a pre-existing condition, when applying for coverage, and then they use that as justification to cancel the policy, even if the enrollee has never missed a premium payment.”

And don’t be fooled: rescission is important to the business model. Last week, at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, Rep. Bart Stupak, the committee chairman, asked three insurance industry executives if they would commit to ending rescission except in cases of intentional fraud. “No,” they each said.

Potter also emphasized the practice known as “purging.” This is where insurers rid themselves of unprofitable accounts by slapping them with “intentionally unrealistic rate increases.” One famous example came when Cigna decided to drive the Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust in California and New Jersey off of its books. It hit them with a rate increase that would have left some family plans costing more than $44,000 a year, and it gave them three months to come up with the cash.

This is rationing too.

The problem is that this rationing is based on arbitrary criteria that have nothing to do with producing good health.

As David Leonhardt wrote recently:

…There is no such thing as a free lunch. The choice isn’t between rationing and not rationing. It’s between rationing well and rationing badly. Given that the United States devotes far more of its economy to health care than other rich countries, and gets worse results by many measures, it’s hard to argue that we are now rationing very rationally.

[…]But flat-out opposition to comparative effectiveness is, in the end, opposition to making good choices. And all the noise about rationing is not really a courageous stand against less medical care. It’s a utopian stand against better medical care.

We have finite resources to spend on health care. We can never provide as much care as people want or need. So rationing is inevitable. The question is whether there is an ethical basis for the way we ration.

If you think wealthy people deserve more costly (though often ineffective) care than they need, and middle class and poor people deserve far less than they need, then I suppose you think the status quo is just fine.

Apparently, that is what Republicans think.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com


Anti-science Sentiment Still Exists June 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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If you thought the anti-science agenda had disappeared with the Bush Administration you would be wrong.

Via Kevin Drum, last week, an amendment to an appropriations bill banning federal scientists from considering land use changes when calculating greenhouse gas emissions failed by a vote of 30-29. That was a close call

 Michael O’Hare comments:

This is a particularly vile attempt to protect the corn industry at the expense of the planet by short-circuiting the science Obama promised would guide his administration….I can’t be too clear or flatfooted about this: there is no respectable or responsible view that growing biofuel feedstock on land that could be used for food does not cause an indirect land use discharge of greenhouse gas, and corn ethanol is the biofuel with the largest indirect land use change effect.

….This is not a close scientific call even though the size of the LUC effect for a given fuel is subject to debate, it’s a disagreement between people who will say anything for money and people who know what they’re talking about….If we are willing to make stuff up and stifle the science with legislation like this, countries like India and China, and the Europeans, have no reason to get on board, especially after the last eight years of Bush administration denial and ignorantism and stasis on climate. It will be a catastrophe.

This is how good ideas die. Lobbyists grab the agenda and write the rules that benefit their industry. And this is not just Republicans trying to circumvent science. Farm state Democrats like Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) are in on it.



book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

Friday Food Blogging: Local Food and Care June 26, 2009

Posted by Ian Duckles in Uncategorized.

In a comment to a much earlier post, Dwight Furrow wrote:

Even though I don’t have a personal relationship with a winemaker in Chile or a coffee producer in Nicaragua, it isn’t obvious to me why I ought to care less about their circumstances, or value their product less than that of local producers.

This raised an interesting issue in my mind that I finally have the time to think about. In particular, I am wondering if it is possible to care–to have an authentic ethical relationship–to an individual you don’t meet? In his comment above, Dwight suggests that such a relationship is possible. I myself am not sure either way, but I thought I would try and articulate a position in opposition to Dwight in the hopes of talking a bit more about these issue. In arguing against Dwight, I intend to enlist the aid of two rather disparate thinkers: Emmanual Levinas and Michael Pollan.

To begin with, Levinas makes a strong case that the only authentic relationship between two individuals can come in the form of a face to face encounter. In fact, Levinas goes so far as to argue that human subjectivity is constituted by this encounter. As he writes in an essay on Kierkegaard, “This putting in question signifies the responsibility of the I for the Other. Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. This is what constitutes the ethical.” As Levinas sees it, the face of the other person puts a demand upon us and it is through responding to this demand that we become ethical subjects. Put another way, without this face to face contact, we can’t be ethical and we can’t even be subjects. Perhaps I am pushing Levinas too far, but it does seem that for him we can’t form the right kind of relationship to an other absent this face to face encounter.

In his The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan makes what I take to be a similar claim. In his discussion of industrial organic farms, Pollan argues that in order to produce food on an industrial scale, one must use industrial practices. In the chapter “Big Organic” Pollan examines how one of the largest organic food companies in the world (Earthbound Organic) grows and processes baby lettuces. One of the most startling revelations Pollan makes is that once the lettuce is harvested from the field, it follows the exact same path that conventional lettuce follows. That is, aside from the method of growing, the processing of organic and conventional produce is identical. In this same vein, Pollan quotes a “post-industrialist” farmer who argues that, “the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye…”

Furthermore, in this same chapter he discusses the disconnect between how people conceive of organic food and the reality of its production. All of this together suggests to me that one can’t have an authentic, caring relationship with a farmer one never sees working on a farm one never visits.

Anyway, these are just some thought, I would be interested in hearing the comments of others.

The Chameleon RIP June 26, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (and associated music videos) my be the finest pop album of all time. He certainly deserves the title “King of Pop”.

His music combined the rhythmic complexity of jazz, the urbane, hip sophistication of soul, and the urgency and sonic innovation of rock.

This ability to occupy multiple, musical identities made his music great; but his ability to disrupt the binary oppositions that constitute our social identities riveted our attention to him long after the musical inspiration waned.

He was male and female, black and white, man and child, celebrity and recluse. Who was he “really”. I suppose people who knew him might be able to answer that question, but I doubt that it really has an answer.

It can’t be said that he moved among these identities effortlessly. Perhaps his life was a train wreck because a good life requires commitment and purpose and such an abused and damaged soul was not up to finding purpose within the crosscurrents of such complexity.

I think celebrities (if they are thoughtful) have a terrible burden. They must inevitably ask questions like “am I really who people think I am?” and “do I deserve my acclaim?” A yes or no answer to either question might destroy the personality.

At any rate, we are poorer for his loss.


California is Not Unique June 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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As California struggles to pass a budget, it’s worth remembering that other states are struggling as well. As the New York Times recently reported:

All but four states must have new budgets in place less than two weeks from now — by July 1, the start of their fiscal year. But most are already predicting shortfalls as tax collections shrink, unemployment rises and the stock market remains in turmoil.

“These are some of the worst numbers we have ever seen,” said Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, adding that the federal stimulus money that began flowing this spring was the only thing preventing widespread paralysis, particularly in the areas of education and health care. “If we didn’t have those funds, I think we’d have an incredible number of states just really unsure of how they were going to get a new budget out.”

And the situation may be even worse next year because state budgets usually lag behind an economic recovery.

So I’m wondering if all those Republicans and centrist Democrats who took money out of the stimulus package that was headed to the states are having regrets.

It is about time for the Federal Government to take note, according to economist Stephen Levy.  Via Neil Peirce:

But the real problem, notes Levy, is “a massive national recession” that’s not California’s fault. A faltering state government, ending welfare to work, cutting school years, ravaging university and student aid budgets, means “we’re eating our seed corn,” throwing a long dark shadow across the future. And with sharply reduced state spending, deepening and lengthening recession.

Levy’s message to President Obama and Congress: Enact a second-round stimulus bill — perhaps $150 billion — as a safety net for states (maybe $20 billion for California). The funds could focus first and foremost, he asserts, on investment in America’s children and youth.

There’s a counterargument — the federal government is already dangerously into red-ink spending, imperiling its future creditworthiness. Levy’s rejoinder: If Washington can bail out AIG and banks, how about a safety net for its own children?

But if the feds do provide California with stimulus money, I suspect Schwarzenegger would refuse to take it, just as his counterpart in South Carolina, Governor Mark Sanford, attempted to do before he was stymied by the State Supreme Court.

Would Schwarzenegger then disappear with a “friend” for five days.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

Gov. Sanford: Its not the Sex, or the Hypocrisy; Its the Venality June 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that Terry Sanford, Governor of South Carolina, disappeared, incommunicado for a few days. He was traveling in Argentina carrying on an affair with a woman not his wife.

Some commentators have rightly focused on how irresponsible it is for a Governor to disappear for 5 days leaving the state with no one to make important decisions should an emergency arise.

Other commentators are tut-tutting about the sex lives of politicians and the hypocrisy of Sanford, who has been ranting about family values and pontificating about the sanctity of heterosexual marriage for years.

But the serious moral transgression for a public servant is not Sanford’s marital infidelity. That has little to do with his job as Governor. Neither is it hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is an all-to-human behavior to which most of us succumb. The problem is that Sanford not only acts in ways contrary to his beliefs; he would deeply harm others for beliefs that he doesn’t take seriously.

He seeks to use government to deny women and gays privacy rights in the name of beliefs that he apparently doesn’t hold. It’s one thing to do something that violates  your belief system. It is another thing to punish or penalize someone for reasons that you don’t take seriously. That is not just hypocrisy; it is venality.



book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

Replacing Religion? June 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, religion.
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In the modern world, most of the roles and functions of religion have been taken over by other institutions.

As H.E. Baber writes:

What once was religion has already been parcelled out to a variety of different institutions and agents – metaphysics and ethics to philosophers, wisdom literature to self-help gurus, pastoral counselling to therapists, and charity to secular non-profits and the welfare state. Science explains natural phenomena and technology provides a means for controlling them.

But Baber points out that despite that loss of function, belief in religion and the paranormal persists. And she thinks these are related.

I doubt that that residue [of religion] will dissolve because I understand the draw of religion and also, I think, the appeal of paranormal beliefs. It’s the yen for the spooky – for wonders, marvels and stangeness, for mysticism. We read ghost stories for that metaphysical thrill and experiment with psychotropic drugs. Religion delivers it most effectively.

Is this a plausible account of the persistence of religious belief? A “yen for the spooky” can be satisfied in ways that do not involve the hardships of ethical commitment, personal struggles with faith, conflict with non-believers and all the other burdens of religious faith. What is effective about the way religion satisfies this “yen”?

This explanation just raises the question why, if the “yen for the spooky” can be pursued through ghost stories, drugs, and the pseudo-spiritual silliness on TV, etc.  do we need religion?


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

Hypocrisy on Iran June 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Republicans have been complaining that Obama has not been vocal enough at condemning the Iranian elections and their brutal aftermath.

But as Juan Cole points out, this is utter hypocrisy.

…US politicians are no longer in a position to lecture other countries about their human rights. The kind of unlicensed, city-wide demonstrations being held in Tehran last week would not be allowed to be held in the United States. Senator John McCain led the charge against Obama for not having sufficiently intervened in Iran. At the Republican National Committee convention in St. Paul, 250 protesters were arrested shortly before John McCain took the podium. Most were innocent activists and even journalists. Amy Goodman and her staff were assaulted. In New York in 2004, ‘protest zones’ were assigned, and 1800 protesters were arrested, who have now been awarded civil damages by the courts. Spontaneous, city-wide demonstrations outside designated ‘protest zones’ would be illegal in New York City, apparently. In fact, the Republican National Committee has undertaken to pay for the cost of any lawsuits by wronged protesters, which many observers fear will make the police more aggressive, since they will know that their municipal authorities will not have to pay for civil damages.