On the Utility of the Apparently Useless (Part II)

(Follow up to Part I)

To lead into the explanation of the second thought that my Galileo thermometer inspired, let me present my attempt (and this is the keyword :-)) at a monochromatic expression of some conflicting ideas related to it:


The most prominent feature that you will tend to notice is the crescent moon, looming large near the Alaska horizon. Aside from perhaps the lesser-known story of Linus Pauling (as told in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, which I highly recommend), I know of no better case study in societally impactful science than that of the U.S. moon landing.

It’s common knowledge that the Apollo program cost literal billions of dollars, so one can hardly fault the citizens who would have expressed indignation at this investment of their taxes. In hindsight, of course, the mission seems to have been worth it. Beyond the “that really makes our species look cool” factor and pure national solidarity the moon landing generated, the conveniences it spawned — from water filters and satellite-facilitated communication to ArterioVision and hearing aids — are impressive and often life-changing.

However, as I hope two details of this drawing illuminate, this sort of argument in favor of publicly funded research has its problems. Before we consider those, there are more immediate objections that come to mind. Most crucial to the theme of this mini-series of posts, we may fairly ask which criteria a research endeavor must meet to qualify as so likely to benefit the people, that our government ought to fund it. Well-directed investigations into cancer and CVD (diseases both severely detrimental to people’s well-being and expensive in terms of health care costs) cures are easy enough to justify, but how could anyone have foreseen the fruits of Pauling’s or NASA researchers’ inquiries?

That’s not a rhetorical question. If we honestly could not have predicted how useful some lines of natural questioning would prove, can we take any examples of ultimately quite beneficial research as adequate evidence of likely improvements other research might provide? This doesn’t appear to this writer a solid foundation upon which to build future investments of public resources, at least without a well-tested theory of initially useless utility. All of this is evident irrespective of how successful the moon landing was for humankind in fact.

Further, the suggestion that many life-improving inventions would not have arisen without the impetus of the space program may involve a flavor of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy. That is, just because NASA yielded great societal utilities, this does not necessarily mean society could not have otherwise achieved greater utilities with the resources invested in NASA. Maybe this is a testament to my ignorance of the debates argued among legislators back in the 1960s, but there seems to be a large burden of proof on those who would claim that the aforementioned technologies (and Space Race morale) outweigh the good that could have been achieved charitably or through direct infrastructure, with those funds. Indeed, with the exception of satellites, none of these advances obviously require space travel in principle.

Hence, the disheveled home of a poor individual that lies not far from our young astronomer, who delights in the inspiration of the moon, blissfully unaware of the pavement of poverty with which the road to that rock has been built. Here I have taken the, ahem, artistic liberty of getting my point across with a term coined in a work of fiction I am currently revising. In my last update, my short video introduced a not-exactly novel yet disturbing idea — that the intrusion of increased automation into the workforce might multiply the economic burdens of most members of society. The “Go away Org” graffiti on the house shown above alludes to a similar but distinct consideration. Supposing that technology produced (by some time in the not-too-distant future which is this scene’s setting) exoskeletons capable of eliminating many of the inconveniences of the organic body, social selection against those without the wealth to possess them would surely arise. Why hire the average human who has to sleep eight hours a day?

If this all seems too pessimistic, the second of the details I mentioned vindicates the moon missions somewhat. Notice0 the small but unmistakable lit-up spot on the moon besides its naturally brightened crescent. This is, consistent with the time period, a sign of human civilization on the moon. Such colonization is also an idea that has floated around in greater minds than mine before, but I think it’s worth pondering nonetheless, for the practicalities of this for people’s well-being are substantial. All else being equal, the moon has no natural disasters. Think about that, and the lives that could be saved after leaping the hurdles of cosmic radiation and terraforming for food sources.

Regardless of how the debate settles, the implications are somewhat demoralizing either way. The avid astronauts may declare, “Can we put a price on freedom from ignorance?” Yet their critics can just as easily retort, “On freedom from poverty?”

Once again, the fog doesn’t seem much clearer than when we started. I do intend to pursue more precise answers, and to share them if I find anything particularly intriguing, but as I have said before, I don’t think the power of identifying the pertinent questions themselves (independent of the answers) should be underestimated.

Why Artificial Intelligence Matters

A few months ago, I entertained the notion of discussing the implications of AI for social justice on this blog. Well, in the following video, I do just that. It’s not the longest or most thorough video anyone’s done on the subject, by a long shot, but for what it’s worth, I figured my readers would find it at least somewhat thought-provoking.

ThatGuyWithHippyHair Recommends: Everyday Utilitarian

Today I’d like to recommend a site I think my readers will find compelling. It’s called Everyday Utilitarian, and while it’s about as low-budget as this blog, much of the content is likely to be thought-provoking to those interested in applied ethics and social justice. (Note well that its author, Peter Hurford, is not above treading the controversial waters of religion and politics at times in his writings, but on the whole his approach is exceptionally gracious and level-headed, and he isn’t self-righteous about the topics he covers.)

Besides some logs of his personal endeavors in applied utilitarianism — basically, making a conscious effort to inform one’s decision-making with considerations of scientific probabilities and valid reasoning, rather than letting this process be a crapshoot of the conscience — Hurford shares some enticing thoughts on the application of reliable data to improving the world. He calls this effective altruism, suggesting that as a society, we tend to either oversimplify philanthropy into just throwing money at the problem, or worse, assume that making a difference is impossible in a world this complex (and thus we do nothing about the problem at all).

This blog’s essays are often chock-full of references to sociological studies worth looking into. Even when such sources don’t quite answer his own questions, as in this post, he does a fine job of revealing questions I didn’t even know I should be asking in the first place. At first glance, it seems obvious that humans would jump at any self-interested motive to help others (given how rare this combination seems to be, although I’d say it’s less so than we assume; I’ll probably address this in a coming post). Yet, as Hurford wisely notes, our psychology doesn’t work so simply, often throwing in the catalysts for paradoxes like those detailed in his article.

At the end of the latter post, Hurford proposes that the reader do his/her own investigation into this phenomenon. Of course, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote,” but if the aspiring philanthropist finds that it works to remind people of the happiness they can expect from giving to a certain degree, more power to that person’s cause. If I’m feeling ambitious in the next few weeks, I just might take Hurford’s challenge. Regardless, I appreciate his rigor and cautiousness in thinking about subjects that are, in some ways, quite literally matters of life or death. Check out the Everyday Utilitarian. You might be surprised.

“Diagnosing Everything” Is Just Being Human

What is ultimately responsible for every justice and injustice in this world? Though it’s aided by many external factors, this agent is quite evidently the human mind. The very concept of justice depends on the existence of conscious beings like ourselves, who assign varying degrees of value to everything on the spectrum of experiences, and who are aware of some — but not all — ways we could act to achieve more of what we value.

If, then, our capacities to value experiences and to understand their causes emerge, in at least some extremely significant sense, from the behavior of our complex brains, you can see whence cometh the need for accurate psychology and mental health care. So much of society’s complications are symptoms of a sickness that is ignorance of psychological facts, even when we label our lay psychology “common sense.”

The initiative Patel describes in this video is an example of applying knowledge of psychology to help immense numbers of people. It’s easy to lose perspective on just how instrumental ailments like depression, as Patel notes, are in creating a domino effect of emotional and physical harms. Like any medical problem, these illnesses not only inflict unnecessary suffering on those with them, but because they affect the brain directly they tend to influence their sufferers’ decisions in ways that have alarming social ramifications. The obvious exhibit A for this claim is any antisocial personality disorder; clinical psychopathy, for instance, consists of a genetic and neurological predisposition to lack of empathy, and to predatory behavior with the proper environmental catalysts. Even psychopaths themselves suffer from their condition, as this clearly impairs potential for developed relationships with others.

This, of course, brings further questions to the table. How can we tell genuine science from pop psych that preys on gullibility? How can we guard our judgments against abuses of logic, where data from a young field are hastily extrapolated beyond their place?

Hence, the utility of the scientific method. We may prefer to think of science as the domain only of the elites, a practice satisfying to curiosity but far subordinate in importance for society to economics, activism, and law. Yet in an often underestimated sense, the empirical methods of modern science are really just a systemized form of what we do all the time in reliable reasoning. When I say that psychology is a crucial tool for the prediction of and prevention of harmful human behavior, so much so that it deserves a place in the discourse of social justice, I am saying nothing more controversial than that there are large ways in which humans are causal systems, influenced by the chemistry of our brains. We prove this every time we reward good actions and punish bad ones, or apportion trust according to a person’s history of dealing with people.

In short, diagnosis is the lifeblood of prognosis — when you diagnose a mental illness, certain specified behaviors should tend to emerge more so than in the average person, and if they don’t, the diagnosis is flawed. In future posts, we’ll look at ways we can utilize models of mental health to improve our altruistic efforts.