Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Equality and its implications

12 June 2011 5 comments

This is an installment of my reading journal on ethics. The topic of this installment is the chapter “Equality and Its Implications” of the book Practical Ethics by Peter Singer [2, pp.16–54]. Compared to some authors on philosophy, I find Singer’s writing to be usually (but not always) approachable and mostly free of jargons that haunt the professional philosophy literature. This is hardly surprising. The title of the book itself speaks true to the style of presentation: clear and readable prose that touches on philosophical issues of immediate concern to anyone, not just arm chair philosophers. RenĂ© Descartes’ Discourse on the Method [1] is an example of philosophy writings that are readable by anyone without training in philosophy. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find (and read) another book on philosophy that is mostly jargon-free and written, not for philosophers, but for anyone with sufficient intelligence to follow logical arguments.

The chapter “Equality and Its Implications” considers the principle underlying equality and explores some implications of this principle. Humans differ from each other in many respects. What then is a core principle that underlies equality between them? Singer posits that when making an ethical judgement we must go beyond our own personal or sectional interests and consider the interests of people who would be affected by our decision. This is much more than an entreaty for us to take stock of stakeholders who would be affected by our decisions and actions. It is I think a gentle reminder that our decisions and actions do not take place in a vacuum, that we need to think beyond our own personal and parochial interests. A core principle of equality then is the principle of equal consideration of interests of those affected by a moral decision. Here, Singer says, an interest is to be considered on its own merits without regard to whose interest it is. “The essence of the principle of equal consideration of interests is that we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions. … What the principle really amounts to is this: an interest is an interest, whoever’s interest it may be” [2, p.21]. In many cases, this principle agrees with the economic principle of declining marginal utility (diminishing returns?), but in special cases equal consideration can widen the welfare gap between people. The principle then is considered a minimal principle of equality.

With the principle of equal consideration of interests, Singer explores implications of this principle in the context of genetic diversity and justification of racism and sexism. Assuming for the sake of argument that there are specific genetic differences between racial groups so that, for example, one group has higher average IQ than another. Would this translate to a justification of racism? Or assuming that biological differences exist between female and male humans such that, say, males are more aggressive than females, etc. Would this mean that sexism is defensible? In both of these cases, justification of racism and sexism on genetic and biological grounds, it is not necessary for us to establish the validity of the theories we assume. We also do not assume that they are sound. We merely take the posited theories as is and explore how they relate to equality and their implications.

For the sake of exploring consequences, Singer first addresses the issue of racial differences and racial equality. Suppose that evidence accumulates to support the hypothesis of difference in intelligence between ethnic groups. That is, one group has a higher average IQ than another. What are implications of the hypothesis of genetically based differences in IQ between racial groups? First, this hypothesis does not imply that we should halt or reduce our efforts to overcome other manifestations or causes of inequality between people. Second, these average IQ scores are what they are: average scores that have little to no bearing on individuals. Third, the genetic hypothesis lends little to no credence to the justification of racism. In Singer’s view, “the principle of equality is not based on any actual equality that all people share. I have argued that the only defensible basis for the principle of equality is equal consideration of interests, and I have also suggested that the most important human interests … are not affected by differences in intelligence” [2, p.31].

Next, Singer addresses the justification of sexual differences and sexual equality on biological terms. His reasons against this are similar to those offered in the case of justifying racism on grounds of genetic differences. Singer then moves on to the issue of equal opportunity and equal pay. “To work for wider recognition of the principle of payment according to needs and effort rather than inherited ability is both realistic and, I believe, right” [2, p.44].

The principle of equal consideration of interests is next explored in relation to affirmative action. “The important point is that affirmative action, whether by quotas or some other method, is not contrary to any sound principle of equality and does not violate any rights of those excluded by it. Properly applied, it is in keeping with equal consideration of interests, in its aspirations at least. The only real doubt is whether it will work. In the absence of more promising alternatives it seems worth a try” [2, p.51].


[1] Descartes. Discourse on Method and the Meditations. Penguin Books, 1968. Translated by F. E. Sutcliffe.

[2] P. Singer. Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1993.

Categories: ethics, philosophy Tags: ,

How not to do social network analysis

17 May 2011 Leave a comment

On the purported social network analysis of climate scientists by Edward Wegman of George Mason University, the study’s flawed methodology, and (drum roll) eventual retraction from the journal Computational Statistics and Data Analysis. Oh, and charges of plagiarism in Wegman’s paper. See links below for comments and news reports.

Marc Hauser and research ethics

12 April 2011 Leave a comment

An email sent by Michael D. Smith on 20th August 2010 to members of Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences confirmed that Marc Hauser had been found responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct. Smith, who at the time was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, revealed that overall egregious issues were found with Hauser’s conduct as regards the acquisition, analysis, and retention of research data in addition to issues concerning Hauser’s reporting of research methodologies and results. The issue was reported in the Boston Globe on 10th August 2010.

Investigation into the Hauser matter began in the Autumn of 2007 following allegations of academic misconduct that were brought to the attentions of Harvard’s officials by Hauser’s research assistants. The committee commissioned to probe into the matter completed its investigation in 2010. The investigating committee’s report is yet to be publicly released. Smith’s official reason for enshrouding the report in secrecy was to conceal the identity of those who provided evidence during the investigation. However, paraphrasing from the report Smith indicated that at least three of Hauser’s publications be corrected or retracted. The paper “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins” [2] was retracted and a correction made to the paper “Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent” [3]. As of this writing, the fate of the paper “The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates” [4] was under discussion between the paper’s authors and publisher, Science. As early as 1995 scepticism was cast over the paper “Self-recognition in primates: phylogeny and the salience of species-typical features” [1] by Gordon Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist at the State University of New York at Albany. Gallup’s review of the evidence upon which the paper was purportedly based contradicted the paper’s reported findings.

Smith reminded us that sanctions levied by Harvard on those found guilty of academic misconduct include: involuntary leave; additional oversight on the trangressor’s research lab; and “appropriately severe restrictions on a faculty member’s ability to apply for research grants, to admit graduate students, and to supervise undergraduate research”. Based on Bartlett’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Dobbs provided an assessment of the research procotol that Hauser used in gathering data. Michael Ruse, in an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on 18th August 2010, reflected on Hauser’s work and the Harvard investigation. In a statement published by The New York Times on 20th August 2010, Hauser said that “I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes” and that he was “deeply sorry for the problems this case had caused to my students, my colleagues and my university.” Hauser also said:

I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes and I am deeply disappointed that this has led to a retraction and two corrections. I also feel terrible about the concerns regarding the other five cases, which involved either unpublished work or studies in which the record was corrected before submission for publication. … I have learned a great deal from this process and have made many changes in my own approach to research and in my lab’s research practices.

  1. M. D. Hauser, J. Kralik, C. Botto-Mahan, M. Garrett, and J. Oser. Self-recognition in primates: Phylogeny and the salience of species-typical features. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 92(23):10811–10814, 1995.
  2. M. D. Hauser, D. Weiss, and G. Marcus. Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins. Cognition, 86(1):B15–22, 2002.
  3. M. D. Hauser, D. Glynn, and J. Wood. Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent. Proceedings of The Royal Society B, 274(1620):1913–1918, 2007.
  4. J. N. Wood, D. D. Glynn, B. C. Phillips, and M. D Hauser. The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates. Science, 317(5843):1402–1405, 2007.
Categories: ethics Tags:

Liar paradox in novel “Don Quixote”

14 February 2011 Leave a comment

While reading Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote [1], I came across the following version of the liar paradox. The quote is from Part II, Chapter 51, page 798.

Sir, a deep river divides a certain lord’s estate into two parts… Listen carefully, your worship, for the case is an important one and rather difficult. I must tell you, then, that over this river is a bridge, and at one end a gallows and a sort of courthouse, in which four judges sit to administer the law imposed by the owner of the river, the bridge and the estate. It runs like this: “Before anyone crosses this bridge, he must first state on oath where he is going and for what purpose. If he swears truly, he may be allowed to pass; but if he tells a lie, he shall suffer death by hanging on the gallows there displayed, without any hope of mercy.” Though they know the law and its rigorous conditions, many people cross the bridge and, as they clearly make true statements the judges let them pass freely. Now it happened that they once put a man on his oath, and he swore that he was going to die on the gallows there—and that was all. After due deliberation the judges pronounced as follows: “If we let this man pass freely he will have sworn a false oath and, according to the law, he must die; but he swore that he was going to die on the gallows, and if we hang him that will be the truth, so by the same law he should go free.”

[1] Cervantes. Don Quixote. Penguin Books, 1950.

Categories: humour, logic, philosophy Tags: , ,

Moral experts

7 September 2010 1 comment

Peter Singer‘s essay “Moral Experts” [1, pp.3–6] in Writings on An Ethical Life [1] originally appeared in Analysis, volume 32, pages 115–117, 1972. It is an attempt to respond to the statement that moral philosophers are not moral experts. A reason accounting for this view is that the role of a moral philosopher is different from that of a preacher. Another reason explains that moral judgements are purely emotive, that a person’s moral view is as good as anyone else’s (ethical relativism). Both of these reasons, Singer maintains, are lacking to some extent.

According to Singer [1, pp.3–6], a more plausible reason is that knowing the difference between right and wrong requires that we care about the issue at hand. It is not enough that we know; we also need to invest time and energy into investigating the moral fabric of an issue. A society whose moral code is perfect and undisputed obviates the need for a morally good person to reflect on the moral principles of that society. But in the absence of such a society, we need to decide for ourselves what we ought to do. This is an onerous task that requires substantial investment of time that we might not have.

A moral philosopher has several advantages over an ordinary person. First, the former’s training in philosophy equips her with skills in argument and detection of invalid inferences. Second, the experience of the moral philosopher enables her to understand moral concepts and the logic of moral arguments. Third, a moral philosopher has the advantage of being able to devote full-time to reflection on normative issues.

[1] P. Singer. Writings on An Ethical Life. Ecco, 2001.

Categories: ethics, philosophy Tags: ,

Ethics in open source software

28 August 2010 1 comment

This is a slightly edited version of my posting to the group sage-devel. It raises some issues concerning ethics in open source software. An excellent overview can be found in the paper (Grodzinsky et al. 2003) [1]. My response follows, with any email addresses removed.

Hi Mike,

On Mon, Aug 23, 2010 at 1:07 AM, Mike Witt wrote:
> For whatever it’s worth I’d like to say that I emphatically agree
> that more attention to fixing bugs (presumably at the expense of
> adding features) would make Sage *much* more viable from my point
> of view. My point of view being as:
> (1) Not a developer, but simply a user.
> (2) Not a mathematician, but someone who is (late in the day 🙂
> slowly making my way through the undergrad math/physics
> sequence.
> (3) Someone who has tried unsuccessfully to get classmates and
> instructors interested in Sage as an alternative to certain
> other “M”s.
> (4) Someone who, not being particularly brilliant with this
> stuff, probably represents more of what a “typical” user
> would look like if Sage ever attained widespread use.
> Having said this, I can’t help but wonder what possible
> motivation there could be, among developers, to do something
> like a bug fix release? It sounds like of boring …

My response can be summarized in one word: accountability. As a first step in understanding accountability as it applies to computer software, let’s look at the notion of accountability in civil engineering. When a bridge collapsed, it is possible to trace accountability back to the company/individual who designed that bridge or to the construction company that built that bridge. The design or construction company/individual can be sued for negligence and so on.

But how does accountability come into play in software? First, a software license usually has an indemnification clause(s). An open source license usually has the explicit statement to the effect that the software concerned is provided as is and without any warranty whatsoever. What other factors can be barriers to accountability within the realm of software? Helen Nissenbaum can provide us with some insights into this question in her two papers:

  • Helen Nissenbaum. Computing and accountability. Communications of the ACM, 37(1):72–80, 1994.
  • Helen Nissenbaum. Accountability in a computerized society. Science and Engineering Ethics, 2(1):25–42, 1996.

In both of these papers, Nissenbaum identifies four barriers to accountability with respect to computer software: (1) the problem of many hands, (2) software bugs, (3) computer as a scapegoat, and (4) ownership without liability.

The problem of many hands can be understood when we consider a mishap with a piece of software. A complex software package is likely to be the result of many people. When the use of that software results in a mishap, on whom do we rest accountability? This issue is more concerned with closed source, proprietary software than it is with open source software. Individual accountability is built into the process of open source software development where one knows who wrote a patch that was accepted and integrated into the mainline source tree. An open source software contributor enjoys a greater degree of autonomy than is enjoyed by a closed source, proprietary counterpart. But it can be difficult for a bug to be fixed once its open source contributor has moved on or is unwilling to fix the bug.

Next comes the issue of software bugs. If you accept that bugs are inevitable, this raises a problem with regard to accountability for such a mentality can encourage sloppiness in how a software package is developed. The open source community treats the eradication of bugs as a group effort, as a group responsibility. Think of the famous phrase attributed to Linus Torvalds: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Once a bug is identified/reported, what can we do to get it fixed? How can we encourage people to be active contributors instead of users? Both groups of people are valuable to the success of an open source software project. But a small active contributor base is not likely to bring the number of open bugs down.

Thirdly, the problem of the computer as a scapegoat is a general problem and it is not specific to open or closed source software. I’ll leave this problem as it is and won’t discuss it any more in the context of open source software.

Finally, the issue of ownership without liability is not relevant to open source software. Any open source license must pass the test of the Open Source Definition, which characterizes open source software as something that is not owned by any one individual or company. Open source software according to my reading of the Open Source Definition is more properly a commons in the sense that the open air is a commons for anyone to enjoy, or that a public park is a commons for the use and enjoyment of the people of a community. There is no notion of anyone or any company owning an open source software package in the same way that no one owns the air or the public park. But without ownership, how does accountability comes into play in open source software? I think that comes down to one’s sense of ethics as an open source contributor. How can a person be a responsible open source contributor?

[1] F. S. Grodzinsky, K. Miller, and M. Wolf. Ethical issues in open source software. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics, 1(4):193–205, 2003.

On questioning the mission of the Sage project

24 August 2010 3 comments

Every once in a while, it pays to reflect on the mission of a project. We want to review our mission and why we’re involved in the project. In a recent email I received, the sender asked for a clarification of the mission statement of Sage. Below is an edited version of my response to each point the person raised. I have withheld names to protect the identity of the sender.

Hi Sender,

First, allow me to apologize for the prolonged delay in responding to the issues you raised. A person upon receipt of a challenge to her/his position would have the immediate instinctual reaction to defend the position no matter what. I wanted to temper any knee-jerk reaction I might have after first reading your email, and allow myself several days to carefully ponder your email.

> On Fri, Aug 20, 2010 at 1:47 PM, Sender <> wrote:
> I don’t really know who to address this, but here goes nothing.

There are various avenues for raising your concerns. The mailing list sage-devel can be a catch-all for most issues to do with Sage, its development, and direction. Civilized discussion is expected of all participants. Where a debate exceeds the boiling point, people can move it over to sage-flame where you can vent flames and vitriols at your own risk. Please refer to the Sage website for a list of forums where discussion can take place.

> There seems to be a general misunderstanding of the concept of software and
> it’s role in society.

Software can be understood at many levels among which are:

As a tool to accomplish a task. This can range from tools such as office productivity software, to communication software, to software for conducting (academic/industrial) research. A basic goal according to this perspective is to use a piece of software or a software package to realize some gaol, in the same manner that a carpenter uses a hammer or a writer uses words. We use a tool for its effect.

A related perspective is to view software as a means to an end, e.g. developing software as part of one’s job. A person might be hired to develop/maintain some software; think of paid developers and maintainers. Or one develops/maintains a piece of software as a requisite to fulfilling one’s job; think of researchers who need to develop/maintain a piece of software as part of a research program. Or end users who develop office productivity macros to automate a routine task, e.g. a spreadsheet macro or a word processor macro. A hammer is a tool, but we don’t use any hammer for any situation that arises. A wooden mallet is appropriate for certain jobs. But it’s entirely unsuitable for uprooting nails; that’s a job for a claw hammer. A situation that stretches the limit of a particular type of hammer is an opportunity to evaluate the usefulness of that hammer for that particular circumstance. We may find a particular hammer entirely inadequate so we choose a more suitable hammer, or we may design or fashion a hammer to cater to the peculiarities of the circumstance. An analogous case can be made about words. The words in English are not static for all times. They are created as the needs arise. The meaning and usage of words change over time. People invent phrases to describe new situations, and each community has its own vernacular by way of slangs and colloquialism.

Software can also be viewed as an expression of one’s creativity, as an expression of our perspective of the world around us. Through a piece of software we construct a model of our understanding, of how we think a physical phenomenon works, of our understanding of a theoretical abstraction. The act of construction during the gestation period is a manifestation of one’s creativity. The result of that creativity embodies our understanding, a manifestation of a model through which we view a process, phenomenon, or abstraction. The HTTP protocol is a model of communication, an instance of the client-server model. The software package that represents a web browser is the result of the creative energy of numerous people to implement the protocol (among other protocols). Returning to the example of the English language, we creatively use words to express our thoughts, to create models, theories, and arguments as means to effective communication.

Other perspectives on software are possible.

> For instance, in the front page of sage,
> says: “Mission: Creating a viable free open source
> alternative to Magma, Maple, Mathematica and Matlab.”
> This I simply consider wrong, free software is not, under any circumstance,
> the alternative to payed, proprietary software.  In fact, proprietary
> software is an alternative to the lack of or low quality of available free
> software.

An alternative is a choice. There is also such a thing as a non-choice, e.g. when you’re presented with a “choice” between using the only piece of closed source, proprietary software to accomplish a task or not using that software at all. I consider such a “choice” to be a non-choice, a blackmail of sort; the situation essentially boils down to this: pay up and you are permitted to use the only available tool or suffer the lack of such tool. The existence of only one tool to accomplish a task presents you with a non-choice to use that tool: you either use it or you don’t, and there are no alternative tools to accomplish the same task (of course you could decide to put together an equivalent tool). To talk about choice or alternative when there’s only one available tool for a job is to spout marketing-speak, to engage in sophistry in order to deceive.

When the Sage project talks about an alternative, we talk about a choice among tools to accomplish the same or similar tasks. Think of the case of a manual hammer and the glorified electric hammer. Both tools present you with a choice; they both can be used for the same task. The current situation with respect to symbolic/numeric computation systems is this. The big proprietary, closed source players are Magma, Maple, Mathematica, and Matlab. Their open source counterparts consist of Axiom, Maxima, Octave, Sage, Scilab, SymPy, YaCAS. There are numerous closed source and open source symbolic/numeric computation packages; I don’t want to list them all here, but you could view a comprehensive list from Wikipedia. The Sage project aims to be an umbrella project that unifies existing free open source tools, packaging the tools and developing them into a unified tool that is competitive with the above closed source players. In this situation, it is legitimate to talk about a choice or an alternative between tools without attaching any ideological principles to our choosing of tools. We provide a tool that adds to the repertoire of tools for symbolic/numeric computation. So far no ideology is involved.

Where ideology comes into play is when you consider the philosophical underpinning of the existence of the Sage project. In science and especially in mathematics, information is passed on free of charge and everything is laid out for verification. To charge someone a fee in order for that person to access the information for purposes of verification is to corrupt science and especially mathematics. The extent of this corruption within mathematics can be seen in the mountain of papers whose results depend on closed source, proprietary software. How is the mathematics community to verify results when the tools used for deriving such results are closed off? The proof of the four-colour theorem by Appel and Haken made substantial use of software, and they published their proof and corresponding source code. Had they closed off the software they used for their proof, their purported proof would be tenuous at best. Now consider the case where someone writes a piece of software using, say Maple, it might be a Maple package that is used for deriving some mathematical results. The person publishes the source code of their package and a write up of their results. Has the person fulfilled their obligation to lay everything open for inspection? A major point of contention is that Maple is closed off. Even if you have access to a copy of Maple, it is usually access to a binary version. The published Maple package might look fine and produce valid results, but we are now in a situation where we are unable to verify the tools underlying the package, we can’t inspect the Maple source code as part of the verification process. A crucial question is: What’s wrong when the Maple package, once run through a compatible version of Maple, outputs a mathematically sound result?

To begin to understand what’s wrong, let’s look back at history to the period when a solution to the cubic equation was first discovered. In 1545 Gerolamo Cardano published Ars magna, which contains a solution to the cubic equation. Cardano clearly stated that the solution contained in the book was discovered by Scipione del Ferro around 1500. Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia independently discovered the same solution to the cubic in 1535 and kept the solution secret. In the 16th century mathematicians were fond of challenging each other to public calculating contests. In such a contest, the person who is the first to solve a mathematics problem wins the contest. The winner (or loser) need not reveal the method they used to solve the problem, so long as the offered solution is valid. Imagine that Tartaglia was involved in a public contest whose problem is to solve a cubic equation, a problem which he would solve using his secret method. He might out-perform his opponent and win the contest. But how can we verify his method? Every time you challenge Tartaglia to solve a cubic equation, he would gladly do so without revealing his method. Is such secrecy conducive to the advancement of mathematics? An air of secrecy is now prominent in areas of mathematics that rely on computers and symbolic/numeric computation packages. A select few has access to closed off tools and report results produced by such tools, while the rest can only wonder how the results are arrived at.

> Information is inherently free, and it’s not natural to put
> restrictions to it, therefore it’s nonsense what you guys are saying in
> front of your page, and as a presentation.
> One would think that you, as free software developers / promoters / users
> would know better and give a little more value to the fine software you are
> providing. This cannot be put under the shadow of other programs. Such a
> shame.
> I simply want you to know that I would be very pleased that you could
> consider changing this saying, given the reasons I explained above, or you
> could answer me what do you mean that your software is the alternative.
> Kind regards, and thanks for your time.

I suspect that you and I are at variance in our understanding of choice/alternative. Please refer to the above in how I understand the idea of offering an alternative, and the philosophical underpinning of the Sage project. I do not claim to speak for the Sage project; that is the task of its leader William Stein.

The Sage project doesn’t claim that information should be closed off nor that any restrictions are to be put on information. We strive as best we can and in the absence of a dedicated legal team to honour the open source licenses of upstream projects. Our library of new code that build on upstream free open source projects, the Sage library, are available for open inspection from our website and by downloading the source tarball of the latest version. Research publications that use Sage are provided by their authors for public scrutiny, and we maintain a list of publications that use Sage. In some cases, an author might not be willing to release a preprint for public scrutiny; that is their prerogative as an author. The Sage standard documentation is available from our website and we maintain a list of downloadable PDF books that document aspects of Sage. In many cases book authors also release the source to their books, but the decision to release the source of a book rests with the book’s author(s), not the Sage project. A number of open source books [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] that document Sage are in progress, in keeping with the principle that open source software requires open documentation.

I would like to know your understanding of where the Sage project is deviating from the spirit of passing on information free of charge and laying everything open for inspection. I must apologize for being thick and having little experience. The little bit of information you offered in your email doesn’t do your argument any justice. Would you please care to clearly state and elaborate your argument? Otherwise it’s easy to degenerate the current situation to the Monty Python Argument Sketch in which we are exchanging contradictions and fatuous statements instead of clearly stating arguments backed up with evidence and reason.

And that’s the end of my response. I’m interested to know how people understand the mission of the Sage project.