Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Odds and Ends

Research Ethics: Poli-Sci profs at Dartmouth and Stanford sent mailers to voters in Montana, bearing the state seal, claiming to rate candidates in non-partisan judicial elections according to their ideological affinity Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. This is purportedly a research project to determine whether providing this information increases voter turnout.

Of course, leaving off the state seal, anybody is free to do this, but if the purpose is research you have a whole different kettle of ethics. First of all, while it might seem unobjectionable to increase voter turnout, we don't actually know ahead of time whether this will increase it or decrease it; we also don't know whether it will influence the results of the elections, and reasonable people can disagree about either the accuracy of the ideological ratings, or their relevance to fitness for judicial office. (The ratings were evidently based on the candidates' previous political contributions, and unspecified other publicly available information.) One would expect that in Montana, being linked to president Obama would be a disadvantage.

Research on human subjects must not predictably do harm, and there are lots of ways this can do harm. Toss in the state seal and dudes, what were you thinking? The Dartmouth Institutional Review Board is said to have approved this. Eww.

Elon Musk is only half smart: Apparently he fears the revenge of our robot overlords. Me, not so much. Here's the thing about artificial intelligence: actions require motivation. There is no reason why a computer program would desire, or for any reason strive for power or any action harmful to humanity. Computer programs carry out instructions. In order to interact with humans, they must be programmed to respond in particular ways to particular inputs. That is all. And, you can always just turn them off.

That said, we're nowhere near artificial intelligence. Watson is completely idiotic, it doesn't understand anything, it just makes predictions based on statistical associations with semantic content. I do work in computational linguistics and believe me, the way computers label speech acts and identify topics has nothing to do with understanding anything and they won't do anything with those labels other than print them out or create some sort of response to the human interlocutor which hopefully will be appropriate, such as listing the nearby pizza restaurants (when you actually wanted to know how to make a pizza). I am not afraid.

Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, however, are afraid, or more likely pandering to the irrational fears of voters as whipped up by Faux News. This crap just makes me plotz. Christie confined this heroic nurse in an unheated tent, with a porta pottie and no shower, having take-out food delivered by workers in moon suits. There is absolutely zero danger of her infecting anybody. Absolutely outrageous. The man is a clown.


robin andrea said...

My sister in southern California also received a flyer from the Dartmouth Stanford folks. She found it so odd that she saved it and tossed all the other political crap from her mail. She just sent me a photo of it, and we can't figure out what their motivation in Ventura County was all about. It also had the state of California seal on it. I'm not sure how the poll-sci profs at those two schools could ever do a study on the results of a flyer's influence. How would they know? Maybe I'm missing something in their rationale.

mojrim said...

Accepting the low odds of someone like Hickox having and transmitting ebola, we are still left with the other side of the question. Fauci and others allude to "unintended consequences" but they do not elaborate. This is part of the reason that much of the public does not trust the epidemiology establishment to protect them.

What, exactly, are the imagined downsides of a quarantine regime?

Cervantes said...

Mojrim, that's pretty easy to answer. First of all, it discourages health care providers from going to Africa, where they are needed. The way to protect the American public (and the rest of the human population) is to stop the epidemic in West Africa. If we discourage people from doing that work, that's when we're in real danger.

Second, it's a basic question of right and wrong. People who do heroic work shouldn't be punished for it. The odds of Hickox transmitting ebola aren't low, they are zero. Absolutely zero. I'll explain in next post.

mojrim said...

That strikes me, frankly, as a canard. We have a vast medical establishment in this country, much of which is in uniform and has thus already volunteered to do such things by definition. If ebola in West Africa is a real threat to americans in the US then it is a no-brainer to deploy this establishment to combat it. Note that this process has already begun and is certain to expand. Moreover, and perhaps this is a philosophical difference, I simply cannot see a 21 day quarantine as a form of discouragement for anything. Perhaps this results from a lifetime of deployments and years living out of a sea bag, but I cannot muster sympathy for the kind of person that complains over such trivial measures. The final issue of right and wrong here is community survival, not individual conveniance.

I also cannot accept the "zero chance" assertion you make. While non-symptomatic people do not transmit, we don't know if someone like Hickox is carrying the virus until they are close to being infectious. It comes down to trust at that point, which you allude to in your follow-on post. History is neck-deep in examples of human stupidity, intransigence, and delusion, especially in the area of disease, infectious or otherwise. Over 6000 years of organized society we have developed rules, some enforced by the state, specifically to invalidate individual choice which cannot be trusted.

It's clear that NJ mishandled the matter, and that Christie was playing for political gain. I'm not here to defend him or the idiots that chose an unheated tent and a suitcase port-a-potty. Lots of other, far more comfortable, options present themselves, including her home in Maine where she is currently quarantined. That does not invalidate the principle, the original and most effective in disease control. If the downside is making people feel a little bad or inconveniencing their plans, I really can't see the problem.

Cervantes said...

Mo, I'll just say that these folks are volunteers who are using their vacation time. There isn't any mechanism to pull up 200 docs and 400 nurses and suddenly ship them to Africa.

As I say in my next post, I do accept your point that you can't necessarily trust anybody, which is why I'll endorse travel restrictions and active monitoring by public health personnel. Being in the military is a different situation, you do give up some civil liberties when you join up.