Category Archives: Ethics

What is in the Air We Breathe?

“What we do in my group is we zoom in on the aerosols.”

Vicki Grassian and her team look at aerosols at a microscopic level to determine their impact on our health and our climate. Aerosols can be mineral dust and sea spray from the ocean or created by human activity or stem from any number of sources. They can travel across the globe impacting people, animals, and the planet in their wake.

Grassian’s work seeks to understand how aerosols and other gases not only affect us but how we might harness them for solar geoengineering.

Watch — What is in the Air We Breathe? – Exploring Ethics

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Neanderthal Among Us? Science Meets Fiction

What makes us human is a question that not only science asks, but all disciplines of mind from philosophy to religion to sociology and ethics, and even to storytelling and the arts.

Tim Disney’s new movie “William” is about a Neanderthal living in the modern world and forces us to ask about humanness and many other questions.

Disney’s movie provides a foil to explore many facets of human nature and sociology, and raises questions about technology and its present and future effects on the human phenomenon.

With research interests and experience exploring the distinctions in the Neanderthal and Human genomes, Alysson Muotri, Director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, brought together a panel of experts from across a spectrum of disciplines to explore these issues in a lively and engaging forum with the movie’s creator.

Watch — Neanderthal Among Us? Science Meets Fiction – A Discussion of Tim Disney’s Motion Picture “William”

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Ethics and Social Science

“We’re not just playing games in empty classrooms anymore,” says Scott Desposato, professor of political science at UC San Diego.

As the world of social science is increasingly reaching beyond the traditional college campus setting for their studies, new ethical questions are emerging. Sure, large amounts of data can be gathered in massive scale field experiments but are we neglecting the principles of informed consent? How should science and society work together to break new ground while pushing innovative thought forward? Explore these questions and more in this program.

Watch — Emerging Ethics Challenges for Experimental Social Science – Exploring Ethics

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Updating our Views on Nature and How to Save it

What is nature? What does it mean to preserve, or save it? Science writer Emma Marris says one common definition of nature in North America is the way any given place was before European explorers arrived and began changing the landscape. Therefore, saving nature would mean returning the land to how it was before their arrival. But, she says that idea is flawed because there are countless examples of land management by indigenous people: relocating useful plants to new environments, creating systems to manage rainwater, and clearing land for crops. And, human impact on the environment goes back much more than a few hundred years. Marris notes that pretty much anywhere you look, there is evidence of major changes with the arrival of humans – in particular, the extinction of large land mammals like the woolly mammoth.

Today however, the planet is largely tailored entirely to human existence. Nearly 40% of the ice-free surface of the earth is agriculture. Domesticated livestock far outweighs wild animal life. Species have been moved around, in some cases wreaking havoc on ecosystem. And of course, there are growing impacts of climate change – even hitting places on the planet where humans have never lived.

Marris argues that in order to effectively conserve nature, we have to change our perception of what nature means. She says her old way of thinking, that nature was a pristine untouched and unchanged place didn’t match reality, because if left alone, all places will change. So, she came up with new definitions, including the idea of resource-intensive land management to keep certain culturally important lands as unchanged as possible, and also the idea of novel ecosystems where uncontrolled landscapes have transformed themselves.

With this updated understanding of what nature is, Marris proposes an updated take on conservation. She suggests dividing land into three different styles of management: restoration, innovation, and observation. In her exciting and hopeful talk at UC San Diego, Marris goes on to give concrete examples of how these strategies have worked, and might continue to work around the world.

Watch — The Future of Nature: Conservation in the Anthropocene with Emma Marris – Institute for Practical Ethics

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The Social Media Bubble

Social media has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s difficult to remember a time before Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. So ingrained are these platforms in our daily routines that we seldom stop to ponder their effect on ourselves, other users, and/or the larger society.

As an early financial advisor to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, venture capitalist Roger McNamee is uniquely positioned to consider those effects. In conversation with San Diego Union-Tribune’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Light, McNamee discusses the concerns that led to the publication of his recent book, Zucked. He starts by describing Facebook’s business model, which is predicated on enticing users to spend ever-more time on the site to maximize advertising exposure and on selling members’ data to those advertisers.

McNamee outlines the use (or misuse) of algorithms to tailor the “Facebook experience” to each user. “Likes,” targeted News Feeds, comments, online games and other features are designed to reinforce the user’s sense of belonging to a larger community, which of course serves a basic human need. This seems harmless enough on the surface, but McNamee argues that the net effect is to create a “Facebook bubble” around the user, in which already-held theories and beliefs are constantly reinforced while opinions that may challenge those beliefs are discouraged or hidden altogether. In that light it should come as no surprise that roughly 40% of adult Americans believe things that are demonstrably untrue.

More pernicious, and potentially more damaging to society, is the outsized influence wielded by social media platforms on civil discourse and the democratic process itself. A society that cannot agree on basic facts is a society that cannot function effectively. McNamee cites two momentous events, the Brexit vote in the UK and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, as instances where Facebook and other social media were manipulated by Cambridge Analytica, the Russian and Chinese governments, and other disruptive agents in such a way as to influence the vote’s outcome. As the evidence for this manipulation steadily mounted McNamee confronted the Facebook leadership, who at that time refused to acknowledge the severity of the problem or change their practices. Thus, began McNamee’s disillusionment with social media and growing sense of alarm over what he perceived to be a threat to democracy.

Though McNamee believes this threat is very real, he is nevertheless optimistic. He points out that there is still strength in numbers, and voters can pressure legislators to protect consumer privacy by ending the unchecked (and in McNamee’s view, wholly unnecessary) “data mining” employed by the tech sector. They can also require social media platforms to make efforts to verify information before posting, at the very least by identifying the information’s true source.

McNamee also insists that we social media consumers can and must do a better job of educating ourselves. Determining which news and commentary sites are trustworthy is a good start, and McNamee notes that there are tools available to help.

Watch “Zucked” with Roger McNamee – Helen Edison

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