Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

An excellent book that provides a detailed but concise and accessible argument about why you should help those who are suffering from extreme poverty.
There are many ways to review this book, but I think I’ll just try to give you the main argument and then elaborate on some of the content. The first half of chapter one can be read here and there is also a website for the book.
Singer begins, as he has before, with a thought experiment:
"On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work.
What should you do?"
Please think about that for a moment; what would you do? If you wouldn’t help the drowning child, please leave the reason why in the comments section below.
If you would, what if you learn that nearly 10 million children under five years old die each year from causes related to poverty? As Singer states:

"Here is just one case, described by a man in Ghana to a researcher from the World Bank:
Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles but out of poverty. Think about something like that happening 27,000 times every day. Some children die because they don’t have enough to eat. More die, like that small boy in Ghana, from measles, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia, conditions that either don’t exist in developed nations, or, if they do, are almost never fatal. The children are vulnerable to these diseases because they have no safe drinking water, or no sanitation, and because when they do fall ill, their parents can’t afford any medical treatment. UNICEF, Oxfam, and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic health care, and these efforts are reducing the toll. If the relief organizations had more money, they could do more, and more lives would be saved. Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes—but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?"

So, if you think saving the child in the pond is the right thing to do, and to not do so would be immoral, then why do you not help other children who are dying but could be saved with a minor sacrifice similar to ruining some shoes?
In the rest of The Life You Can Save, Singer further examines and elaborates on our notions of morality, what we typically think of as right and wrong, the common objections to giving, how to create a culture of giving, the effectiveness of aid and certain charities, how much it might actually cost to save a life, and then recommendations for donating a percentage of your income, on a progressive scale.

I’ll describe Chapter 4 as it was one of the most useful because Singer addresses the common objections to giving. I often think of these as psychology barriers to (demonstrative) caring.
1) The Identifiable Victim – Research from decision science and psychology has demonstrated that people give more when a single victim is presented instead of many. It may sound odd, but when there is one victim people tend to care more than if there a 1000 that are suffering similarly. In fact, this diminished concern even occurs in the shift from 1 to 2 victims. Of course, logically, if you think you should help one person for certain reasons, then someone in a similar position should be helped for similar reasons.
2) Parochialism – This is basically about how we tend to care less about ‘the other.’ If someone lives in a different country, is a different race, has different beliefs, we are less likely to help them. This is a nasty part of human psychology where we easily form groups and then diminish those who are not in our group. There are good (evolutionary) reasons for these tendencies, but that does not mean that it is a good behaviour and one that we want to continue. Geographical location is irrelevant. If someone is starving to death, it should not matter if they are 10m away, or 10,000 km. Similarly, to say race or sex or culture etc. matter indicates that we find little problem with racism or bigotry.
3) Futility – The feeling that because we cannot do a lot we tend to want to do little. In the book, Singer describes how one study found that people are more willing to send aid that would save 1500 out of 3000 people at risk than they were to send aid that would save 1500 our of 10000 at risk. The number is still the same, so why does it matter so much? It surely matters to those 1500 people who could have been saved. The point here is to realize that saving a life is important, even if 90% won’t be saved. Let me phrase it another way to highlight the flaw “Because I can’t do everything, I won’t do anything.” This is obviously wrong, so focus on what can be done and do as much as you can.
4) The Diffusion of Responsibility – Numerous psychology studies have indicated that people tend to help less when there are many people around who could be helping. If we are in a room full of 10 people, we tend to think “Someone else should/will do something” or that we are only 10% responsible for failures that might occur. This inhibiting effect can be more treacherous than we typically acknowledge, so try to remember it and realize that you are still responsible for your behaviour regardless of how many people are around you. Further, if everyone thinks someone else will do something, chances are no one will and the action will never be taken.
5) The Sense of Fairness – No one likes to be the one doing all the work or cleaning up while everyone else stands around. Singer provides a great scenario of a situation when he says, “Imagine writing that first big check for UNICEF or Oxfam, and then running into your neighbors coming back from a winter vacation in the Caribbean, looking relaxed and tanned, and telling you about their great adventures sailing and scuba diving. How would you feel?”I think most would say “But that’s not fair! They got have fun while I didn’t!” This is a very difficult barrier to overcome because much our notions of justice and fairness are bred into us so we quickly react morally to these situations. It is hard to overcome these feelings with logic and reason - which more often place our behaviour in alignment with our stated desires to help people.
6) Money – It turns out that just by inducing people to think more about money, people tended to be more selfish and help others less. This is probably one example of many aspects of reality that influence giving behaviour but are often unrecognized.

Those are the main ones he covers and after which he states that some may say, “Well, then giving is not in our nature.” But this is untrue, unless you now think you would let that little child in the pond drown. I’ll try to summarize by relating to that example. Imagine you came upon a pond where there were 9 other people standing there and 10 children were going to drown. You wade into to help a child and on your way back you realize that only 2 other people are helping, while one is just standing there watching and the other 6 have wandered off. One you’ve saved one child, do you just leave? Probably not, you’d probably go in to get another. And what about a third child? You’d probably want to go yell or hit the person just standing there watching, but once you realize that a child will drown if you don’t save it, you will probably help. That example takes care of 4 and 5 (and I won’t bother with 6).
Now imagine you come upon a pond and there are 50 children who will drown in 2 minutes, but there is no one else around. Because you will not be able to save all of them, do you not try to save as many as possible? While this would be like some reification of hell to those who care, I imagine most would save as many as they can and they weep from the floating bodies of children they couldn’t. But the point is they would save as many as they could. That example addresses 3 and part of 1. What if the children were a different race than you? Religion? Nationality? Why would this matter? That address 2 and also part of 1.

While one could claim these scenarios are unlikely, the purpose was to explore your moral intuitions to see how you would act and how you think you could act. Alternatively, these scenarios are not unlikely, they are representative: millions are suffering, they are far away, a different race, others are not helping and you won’t be able to save them all.
We now see that nearly all the psychological barriers are just that – barriers. The hard part is to overcome these barriers and to act in a way consistent with what you believe to be moral and right.

Finally, let me also mention that some charities are not great and have high administrative costs, but others are fantastic and have low administrative costs. You can investigate which ones pass your standards and focus on the issue that matters most to you: If starvation, perhaps the World Food Program; if it is sustainable development, perhaps Oxfam; and if it is AIDS, Malaria, or increasing access to contraception to decrease unplanned births, then just do some online research to find out which charity is right for you.

What should you do?
While it is true that one could always give more and that, personally, we must confront or acknowledge that we prefer certain goods or activities to helping people who are starving, such a hard line is very difficult to accept and is probably off-putting. Consequently, in the end, Singer wisely supports a realistic approach. He suggests giving 1-5% of your income up to 100,000 US dollars, and then 5% of the next $50,000, and 10% of the next $200,000 and so on. As most people who read this do not make several hundred thousand dollars a year, that means that you could help the world by giving 1-5% of your income to organizations, like Oxfam of UNICEF that help those in extreme poverty.

What will you do?
You have said that you would have helped the drowning child. Additionally, you have seen that the main objections to giving are not valid. The final question remains: what will you do?
World Food Program

Monday, March 30, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (artist), and John Higgins (colourist)

A fascinating exploration of how crime-fighters and vigilantes might act in a more realistic world, filled with dark motives, the silliness of wearing a costume, confused personalities, a lack of superpowers and even indifference to the concerns of many. I appreciated the exploration of complex characters in such a world (more like ours than other ‘universes’) and the engaging plot line which offers much depth.

Personally, I found the parts about Dr. Manhattan to be the most interesting as they dealt with the topic of how might omniscience and omnipresence work? Dr. Manhattan is supposedly all-powerful, but he cannot change future events. It is as if he is witnessing his own fate and everyone else’s as he experiences it at that particular time.

I don’t want to reveal anything more, but I do recommend this for fans of the superhero genre who want a different take from the mainstream. For those that don’t like graphic novels, then you probably won’t like this one.

I look forward to the movie to see how they adapted it, and where the visuals look far more impressive and engaging.

The end of the debate: Evolution is real

A nice little evolution primer by Tom Spears.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Iraq Re-cap

Matt Good wrote an excellent piece about the 6 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. It almost serves as a primer for the situation.
Go read.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Chilling transcript

Here is a link to the transcript of a samaritan and a 911 operator while he tries to help a dying girl and provide information about his location.
It is moving, tense, and chilling.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Science minister now says he believes in evolution, but it is irrelevant.

Yesterday, Canada's science minister wouldn't confirm if he believed in evolution. Today he offered a corrective (Story).
I disagree that it is irrelevant. Further, his comments aren’t the most reinforcing:
"We are evolving every year, every decade. That's a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment….”

It seems he has treated “adapting” as synonymous with “evolution” and it is not.
And the intensity of the sun? Sigh.
(Adaptation happens almost continuously, but evolution is based upon adaptation occuring over generations because those who are more adapted have more offspring, and their traits increase in a population. Evolution does not occur within a generation, so his comment that we are evolving every year is confusing at best and just wrong at worst.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Science minister won't confirm belief in evolution

Reading this in the Globe and Mail caused a mix of "ugh," "sigh," "bah," and other sounds and words that needn't be named.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wall and Piece by Banksy

I was in the library the other day and picked up a book that had Banksy and Wall and Piece on the cover with a sketch of a person looking like a demonstrator/agitator throwing an object of harm (but when you flip to the back cover he is holding flowers). I have now learned that Banksy is the pseudonym of a famous graffiti artist that operates mainly out of the UK and Wall and Piece is a collection of his work over the years. His work is subervise, anti-capitalist, impressive and entertaining. I'm not a fan of tagging objects as I find it generally annoying and uninspiring. Alternatively, images that are meant to make you think and challenge your beliefs are something I'm sympathetic too. I liked reading his counterculture messages, but don't entirely agree as I'm not sure where I stand on how public supposedy private property is.

He has also done artwork and even placed art in galleries or musuems pretending to be part of an exhibit. An exampled would be a rock with what is supposed to be a painting by early man, depicting a bison or a similar animal killed by spears but also a stick figure pushing a shopping cart.

A few excerpts of the few written parts of the book:
"The human race is the most stupid and unfair kind of race. A lot of the runners don't even get decent sneakers or clean drinking water."
"The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you're never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back."
"We can't do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves."
I recommend checking out his website to see his artwork (One that I liked; and another)
Additionally, just going to Google images offers much to see.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

When Does Cute Become Creepy?

The other day I was watching 1500 prisoner's dancing to Thriller and was mesmerized by the absurdity of it all. A nearby video indicated a 3 y.o. dancing to Thriller. I clicked and I found it adorable! One can tell what she is trying to do, but because she doesn't understand her body dynamics yet (or they haven't even developed) she can't really do it. Very cute and hilarious.

I mentioned this to a friend and she asked if I had seen the 4 y.o. dancing to Beyonce's Single Ladies. I hadn't. Click click and here you go. I found 3 versions, so I'm not sure to which she was referring. (Watch the real video first.)
Kid 1
Kid 2 (which might be the same girl in the Thriller video above)
Kid 3
I must say that I find each of these somewhat cute, but more so, they are disturbing and creepy. I think it has to do with the gyration and hip/ass-smacking. Yes, I know that the song is catchy and the parents probably just thought it was funny, but our culture already hyper-sexualizes young women and I don't think these videos help the world at all.
What do you think?
One could argue that Beyonce is mainly popular because of her attractiveness and how she uses her sexuality in almost every video to sell the product - herself.
Maybe that isn't the best role model for children who aren't even in kindergarten?

Finally, I'll link to a good rant that you should watch.
Note: Alternative title was "Who says kids are impressionable?" based on how easily they mimic what they see on the videos. Which did you prefer?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Take My Memories, Please?

"A group of researchers at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children have erased brain cells in mice that store fearful memories, holding out the hope that terrifying memories in humans may one day be erased before causing conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder."

Self-reparing Material

"Researchers have developed a new polyurethane material that heals its own scratches in less than an hour when exposed to ultraviolet light."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


First, open this in a new window and come back and read.
Second, in the "mind-blowing-thing-of-the-day" category, while listening to a SciAm podcast I just learned that a nanoscale radio has been created. "A single carbon nanotube tunes in a broadcast signal, amplifies it, converts it to an audio signal and then sends it to an external speaker in a form that the human ear can readily recognize."
This thing could fit inside a cell and, just to underscore, it is invisible to the naked eye. I can't help but think of a satirical SNL skit making fun of shrinking iPods and one of the jokes was then holding up nothing and indicating it was just really small. I think that was only two years ago (and it seems this radio came out 1.5 years ago!). Of course, I'm not saying there are going to truly be iPod Nanos, but it does seem possible.
Further, there are numerous other applications to nanotechnology being used to wirelessly transmit information.
More nanoradio A/V here.
It is a fascinating time to be alive.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Reality Check #29: The Nocebo Effect + Circumcision/AIDS + Chicken Eggs Myth

The new episode of The Reality Check has been uploaded. I think this was a good show, so give it a listen.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Morality and the Misunderstanding of Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Last week I posted some worthwhile links to Haidt's work regarding morality and politics. More recently, I had a chance to read an excellent essay he wrote about morality and religion and how many atheists have made missteps. As it was on the Edge, they had The Reality Club comment and then Haidt even responded to those comments. So, not only do you get a smart, informed person presenting interesting ideas, but then you get several more smart informed people commenting on the ideas presented, and then the original smart informed person commenting on those. Aren't meta-analytic intellectual presentations great?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Self Awareness: The Last Frontier by V.S. Ramachandran

The topic of the self is a fascinating one and I think many different areas of inquiry will be required to fully figure it out (or to get as far as we can). V.S. Ramachandran wrote an excellent little essay that examines the self from a neuroscientific perspective that is very useful to see how our brain might be compromised and how this affects notions of selfhood.
Personally, I also find it worthwhile to reminded of the neuroanatomy involved in various processes and how there is just stuff moving around in different ways (but what wonderful stuff it is!).
Once again, the Edge website delights by having The Reality Club comment on Ramachandran's piece.
My only complaint is that I would have liked a longer exploration in the essay and more commentators in The Reality Club.