Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact



Via Resilience Science, NASA has a nifty animation of global fire activity from 2000 to 2008.


John Dewey Will Rewrite Your Dictionary

The Angry Black Woman has a nice explanation of what's wrong with the argumentum ad dictionarium, focusing on attempts to rebut progressive theories about racism by pointing to the dictionary definition of "racism." She emphasizes the incompleteness of dictionary definitions, which are necessarily short, for explaining complex topics.

I'd add a pragmatist angle to this. In a pragmatist philosophy of language, words are tools. We encounter problems in going about our business (for example, various harms that appear to be race-related), then come up with concepts to help us guide action in response to those problems, and then find words to tag and communicate those concepts to others. In theory we could go all Humpty Dumpty and assign words arbitrarily to the concepts that are useful, without regard to their prior meanings, as long as we can get other people to agree to use each word in the new way -- but that's inefficient, and we lack an Archimedean point to stand on while revising our entire language at once, rather than using one existing word to pull at another, then the revised second word to reshape the first, all from inside.

Because a given socio-environmental context tends to present people with a similar set of problems, most of the time we can rely on a relatively constant, shared set of good-for-all-the-purposes-we're-likely-to-encounter words. The function of the dictionary is to help us out by recording those words and their typical meanings so we can understand people when we don't have time to get clarification from them about a word they used that we don't share. The meanings of words change over time as the problems we need to solve with them change.

But the dictionary just records the solutions that the general public of a given language-user community (or at least the general public as recognized by the dictionary makers, who, as ABW points out, may be unrepresentative) do currently use. If you come up with different concepts to deal with the problems you encounter -- either because you have a creative or insightful new solution, or because you encounter problems different from those of the dictionary-maker's assumed public -- you'll need a different set of word-meanings. If the concept is radically different from the existing ones, you'll probably be better off coining a new word. But if it's not, you may find it best to use an existing word in a different way from the dictionary-writers.

Argumentum ad dictionarium puts this whole process backwards. It takes the dictionary as a fixed, authoritative list of words -- and hence of concepts -- that may permissibly be used. It erases the pragmatic aspect of the dictionary, treating its set of words as being of universal applicability rather than specific to the social world of the dictionary-writers. It then disguises what's really a battle over the recognition of problems and the best concepts to tackle them -- e.g. should we focus on the problem of personal prejudice, or on structural factors that allocate power disproportionately? -- into an argument about definitions, as if an analysis of the word "racism" will tell us how to address race-related problems in our society. (Though people rebutting the argumentum ad dictionarium sometimes fall into this trap too, by misleadingly arguing that the structural perspective is correct because it's the "real definition" of racism, rather than saying that it's the better concept and therefore that's where we should be placing this useful word "racism.")


Nurture Causes Nature

Maria Brumm states well a big part of why I don't like easy resort to a distinction between "authentic" desires and socially-imposed ones:

They're bits of my personality that were shaped by the patriarchal environment I grew up in and continue to be shaped by the patriarchal environment I live in right now; they're still me. I can recognize this without considering myself a slave of the patriarchy. Carrying around a bucket of weird influences from your environment, some of which you consider unsavory, is pretty much the human condition.

When confronted with any desire or personality aspect, the real question to me is not "is it real?" but "how can I resolve it?" Sometimes the most effective resolution is to indulge it, sometimes it's to repress it, sometimes it's to uproot it psychoanalytically.

Non-Profits Need Eyeballs Too

Ampersand takes the vapidity of Politico's Top 10 Scoops of 2008 -- including such momentous revelations as "John McCain doesn't know how many houses he has" -- as an indictment of for-profit media. He laments all the important stories, like torture and detailed coverage of the candidates' health care plans, that don't get the same kind of coverage, and concludes:

But of course, reporting like that won’t sell papers, or pull in eyeballs, the way simple and fun narratives will. I’m not sure that good reporting is possible, except in erratic sparks, in a profit-driven news model.

In the comments, I replied:

But if the problem is that "it doesn't pull in eyeballs," why think non-profit media are going to do any better? Pulling in eyeballs isn't just some seedy thing for-profit media has to do to make a buck -- it's the whole raison d'etre of media. Presumably the reason we're concerned about the quality of reporting in the for-profit media is that we want Juan Q. Public to read these important stories. A non-profit group may do great investigative reporting on torture, but if hardly anyone reads it, all it does is gratify the consciences of the few enlightened members of its audience. In that case, the problem is the public who won't give their eyeballs to serious stories, not the media who don't offer them what they don't want. [ETA: And this isn't just some condemnation of the unenlightened "sheeple" -- after all, I visit I Can Has Cheezburger much more often than The Nation.]

I think an eyeballs-based critique of for-profit media would have to take a more subtle form. You could say the for-profit media is concerned with getting eyeballs *cheaply* -- Couric's interview with Palin was certainly less expensive to produce than sending a team of reporters to Afghanistan, even if both would get the same amount of eyeballs. Or you could say that for-profit media is *wrong* about what would in fact bring in eyeballs. Or perhaps you could advocate a sort of "brussels sprouts before desert" theory of media -- draw them in with Couric-Palin and hope they'll stay long enough to hear your explanation of health care policy -- which for-profit media wouldn't find as profitable as serving three courses of ice cream for dinner.

(Also, I think we need to differentiate "top scoops" from "top stories." A scoop is a story that one media outlet gets before anyone else -- so the Couric-Palin interview was a scoop in that it was on CBS before anywhere else. The "tiny twinge in our economic health" was the Associated Press's #2 story of the year, but it's not a scoop because every media outlet in the world covered it. So perhaps another eyeball-based critique could be to say that for-profit media is too obsessed with "scoops" that will draw readers from the competition rather than spending time doing a solid job on the stories everyone has.)


Waaah Waaah Waaah

I tried to muster some sympathy for the federal judges who say $169,000 is too little salary, but it just isn't happening. I hope that the reason the article downplays the fact that there's little to no evidence that low pay is actually turning talented jurists away from judgeships is that the judges' whining is self-evidently ridiculous, not that the writer sympathizes. But at least now we can rest assured that Rick Santorum won't aim for a spot on the bench, considering he had to beg his parents for money to supplement his similarly generous Senate salary.


Address Equality

I happened to notice today's Dear Abby, in which a letter writer reveals something of the discomfort behind same-sex marriage and the idea that SSM is "redefining" marriage in a fundamental way. "Straight But Not Narrow in Glendale" doesn't bear any conscious prejudice toward SSM, but is confused as to how to address correspondence to same-sex couples:

Example: Now that Ellen DeGeneres has married Portia de Rossi, would I write to "Mrs. and Mrs. Ellen DeGeneres"? "The Ellen DeGeneres Family"? or "Ellen and Portia DeGeneres"?

Abby's answer -- ask them how they want to be addressed! -- is correct as far as it goes, but neglects to challenge the presumption of "Straight But Not Narrow in Glendale" (and the person who wrote the column's headline) that this problem of address is new and unique to same-sex couples. But it applies to opposite-sex couples too. For example, my wife and I both kept our original names. Therefore, it is incorrect to address cards and letters to "Stentor and Christina Danielson," and extremely incorrect to address them to "Mr. and Mrs. Stentor Danielson." (When we get letters like that, we joke that the writer has inadvertantly revealed the existence of my secret second wife who did change her last name.) "The Stentor Danielson Family" would be troublesome as well (since it still implies that I am the singular head of the household), but I would accept "Stentor Danielson and family" if the writer is primarily interested in me and/or is unsure of the number and identity of the other people in my household.

Same-sex marriages make unavoidable the fact that marriage can be (or at least, can be intended by the members to be) a partnership of equals, not an institution with two distinct-but-complementary, gender-assigned roles. Though opposite-sex couples can try to put their relationship in that egalitarian mold, it's still easy for outsiders to treat them as if they fit the gender-differentiated pattern -- e.g. it's clear that if we were to be a gender-differentiated couple on the name issue, then "Danielson" would be the last name we'd share. Some people find that total loss of formal gender role differentiation morally objectionable, and launch attacks on the "redefinition" of marriage by gya rights activists. Others simply take certain elements of gender-role-differentiated marriage so for granted that encountering egalitarian marriages just confuses them -- as seems to be the case for "Straight But Not Narrow in Glendale" (and for my grandmother, who once apologized for addressing a Christmas card to "Mr. and Mrs. Danielson," since she knew my wife kept her last name, but said she just didn't know how else to address it).


The Problem With Comparisons

Whatever the merits of various foundationalist moral theories, in practice ethical debate involves seeking out contradictions between already-held moral beliefs and proposing resolutions*. And this process is not done in a neutral, consistency-for-the-sake-of-consistency way. Rather, people who hold one belief strongly attempt to win over others by finding contradictions that those others are caught up in by their denial of the target belief.

Merely pointing out a contradiction is not enough -- since every contradiction involves at least two terms, there are at least two ways to resolve it (assuming there's no way to rebut the claim that a contradiction exists). In general, people will resolve contradictions by changing 1) fewer beliefs, and 2) weaker beliefs. Thus, the trick for someone trying to get others to change a target belief is to find a contradiction between that belief and a more-strongly-held one. Further complicating things is the fact that the strength of a belief is not just a matter of subjective commitment, but also the belief's percieved social stability.

All of this I think helps to explain why arguments that compare oppressions are so appealing to those who use them but so problematic in practice. Take, for example, the "marginal cases" argument for animal rights. This argument says, roughly: Most people say animals do not have rights, but all humans -- including humans with severe mental disabilities -- have rights. However, animals and severely mentally disabled people are alike in all relevant respects that could be the basis for ascribing rights (they both feel pleasure and pain, neither can talk, etc.). Or, in schematic form, there is a contradiction among:
X -> Z
Y -> ~z

To the animal rights activist making this argument, the solution is obvious: toss out the second premise (animals lack rights). In doing so, the animal rights activist is using the first premise (severely mentally disabled people have rights) as a sort of lever, a fixed point around which other premises have to adjust.

To the disability rights activist, on the other hand, the implications are rather different. While the animal rights activist takes the rights-holding of all disabled people as given and uncontestable, the disability rights activist is keenly aware of the many ways that severely disabled people's rights are denied in practice (even if few people might admit so starkly to believing disabled people have fewer rights**). There are then two problems.

First, the ongoing struggles of disability rights activists are erased by the casual treatment of their cause as already settled. (Melissa and Renee have longer treatments of this phenomenon in the context of comparing gay rights to black civil rights.)

Second, the weakeness of the first premise means that it may be the one to fall when people strive to resolve the contradiction. The disability rights activist may be free enough of false consciousness and internalized self-doubt, and open enough to the possibility of animal rights, to not personally fall into this. But their understanding of the way disabled people's rights are routinely denied presents the choice as a real one, and makes them aware of the danger in how other, less progressive, people may respond. (The fact of this threat may also create a strong motivation to deny that the alleged contradiction exists at all, i.e. to deny premise 3 -- in this case, by finding some other grounds for ascribing rights that would apply to people with severe mental disabilities but not animals.)

My point here is not that certain contradictions should simply be ignored. Rather, it's that it is best resolved by finding a different route to weaken the target belief, one that does not threaten another belief that the argument-maker presumably wishes to retain but which is not so well-suited to be used as a lever.

*Actually, most ethical "debate" consists of trying to raise clashing emotional responses. But I think (pace Bourdieu) the logic of affect is close enough to the logic of propositional statements that most of my post applies to both realms.

**Indeed, this clash between professed position and practice makes this type of argument all the more troublesome, since it's the widespread and sincerely-believed claims about the first group's rights that make them an appealing lever to use in proving the second group's claims.


Two Kinds of Progress

A group of protesters in China is making news* objecting to the catching and killing of cats for food. Thinking about whether this represents progress for those of us who would like to see no animals killed for food raises an important distinction within the incrementalism versus revolutionism idea I posted about the other day.

My first reaction was that even if the protesters are successful, it wouldn't count as progress. The protests apparently are directed strictly at cats, so it's easy to move to the common complaint about hypocritical within-animals speciesism by which people happily eat factory-farmed chickens but object to cute kitties being harmed. (I should point out that since I'm just going by the AP article, I don't know the details of the protestors' philosophical positions.) Though I'm no expert in Cantonese food, I would guess that if denied a dish with cat, most diners would opt for another meat dish -- say, chicken -- rather than tofu or another non-meat option. So a successful ban on the cat industry would just shift the suffering onto another animal, making no net progress from a global perspective (there may be progress if the number of animals involved in producing the quantity of meat is drastically different, or if one species is treated much worse in its raising and slaughter, but I don't have nearly the information it would take to calculate this).

But then it occurred to me that improvements in the actual situation are not the only form progress can take. Progress can also be found in moving closer to the realization of some improvement in the actual situation, even if the new situation is not intrinsically better. And I think that stopping the eating of one species can move us closer to not eating any animals, even if the total amount of animal suffering doesn't change until we reach that end point.

The key here is that it's likely that animal industries can be reformed or shut down on a species-by-species basis. That is, if one's society kills one million cats and two million chickens a day, it's far easier to get the cat industry shut down than to cut the chicken industry back to just one million. Thus defeating one species industry moves us a step closer to defeating them all, even if each shutdown does not improve animals' lot because it just concentrates the suffering under a smaller set of umbrellas. Eventually, we'll (hopefully) get rid of that last umbrella.

Doubtless this kind of progress, in which we get closer to the realization of the goal without conditions improving incrementally along the way, is found in other situations too.

*In part, I'm sure, because it strokes our idea of crazy furriners eating inappropriate things -- though it seems that the facts about the Chinese cat cuisine industry are accurate.

The Reasonableness of Refuse-but-Refer

The Bush administration has officially announced a rule change that expands the ability of health care workers to refuse to provide services that are against their religion -- abortion and birth control being, obviously, the services that will be in question. Jill at Feministe points out that under current law, health care workers can already refuse to perform some of these services as long as they refer the patient to a doctor who will. Jill calls this a "reasonable compromise[] and accomodation[] for religious and moral belief."

Whether the "refuse, but refer" policy is "reasonable" I think depends a lot on what the nature of the religious objection is. "Refuse, but refer" makes perfect sense if the objection is a personal one: 'I the conservative Christian don't like, and am morally squeamish about, abortion. I don't want to perform an abortion because that would damage my own holiness and relationship with God.' This is the kind of situation Hilzoy is imagining when she raises the hypothetical of "if one of thirty Ob/Gyns in a large hospital believed that it would be wrong for her to perform abortions" (emphasis added). Liberals, particularly those of a secular bent, have a strong tendency to want all religion to operate in this personal mold -- a desire which often spills over into thinking that all religion does in fact operate in this mold.

It would be highly convenient if religion was all personal in this sense. It would make it easy to achieve a purely procedural accommodation and tolerance between divergent substantive views. That, I take it, is what Jill means by calling the current situation "reasonable" and what is communicated by the bumper sticker that says "If you don't like abortion, don't have one." This desire to agree on laws without having to answer any major substantive questions is the heart of traditional philosophical liberalism*.

But not all religion is personal. Some of it is consequentialist -- believers see themselves as called not to engage in certain personal practices for individual salvation and holiness, but to promote good and attack evil in the world. If one has a consequentialist objection to abortion, one's concern is not 'I don't want to perform abortions,' but rather 'I don't want abortions to be performed.' Thus, a "refuse, but refer" policy is cold comfort. While referring an abortion-seeker to another doctor may give a little psychological relief to the consequentialist conservative Christian, an abortion performed by another doctor is just as bad, in God's eyes, as one performed by the refuse-and-refer-er. The same number of fetuses is being killed. Personal refusal to participate is useful only as a mechanism for stopping the practice from occurring at all.

If some substantial number of conservative doctors has a consequentialist, rather than personal, objection to abortion -- and I think this is so -- then no liberal tolerance compromise is available. The substantive question -- is abortion a service that people are entitled to get from any health care provider? -- must be faced head-on. If the "yes" side wins -- and I think it should -- then anti-abortion doctors will have to either accept the requirement to do something they hold to be wrong (either directly or by culpably delegating the responsibility to someone else), or get out of the medical business. And those of us pushing for the "yes" side to win must be cognizant that this fight is over a substantive issue, not over whether a personal belief is to be accommodated or overstep its boundaries.

*Liberalism may try to get around this by decreeing that to be acceptable, religion must be private. This would allow the liberal project to move forward -- but at the price of an arguably illiberal law that strongly restricts the range of application of liberalism's vaunted tolerance. This is one of the more troublesome aspects of Rawls' theory, to my mind -- his breezy declaration that he was limiting himself to "reasonable" substantive doctrines tends to disguise how narrow the range of accepatble doctrines is, as many of the ones found in our actual society would not meet Rawls' criterion of reasonableness.


Pragmatism versus idealism

I'm a bit reluctant to get involved in the pragmatism versus idealism debate, since it seems quite resistant to any progress by either side*. But it occurs to me that the pragmatism versus idealism choice -- when that's really what's at issue, rather than this debate being fallen into as a proxy for some other dispute -- is really three choices, which are conceptually distinct and can in theory be mixed and matched in any combination.

1. Moderation versus radicalism. This is a choice of what the end-goal is. Moderates only desire a small change from the current status quo. Radicals believe a major overhaul is necessary -- because the current situation is so far from ideal, and because the causes of our problems go so deep in the structure of society. The choice here is about one's real desired goal, not the goal one espouses. Choosing what goal to publicly call for is a strategic one, and one's publicly espoused goal may differ from one's privately held one by being either more moderate (to win the support of genuine moderates and because that's all the more change you believe is realistic right now) or more radical (to win the support of genuine radicals and as a high opening bid from which you can negotiate down).

2. Consequentialism versus expressivism. This choice is a matter of what the aim of one's strategies are. Consequentialism judges strategies strictly by their effects on the wider world -- does this move us closer to the desired goal? Expressivism judges strategies by their ability to keep one true to oneself, making a statement of one's position and preserving one's integrity. Nearly everyone values both consequences and expression to some degree, so this choice is a balancing act. It's further complicated by the fact that it's plausible that in some cases an outwardly expressivist strategy may in fact be the most consequentialistically effective, if it serves a "witnessing" function. Further, the identity that one is drawn to express may not be "look at how radical and uncompromising I am," but rather "look at what a normal, pragmatic, don't-rock-the-boat type of person I am."

3. Incrementalism versus revolutionism. This is a choice about how changes can occur in society. Incrementalism holds that change can -- in the strong form, can only -- occur through an accumulation of smaller steps, each building on the previous and preparing the way for the next. Revolutionism holds that change by small steps will never be effective because it is always weighed down by the existing structure, so that structure needs to be swept away and replaced wholesale. The strongest forms of radicalism hold that incremental improvements are actually detrimental to the cause of change, because they sap the motivation for overthrowing the system.

These three choices can, in theory, be mixed and matched in any combination (though strict expressivism would seem to make incrementalism versus revolutionism practically irrelevant**), and one person may hold different combinations in different situations. For example, on animal rights issues, I'd count myself a medium-radical, a strong consequentialist, and fairly incrementalist. Whereas on electoral college reform, I'm more moderate, still strongly consequentialist, and rather revolutionist.

* Which is not to say individuals don't change their positions on this question, but they mostly change them for reasons arising from changes in their situation and experiences, then look to arguments for justification, rather than being talked out of their position by sound argumentation.

** Then again, worrying about irrelevance in practice would seem to be a consequentialist concern.



I think the big question arising from this whole shoe-throwing incident is: How many editorial cartoonists are going to come out with cartoons showing Bush being pelted by shoes labeled as whatever they see as Bush's big problems? Judging by the response to the pretzel-choking incident, I'm going to guess "all of them."


Won't somebody please think of the children?

Dear Australia,

I'm a fan of doing things that protect children's welfare. Things like early childhood education and lead abatement, for example, are great ideas. But since so many of us care about children, you have to be careful when you cry "won't somebody please think of the children?" WSPTOTC is a powerful thing, and you need to use it responsibly.

The first problem that came to my attention was this Northern Territory intervention business. I'm with you when you say child abuse in remote Aboriginal communities is a serious problem. But it seems like the proper response to that would be to strengthen Aboriginal communities' ability to function, not to jump in with heavy-handed punitive paternalism to reinforce primitivist stereotypes. The report you were allegedly responding to had a bunch of recommendations in it -- maybe you could try implementing one or two of them. Just a thought.

But maybe that was an anomaly -- as bad as the intervention was, maybe the misuse of WSPTOTC aspect was just a one-time thing. Then I started learning about your ideas about policing the internet. You're going to put a filter on that slows traffic, blocks innocent sites, and doesn't really stop people from accessing the bad stuff if they really want to? And it's a crime now to watch a video of a guy swinging a baby around? I really don't think concern about children's welfare leads to the conclusions you want to claim.

I'm starting to see a pattern here. So we're going to have to take away WSPTOTC for a little while. If you can say you're sorry, and make some social policies without resorting to disingenuous moral panics, we'll let you invoke reasonable concern for the welfare of children again.


(PS: Don't look so smug, USA. You're still on probation here.)

Blagojevich Is Still In Business

I keep seeing people expressing worry about what happens if Rod Blagojevich goes ahead and nominates someone to Barack Obama's Senate seat before he's convicted and/or impeached for conspiring to sell it for a bribe. But I doubt that would happen -- after all, to be appointed by someone under such a cloud of suspicion about their appointment process is a surefire way to lose all credibility and legitimacy. Now that the story has broken, who would be shameless enough to accept an appointment?

But then it occurred to me that Blagojevich is so tainted that his appointment power becomes hugely potent in reverse. Perhaps he would be well served by naming one of his enemies to the seat -- even if they decline it immediately, the mere fact of having been nominated could ruin their careers. What's more, since this tarnishing power is "[expletive] golden," we'd expect he'd "just not giv[e] it up for [expletive] nothing." He could ask people how much they'd bribe him to not nominate them to the Senate.


Kiosk -- Secretions

A little update to the Kiosk, my home for things that annoy me. Currently in the Kiosk is the practice some vegans have of referring to milk as "secretions" in order to make it sound gross. But you know what else is a secretion? Maple syrup. And natural rubber. So I'm going to put on my secretion shoes and walk to the store to get some scretions for my pancakes.


Separatists in Government

When the Canadian Parliament reconvenes in January, it's looking quite likely that the government will be taken over by a coalition of the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois. One point of consternation for some about this proposed coalition is that it includes the Bloc, whose platform includes independence for Quebec. The concern goes beyond simply objecting to power being held by those whose policy priorities you disagree with -- the claim is that it's illegitimate for a country to be run by people who want to see the country broken up. Similar concerns were raised when it was discovered that then-US VP candidate Sarah Palin had ties to the Alaska Independence Party*. How could we possibly vote for a VP who might want her home state to not be part of the country at all?

I have trouble seeing how there's anything particularly wrong with separatists running for, and attaining, leadership positions in the country they wish to separate from. The idea that it's illegitimate seems to come from thinking of the country as an entity with its own interests -- in which case, it does seem odd to give control of it to someone who opposes its existence.

But countries don't have interests independent of the interests of their members. Governments are tools created by groups of people to implement policies in the interest of the citizens. One such policy may be to rearrange the borders of the country. That may very well be a bad policy -- but there are lots of bad policies a party may wish to implement (from what I saw of the Alaska Independence Party's platform, seceding from the US was about the least objectionable plank to me).

To say that separatism is an inherently illegitimate policy for a governing party to support implies one of two conclusions, neither of which strike me as particularly palatable:
1) Separatism, if it's a good policy, must be pursued outside the normal policymaking process -- which means armed rebellion. I don't think I'm alone in preferring to go the way of Czechoslovakia rather than Yugoslavia.
2) Separatism is an inherently illegitimate policy -- it's wrong to want to alter the existing borders of countries. But how can we say the current borders, most of which are accidents of history, are sacrosanct?

It's fine to oppose separatism for Quebec or Alaska on the merits, and on that basis to oppose politicians who back those policies (I actually don't have a real opinion on those issues). But there's nothing illegitimate about them proposing such policies, or of winning high office while supporting them.

*Ties which turned out to be much less significant than initial reports suggested.


Scientific Hubris and Informed Consent

If Inside Higher Ed is accurately summarizing the facts, this case seems like it ought to be open-and-shut. In brief, a researcher got informed consent from members of the Havasupai tribe to take blood samples to do research on diabetes among tribe members. Later, some other researchers used that blood to do other research -- research that the Havasupai did not, and likely would not, consent to.

One of the offending researchers is a case study in scientific hubris:

That article stressed the difficulties posed for researchers by the dispute, particularly since the Havasupai have stopped cooperating with most studies, and some other Indian groups have expressed similar reluctance. Markow noted that the research to which the tribe objects could help many of its members. "What concerns me deeply is that the allegations have resulted in a moratorium on biomedical research on the Havasupai reservation, excluding this and other communities from discoveries with the potential to address their health concerns," Markow told Nature.

I'll grant for the sake of argument that Markow's research would have substantial benefits for the tribe -- though I believe that in general, academic researchers have a bad habit of exaggerating the concrete benefits, to the subjects and to the wider society, of their research. But the people you need to convince of that are the Havasupai. And the researcher whose actions led to the moratorium (again, assuming the Inside Higher Ed story is accurate) has no right to complain about its negative effects.

Scientific research is great. I personally would consent to researchers doing whatever scientifically valid research they like with any samples of my blood they happen to have, and if I had my druthers we'd have a comprehensive database of blood samples with a blanket consent license. However, the fact that it would be nice to have such a thing does not relieve researchers of the duty to secure the actual consent of the subjects. This is especially, especially true when the subjects are in a substantially less powerful social position and have a history of being exploited and having their perspective and knowledge treated as invalid by the very scientific establishment that's now proposing to play fast and loose with the consent rules.

What's more, short term paternalistic hubris that forges ahead simply because you can has negative consequences -- for the subjects and for the scientific community -- in the wider view. In the Havasupai case, we get this:

[Havasupai lawyer Robert] Rosette said that the knowledge that their blood was used against their wishes has had a devastating emotional impact on tribe members, who feel that they have been lured into violating their most sacred beliefs by giving up their blood and who also have lost trust in Western medicine. "Now we have people who won’t even see a doctor. We have plaintiffs in this case dying and losing limbs because they are afraid of doctors."

There are interesting parallels here to the issue of local police enforcing immigration law. When police start short-sightedly taking advantage of any opportunity that presents itself to nab someone who's undocumented or otherwise out of status, they end up undermining trust with the whole community (including citizens and people with status), ultimately causing harms to the community (fear, non-compliance with emergency relief, etc.) and undermining the police's larger job of crime prevention (to the detriment of the immigrants' community and the wider society).

Researchers have a duty to gain the trust and consent of both the wider public and the specific research subjects -- especially if the justification for their research is its alleged benefits to those very people. The drive for knowledge does not trump everything else. Even when people ought to consent to research, the researcher has no right to enforce that duty by forging ahead despite a lack of consent.

There are some more complicated issues circling in this area. One that springs to mind is the clash between individual and collective consent. The current paradigm of informed consent assumes that the harms from participating in the research accrue to the research subject, and thus can be accepted or avoided on an individual basis. But that is not always the case. For example, one of the harms that leads the Havasupai to not consent to the new research is that the results support the theory that Native Americans migrated from Asia, disproving the tribe's traditional religion (causing emotional distress and undermining their way of life which was premised in part on that origin story). Let's say a researcher followed proper informed consent protocols and found a significant number of Havasupai who would in fact consent to having blood samples taken for the out-of-Asia research. When the research results come out, it's not only the actual blood donors whose traditional religion is challenged -- it's all Havasupai (and indeed, there would likely be collateral impacts on all other Native American tribes). So do the non-consenters just have to suck it up and deal? Or do they get a veto -- and if so, how many noes are needed to cancel the research? What person or institution has the authority to speak for the tribe? And how can non-tribe-member researchers sort through the issues when tribal members dispute the answers to these questions with each other?

Another issue is where the boundaries of consent lie. Imagine that the out-of-Asia paper didn't require re-analysis of the actual blood samples -- instead, the author could support her point simply by citing the published results of the consented-to diabetes study. In one sense, such a paper seems to have potentially the same effects as the real direct-blood-analysis-based paper, albeit without the additional sense of invasion created by the direct work with Havasupai body parts. But to stop published research from being cited in support of projects the original subjects wouldn't consent to would be a serious change in the norms of scientific discourse.


NIMBY as the moral high ground

There's a common story in environmental politics that goes like this: Some locally unwanted land use (LULU), such as a trash incinerator or factory, is proposed for some location. The neighbors object. The proponents of the LULU charge that the neighbors are just NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) -- they're fine with the facility in the abstract, but they selfishly want to foist it off on some other neighborhood. In order to reclaim the moral high ground and rebut the idea that they just want to stick the LULU elsewhere, the neighbors reply that their view is actually NIABY (Not In Anyone's Back Yard, which on an expansive definition of "backyard" amounts to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth)) -- they think society can do without the LULU, at least in its current objectionable form.

Here in Casa Grande, we have a proposal to put a metal shredder that would grind up old cars and so forth in a light industrial park. The neighbors are upset, and have written numerous letters to the editor of my employer, the Dispatch (which unfortunately do not appear to be on its website). What I find interesting is that several of them reverse the usual NIMBY dynamic. They insist that they support recycling in general and metal shredders in particular, but they just don't think it's right to put such a facility here in Casa Grande. In other words, 'Don't accuse me of NIABY! I'm NIMBY!" (Granted, it's not a perfect reversal, since these writers would probably not approve of a shredder in a similar light industrial park elsewhere -- they want it located far from other houses and businesses.)