About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, March 17, 2018

New post at The Conversation ... "Don't shoot the messeger..."

Over at The Conversation I have a new post "Don't shoot the messenger when confronted with inconvenient ideas". Check it out!

I comment on a range of issues from the James Damore case to denial of climate change science. My point is to deplore the strong human tendency not only to reject inconvenient messages but to view the bearers of certain kinds of messages - disliked messages on intensely politicised topics - as therefore ill-intentioned people who are not even worth listening to (and who perhaps should be punished in some way).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hugo Award nominations close soon - please consider SCIENCE FICTION AND THE MORAL IMAGINATION

Nominations for the Hugo Awards close very soon - on 16 March 2018.

This year, I have a book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics, that is eligible in the "Best Related Work" category. If you are eligible to nominate work for the Hugo Awards, please consider nominating Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination.

Only do so if you genuinely think it is worthy of appearing on the shortlist - I'm not asking for favours from people who don't actually think that. Nor, sadly, do I have any bribes to offer. On the other hand, I don't have a big enough name (or enough of a network of relevant people) that I am one of the usual suspects when the time comes around for these awards. A book by me from an academic publisher, even an excellent international publisher like Springer, won't immediately come to a lot of people's minds.

So ... this is your reminder that the book exists, has been getting good feedback so far (though I have yet to see any formal reviews, i.e. other than Amazon reviews), and might reasonably be thought up to the required standard. I'm nudging you to at least consider it.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

First successful reproductive cloning of primates

An article in the peer-reviewed journal Cell has announced the successful cloning - carried out by a research team from China - of macaque monkeys using the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique (SCNT) (also see a brief report here). In principle, this takes us one step closer to the possibility of cloning by SCNT as a method of human reproduction. Over the past twenty-one years, since the creation of Dolly the Sheep by SCNT, some of the moral and political heat has gone out of the issue, partly because of great difficulties experienced even in cloning non-human primates. It was starting to look as if human reproductive cloning was as far away as ever.

The article in Cell should not be taken to mean that human reproductive cloning is just around the corner. It isn't. Nonetheless, this is exciting research. Before anyone panics about the implications for humans, note the success rate. The researchers were able to use the SCNT technique to produce 2 healthy macaque monkeys from the DNA of fetal cells, after 6 pregnancies from attempts involving 21 surrogates. They were also able to produce 22 pregnancies, after attempts involving 42 surrogates, leading to 2 babies that were short-lived, using adult somatic cells (specifically cumulus cells). This is impressive. All the same, despite great efforts, the team failed to produce healthy clones of adult macaque monkeys.

We should, I think, conclude that researchers in this area remain a long way from being able to create clones of adult (or other fully-formed) human beings at will, using SCNT.

I'll be interested to see whether the slightly closer prospect of human reproductive cloning, as a result of this research, revives the moral panic of the late 1990s, following the announcement, in early 1997, of Dolly's birth in 1996. Perhaps the lengthy passage of time just to get this far will dampen down the degree of panic, though the Cell article is only just becoming widely known.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Black Panther review

(Note: mild spoilers in what follows. There is nothing that people who are interested in Black Panther won't already know.)

First, I completely enjoyed Black Panther. I thought it had almost the look and feel of a Star Wars movie - rather than a typical superhero movie - with its depiction of dynastic struggle, shaky and shifting alliances, and advanced weaponry and transportation, all set mainly in a series of vast, visually stunning landscapes and high-technology cityscapes.

The evident theme, as so often in science fiction movies and superhero movies, relates to the use of power - in this case technological power - whether to protect yourself, to help others, or to overcome and oppress others. The latter might be motivated by personal ambition or by political zealotry.

Science fiction and related genres return to this again and again. Indeed, the justifiable and unjustifiable uses of great power provide the key theme of these genres. That is so all the way back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it's as true of the work of H.G. Wells as the work of E.E. "Doc" Smith.

For X-Men fans, the main antagonists of Black Panther had something of a Xavier-versus-Magneto vibe in what they, respectively, sought to do with the extraordinary power available to them. At all times, they acted against a familiar background of ongoing injustice on a very large scale.

(All X-Men fans know that Xavier and Magneto are themselves often interpreted, with just a touch of revisionism, as analogues for someone like Martin Luther King vs someone more radical like Malcolm X ... or the Black Panthers if it comes to that. Note, however, that the Black Panther Party came into existence some three years after the creation of the X-Men, and a few months after the creation of the Black Panther as a Marvel character. Its founders were inspired by, among things, the writings of Malcolm X.)

T'Challa, the Black Panther, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in mid-1966, and there was some controversy at the time. It was a big deal, back then, for Marvel to create a black superhero. It made a strong political statement in the circumstances of the mid-60s, though some questioned why he had to be an African king, not a more grounded African American character, such as the later Luke Cage (who dates from the 1970s).

Similar questions will doubtless be raised this time, and they'll merit discussion. Meanwhile, Black Panther is an interesting and spectacular movie with large, perennial, themes about power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry, themes that inevitably speak of, and to - even as they are by no means confined to - American race relations.

What do I mean by that? In current circumstances, and for the foreseeable future, any production from Hollywood that deals with the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry will be open to interpretation as at least allegorizing American race relations, and as addressing them in some way. Race need not be thematically explicit, as it is in Black Panther. Thus, the mutants of the X-Men mythos, including the current TV show The Gifted, are, in part, stand-ins for persecuted people of colour.

At the same time, the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and resulting political zealotry are not confined to racial issues. It follows that a movie such as Black Panther can reference specifically racial issues, yet have a resonance far beyond those issues. It thus connects with the rich legacy of narrative, especially SF narrative, that engages with questions about the responsible uses of power.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cordelia Fine on the James Damore case

I'm bookmarking this long article about James Damore in The Guardian from back in November 2017, because I want to return to it. When I initially read the article, I was especially struck by the remarks attributed to Cordelia Fine, who has, for some years, been a patient and unrelenting critic of much sex-difference research. She sees this research as scientifically dubious and socially dangerous insofar as it undermines feminist efforts to advocate for gender equality.

While Professor Fine could be expected to criticise Damore's views on sex differences in interests and personality traits - and indeed, she does so - it's notable that she adds that his summary of sex-difference research in his now famous memo was "more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature" and that some of his ideas were quite familiar to her and not even especially controversial. As quoted, she goes on to say, "So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him."

Here, Fine is showing a level of common decency and reasonableness - and is expressing a degree of compassion for an intellectual opponent - that is all too often missing from public debate about controversial issues. Too often, the response is not only to distrust any message that contradicts our prior beliefs and commitments, but to go even further. The response, that is, is often to reject, demonise, and attempt to harm the messenger. Cordelia Fine deserves praise for taking a different approach to a message that clearly goes against some of her core attitudes and beliefs.

My purpose here is to praise Fine's approach (at least on this occasion) to public controversy, not to defend the substance of Damore's memo. You can go here for one even-handed attempt (by Jonathan Haidt) to assess its merits or otherwise. My larger concern is not with the science of sex differences but with the widespread tendency to shame opponents in public, and to call for them to be fired (as Damore was fired from his job at Google in August 2017). This is, of course, something that I've been objecting to for a long time now.

Edit, 17 February 2017: The National Labor Relations Board has since publicly released a memorandum of advice from its legal counsel on James Damore's application to the NLRB to consider his case. The advice memorandum itself strikes me as extraordinary, claiming that Damore's dispassionate and reasoned discussion of the science of sex-related psychological differences was comparable to such blatant stereotyping and hostility in the workplace as referring to "jealous ass ghetto people"; the memorandum even claims that parts of Damore's memo amounted to sexual harassment, notwithstanding that the content was entirely clinical and analytical rather than in any way sexualised. That said, any employer enjoys a very broad discretion under American law to dismiss employees for conduct that could potentially cause workplace disharmony. It was always doubtful, therefore, that Damore could have won this case or even that the NLRB genuinely had jurisdiction to deal with it. I also have doubts as to whether other legal action commenced by Damore since his dismissal from employment can succeed.

For all that, the reasoning in the NLRB advice memorandum is troubling, and it appears to me to be wrong in fact and law, even if the legality of Google's action in firing Damore could have been upheld, all things considered, on the basis of less controversial reasoning.