Tag Archives: ethics

Recent Interesting Science Articles (Nov ’11)

I didn’t exactly forget to write one of these for November 2011. It’s just that between personal issues, my participation in the 2nd International Melaka Walkathon and most of all, spending lots of time on my entry for the AI Challenge 2011, I just never got around to it. Well, better late than never and here’s a whole bunch of articles to make up for the tardiness:

  • This is purely based on survey data, i.e. asking people what they believe rather than observing it in them, but this article reports how happiness is correlated with high ethical standards.
  • One of the most interesting events in November was how the Earth was almost destroyed by a passing asteroid. Of course, almost is a relative term and astronomers have long calculated that the asteroid, 2005 YU55 will miss our planet, coming no closer than about 320,000 kilometres. This article has all the details.
  • One of the basic assumptions in science is the laws of nature remain constant. This extensive blog post looks at one very intricate experiment that suggests that this may not necessarily be true. In particular, the experiment looks at the fine-structure constant, itself a combination of several constants including the electron charge, Planck’s constant, the speed of light and ? by studying the spectra of quasars. Their observations currently suggest that the fine structure constant appears to have been different in the distant. If this checks out, it could mean that the laws of physics themselves change over time.
  • This Freakonomics blog post covers the work of an economist who thought to ask: hey, with all those sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, I wonder what that means for their membership and donation numbers? It turns out that the scandals have indeed led to a drop in the number of people attending Catholic Church with commensurate gains elsewhere. In particular, it looks as if Baptist churches picked up most of the fleeing Catholics.
  • Can animals laugh? In particular, can animals laugh when they’re being tickled? This blog post covers the work of Jaak Panksepp who tickled rats to find out. It seems that rats make a chirping noise in the 50 kHz range under certain conditions and this researcher sought to prove that this response has an ancestral relationship to human laughter. They found out all sorts of things, for example, that the most playful rats tend to be the most ticklish, that tickle response rates drop after adolescence, that the tickle response tends to help with social bonding and that rats will even run mazes for the sake of being tickled.
  • Ever since quantum mechanics was invested, physicists have long argued over how it can be interpreted. Lately, most scientists prefer to treat it as a purely statistical tool, absolving them of the need to treat the results as something that exists physically. A recent preprint of a paper suggests that this interpretation is flawed and that the results of quantum mechanics do reflect intrinsic physical reality after all.


Roman Polanski and the Ugliness of Talent

My view of the Roman Polanski case is the conventional one: he has admitted to having sex with a girl who was under-aged at the time, plying her with drugs and alcohol to do so, and is a fugitive from justice. Nothing else matters to me including the amount of time that has passed, how much he has suffered before and after the event and how great a talent he is as a film director. Incredibly, despite what seems to me to be a fairly clear cut case, the man still has defenders, even on QT3. I am also absolutely flabbergasted by the French government’s response to the arrest.

The reason for this post however pertains not with the case directly. I’ve been thinking about Ayn Rand’s books again recently, prompted by my wife’s discovery that Chinese translations of her books now exist. Her parents are currently on an extended trip to China and she’s asked them to buy copies of those books if they can find them. I’m very curious what they would be like in Chinese.

Anyway, the connection here is that Ayn Rand has always believed that values and virtues are absolute, hence the name of her philosophy “Objectivism”. This extends to aesthetics as well. According to her worldview, only a person of virtuous character could create or even admire a great work of art and conversely, all works of art that are great must by definition have been created by someone of unimpeachable virtue. Naturally, this leads to amusing consequences. For example, Rand believed that homosexuality is morally wrong and therefore every thing that a homosexual does or creates is tainted. This means that anyone who professes to admire a work created by a homosexual must be flawed in some way as well.

I don’t pretend to be enough of a film buff to be able to competently judge Polanski’s work but I see no reason to doubt the overwhelming consensus that he’s a great director. This, of course, contrasts rather spectacularly with his moral failures as a human being. I’m sure everyone can find many other examples of great talent, especially in entertainment, that have a less than perfect character. So this serves as one example, amongst many others, why Rand’s philosophy isn’t a particularly robust one. I do note that the ancient Chinese shared similar views in this regard. They believed for example that a person’s virtue could be demonstrated through his calligraphy or his paintings. This just goes to show how seductive the idea is that skilled people should also be moral people and how shallow it is to hold up someone as a general role model just because of high achievement is a narrow field.