Episode 118 – 13th January 2012

This week we talk to the man behind Jesus & Mo, read the Spartacus Report and get word from the key players in the so-called “Obscenity Trial”.


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Jesus, Mo and UCL (2:13) by James O’Malley (ft Dave, the guy behind Jesus & Mo!)
Spartacus Report (9:36) by Steven Sumpter
Obscenity Trial (21:10) by David Allen Green (ft Myles Jackman and Michael Peacock)
Wind Farms (24:22) by Pete Hague
The LHC is valuable (33:40) by Kash Farooq, Peter Silk & George Hrab
Death Penalty & Assisted Dying (40:44) by Sean Ellis
Christian Nightmares (47:16) by Salim Fadhley (ft Christian Nightmares guy)

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8 thoughts on “Episode 118 – 13th January 2012

  1. I’m disappointed that you have airbrushed Mo’s body double out of your illustration. Kinda defeats the whole point!

  2. @HaggisForBrains – I thought it was a clever nod to the controversy, myself. And who’s to say that the mysterious red glyphs in the picture aren’t actually a really hamfisted attempt to portray a certain divine personage?

  3. @Sean Ellis I have an issue with your report on Assisted Dying and the dilemma that you posed for us. If you go back to Jennie’s piece in Episode 117, the cornerstone of her argument was “Autonomy” and that choice from autonomy..The challenge with Assisted Dying will always be determining the Autonomy of Choice. And yes duress, lack of control etc, will always be considered in the characterization of how much Autonomy a person has, in making the decision to take his life.

    And by definition, someone in Jail, is deprived of that autonomy of Choice – even if he is incarcerated for life. I think the argument that you brought of costs of keeping people in prison (or allowing them the option of euthanasia) is shoveling in an entirely different debate of social and (legal) norms for penalizing/dealing with crime into this. And I don’t think it has anything meaningful to contribute to the debate of Assisted Dying. I think you came close to addressing the issue of autonomy but – to my slight disappointment, you didn’t.

    And if I may be so presumptuous as to suggest that had you considered the autonomy argument in your report, the particular dilemma that you brought to our attention wouldn’t be as compelling.

  4. @Kash

    Great piece! I feel rather proud that I inspired you to contribute it.

    Anyway, it seems that you make 2 main points to counter the argument I made last week:

    1. Basic research is valuable because we simply don’t know where it will lead, and there is a chance it may lead to a fantastically useful discovery

    2. Even if the research itself goes nowhere, the spin-off technologies developed along the way are often valuable.

    Taking point 1 first, I agree with that in the main. My point was about the specific subset of high-energy particle physics, as exemplified by the LHC. While I agree that blue-sky research in general is valuable and worthwhile, I think the chances of anything of practical value coming out of LHC-type research itself (as opposed to the spin-off benefits) are small (although admittedly non-zero). There are 2 reasons for this: first, I think we’ve agreed (haven’t we?) that no direct practical uses have come of this research in the last half century. Given the pace at which technology moves, that suggests that in terms of direct practical benefits, this is not a fruitful area of research. Second, as I said in my piece last week, the energies involved make it unlikely that it’s going to be practical. I acknowledge that neither of those things proves that we will never get practical applications; I’m just saying it looks unlikely to me. I’ll come back to that point later.

    Your second point about the spin-off technologies is well made. I admit you’re right about the discoveries made incidentally along the way being very valuable. What I question, however, is whether this is the most efficient way of making those discoveries. That’s a tricky one, of course, because perhaps we don’t know what discoveries we should be making until we see what they can be used for. After all, Henry Ford once famously said “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. I feel that there perhaps ought to be a more efficient way of making the spin-off type discoveries if research efforts were directed solely to the spin-offs, but perhaps the uncertain aims of such a programme would make it impossible. I really don’t know. Perhaps the spin-off argument invalidates the points I made in my piece last week, and perhaps it doesn’t.

    Anyway, coming back to the question of practical uses of LHC-type research. You will no doubt remember that it was suggested on Twitter that we settle this with either fisticuffs, protons to the head within the LHC tunnel, or (my personal favourite) ray guns. I’d like to suggest a much more old-fashioned and gentlemanly way of settling it: a little wager.

    £1000 says that, X years from now, no new practical uses of direct discoveries (excluding spin-offs) made by particle physicists looking at matter at a level more sophisticated than protons, neutrons, and electrons have been developed. We will revisit this argument after X years, and if there are new practical applications you win, and if there aren’t, I win. You get to choose X. Choose wisely. If you choose 1 week, I am very likely to win. If you choose 100 years, your chances of winning are obviously much greater, but you will experience 3 downsides: 1) £1000 will probably leave with you barely any change after buying a pint of bitter in 2112; 2) Your chances of being around to collect on the bet are not good; and 3) The chances that I’m around to pay up are even less good.

    Do we have a bet?

  5. @Sean

    Well, that piece is making me think. I accept the arguments for assisted dying for the terminally ill, so should I accept that assisted dying is OK for lifelong prisoners? Good point. I agree with Quackonomics in that autonomy is key. I wonder how easy it would be to be sure that a person in prison is free of external influences in making that decision and so could truly be said to be acting with autonomy? I suspect it would be very difficult in practice, but what if it could be done? Not sure about that, but it’s certainly an interesting question.

    I’d also like to add something to your description of the “pushing a fat guy onto the tram tracks” problem. It’s not just a matter of active-passive equivalence. The big problem I have with that particular ethical dilemma is that it’s presented in terms of knowing in advance what the consequences of our actions will be. In practice, if you were really standing on a bridge next to a fat guy as the runaway tram approaches, it would be impossible to know, in the few seconds you have to make the decision, whether pushing him onto the tracks would save the other lives. Maybe he wouldn’t derail the train after all. Maybe the people down the track would see the tram coming in time and get out of the way. So I wouldn’t push him onto the track, but that’s simply because I’d be unwilling to trade the highly uncertain benefits of doings so for the very high probability of killing him.

    This is actually a problem I have with many of the thought experiments that ethicists sometimes indulge in. If they are too hypothetical, I think they lose their validity.

  6. RE: dodgy wind turbine report by Pete Hague.

    You are right to point the holes in this report, but it’s important to remember that just because a report or investigation is badly done and may well be biased, does not, in itself mean that the reverse conclusion is true.

    I found it very uncomfortable listening to climate skeptics rant ‘but wind turbines don’t work’ but the more I look into it, the more true that seems.

    For example four people have been killed by wind turbines to date, which makes wind power far more deadly per gigawatt hour than say, nuclear, but no one wants to talk about “we will never overcome the wind power safety issue’

    This is of course due, more to the fact that nuclear is a vastly more energy dense source than wind, but isn’t that the whole point?

  7. Chris:

    Its true that the method being fallacious doesn’t in itself make the conclusion wrong; but they were not talking about safety – they were talking about cost.

    In any case only four people have ever been killed by wind turbines, then even if this is a higher per GWh rate than nuclear, its still a very small number. The numbers are similarly small for nuclear – and both wind and nuclear are safer than coal (largely because of mining rather than generation). With such a small number of lethal accidents, safety shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

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