A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: March 2022

Fact resistance, human nature and contemplation

Sometimes we all resist facts. I saw a cyclist slip on the icy road. When I asked if it went well, she was on her feet in an instant and denied everything: “I did not fall!” It is human to deny facts. They can hurt and be disturbing.

What are we resisting? The usual answer is that fact-resistant individuals or groups resist facts about the world around us, such as statistics on violent crime, on vaccine side effects, on climate change or on the spread of disease. It then becomes natural to offer resistance to fact resistance by demanding more rigour in the field of knowledge. People should learn to turn more rigorously to the world they live in! The problem is that fact-resistant attitudes do just that. They are almost bewitched by the world and by the causes of what are perceived as outrageous problems in it. And now we too are bewitched by fact resistance and speculate about the causes of this outrageous problem.

Of course, we believe that our opposition is justified. But who does not think so? Legitimate resistance is met by legitimate resistance, and soon the conflict escalates around its double spiral of legitimacy. The possibility of resolving it is blocked by the conflict itself, because all parties are equally legitimate opponents of each other. Everyone hears their own inner voices warning them from acknowledging their mistakes, from acknowledging their uncertainty, from acknowledging their human resistance to reality, as when we fall off the bike and wish it had never happened. The opposing side would immediately seize the opportunity! Soon, our mistake is a scandal on social media. So we do as the person who slipped on the icy road, we deny everything without thinking: “I was not wrong, I had my own facts!” We ignore the fact that life thereby becomes a lie, because our inner voices warn us from acknowledging our uncertainty. We have the right to be recognized, our voices insist, at least as an alternative to the “established view.”

Conflicts give us no time for reflection. Yet, there is really nothing stopping us from sitting down, in the midst of conflict, and resolving it within ourselves. When we give ourselves time to think for ourselves, we are freer to acknowledge our uncertainty and examine our spirals of thought. Of course, this philosophical self-examination does not resolve the conflict between legitimate opponents which escalates around us as increasingly impenetrable and real. It only resolves the conflict within ourselves. But perhaps our thoughtful philosophical voice still gives a hint of how, just by allowing us to soar in uncertainty, we already see the emptiness of the conflict and are free from it?

If we more often dared to soar in uncertainty, if it became more permissible to say “I do not know,” if we listened more attentively to thoughtful voices instead of silencing them with loud knowledge claims, then perhaps fact resistance also decreases. Perhaps fact resistance is not least resistance to an inner fact. To a single inner fact. What fact? Our insecurity as human beings, which we do not permit ourselves. But if you allow yourself to slip on the icy road, then you do not have to deny that you did!

A more thoughtful way of being human should be possible. We shape the societies that shape us.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

We care about communication

How can neuroethics and AI ethics join their forces?

As I already wrote on this blog, there has been an explosion of AI in recent years. AI affects so many aspects of our lives that it is virtually impossible to avoid interacting with it. Since AI has such an impact, it must be examined from an ethical point of view, for the very basic reason that it can be developed and/or used for both good and evil.

In fact, AI ethics is becoming increasingly popular nowadays. As it is a fairly young discipline, even though it has roots in, for example, digital and computer ethics, the question is open about its status and methodology. To simplify the debate, the main trend is to conceive AI ethics in terms of practical ethics, for example, with a focus on the impact of AI on traditional practices in education, work, healthcare, entertainment, among others. In addition to this practically oriented analysis, there is also attention to the impact of AI on the way we understand our society and ourselves as part of it.

In this debate about the identity of AI ethics, the need for a closer collaboration with neuroethics has been briefly pointed out, but so far no systematic reflection has been made on this need. In a new article, I propose, together with Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles, an argument to justify the need for closer collaboration between neuroethics and AI ethics. In a nutshell, even though they both have specific identities and their topics do not completely overlap, we argue that neuroethics can complement AI ethics for both content-related and methodological reasons.

Some of the issues raised by AI are related to fundamental questions that neuroethics has explored since its inception. Think, for example, of topics such as intelligence: what does it mean to be intelligent? In what sense can a machine be qualified as an intelligent agent? Could this be a misleading use of words? And what ethical implications can this linguistic habit have, for example, on how we attribute responsibility to machines and to humans? Another issue that is increasingly gaining ground in AI ethics literature, as I wrote on this blog, is the conceivability and the possibility of artificial consciousness. Neuroethics has worked extensively on both intelligence and consciousness, combining applied and fundamental analyses, which can serve as a source of relevant information for AI ethics.

In addition to the above content-related reasons, neuroethics can also provide AI ethics with a methodological model. To illustrate, the kind of conceptual clarification performed in fundamental neuroethics can enrich the identification and assessment of the practical ethical issues raised by AI. More specifically, neuroethics can provide a three-step model of analysis to AI ethics: 1. Conceptual relevance: can specific notions, such as autonomy, be attributed to AI? 2. Ethical relevance: are these specific notions ethically salient (i.e., do they require ethical evaluation)? 3. Ethical value: what is the ethical significance and the related normative implications of these specific notions?

This three-step approach is a promising methodology for ethical reflection about AI which avoids the trap anthropocentric self-projection, a risk that actually affects both the philosophical reflection on AI and its technical development.

In this way, neuroethics can contribute to avoiding both hypes and disproportionate worries about AI, which are among the biggest challenges facing AI ethics today.

Written by…

Michele Farisco, Postdoc Researcher at Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, working in the EU Flagship Human Brain Project.

Farisco, M., Evers, K. & Salles, A. On the Contribution of Neuroethics to the Ethics and Regulation of Artificial Intelligence. Neuroethics 15, 4 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-022-09484-0

We transcend disciplinary borders

Illness prevention needs to be adapted to people’s illness perceptions

Several factors increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Many of these we can influence ourselves through changes in lifestyle or preventive drug treatment. But people’s attitudes to prevention vary with their perceptions of cardiovascular disease. Health communication to support preventive measures therefore needs to take into account people’s illness perceptions.

Åsa Grauman and three colleagues conducted an online survey with 423 randomly selected Swedes aged 40 to 70 years. Participants were asked to answer questions about themselves and about how they view cardiovascular disease. They then participated in an experiment designed to capture how they weighted their preferences regarding health check results.

The results showed a wide variety of perceptions about cardiovascular disease. Women more often cited stress as their most important risk factor while men more often cited overweight and obesity. An interesting result is that people who stated that they smoked, had hypertension, were overweight or lived sedentary, tended to downplay that factor as less risky for cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, people who stated that they experienced stress had a tendency to emphasize stress as a high risk of cardiovascular disease. People who reported family history as a personal risk of illness showed a greater reluctance to participate in health examinations.

Regarding preferences about health check results, it was found that the participants preferred to have their results presented in everyday words and with an overall assessment (rather than, for example, in numbers). They also preferred to get the results in a letter (rather than by logging in to a website) that included lifestyle recommendations, and they preferred 30 minutes of consultation (over no or only 15 minutes of consultation).

It is important to reach out with the message that the risk of cardiovascular disease can be affected by lifestyle changes, and that health checks can identify risk factors in people who are otherwise asymptomatic. Especially people with a family history of cardiovascular disease, who in the study were more reluctant to undergo health examinations, may need to be aware of this.

To reach out with the message, it needs to be adapted to how people perceive cardiovascular disease, and we need to become better at supporting correct perceptions, the authors conclude. I have mentioned only a small selection of results from the study. If you want to see the richness of results, read the article: Public perceptions of myocardial infarction: Do illness perceptions predict preferences for health check results.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Åsa Grauman, Jennifer Viberg Johansson, Marie Falahee, Jorien Veldwijk. 2022, Public perceptions of myocardial infarction: Do illness perceptions predict preferences for health check results. Preventive Medicine Reports 26, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2021.101683

This post in Swedish

Exploring preferences