We’ll be giving away many prizes throughout the event, so be sure to share with friends using #WileyHumanitiesFest on Twitter and Facebook, and comment extensively on the festival site.
Find out why thought leaders in philosophy like David S. Oderberg (Editor of Ratio), Sally Scholz (Editor of Hypatia), Willem B. Drees (Editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Sciences), Chris Higgins (Editor of Educational Theory), Ethan Kleinberg (Editor of History and Theory), Clara Fischer and Shelley Park (Guest Editors of upcoming special issues of Hypatia) find value in the humanities, and what they say is next for philosophy.
In a fascinating article published in Significance, author Robert Bain delves into the arguments for and against viewing human judgements and decisions in terms of Bayesian inference. We are grateful to Significance and the editor, Brian Tarran, for permission to publish the excerpt below.
The human brain is made up of 90 billion neurons connected by more than 100 trillion synapses. It has been described as the most complicated thing in the world, but brain scientists say that is wrong: they think it is the most complicated thing in the known universe. Little wonder, then, that scientists have such trouble working out how our brain actually works. Not in a mechanical sense: we know, roughly speaking, how different areas of the brain control different aspects of our bodies and our emotions, and how these distinct regions interact. The questions that are more difficult to answer relate to the complex decision-making processes each of us experiences: how do we form beliefs, assess evidence, make judgments, and decide on a course of action?
Figuring that out would be a great achievement, in and of itself. But this has practical applications, too, not least for those artificial intelligence (AI) researchers who are looking to transpose the subtlety and adaptability of human thought from biological “wetware” to computing hardware.
In looking to replicate aspects of human cognition, AI researchers have made use of algorithms that learn from data through a process known as Bayesian inference. Bayesian inference is a method of updating beliefs in the light of new evidence, with the strength of those beliefs captured using probabilities. As such, it differs from frequentist inference, which focuses on how frequently we might expect to observe a given set of events under specific conditions.
In the field of AI, Bayesian inference has been found to be effective at helping machines approximate some human abilities, such as image recognition. But are there grounds for believing that this is how human thought processes work more generally? Do our beliefs, judgments, and decisions follow the rules of Bayesian inference?
For the clearest evidence of Bayesian reasoning in the brain, we must look past the high-level cognitive processes that govern how we think and assess evidence, and consider the unconscious processes that control perception and movement.
Professor Daniel Wolpert of the University of Cambridge’s neuroscience research centre believes we have our Bayesian brains to thank for allowing us to move our bodies gracefully and efficiently – by making reliable, quick-fire predictions about the result of every movement we make. Wolpert, who has conducted a number of studies on how people control their movements, believes that as we go through life our brains gather statistics for different movement tasks, and combine these in a Bayesian fashion with sensory data, together with estimates of the reliability of that data. “We really are Bayesian inference machines,” he says.
Other researchers have found indications of Bayesianism in higher-level cognition. A 2006 study by Tom Griffiths of the University of California, Berkeley, and Josh Tenenbaum of MIT asked people to make predictions of how long people would live, how much money films would make, and how long politicians would last in office. The only data they were given to work with was the running total so far: current age, money made so far, and years served in office to date. People’s predictions, the researchers found, were very close to those derived from Bayesian calculations.
Before we accept the Bayesian brain hypothesis wholeheartedly, there are a number of strong counter-arguments. For starters, it is fairly easy to come up with probability puzzles that should yield to Bayesian methods, but that regularly leave many people flummoxed. For instance, many people will tell you that if you toss a series of coins, getting all heads or all tails is less likely than getting, for instance, tails–tails–heads–tails–heads. It is not and Bayes’ theorem shows why: as the coin tosses are independent, there is no reason to expect one sequence is more likely than another.
“There’s considerable evidence that most people are dismally non-Bayesian when performing reasoning,” says Robert Matthews of Aston University, Birmingham, and author of Chancing It, about the challenges of probabilistic reasoning. “For example, people typically ignore base-rate effects and overlook the need to know both false positive and false negative rates when assessing predictive or diagnostic tests.”
Diagnostic test accuracy explained
How is it that a diagnostic test that claims to be 99% accurate can still give a wrong diagnosis 50% of the time? In testing for a rare condition, we scan 10 000 people. Only 1% (100 people) have the condition; 9900 do not. Of the 100 people who do have the disease, a 99% accurate test will detect 99 of the true cases, leaving one false negative. But a 99% accurate test will also produce false positives at the rate of 1%. So, of the 9900 people who do not have the condition, 1% (99 people) will be told erroneously that they do have it. The total number of positive tests is therefore 198, of which only half are genuine. Thus the probability that a positive test result from this “99% accurate” test is a true positive is only 50%.
Life’s hard problems
All in all, that is quite a bit of evidence in favour of the argument that our brains are non-Bayesian. But do not forget that we are dealing with the most complicated thing in the known universe, and these fascinating quirks and imperfections do not give a complete picture of how we think.
Eric Mandelbaum, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, says this kind of irrationality “is most striking because it arises against a backdrop of our extreme competence. For every heuristics-and-biases study that shows that we, for instance, cannot update base rates correctly, one can find instances where people do update correctly.”
So while our well-documented flaws may shed light on the limits of our capacity for probabilistic analysis, we should not write off the brain’s statistical abilities just yet. Perhaps what our failings really reveal is that life is full of really hard problems, which our brains must try and solve in a state of uncertainty and constant change, with scant information and no time.
Robert Bain is a freelance journalist. He was previously editor of Lux magazine and deputy editor of Research magazine.
About the Magazine
Significance is published on behalf of the Royal Statistical Society and is a bimonthly magazine for anyone interested in statistics and the analysis and interpretation of data. Its aim is to communicate and demonstrate in an entertaining, thought-provoking and non-technical way the practical use of statistics in all walks of life and to show informatively and authoritatively how statistics benefit society.
Recently, Wiley was honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, to attend the 13th World Congress of Bioethics. We caught up with her after the conference to see how it went.
Recently, Wiley was honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, to attend the 13th World Congress of Bioethics. This biennial conference is the largest gathering of bioethics thought-leaders in the world, which this year took place in Edinburgh, Scotland.
We previously got to know Dr. Kasule in this lovely Q&A, and were able to catch up with her after the conference to see how it went.
FN: Welcome back from Edinburgh! How did your poster presentation go?
MK: I must say the presentation went well. The title was “Practical and ethical challenges posed in obtaining parental informed consent for HIV clinical trials research with pediatric patients: A case of Botswana,” which fell under the conference’s Global Bioethics theme. Challenges mainly focused on the readability of the consent forms, information disclosure process by the study staff, parental comprehension of information disclosed, and parental motivation to enroll children into HIV clinical trials.
In his welcome address, Professor Graeme Laurie mentioned that the congress would be attended by 700 delegates, and the thought that all these people might visit my poster gave me nightmares and butterflies in my stomach! Indeed, so many viewers visited my poster that I lost count!
I had active discussions with viewers and received very informative feedback on the findings, which will enrich my future work. My general observation was that there was a huge difference in viewers’ opinions and appreciation of my findings. We debated if my findings were critical or not, and whether or not these findings needed solutions. I noticed a wide difference of opinions between members of western and non-western societies. According to the questions and comments I got, most western viewers were surprised that in non-western countries, consent is being sought on more than one level, which reflects communalism. On the other hand, a majority of non-western viewers admitted to having faced similar challenges which required immediate solutions. These differences are likely to majorly impact collaborative research.
FN: How wonderful to be able to discuss your research with your peers, and get such engaged feedback. How was the conference itself?
MK: If I could summarize it in two words, I would say, “amazing and successful.” It was invigorating, inspirational, and informative – there was so much to do and learn!
I felt proud and honored to be part of the proceedings and to contribute to such a noble cause. I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to John Wiley & Sons, who sponsored my travel as part of its initiative to further support the bioethics community. And, a big “thank you” to the University of Botswana for its support.
FN: You’re welcome. We are thrilled to support you in your amazing endeavors.
MK: The venue (Assembly Rooms) is a huge and impressive 18th century event space. The conference itself had such a variety of sessions that choosing which to attend was a challenge! Prior to each day, I made sure I went through the program very carefully for fear of getting lost. I later realized one could not get lost, as everyone was kind and ready to help.
FN: What was your favorite session?
MK: Because of my background, I tried to attend sessions related to bioethics and public health. The keynote address by Professor Alastair V. Campbell (Director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore) was hilarious and very inspirational. He made the audience laugh when he referred to himself as, “the Accidental Bioethicist,” and described, “what makes God laugh.” His advice was a very good take-home message for me – “You need to follow what you truly care about.”
When Professor Florencia Luna from CONICET (National Scientific and Technological Research Council, Argentina) gave her key note address on “Women and (NON) Ethical Places: The Case of Zika,” you could hear a pin drop! It was deeply touching! She described the disproportionate harms of the Zika virus to poor women from endemic areas, which I thought was similar to what HIV and Ebola virus have done to women in many sub-Saharan countries. It was very sad to hear her say, “Simply referring to the situation ignores the stories and the suffering, anguish, and abandonment of women affected by the epidemic. There is need to look into women’s social and economic disadvantages, gender bias, their exclusion from research to avoid perpetuating poverty, and increased gender bias as well as social and health disparity.” Bioethicists and governments have a very big role to play through reviewing research regulatory guidelines and laws that exclude women from health research.
FN: It sounds like you were able to hear from so many inspirational experts in bioethics. Will you tell us more about new things you learned?
MK: Ah! There were so many interesting sessions relevant to my carrier, which made choosing difficult. I had to make very calculated choices. Something new I learned is that the bioethics community is quite big in western countries, and sub-Saharan Africa is still lagging behind. With more collaboration and networking, it would be possible to build research ethics capacity in sub-Saharan Africa.
FN: When we first spoke, you outlined what you think are the biggest public health priorities for Botswana today. Did you find that others had similar issues they are grappling in their own regions? How did Botswana’s public health priorities compare and contrast with other countries?
MK: I would say strengthening health systems as well epidemiological control of communicable and non-communicable diseases remain universal challenges.
FN: Who did you enjoy meeting the most? What did you discuss together?
MK: I did get to talk to many people, but because on my bioethics background I was lucky to speak with Professor Luna after her inspirational key note address. We shared views and opinions about ethical issues associated with research involving pregnant women and their exclusion from research as a vulnerable group which results in a lack of research evidence for medications to treat pregnant women. Since there wasn’t much time, we exchanged cards to continue the discussion over email. Hopefully I will meet her again at IAB 2018 in New Delhi, or at other bioethics forums!
FN: What is next for you and your research, and how will your experience at IAB help inform that?
MK: Well, there were so many stimulating ideas, but all of them require funding. Now that I’ve had such great discussions and gotten advice from early carrier researcher sessions, I should be able to apply for research funding do more research and publish more.
FN: Do you have any other anecdotes you’d like to share with our readers?
The closing ceremony was full of drama with the competition on pronunciation of Scottish phrases by some delegates. That was a mutilation of the Scottish language!
The atmosphere was full joy and tears for those who won prizes. I would like to congratulate one of our own from Africa, Dr. Nicola Barsdorf (Head of Health Research Ethics at Stellenbosch University), who placed second in the Medical Ethics Poster Prize. She made us proud!
The breathtaking video shown to advertise the IAB 2018 (to take place in New Delhi!) gave delegates hope of meeting again. This video demonstrated the need for more research on the social determinants of priority public health problems, and how a health-systems-strengthening approach can contribute to more effective program delivery and health outcomes.
FN: We look forward to seeing what great things you’ve achieved at the next World Congress of Bioethics. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us!
This bursary was sponsored by Wiley on behalf of its bioethics journals.
Read the latest in bioethics from your peers around the world, and submit your paper today. Click on the journals below to discover groundbreaking research.
The £1000 award is granted to the author of the best article published in that year’s volume. We offer Dr. Calhoun a hearty congratulations and are pleased to offer you free access to her winning article through the end of July.
About the Winner
Currently, Dr. Cheshire Calhoun teaches philosophy at Arizona State University and is serving as chair of the American Philosophical Association (APA) board of officers. She previously edited feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, and was chair of the APA’s LGBT Committee and the Inclusiveness Committee.
The majority of her work falls within normative ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of emotion, feminist philosophy, and gay and lesbian philosophy.
To learn more about her prolific career and work, please visit her website.
About the Journal
The Journal of Applied Philosophy provides a unique forum for philosophical research which seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, the journal brings critical analysis to these areas and to the identification, justification and discussion of values of universal appeal. The journal covers a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. Go here to subscribe today.
The journal is run by the Society for Applied Philosophy. Founded in 1982, the society aims to promote philosophical study and research that has a direct bearing on areas of practical concern. To learn about the society’s work and how you can become a member, please visit its website.
Today we continue our celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month with an original, personal essay under this week’s theme: family and relationships.
Today we continue our celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month with an original, personal essay under this week’s theme: family and relationships. While recent horrific events may discourage us, we tread onwards in support of the LGBTQ community and hope to meaningfully contribute to the conversation around respect, dignity, and equality for all.
Please visit our blog each Monday in June as we post think pieces from Wiley authors and LGBTQ advocates centered around a new theme. You’ll also get unlocked access to journal articles and book excerpts that examine the ethical, social, and philosophical issues faced by the LGBTQ community. Thanks for joining us as we continue the necessary conversation on LGBTQ rights, awareness, and support.
Author’s Note: I wrote this a few days before the horrific tragedy that unfolded in the early hours of this past Sunday morning in Orlando. I wrote this with an immense feeling of pride for who I am, pride for who my family is, and pride for all the progress that we as a community have made. I wrote this with an immense sense of hope and happiness for the future as we continue to ride on the wave towards true equality. Yet Sunday’s events have rattled the soul and have shaken my determination… but that can only be temporary. I still feel all of these things – more deeply so now – despite that fact that there are people in this world who do not want me or my brothers and sisters to exist. But we do exist and someone else’s narrow reality is never going to change that.
When I told my family that I was gay, I remembered thinking to myself beforehand that I wanted the act of telling them to be more about the fact that I had met someone special as opposed to an epic proclamation of something that frankly they had already heavily suspected. Not because I don’t feel pride for who and what I am. Let me be clear — once I came to understand what these feelings were, I have never once wanted to be anyone other than myself. Rather, I wanted my family to understand that I wasn’t any different. I was still the same sometimes quiet, sometimes loud little boy that I had always been. I wanted it to be no different than when my brother brought his first serious girlfriend home to meet my parents. I wanted that for myself because I don’t view myself differently from my brother in that respect, and I felt that I deserved that moment.
Homosexuality is not a stranger to my family – deriving mostly from my mother’s side. My father likes to joke about this openly. My closest cousin erupted out of the closet in the early 90’s and it landed like a thud on the living room floor when we were all told. But it was a sign of the times. He was living in New York City, AIDS was continuing to ravage the community, and discrimination was driving the greater reason to speak out and be proud. My other cousin never needed to come out because he was just born with that authentic sense of self and his sexuality was never questioned. And so on and so on, as there are several others. They are all older than I am – I am the baby – therefore again came into themselves at a time when the sexual preference proclamation was intrinsically necessary.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I was getting ready to leave my parent’s house in Connecticut to return to Boston, but before I left I needed to have this conversation with my family. My brother already knew – I had told him months prior. I expected my father to bristle and stiffen in that classic, New England Irish Catholic way – immediately shutting any and all emotion inside – and for my mother to embrace me with a million motherly arms, telling me she always knew, that she was so proud, and that she wanted to know all about this new boyfriend.
So when I muttered the words “I have a new person in my life,” what I didn’t realize was that it truly did come as a surprise to my parents. My father sternly looked at me for a moment, paused, and said that he had been all over the world, that he had met and worked with all kinds of people, and that it made no difference to him who I loved. He came over to me to give me a hug and said he was happy that I had found someone. I could tell that my mother’s back had straightened and she said things like “I’m disappointed” and “don’t put yourself at risk” and “I wish your life was going in another direction.” It was hard for me to hear, and to be honest, I was the one who was disappointed and felt very much that my life was finally going in the right direction. I left relieved but also feeling a sense that something had changed between parent and child.
Time passed and feelings began to ease. A few weeks later, my mother apologized for reacting the way she did. And then she wanted me to tell her all about this new boyfriend. Obviously, she needed the space to absorb this new reality. I am not sure if my very traditional parents truly understand the situation, but we move forward with the hope that one day they will. I continue to say things like “when we get married” and “if we have children” just to remind them that this is the life I have – unexpected as it is. And it sinks in. A few months ago, we were on the phone and my mother said that she couldn’t understand how a family could disown a child for being gay. It was a horrible example of the flaws within our human makeup. She hopes that we can reach a place where all of this isn’t necessary because people are people and family is family.
People are people. And family is family.
It is such a parochial statement with no real depth within the syntax, but the meaning is clear and profound. You are who you are and that isn’t something that should ever change. Your family members are your greatest champions and should be there for you always. I was proud to hear my mother say these words, especially after our rocky start. The latest research shows that 73% of millennials support same-sex marriage, whereas the Baby Boomer generation, i.e., my parents’ generation, is still stuck underneath 50%. This presents a seismic shift in attitudes towards both gender and sexuality, especially as millennials begin to have families of their own.
The fight for equality and acceptance is far from over though. This month, President Obama hosted a reception in honor of Pride month and in his closing comments said, “So some folks never imagined we’d come this far — maybe even some in this room. Change can be slow. And I know that there have been times where at least some of the people in this room have yelled at me. But together, we’ve proven that change is possible, that progress is possible. It’s not inevitable, though. History doesn’t just travel forward; it can go backwards if we don’t work hard. So we can’t be complacent. We cannot be complacent. Securing the gains this country has made requires perseverance and vigilance. And it requires voting. Because we’ve got more work to do.”
There are parts of this world – including the United States – where parents and communities do not accept this type of progress. And so he is absolutely right; we’ve got more work to do. The month of June is a time for everyone – the LGBTQ community, allies, parents, brothers, sisters, friends – to celebrate the progress that we’ve made and to also look towards the future progress that needs to come….
About the Author
Brian Giblin is a publishing professional living and working in Boston. He currently works at Wiley as a Journals Publishing Manager in the areas of Business, Management, and Policy Studies. In his spare time he enjoys baking, reading paperback books, and riding his bicycle.
Happy reading, and be sure to check back here later in the month for a post-conference interview with Dr. Mary Kasule, where we’ll ask her about her experience and how it will carry over into her future bioethics research and work in Botswana and beyond.
We spoke with Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, on her bioethics career and upcoming trip to the World Congress of Bioethics in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The 13th World Congress of Bioethics begins tomorrow. This biennial conference is the largest gathering of bioethics thought-leaders in the world, and will this year explore “Individuals, Public Interests and Public Goods: What is the Contribution of Bioethics?” by bringing international academics, practitioners and experts together in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In support of the bioethics community, Wiley is honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana.
We caught up with Dr. Kasule before her trip to discuss her extensive work in bioethics, and what she hopes to see at the World Congress of Bioethics.
FN: We are honored to sponsor your trip to Edinburgh, Dr. Kasule. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. First, what sparked your interest in bioethics and public health?
MK: The courses that I took during my Bachelor of Science in Botany and Zoology and Masters in Applied Food Microbiology, as well as my teaching of Anatomy and Physiology, introduced me to most of the components of public health. To be honest, after over 20 years of lecturing at various tertiary health training institutions I felt I needed a change to specialize into something that could embrace my education background and experience gained. I saw studying public health as a gateway to a diversity of carrier opportunities and growth.
My research methodology course with a component of bioethics during my Masters in Public Health training gave me an insight into the importance of bioethics and responsible conduct of research. I also got an opportunity to work as the Secretary for the Botswana Ministry of Health National Ethics Committee (EC). By listening to EC deliberations, I came to realize the importance of good knowledge of bioethics for EC members in moral reasoning, risk/benefit analysis, and decision making. This further motivated me to find opportunities for long-term training in bioethics. I was very lucky to be awarded a scholarship by National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study for a Post Graduate Diploma in International Bioethics. This training also introduced me to research ethics administration – a new, emerging field in research ethics.
FN: What current project of yours are you most excited about?
MK: I am currently serving as the University of Botswana’s coordinator for the Fogarty African Bioethics Consortium, which was started in 2013 by the Johns Hopkins-Fogarty African Bioethics Training Program through a grant by the NIH. Under the leadership of Prof. Nancy Kass and Prof. Adnan Hyder, the project aims to create a sustainable and viable institutional bioethics consortium. The consortium seeks to advance institutional capacities to promote and pursue bioethics and research ethics activities, including training, bioethics research, bench marking and publishing and service. Through this collaboration, over ten University of Botswana Institutional Review Board members have been trained in bioethics at Johns Hopkins, greatly improving the board’s structure and function. I am hopeful that this collaborative initiative will be extended to other sub-Saharan countries to gradually harmonize their research ethics review processes.
FN: Your bio is quite impressive! From your extensive career in health, what do you think are the biggest public health priorities for Botswana today?
MK: I would say 1) gaining epidemiologic control of HIV with successful implementation of Treat All, 2) strengthening health systems (improved monitoring and evaluation), supply chain management, quality service delivery), 3) rational human resource allocations, mentorship, and capacity building, and 4) integration of comprehensive health service delivery (such as HIV, sexual and reproductive health, tuberculosis, and non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancers).
FN: The World Congress of Bioethics will have attendees from quite diverse backgrounds. What unique perspective do you hope to share with others, and vice versa?
MK: I would like to share experiences and challenges with people involved in research ethics administration regarding building research ethics capacity in their countries, and discuss the present and future of bioethics.
FN: Are there any panels you’re looking forward to seeing? Any people you’re hoping to meet?
MK: Dr. Sarah Chan from the Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh. She will be chairing a symposium on ‘Exploring International Policy Development in Regenerative Medicine’ and a panel session considering ‘Socio-Ethical and Legal (ELSI) Implications of Genome Editing Technologies.’
I am currently a member of the Ethics Working Group on the Human Health and Heredity initiative aimed at facilitating a contemporary research approach to the study of genomics and environmental determinants of common diseases with the goal of improving the health of African populations. The group aims to develop a robust and supportive ethical and governance framework for genomic research in Africa, and I hope the symposium and panel will inform this work.
I would also like to meet participants working on Informed Consent, like Dr. Danielle Bromwich (Assistant Professor of Bioethics and Metaethics at University of Massachusetts Boston) and Dr. Ana Krivokuca (Institute for Oncology and Radiology of Serbia).
MK: The paper falls under one of this year’s themes: Public Health, Ethics and Law. Effective and efficient ethics reviews are a result of good research ethics administration by well-trained research ethics administrators. The paper emphasizes the need for sub-Saharan African Ethics Committees to have these administrators manage committee operations and implement review administration with explicit focus so that committees achieve their goal – conducting high-quality, timely, and responsible ethics review. Ultimately, this translates into evidence-based policies and decisions for health care services at both individual and population level.
I hope that implementation of this paper’s recommendations would capacitate ethics committees in sub-regions and ultimately in sub-Saharan Africa. This would lead to a tremendous improvement in ethics review process and to harmonization of ethics review processes and practices in the regions and Africa as a whole, thus improvement of the effectiveness and efficiency of ethics committees. The result would be timely reviews that allow conducting research to improve timeliness of public health interventions, health services delivery, health care policies and decision making. And, this could cut down on waste of resources from delayed reviews and loss of funding which depends on timely review of proposals.
FN: Thank you. We wish you safe travels and look forward to speaking upon your return.
This bursary is sponsored by Wiley on behalf of its bioethics journals.
Read the latest in bioethics from your peers around the world, and submit your paper today. Click on the journals below to access groundbreaking research in an increasingly relevant, ever-evolving field, and check back here soon for a post on Dr. Kasule’s top bioethics article picks!