Category Archives: Ethics

The Garden

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

“The Garden is the optimal juxtaposition of nature and culture” – Jordan Peterson (on the Ben Shapiro Show)

A Garden is a wonderful exemplar, not only metaphor, of how humans ought to (must!) relate to the world if we hope to live in harmony with natural processes. 

Humans are unique in their ability and willingness to transform the environment around them. 

The problems begin when we overestimate what we can build, understand, govern and control without pathological side effects.

Gardening is ‘engineering’ in which what we build is the context in which we hope living organisms will flourish that in turn create a favorable environment for us to flourish within. We don’t, and can’t, build the organisms — they must build themselves. 

The attempt to industrialize the nurturing of living organism for human benefit, as in industrial agriculture and animal farming, has led to ecosystem damage, unethical treatment of animals, and in its most acute form, massive systemic risk that is deeply under-appreciated.

These negative aspects are not incidental, but flow directly from the framing and assumption set. The mistake is to treat these systems as a complicated machines, rather than organic and complex.

In order to direct complex living systems towards human ends, without pulling out the rug from underneath ourselves as a result of unintended consequences, we must recognize that our ability to build must be applied in a way that generates environments within which self-organizing, living systems can generate themselves. 

You don’t build a sunflower. You don’t build a tree. You can’t. 

The best you can do is create the conditions in which the sunflower will thrive as it builds itself. 

The Garden is the exemplar for achieving harmony between man’s imposition onto the world, and the world’s essential self-generating nature. 

The response to Houston flooding should not be (primarily) about climate change

As the ongoing devastation around Houston, TX continues to unfold from Hurricane Harvey flood waters, it is crucial that we begin learning lessons to better mitigate these risks in the future — for Houston and elsewhere. 

Inevitably, both scientific and political discussions have turned their focus towards climate change, and to what degree changes in the climate may have played a role in this and other disasters. 

Here, I do not intend to develop an argument about whether or not anthropogenic climate change is real or not, nor whether it has been adequately demonstrated scientifically (importantly, those are two separate issues).

Rather, this is an argument about how to best mitigate the risks of such disasters moving forward regardless of whether or not the culprit is climate change. 

The crucial question is: given our current state of knowledge and capacity to act, what should we do?

There is a deep problem in our underestimation of extreme events under fat-tails. This problem is being both technically addressed and made famous by Nassim Taleb, and remains a central point regardless of climate change effects. We must get better at anticipating and addressing extreme events.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that climate change is real, and has caused an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. 

In that case, there are two pathways to addressing the problem and reducing the impact of extreme events:

1) Adjust the climate such that there are fewer extreme weather events

2) Adjust infrastructure and behavior to lessen the impact of extreme events

Let’s consider two aspects of each: (1) our capacity to affect, control, and engineer, and (2) the risks associated with such an undertaking. 

Climate controllability and risks

The controllability of climate is low. This is most essentially due to our poor understanding of it. Most policy proposals intended to influence climate are focused on reduction of CO2 emissions. This is wise in the sense of the sensibility of a via negativa approach (that is, remove rather than add), however it suffers from our inability to control this variable immediately and directly (shall we use Houston as leverage for negotiating with China?). Moreover, there is uncertainty as to how effective this approach would be even if it were practically achievable. 

Geo-engineering approaches are an alternative approach. These again suffer form our poor understanding of the system we are attempting to control or influence, and are likely to induce unintended consequences at the scale of the engineering, that is the global scale. There is the very real possibility we would make things worse, not better, with such an undertaking.

Infrastructure and behavior controllability and risks

The controllability of local infrastructure is high. It demands buy-in from a much smaller number of stakeholders. Construction methods are well-established and can be modeled reasonably well.

Moreover, controllability of behavior is high. Individuals and city planners can reduce the number of residents in known flood zones. 

The risks associated with unintended consequences are at the local scale, so even where they occur, their impact will be bounded. 


due to uncertainty and difficulty of buy in

due to uncertainty and global scale

due to well-established methodologies and achievable buy-in

due to well-established methodologies and local nature of intervention and higher-order effects


Scientific and policy discussions about the role of climate change are reasonable and appropriate following a devastating weather event like we are witnessing in Houston. However, they should not be the primary focus of effort and attention. We would be well-advised to learn how better craft our exposure to extreme events, and to better anticipate their eventual occurrence through non-naive risk analysis incorporating studies of tail-behavior. 

These issues are not mutually exclusive, and I don’t intend to portray them as such. Nevertheless, for long-term mitigation of the impact of extreme events, it is vital to focus on our exposure to them rather than trying to control them. 

In other words, don’t try to change the random variable X, instead change your exposure, f(X) (credit for this framing to Nassim Taleb). 

For more on climate and precaution in the face of uncertainty, see our letter in Issues in Science and Technology here.


Russian Intentions and American Elections

By now it is not news to anyone that there are serious questions and allegations circulating about Russian influence on our presidential election process and the appropriateness of ongoing and former professional relationships that members of the Executive administration have with Russian individuals and institutions. 

My intention here is not to take sides or make claims about who knew what when – the truth is I have no idea, and almost certainly neither do you. Rather, this brief analysis is intended to highlight points of general consensus and implications therefrom for U.S. policy, strategy, and posture moving forward.

Russian strategy is focused on generating opportunities through disruption. This play is so effective because it is much easier to disrupt a process than it is to achieve a specific end state by influencing or controlling it in specific, planned ways. Once disruption is achieved, opportunities can be identified and exploited. In the context of other nation states, this is typically of the form of undermining trust in institutions, feeding into a fractured citizenry who are forced to channel significant resources to addressing internal tensions.

While there is some indication that Russia may have had a bias against Clinton, there is also indication they, along with almost all major American outlets, analysts, and pollsters expected her to win. If this is true, it implies any information campaign leveled against Clinton was designed primarily to undermine trust in the next administration, not to install Trump.

This is revealing. Again, Russia’s primary aim is to undermine trust in U.S. institutions. Having an administration that is favorable to aspects of their agenda may have been a secondary, but certainly not a primary goal. It is too strategically narrow and provides little optionality.

Which brings us to the ongoing political polarization and dynamics in the U.S. The narrative of Russian influence has become a centerpiece of this polarization: Democrats are claiming the illegitimacy of the president and his people due to as-yet-unrevealed evidence of direct collusion with a foreign government; Republicans are attempting to refocus attention towards the implied illegality of the source of the little information available, i.e. leaks.

While there is no doubt both sides are playing politics, it is worth asking, which of these behaviors does more to undermine our trust in institutions?

The answer is obvious. 

So, ironically, exaggerating the extent of Russian influence on our election serves the Russian agenda most directly. It (a) erodes trust in our basic institutions, and (b) gives plausible deniability to the Russians to continue to sow discord in the U.S. by bolstering this political divide.

The implications for U.S. strategy and posture are clear: the way to most directly serve the Russian agenda is to undermine trust in our institutions. Suggesting, without proof, that our elected representatives are in cahoots with Russia does exactly this.

The message from our leaders must be delivered in concert: Russia is an adversary who we must take seriously; our elections were fair and there is no evidence of direct interference in them; regardless of our differences, the government is legitimate, and innocent until proven otherwise.


Note: If any of our intelligence agencies possesses information that suggests Donald Trump occupying the White House is putting the nation in clear and present danger, then their failure to act in a timely manner to rectify the situation would be a failure of the greatest proportions. Because they have apparently not taken any actions to indicate such knowledge, I suspect there is no such danger.

Thoughts on Brexit and Persistent Complex Systems

All complex biological systems have boundaries. Cells have membranes, and some have walls. Multicellular organisms are bounded in skin, and there are many internal barriers that limit access to select agents (e.g. the blood-brain barrier). Swarms, flocks, and herds limit their exposure to predators by aggregating spatially, forming a boundary between in- and out-herd. Human societies live more peacefully with their neighbors when their boundaries are clearly established, often by physical features like mountains and rivers.

This is not a coincidence. For all of these systems, what is most essential to their persistence is their internal organization and selective interfaces with the environment. This organization is not a given, it has been achieved over the chronicle of evolutionary history. For all of these systems, to ‘open them up’ means a breakdown of that organization. Consider what happens to a cell when you ‘open up’ its membrane and allow any agents in the environment to flow freely through it. The organization is lost — the cell is lost.

The United Kingdom has made history by voting for their independence, and taking a step in reaffirming their functional boundaries. We will see more of this in the coming weeks, months, and years. Despite those who cite fragile economic predictions as reasons to ‘remain’ subject to centralized bureaucratic actors, there are much more basic reasons to ‘leave’, and the economists don’t have them in their equations.

In biological systems, boundaries are permeable, but not arbitrarily — they are semi-permeable. Systems which depend on their internal organization for persistence in the face of uncertainty must be free to manage their own semi-permeable boundaries, else they will make a Darwinian exit, making room for those organizations that are more able and willing to do so.

The Moral Case Against Projecting Pathological Certainty

The sciences have greatly enriched human understanding of the world in which we find ourselves, moving us from magical explanations of phenomena to tested and scrutinized conceptual and mathematical models. Perhaps ironically, one of the insights science has delivered to humanity is the vast uncertainty we face when dealing with complex systems – especially living systems.

Mathematical statistics provide a rigorous approach to quantifying uncertainty and places clear bounds on what claims one can and cannot make with scientific near-certainty. When an individual claims certainty on some matter and appeals to ‘science’ as justification, that individual should be compelled to demonstrate how this certainty follows from rigorous analysis, including that the underlying assumptions of the mathematical tools applied are met in the real-world system of interest. Short of this, one can only adopt an attitude of certainty as a non-scientific opinion. We call such an abuse of the term ‘science’ to justify a non-scientific opinion pathological certainty

When pathological certainty is projected as expert advice to be trusted by non-experts, and when those who would place trust in the supposed expert bear real risks, there is great cause for moral concern.

Simply, in cases where there is vast scientific uncertainty and there exists the potential for severe harm to people and/or the environment, it is deeply immoral to project an image of science-backed certainty when adopting an advisory role to the public at large.