Category Archives: Ethics

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.