Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Massimo Luchi, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
Mascoma today, our topic is essentially the law of unintended consequences and how it thwarts even the most meticulous and devoted efforts to make ethical choices about what to do or what to buy in terms of being responsible environmentally and socially. And you know how our very best efforts in this regard can end up backfiring or just not helping as much as we thought they were.
Yeah. So this is particularly relevant to me because of sort of recent personal experience.
You know, I've always tried to some degree and at some level to make make reasonable choices in my in my eating habits, in my buying habits and all that, but more recently become sort of more aware of the consequence, more sensitive, I guess, to to ethical consequences of what I do in general.
And therefore, I developed sort of this heightened sense of, OK, well, should I really buy this or buy it or eat that and so on and so forth.
Now, it seemed to me that all I needed to do was to document myself about, you know, the basics of production of certain goods and productions of foods. But I'm not talking just about food and dietary choices. I'm also talking about, you know, do you buy made in the US or you do avoid you made in China? What is it what sort of consequences and priorities do you have when you when it comes to your consumer habits?
And so I thought initially, as it turns out very naively, that, well, you know, I guess I'm going to spend some time reading about sort of the lay of the land, the land, the ethical landscape of the for the for the ethical consumer. And then I'll make a priority and I'll stick with them.
Well, the problem is that, as you were saying a minute ago, there are unintended consequences to almost everything that we do and which which is beginning to let me realise that, in fact, the ethical decision making really has to be something that you need to treat almost as a Bayesian in a way that is you've got priors and you make decisions on your best guess at the moment. But you need to be able to readjust your guesses and readjust your priorities constantly as new information comes in, which means that you need to be much more active and also flexible in the way you prioritize things.
Now, all of this sounds very esoteric. So let me give you an example.
So one of the things that I started eating recently is a very nice, very healthy and very protein rich and tasty grain called Keino.
Yeah, come on.
Now, the problem is it's very it's become very popular in India among vegetarians or among people who try to reduce at least eat meat consumption and all that sort of stuff, because it does have a lot of positive characteristics from the point of view. A sort of dietary.
High protein. Low calorie. Yes, right.
Well, and in particular for vegans, I'm not a vegan, but particularly for vegans. This is this has become a major staple, essentially.
And the problem is that, of course, the quinoa is originary of the Andes region. So in South America and it's in fat, it's beef. Fat is referred to as the miracle green of the Andes. Now, the problem, of course, is that once the rest of the world, particularly the Western affluent world, started going after quinoa, the price went up. Obviously, it's a simple question of market if that it went so far up that it tripled since 2006.
Now, Woodenness meant it's not just that you and I have to pay more for access to the quinoa, which is fine. You know, that's part of the idea, the idea that if you make ethical decisions. Yeah, they're going to sometimes they're going to carry a cost in this particular case in monetary cost. And you're willing to shell out the money if you can afford it. The problem is another one. It's that the local populations in Peru and Bolivia, for instance, for four for four, which was a major staple.
Now, they cannot afford it anymore because the price has gone up significantly up.
And so they find themselves now eating junk food, imported junk food, because imported junk food is become cheaper locally than the quinoa itself.
Clearly, that is not a good consequence of what I intended to do.
But by choosing that, making that particular choice. So I did see that article I had, like, I assume you are paying of like, oh man, I should I re-evaluates my quinoa eating choices.
And then I saw another article I think relates to a day or two later. Right. Which said that, you know, it's a good thing for quinoa farmers in Bolivia or Peru that the price of quinoa has gone up so much, it's making their lives much better. It's worse, of course, for the poor people in, say, urban areas who were relying on quinoa to consume. But but they don't produce it. So they're worse off. But at the same time, you have a lot of them moving back to the countryside now that quinoa farming is so profitable.
So there is more of an equilibrium being achieved there. Right. And, you know, it's just yet another step in the chain of. Yes, but on the other hand. Exactly.
And that actually makes my point quite clear. Yeah, exactly right. Because if this whole story was not the queen was bad, it's that it's hard to tell exactly.
But it's not quite as straightforward as, oh, here it is. You know, it's a good idea. Let's do it, because it's in fact, that part of the reason it's not such a straightforward there is no straightforward answer anymore is because so many people have chosen and I made that decision to to switch diet in that direction because initially it was a completely unquestionable good idea. But the more time passes, the more people make that sort of that kind of choice, the more the unintended consequences.
And as you just pointed out, even the unintended consequences are not that straightforward. This, you know, reasonable, reasonable argument one way or the other. Well, this is a negative consequence, but the other one is a positive one, which one should be way more.
Now, the same article that I studied with also points out that there are other other problems in terms of unforeseen consequences. We've all sorts of other stuff.
For instance, do you like asparagus? Yes, I do.
Yes, I do. Well, and it turns out asparagus is is, you know, grown in again in Peru and in particularly arid regions in each of the arid regions of Peru. And the problem with that, of course, is that this is a very thirsty crop. And so this has led to shortage of water resources for the local populations. Right.
So, you know, again, this is something that is very healthy for you and me, and it's a very good choice in terms of what to put on our plates. But it's creating some level of of problems, you know, locally for the people actually produce them.
And of course, even though what you said earlier in terms of the quinoa is true, that the local populations that do produce them are actually better off in terms of making more money, it's also to the debt. Let's not kid ourselves. The majority of the profits of these things goes to international corporations and supermarkets, not to the local producers necessarily.
So the life of the local producers gets better.
But it's not that they necessarily get a fair share. You know, that depends on what the various agreements with the international corporations and the production lines of these things are. Another one is soya.
Soya is incredibly popular among vegetarians and vegans and so on and so on and so forth for the same reason.
Now, here's a little problem that has emerged in the meantime, and that is that it's become so popular. The now soya production is is one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America.
So, you know, the other one, of course, being cattle ranching.
So, OK, you stop eating McDonald's burger in part, at least because you don't want, you know, to to increase deforestation in South America. It turns out that the you pick is in fact I mean, this is the same result.
All of this is not to say. Right? Yeah, that's right. At least soya is not it's not suffering. That's right. So you may it may still be the ethical choice. I'm in fact, I'm pretty sure it still is. But again, it's one of those examples that start accumulating in my in my mind recently of, oh, crap, this thing is much more complicated than I thought.
And it requires sort of constant updating. It requires being aware of these problems that come to responses, how people may change their behavior to ameliorate these problems. It really gets complicated. So it's not very easy to be fat and ethically, intelligently, ethically informed consumer. You can be making ethical what you think, ethical choices, you know, and very simple ones. But it may turn out not to be quite as ethical and quite as simple as you thought, right?
Yeah. This is this is one of the big problems with consequentialism. Right. Or with utilitarianism is is actually trying to calculate sometimes not even just the magnitude of the good you're doing and comparing it to other magnitudes of good. But sometimes the direction is it even positive is you're actually even net positive. There's I wish I could remember now how this what the name of the story was. Maybe it's just an old folk tale about a man to whom something good happens and everyone's like, well, isn't that great?
Aren't you rejoicing, and he says, well, we'll see, and then it turns out that good thing had unintended bad consequences and they're like, why aren't you miserable and and lamenting? And he says, well, we'll see how things turn out. And that bad thing has unintended good consequences and so on.
I think that's a classic story that we have to catch.
But yes, that's it's very likely now. And this is not just about food. So let me let me give you another example that happened to me recently. So one of the things that I did was to change my my credit card company to something called working assets and working assets, a company that I've known for a long time. And it it works with one interesting system. Basically, whenever you purchase something, a percentage of of what you spend goes to a number of environmental or political causes.
And, you know, these are as a be tends to be on the liberal progressive side of the spectrum. Not only that, but in fact, as a member of working assets, every year you get to vote on the organizations to which they give money.
So it's only like, OK, instead of giving money to major corporate bank, why not? Especially after what major corporate banks have done to the worldwide economy a few years ago? And why not doing this kind of thing? Well, I still think it's a good idea. But as it turns out, working assets, of course, does not have actually access to, you know, the same kind of circuits and availability of resources of big banks. So what would I have to do?
They actually rely themselves on a big bank in this particular case, Bank of America.
And so now it becomes worse. Yes, it's one of the worst. Exactly. So now, you know, they disclose that. It's not like it's not a surprise that they spring when you're on the last minute. I mean, you know that. But the thing is, even though working assets as a company over time has in fact changed their providers, you know, they do have their own internal systems of ranking and occasionally they do switch. But switching from one provider to another, an entire network is costly.
And it's, you know, it's difficult operation. So they only do it under extreme circumstances.
So what that means is that what it's done? It was initially as a slam dunk of, you know, obviously good idea. It turns out that, well, now I have to start thinking my money. Well, how much of my money is actually going to these causes and how much is going in direction?
That actually was the one that I wanted to avoid to begin with and wouldn't be perhaps my money better spent if I just went to a local bank, let's say, a credit union, and then gave money for charity directly instead of going through something like working assets. Right.
And I'm not saying that the calculus is easy, but it's the kind of thing that you have to sort of think about because you do make choices.
And some of these choices, by the way, come with at a price because some of the ethical choices are either less convenient or more costly for the consumer. Right. Which again, it's fine.
Tasty if you like your burger or leftest, if you like your burger, that that is fine. But then it's fine only if in fact the consequences, the intended result is is the correct one. If it's not even that clear that you're doing you're obtaining good results, then it may not be worth your you know, your sacrifice.
So it gets complicated.
I thought about that with regard to socially responsible investing. Yes. You know, people who invest with with funds that pledge to only buy stocks of companies that are socially responsible and don't contribute to human rights abuse or environmental degradation or things like that.
Yeah, and I was just talking to a friend of mine who's in the finance world about this, and he was confirming my sense that you're not it's not clear that you're actually doing any good by only investing in companies like that, because, I mean, the company themself doesn't get your money when you buy their stocks.
Someone else you own, those those shares gets your money. And so if anything, you're I mean, you might be having a very slight impact on the price of the shares, but it's not clear at all whether that's good or bad for the company.
You can see some good effects, but you can also see some bad effects. And, you know, even then, it's like a very, very tiny effect, if it is one at all, unless you're buying a ton of shares. But it is a pretty popular way for people to act on their green impulses, right? Absolutely.
In fact, it turns out that Bloomberg and others do provide environmental, social and governance ratings of a number of companies, you know, that that are on the stock market. So this is the kind of information is actually out there. And in fact, as you might imagine, there are there's an app for that. There's an app for that. There's more than one app for that.
There's one actually one that I use on a regular basis called Goodbye, as in two words, not goodbye as in bye bye, but good bye.
And I was like, well, there's something I said, oh, no, no, it's nothing about you, but. So goodbye, which is in Australia, it it's not an American company produces the app, but the app basically sort of puts together a bunch of information on major brands.
In this case, we're not talking about investment companies, actually. We're talking about, you know, companies make all sorts of commercial products from jeans to automobile to whatever it is.
And these companies are ranked according to a certain number of criteria in terms of, you know, environmental impact, in terms of, you know, sort of corporate responsibility, how they treat their workers and that sort of stuff.
And and and then there is an index and you can basically decide, you know, when you're about to, let's say, buy. I bought some jeans recently and and, you know, I went and checked the top two or three companies and I got that they were rated by good by. And it turns out that one of those was the company that I'd usually buy from. So I was fine.
But the thing is, um, this is all a story about how virtuous you are mathematically. That's right. But the point, again is that, you know, the information is out there. But first of all, of course, there's an issue of reliability of the information itself. Right. I mean, you know, how do I know that that the goodbye makers of the app actually are getting reliable information? Well, I at some point, you have to trust some people.
So there is that. Now, there are multiple sources for doing this thing. So, for instance, the Ethical Consumer magazine and their website, which are put out by the Ethical Consumer Research Association and you know, these are big organisations and presumably, you know, you can assume that they're actually doing their job.
But even so, first of all, you have to look up the information and it becomes complicated, becomes know sort of a problem in multivariate statistical analysis, because there's a lot of different components of this thing.
For instance, is it more important to you personally if whether whether a company is environmentally conscious or is a socially conscious, as in how they treat their workers because it's going be at odds?
Correct. For instance, let's take one of my favorite companies, Apple Computers. You know, all as you know, I have what I call the Holy Trinity, usually my backpack, which is my iPhone, my iPad and my MacBook Air.
Now, I'm very happy with those products as products.
But Apple, on the one hand, as a very good record in terms of sort of environmental impact. They do have recycling programs. They do use green components and a bunch of these things. But in terms of sort of social aspects, in terms of the work, you know, all of their production, almost all of their production line is in China.
The workers conditions there are certainly far from ideal. There's been issues that have been well publicized in terms of, you know, safety on the work. And in fact, to their credit, Apple has been taking steps in that in a couple of different directions. On the one hand, there to be more vigilant about their line of production coming from China. And more recently, they've actually announced that they're will start producing some of their components in the United States.
But, you know, it's complicated again. And and at some point, you have to make a decision.
It's not like Apple's competitors are necessarily going to do any better. They may be one of them may be doing better in the social aspect, but not necessarily an environmentalist. But so, again, the message of this episode, I think, is going to be it's complicated so that the example of Apple is an example of a company.
It's an example of social responsibility and environmental responsibility, not being necessarily one in the same and it being possible for a company to be, you know, optimizing in one area, but not the other.
But but the really hairy situations that I've come across are the ones where they're actually at odds, like having more of one gives you less of the other, like, let's say buying. Well, there's a whole other kettle of fish regarding this issue. But let's say that buying locally was actually good for the environment. That's there's a lot of debate there. But look, it was good for the environment. By not buying goods from foreign countries, you are depriving the poor farmers, for example, in those countries of income that they otherwise would have had.
So you're inhibiting economic development of very poor suffering people in other countries in order to prioritise, not increasing your carbon footprint.
Correct. And in fact, the same exact issue is with the whether to buy or not to buy, let's say, things that are not made in your own country. Right. So I actually do tend to prefer by buying goods that are made in the United States simply because. Well, because I live in this country and I feel hiden more or less. But, you know, as you as you know, I, I, I'm not a utilitarian I'm a visual ethicist.
I know. I feel a heightened moral responsibility. Toward people that live in my society and they're close to me, does that really go along with being a virtue necessarily linked to me?
Well, it's it's a similar it's a similar issue where, for instance, a viewer this is but none of through town would say that you have a heightened moral responsibility toward your friends and family from your kids.
Right. So from its own perspective, it they don't matter any more than anybody else. There's no justification for you to be in helping your daughter, let's say, or your son more than anybody else.
It is it becomes a type of favoritism, but it's you're just extending that to people you don't know who live in your same country.
Correct. Up now.
And, you know, we can have a discussion about whether that is a really good idea or not. But the point is, we cannot have the discourse.
We cannot have that discussion. But the point is that once you make that choice one way or the other, you automatically are going to penalize somebody else.
Somebody else is going to be worse off no matter what.
And there are unintended consequences for that, too, because, you know, I hear often, for instance, the refrain from some of my my own friends say, well, you know, you should really if anything, you should be buying more in China because or in Bangladesh, let's say, because the conditions there are, you know, a lower level of standards than anywhere in the United States. And so other things considered, you know, you're actually helping, you know, reducing suffering worldwide better that way.
First of all, that's a fine argument, obviously. So if you don't buy it, you don't know. That's that's that's the only question.
But even if you do buy through through an argument, it's not entirely clear to me that that is actually the case because there are other consequences of, let's say, poverty that depend on the background conditions.
For instance, in in in China, there is a much lower level of criminality than in the United States, and there is much less of a link between poverty and criminality just because a society works differently. Not only that, but but in certain countries, poor countries, there is access to education that is independent, essentially or largely independent of personal income and wealth. That is not the case in the United States. So if you penalize a worker or a family in the United States on the ground that, well, you know, they're not quite as bad off as people in China.
Well, in terms of actual amount of money that they bring home, that may very well be true. But because the safety net than in the cultural environment is so different between the two countries, I'm not sure that one can actually make a direct comparison of what your safety net is better in China than in the US.
Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah. Interesting. Yeah.
And so, you know, again, it's well, safety net there, too. We could have a discussion about how do you define a safety net. But the safety net in the United States is actually pretty awful, certainly by European standards.
So if you don't like the comparison with China, we can make the comparison or should I by United States in America or should I buy made in Spain or Italy or whatever it is?
Well, yes, we do have strong opinions that America or Spain, as I do about America versus a poor developing country.
But yeah, yeah, I think it also becomes tricky when the poorer countries use sources of fuel that are the higher pollutants like China coal, because it's cheaper, but it's also much worse for the environment. That's right. And so you might want to help countries like China develop and also buy things that are cheaper, but at the same time, that's thirst for the environment.
Yes. And the statistic I'm sorry, the statistic there is interesting.
Just the other day in The New York Times, there was these were essentially really frightening environmental piece of data, which is that China now actually uses as much coal and therefore it pumps as much, you know, pollution into the atmosphere as the entire rest of the world combined.
So, yes, they've been doing better. But if the environment is not necessarily better off, in fact, it's significantly worse off. Wow.
Yeah, I thought that's still the developed countries where where, you know, the disproportionate polluters. They didn't realize that China had cut up.
Yep. So much. Well, it's a matter of numbers, obviously.
There's a lot of of them. And so it's and it's been growing very fast now. The economy has been going really fast, although less fast recently in recent years than than it used to.
But still, I mentioned local food earlier and I thought maybe I should expand on why. That's also a complicated issue, just like all these.
Yeah, because it's a great thing here. Yeah. Because most people think that that's another no brainer. But it's not, as it turns out.
Yeah, it really isn't. So I mean, I guess the reason that people think that it's a better choice ethically is that there's a smaller carbon footprint involved in just buying food that was grown nearby rather than shipped from foreign countries. But at the same time, even though local food might travel a shorter distance, it's still much less. Efficiently produced, because for a variety of reasons, large centralized farming operations can take advantage of economies of scale, which many distributed small farms can't, but also different regions have different comparative advantages and what is easier for them to produce depending on their temperature and their soil and their rainfall and so on.
So if you don't if you don't specialize your production of food in terms of which region is best at producing it, then overall you just have a lower average efficiency of production of that type of food, which which means it requires more inputs and therefore a more carbon footprint to produce the same yield of food.
Which brings me incentive, not to mention locally produced food to books like The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and others.
So, you know, it sounds very good. I actually read some of those books and they're interesting. They make four of know make you think about food production and consumption and all that.
But again, there, too, the situation is more complicated than it may seem.
So some of the creative critics, for instance, of Michael Pollan's approach, I pointed out that it is even if we all wanted to, it is simply unsustainable to go for local production because in a lot of areas of the world, there just isn't enough local production to sustain the local population. It's just not going to work because, you know, land use has evolved, of course, over over a period of time.
And so there are certain, you know, large areas of of the world where they're simply not enough agricultural production, local agricultural production to actually, you know, allow a majority population or the totality of the population to switch to the kind of diet in a locally produced foods that are so popular among environmentalist.
I mean, it's the thing is we have to realize that at least at the moment and certainly for the foreseeable future, eating healthy and eating environmentally friendly and eating local and socially responsive and all that.
It's a luxury. It isn't something that can be scaled up to the level of billions of people on the planet. It's just not going to happen.
Yeah, I've I've also heard the same thing about organic farming. But if you're not allowing yourself to use the full range of available pesticides and herbicides and so on, then you end up needing to farm more land just in terms of area to yield the same amount of crops because you're producing less per, you know, per acre or whatever.
Which brings us to another issue that maybe I thought we might not be able to actually touch on.
But as it turns out, you just give me the opening for that so I unintentionally walk away so unintentionally. Yes, I like that.
And that is let's say you just talked about food production and and the fact that that crops in a certain area may not be suitable, et cetera, et cetera.
Well, what about GM crops? So genetically modified GMO? Yes, right.
So genetically modified genetically modified crops actually would be able to help or could help in that in that area because you can, through genetic modification to genetic engineering, modify local crop production so that it does come closer to to actually satisfy the issues of the needs of the local population.
But of course, a lot of environmentalists are dead set against the use of GM genetically modified crops, even though, as it turns out, the empirical evidence is not even mix at this point.
You know, genetically modified foods have been seen by a large number of people worldwide and there are no reports of wide, widely spread, large scale or even even small scale, either environmental or health problems. Now, that doesn't mean that there are no problems at all with GM production. For one thing, there are these these things are produced by companies who, of course, make money in a certain way.
And there are issues of exploiting the local food producer and so on and so forth.
But there definitely isn't any scientific evidence.
And now people have been looking for a long time of either a deleterious environmental impact or reduced health impact of genetically modified organisms. And therefore, it sort of a knee jerk reaction and sort of rejection on the part of environmentalists and progressive and liberals and all that. Are those of that particular approach to food production. It seems to me essentially a form of pseudoscience. Yeah.
Did you happen to see the public apology and position reversal of one of the biggest anti GMO advocates a couple of weeks ago? Yes, Mark Lynas.
That's I think and that was close to him that. That's my bag of examples of people admitting they were wrong. That's right. And it's you know, it takes it takes quite a bit of guts, actually, to do that sort of thing.
Now, generally speaking, I do agree, however, with something that was written by John McMurtry in the global markets is an ethical system. That is that the idea that there's simply no such thing as purchasing things without having without that purchase, implying moral choices that we always vote, so to speak, with our dollars?
You know, anytime you spend money on doing something, you will have an impact on some on down the line, either directly or indirectly, on a bunch of things. Anything that deals from, again, that from some social issues to environmental issues.
So that means to me that as much as it is complicated as we're as we've been saying now for a while and and as much as it requires constant updating and willingness to revise your own positions about what constitutes unethical purchase. That's not a counsel for despair, because it's not like you said, well, then I give up because I can't do anything. Even that is a decision that has ethical consequences anyway, because anything you do in the terms of purchasing things, goods does have ethical consequences.
So there's no way out.
No, but I think that I think that's sort of the point of the people who throw up their hands is I if I can't be confident that I'm going to have a good ethical impact by spending the time working on it, then I might as well just not spend the time working on it. Because there's no I have no good reason to believe that the outcome will be better if I do spend the time thinking about it and making sacrifices versus I don't.
Yes, you're right. If the situation were really that awful, that is, if if your choices were essentially random in terms of consequences, I don't think that they are right.
So that's that's sort of one of my concerns that the the fact that many or most choices fall into this gray area where there are pros and cons and it's not clear what the net effect is, doesn't change the fact that there are some choices that are, you know, the jury is pretty much in and they're pretty much clearly bad. And I think it's it's pretty easy to use the former category as an excuse to ignore the latter. Exactly. Now.
Yes. Well, another twist, if you don't mind that, that I found it interesting to do some research. You know, we are empirically oriented people here, generally speaking.
So so there is some research that that shows some really interesting what I thought counterintuitive initially, but in fact, perhaps perfectly in line with human psychology, the consequences of engaging in ethical decision making in terms of consumerism.
So, for instance, these are people that appeared in 2009, which is entitled Do Green Products Make US Better People?
I saw this. The answer is not necessarily so. I'm quoting from the paper. Well, in line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products.
Because they're like, I already paid my dues. Exactly. So I can cut myself some slack.
I thought that was very, very interesting because, again, it shows you how complicated this thing is, even at the level of your own behavior. So you need to be careful about the consequences of your own ethical conscience on your next step. What are you going to do next?
Therefore, I wonder how much this effect depends on people's beliefs about, say, how much willpower they have because they're in one of our earlier episodes. Remember which one we were discussing the studies on willpower and cognitive exhaustion and how many people who were forced to resist temptations for a long period of time, like the temptation to take a break from working, were then less able to resist temptations like sugary foods, suggesting that there is some kind of roughly fixed, at least for a short period of time, a fixed amount of willpower you have that gets used up by different things.
That's right. But then follow up studies found that that effect is dependent on people's beliefs about whether they have a fixed amount of willpower. So people who don't believe that they have a fixed amount of willpower don't experience that same depletion of their ability to resist future temptations after resisting prior temptations, which is similar.
Not that we want to get into a discussion of free will again, but but it's similar to studies that showed that people who don't believe that they have free will actually behave more badly as a consequence.
It's like, hmm.
So that's the cause or just an excuse after the fact? Well, but the thing to be clear to me.
Yeah, of course, if you don't believe in free will, nothing is an excuse. It's just the way it is. Right.
But the fact that these that this that no knowledge or even alleged knowledge of a certain in this case of a metaphysical position, because for all the purposes that's what we're talking about, actually does measurably affect human behavior in this particular case for the worst.
So it's like, OK, well, maybe even if I believe that there is no free will, I shouldn't tell people that there is no free right because ironically, these or altered their choices, their actions for the worse.
There's another concept that I came across doing sort of back on readings for these for these episode, which I found interesting. And I'm actually significantly more suspicious of even then than the stuff that we discussed so far.
And that's the idea of tax choice. Tax choice, yes. So so tax choice is the same idea of, you know, when we were saying earlier or you vote with your dollars.
Yes. But you also pay taxes to a government, presumably at least most of us do.
And the idea has been put forth in several countries that perhaps taxpayers should be able to check boxes about governmental agencies to which they want or do not want to send money.
And, you know, so they're tax tax has being directed now.
So this doesn't this doesn't fall into the free rider or tragedy of the Commons problem where people want to benefit from things to not pay for them because people still have to pay the same total amount. They can just decide where they want it to go.
Exactly right. So so the problem is not quite as obvious as it is a free rider problem, but there is there is an issue nonetheless.
So I know actually in Italy where I grew up, that there is a small version of this thing. It's not that the taxpayers can decide the totality of what they pay, what it goes, but there is a small percentage. I think it's really a small fraction. It's measured in one thousand of your total, but this is a small fraction.
You can check in a box and you have a certain number of choices. Where do you want to say you want the government to send that money?
And one of the reasons is this thing is controversial is because one of the boxes is the Catholic Church.
Well, because even though the Catholic Church is no longer the official church of Italy, there is no longer an official church of Italy.
For whatever reason, the Italian politicians at some point thought that that was a good idea, you know, well, how can it be bad to send money, taxpayers' money to to the church? Gee, I don't know.
Yeah, exactly. Let me think about the let me tell you the way now.
So that's controversial because of course, what you have there is you know, it's a substantial portion of the population who perhaps either because they are believers, you know, they're Catholic themselves, although not all Catholics are necessarily in favor of of, you know, opposed to separation of church and state.
But either because you are Catholic or because simply you say, well, you know, that's that's a good organization. It's like giving to the Red Cross or whatever it is.
So why not send the money? So that's controversial.
Now, as I said, it's a very, very small portion, actually, of your taxes. The rest gets decided by the government itself. But it's an interesting experiment in that way. And there's been going on for a number of years now.
I've heard or read about, say, people even on the on the left side of the political spectrum, arguing that the tax choice is a good idea.
And what they're thinking of is things like, well, that way I can avoid to send my taxes, let's say, to the military. Right? That's right. Yes.
But I can also see an equal or larger number of people not only sending their taxes to the military, but, in fact and withdrawing taxes from, let's say, public education.
You know, so this is this is a really dangerous territory where you now are mixing directly, essentially the two types of voting that we've been talking about, the actual voting. You know, after all, we still have Western democracy and we still can vote and to elect certain politicians and those politicians will, in fact, send or not send money in the way of the military, public education and so on and so forth. So we still have a representative democracy.
But now with the idea of tax choice, you can also have essentially a form of direct democracy measured in that actually in dollars signs.
And I'm pretty sure, despite the fact that this episode is about is about complications, I'm pretty sure that this is one that I can definitely vote.
No, I don't like the idea.
It just opens up too many possibilities for abuse or for bad direction of funding decisions being made at a level where people simply don't have enough background or enough information or enough, you know, reflective, you know, time to reflect and think about what they're doing.
And I can see very, very easily very bad consequences on this thing.
So this is an example of a policy level decision that you think people are failing to appreciate the additional consequences of. Yeah, that's right. Yeah. I mean, especially if we open up the category to policy level decisions. I remember back when I thought I was going to do research in economic development, being especially demoralized at how many instances of foreign aid or attempted interventions in poor countries to help increase public education or salaries or productivity or whatever ended up not only not helping, but just backfiring like a lot of charities who spend some period of time in a country giving them.
Good care for free or repairing shoes for free or doing some other good service, actually, it turns out, end up displacing the local market for those things, like because people know, oh, every year in the summer the, you know, charity cobblers come and they repair our shoes. So I'll just hold out. I'm not going to pay someone, you know, a cobbler locally to repair my shoes if I can just wait and get it done for free.
So then, you know, a potential business is displaced. And then if the charity ever stops, then, you know, there's no one with the training to repair shoes. So, yes, it's, you know, everything like that. There's 15 more things that just failed to help.
And it's not clear why. You know, it's it's it's a good example of how easily people can actually twist good good deeds into bad ones or even intentionally done here.
That's right. Acting with good intentions or acting rationally and not trying to cause harm. And yet the result is people being worse off than they would have been before.
Now, again, all of this is not you know, I don't mean when I brought up the possibility of doing a show in this thing, I didn't mean this necessarily. In fact, it did not mean at all that this should be a council for despair and therefore we should just throw things at trial. Ends up.
Could you please share everyone up before I have to? Yes. No, but the point is that, you know, it's there is information out there and information is not necessarily straightforward. And frankly, that's just life. Right. I mean, you know, a lot of the decisions you make in life have unintended consequences, even in everyday life that are outside of the sort of lofty things that we've been talking about for the last 40 minutes.
Just everyday decisions. There's always unintended consequences. There is always making your best guess.
And the whole point here is that, well, if you're if the best thing you can do is is making a best guess that there's no guarantee that things are going to go one way or the other, then it it seems like if you want to do the ethical things, you should be pay attention to two things. Number one, guess get the best information you can. And as I said, there is plenty of resources out there. There is non-governmental organizations.
There are there are international organizations, there's apps, there's websites and so on and so forth.
But also be conscious of the fact that you may need to change your behavior, to adapt your behavior, to be flexible as new information comes in. This is no different from any other area in life.
You know, if if you pay attention, let's say, to health adviser comes out and, you know, gets published in newspapers. Well, it turns out, you know, some time ago, I don't know, drinking a certain amount of wine every day was a good thing. And then after that, it becomes a bad thing. And then turns out, well, actually, it's a good and a bad thing in the pants. It does have certain effects, positive effects and some negative effects.
It really you need to reach a balance.
You need all. This is exactly the sort of thing that people cite when they're arguing that you shouldn't adopt your adapt your behaviour too much based on this or that study on nutrition that, you know, chances are it will be reversed or at least severely called into question within the next few years. So, yeah, why make the sacrifices? Unless it's like clearly probably not going to be reversed.
Well, and that's that's an interesting point as well. And in fact, in certain in certain areas, yes. You probably want to wait before rushing to buy the latest pill or to avoid or could get rid of completely of whatever habit.
But if there is. But but if you pay attention, as it turns out, studies in certain areas, for instance, I'm thinking the effect of caffeine, for instance, which is now pretty well established, the effects of caffeine are actually pretty now stable in terms of the pertinent literature.
They're mostly positive, by the way.
So now that they've settled now, you can make you can make informed decisions. But even when when things are not settled, it still comes down to a calculation of how much risk erm are willing to to take, how much am I willing to modify my behaviour and is it worth it.
All of that simply means that you need to be a more effective person, better informed the more reflective person, which is I think if anything, the general message that these of these podcasters, you know, you want to be reflective, you want to be thinking about it. And sometimes you're right, being reflective and thinking about stuff means simply that, you know what, not enough information is is forthcoming or the information is forthcoming is contradictory. Therefore, I'm going to suspend judgement that sometimes agnosticism on a particular issue is in fact the most rational position.
Well, less of a rousing pep talk than I had hoped for, but maybe we can cheer our listeners with our picks. Sure. All right, let's wrap up the section of the podcast and move on to the Bicske.
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Welcome back. Every episode, Julianne, I pick a couple of our favorite books, movies, websites or whatever tickles our rational fancy. Let's start as usual with Julius Pick.
Thanks, Massimo. My pick is a game. It's a trivia type game called Witts and Wagers, which I used to good effect in my evaluating advice class at the last Cifas workshop in which I've used with friends also to good effect. I find it really useful for practicing essentially the technique of updating well on other people's advice. So the way it works is each card has a set of questions on it. They're all numerical. So they might be how tall is Mt.
Everest or they might be how many how many times did so-and-so win the track medal in the Olympics, etc.? And so you make a guess and your partner makes a guess too. And then you can see each other's guesses. And if you want, you can choose to update your own guess. If the other person disagreed with you, you might decide, well, maybe, you know, maybe it is a little taller than I thought, since this person thinks it's much taller and then you find out the answer.
And what tends to happen is that most people start out overconfident in their own opinions or their own estimates starting out so they don't update nearly enough towards what their partner thinks. And over time, you can actually, if you're trying to find yourself getting better at recognizing what level of confidence in your own estimate actually translates into, you know, probability of being right. And you can get better at adjusting your impression.
You can get yourself trained in sort of Bayesian updating. Yeah, exactly.
Well, my pick is a book that that I'm reading now. I haven't finished it yet and I'm reviewing it actually for Philosophy Now magazine.
And as you know, I'm fond of this series of books, a number of series of books. Actually, it's more than one series that has come out in the last several years that popularizes philosophy using sort of pop culture as a vehicle for it. And I contributed to several of those as well. Not this one.
However, this one is is called The Philosophy and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and just came out and stole my hearts.
And I knew that.
And of course, it's got these sort of pressures, you know, of course, the references to Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy more than the trilogy. I think it's been Talegaon. Right.
And increasingly poorly named. That's increasingly for a trilogy. There are some really fascinating chapters, like the very first one, for instance, is on ethics and it's Eat Me vegetarianism and consenting animals.
And of course, this is a reference to the scene in the residence at the end of the universe, where one that's where our heroes are faced with a cow that's genetically engineered to offer herself as a meal.
There are several parts in the book. One is on ethics.
As I said, there's one, of course, about the meaning of life. And there is a third part of metaphysics and artificial intelligence, which is, of course, has a wonderful chapter about Marvin, the paranoid Android. And and then there is one about logic, method and satire, which starts out with a chapter entitled God The Promptly Vanishes in a Puff of Logic, which is a reference to the first book of the of the Checker's. So it's really fun if people have read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
This is definitely an interest in philosophy. This is definitely the book for you. If you haven't read the Tigers Guide to the Galaxy, the question is what the hell is wrong with you? Seriously?
And and by the way, what one of the things that I'm doing now is a schedule on my Netflix queue, the movie. I want to watch the movie again. I actually watch the region on the also the the the BBC TV series.
Now, when it came out of that. Yeah. Now when it came out like much more than the modern movie.
Yes, definitely so did. But still, despite the goofy special effects, the goofy special effects added to it anyway.
Okay, this book sounds great. And I'm I'm both delighted and saddened to hear of its existence, delighted for obvious reasons and saddened because I have written several essays about the philosophy of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And I had sort of this vague hope of getting it in this exact volume of a philosophy series if it were someday published. But I've clearly missed my chance.
Yes, that's what happens when you have a good idea. You have to act on it because somebody else has come up with it. Well, it's been another great episode of rationally speaking. I enjoyed my conversation with you very much, Masimo. It just occurred to me that we thank our guests, but we don't thank you to others. So you. Thank you. What a pleasure talking with you. I'm sorry.
Enough with himself. Congratulations. It's a wrap it up. All right, this concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.