Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, October 23, 2008

Although many scientists cultivate the popular image of the benevolent, detached savant toiling away for the betterment of mankind, the fact remains that Ph.D.s in physics or genetics are subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us. The image has some currency because there is an element of truth in it: scientists in many fields have contributed in remarkable ways to the material progress of humanity. That contribution should not be underappreciated.

Yet scientists are not immune to temptations to exaggerate, distort, and deceive. And the field of politics, containing as it does the promise of access to power and funding, is the near occasion of sin par excellence.

Various PowerBloggers have detailed the problematic fusing of politics and science in the area of climate change. In the latest issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson do the same for the subject of stem cell research (currently accessible online by subscription only). It’s an outstanding summary of the relatively brief history of the debate, with special attention to the not-usually-praiseworthy role that researchers played in the political arena. “We need to remember the events from 2001 to 2007,” the authors assert, “for the history of the stem-cell debate forms a classic study of what happens when politics and science find each other useful.”

Two morsels from the essay:

Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, September 18, 2008

As the US-incited global financial situation continues to worsen, ever shriller assertions of blame will be cast on one culprit or another. It’s my belief that any development of this magnitude always stems from multiple and interacting causes, but that doesn’t make very good copy.

Thomas Frank in the Wall Street Journal yesterday fingers deregulation (and by explicit implication the Republicans who champion it) as the criminal instigator of the financial crisis. Six weeks from election day, Frank has a transparently political goal, but let’s leave that aside. He writes:

There is simply no way to blame this disaster, as Republicans used to do, on labor unions or over-regulation. No, this is the conservatives’ beloved financial system doing what comes naturally. Freed from the intrusive meddling of government, just as generations of supply-siders and entrepreneurial exuberants demanded it be, the American financial establishment has proceeded to cheat and deceive and beggar itself — and us — to the edge of Armageddon. It is as though Wall Street was run by a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to stage all the classic panics of the 19th century.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in financial sector regulation, and it may well be that some more (or different? or fewer?) regulations could have played some role in averting this catastrophe. But I suspect there are a couple other causes that are equally or more important, and that call into question the contention that more government involvement will prevent such problems in the future.

1. If the crisis is in large part due to overly risky loan practices and the investment vehicles connected to them, then might the existence of federal backing (e.g., its de facto guarantee of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) and the promise of such backing (based on the fact of past bailouts and the belief that more bailouts might be forthcoming) have caused or at least aggravated the problem? In other words, government involvement helped to create the bad incentives that got us here. If financial dealers had known that the market would operate in a truly free fashion, they would never have made the decisions they did.

2. If greed played a role in the creation of the crisis, which most people of every political persuasion seem willing to grant, then what is regulation to do about it? Financial whizzes are notoriously good at circumventing government regulation. If this kind of “capitalism” needs to be curbed, moral sensibility is going to make more progress than regulatory manipulation. I’m not saying that greed can ever be eliminated, just that we need to be realistic about the prospects of success for regulation, which is fraught with unintended consequences, makes life more difficult for conscientious law-abiders, and creates a drag on the economy (the last thing we need at the moment). As Sam Gregg aptly put it at the conclusion of his Acton Commentary this week: “Could there be a better demonstration that there can be no markets without morality?”

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, September 9, 2008

As I’ve said before, some of the most interesting debates are those that break down along atypical lines: for example, by splitting dedicated limited government advocates rather than pitting them against statists. Back in 2001, the Journal of Markets & Morality conducted a controversy between two libertarian-leaning economists, Julio Cole and Paul Cleveland, concerning copyright and patent law.

Last year, we published a Christian Social Thought Series volume on intellectual property rights by David Carey that didn’t come down squarely on one side or the other, recognizing both the important role of incentives to innovation but also the obligation to limit property rights when the common good demands.

The issue hasn’t been settled yet, but now comes an important new data point from Princeton University Press: Patent Failure: How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers Put Innovators at Risk, by James Bessen and Michael J. Meurer. (HT: The aforementioned Julio Cole of Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala.)

This study shifts the terms of the debate by marshalling empirical evidence to show that one of the chief arguments in defense of patent restrictions—the innovation incentive—does not hold water. In an era of big business and big litigation, the ideal of the eccentric inventor making his living by patenting his creations appears to be antiquated. Specifically, what Bessen and Meurer demonstrate is that the costs for businesses to defend themselves againt patent infringement suits now far outweigh the benefits reaped by owning patents ($12 billion to $3 billion in 1999). In other words, patents are no longer an incentive to invention so much as a legal tool with which to damage one’s competitors.

[A caveat: This finding excludes chemical and pharmaceutical companies.]

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It took awhile, but after its release in 2005, the latest installment of the popular computer game Civilization IV was received warmly by many cultural commentators. Civilization IV, or CivIV for short, was hailed alternatively as “a video game for the ages,” and “a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.” The basis for much of this regard among even conservatives as “crunchy” as Rod Dreher was a piece in the Weekly Standard, highlighting the background of the game’s founder, Sid Meier.

For the first time, religion plays an important part in the strategic gameplay. Victorino Matus sums it up this way,

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay.

Indeed, while CivIV deserves praise for integrating non-material elements like religion and culture into the gameplay, in the end these pieces suffer the same fate as the rest of the game’s components. CivIV, ultimately, is less about the development of civilization than it is about the expansion of imperial tyranny.

“Genghis Khan, your people have vested absolute power in you…”


The game begins by the player being vested with “absolute power” over all aspects of the lives of the citizenry. Religion quickly becomes a means of social control. When your civilization founds a religion, you are able to build structures that have other important benefits attached to them. You can spread your religion to neighboring civilizations, expanding your influence. But it doesn’t matter which religion you prefer, as long as it keeps your people happy.

And happiness, by the way, is something that can be bought in this game. If your citizenry is a little restless, simply up the percentage of money spent each turn on “culture,” and watch the happy faces multiply. That’s the CivIV equivalent of Caesar holding gladiatorial games at the Colosseum to appease the populace.

There are consequences to which sort of economy, government, technology, and religion you choose. But in the end all these choices are yours, and you are free to use whichever combination you find to be most expedient. The variety of game-ending scenarios, including world domination, UN diplomacy, and space-race technology races (which may indeed teach us something we need to know), mean that you don’t have to simply hack and slash your way to victory. But make no mistake about it, you are out to conquer your opponents, by any means necessary.

You can choose to embrace different branches of technological innovation, including the compelling “Animal Husbandry.”


The popularity of the game, which has won numerous awards and spawned successful expansions, is well-deserved. It taps in to a fundamental human drive for dominance in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

The revisionist history that is possible to reenact with the game is one of its greatest attractions. While it may cause some cognitive dissonance to see Mohandas Ghandi order an nuclear ICBM attack on an opponent’s city, it is also reassuring to know that Genghis Khan can expand his empire by means of free trade and cultural suasion rather than force of arms (although in some cases “revisionist” history ends up corresponding better to reality than accepted theories).

“Soon my numberless minions shall destroy you all!”


The game’s interface is straightforward and intuitive. One drawback of the game’s emphasis on strategy over action is that the conflict sequences are repetitive and buggy. The graphics when units are in battle leave much to be desired.

These tactical criticisms aside, however, CivIV is a superb game. But the adeptness with which it meets the deepest human desires for power and control teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the progressive unfolding of history.

This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.

On Wednesday the European Commission again delayed a decision on whether European farmers may grow more genetically modified (GM) crops. The commission claimed that more scientific analysis is needed before three new crops can be approved. But curiously, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has already twice analyzed the crops and found that they pose no danger to public health.

Divisions seem to have broken out within the commission on how to proceed with GM food. This comes at a time when biotech investors are increasingly exasperated with European procrastination on the issue.

The intra-Commission conflict on GM food is most bizarrely expressed in the open attempts by Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas to discredit the EFSA, an agency set up by the Commission in 2002 in order to specifically investigate food safety concerns. By undermining the authority of the EFSA, Dimas is colliding with Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, who has defended the agency. The result is a complete stalemate which may leave the Europe years behind in biotech investment compared to the US and other countries.

Dimas’s hostility to GM food is cheered on by some environmental NGOs, in particular Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Greenpeace boasts that it orchestrated a campaign of 130,000 emails in order to obstruct the approval of the crops.

These NGOs have virtually no expertise in the area of consumer health research but join Dimas’s ritual attacks on the risk assessments done by the EFSA. It is particularly striking that they try to bring the EFSA into disrepute by implying that the World Health Organization (WHO) is speaking out against GM crops. But here’s what the WHO actually says:

“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

European worries about food safety are to a large extent based on the experience of the 1990s when a number of food scandals, in particular BSE or mad cow disease, caused understandable anxiety among consumers. All of these scandals, however, were entirely unrelated to GM food; it is irresponsible to exploit these fears in the current debate on biotechnology.

It is not difficult to see that at bottom the controversy is not so much about health and science but about politics and whose ox is being gored. In the European Council of Ministers, more agrarian-based countries like Greece (Dimas’s home country), Italy, Austria and Poland tend to vote against GM foods while states where traditional farming is not as dominant like the UK and the Netherlands are more open to biotech.

The politicization of the GMO debate is especially damaging at a time of global food price inflation. Future improvements in agricultural productivity will become increasingly necessary and biotech can play an important role in this area. The Commission must not allow pseudo-scientific excuses to stand in the way of serving the interests of the European, and indeed the global, consumer.

When John concluded his gospel, he supposed that if all of Jesus’ doings were written down, “that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

The last two millennia have seen quite a bit of change, to be sure. Christians have done their best to make John’s comment come true, filling the world with writings on the life of Jesus, the biblical revelation, and the implications of the gospel for every aspect of all walks of life.

But at the dawn of the third millennium, we are seeing an increasing shift to digital media (sometimes, but not always to the detriment of analog media like books), it’s conceivable that a single hard drive might have room for all the books that have ever been written (and not just the religious, theological, and biblical ones).

And as there has always been demand for the Bible (said to be the best-selling book of all time), so too there is demand for new and innovative ways to apply the power of computers to religious and theological texts. Currently these demands are being met by the de facto cooperation between non-profit and for-profit enterprises.

Take, for instance, the developing relationship between the non-profit Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the for-profit Logos Bible Software.

In addition to advertising on CCEL’s website and in their electronic newsletter, Ken Verhulst, a spokesman for CCEL, says that there’s an agreement for Logos software to be sold by CCEL. The non-profit then receives a share of the sale price. “These funds are used to keep CCEL going,” he says.

Phil Gons, who works in Logos’ press relations department, says that his company has “a good relationship with CCEL” and that they are in talks “about ways we can work together.”

Gons also points to BibleTech, a newly-inaugurated conference held in January hosted by Logos that had a large turnout of open source and non-profit folks. The conference website lists participants like OpenText.org, “a web-based initiative to provide an annotated corpus of Greek texts and tools for their analysis,” and the CrossWire Bible Society, “an organization with the purpose to sponsor and provide a place for engineers and others to come and collaborate on free, open-source projects aimed at furthering the Kingdom of our God.”

That isn’t to say that non-profits don’t feel some market pressures, too. Verhulst says that there is a strong push to move CCEL towards self-sufficiency. The donor who keeps CCEL going “is encouraging us to strive towards ‘independence’ — not profit status, just the ability to sustain ourselves.”

All this is a new twist on an old story in theological and biblical publishing. There have always been critics of major publishers like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Tyndale, which are for-profit enterprises. Crossway, by contrast, is a non-profit venture that focuses on publishing around the English Standard Version.

The reality of the situation in the digital world is that open source and for-profit ventures are just as much partners as they are competitors. Given its practical focus, for example, CCEL generally limits itself to “public domain” works, while companies like Logos can use tools like their pre-publishing and community pricing systems to gauge market demand and bring major projects like Luther’s Works and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to digital publishing.

As in other sectors, enterprise is the driver of innovation, without which other non-profit ventures might not be possible. Even “public domain” works were once published for sale. It isn’t the case, either in traditional or digital publishing, that the choice is simply between for-profit or non-profit efforts. Instead, we live with the all-or-nothing complementary reality of both for-profit and non-profit publishing. And we are better off for it.

I was reading about Bill Gates’ speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council last week, which received a lot of media coverage (PDF transcript here).

In the speech about software innovation, Gates “speculated that some of the most important advances will come in the ways people interact with computers: speech-recognition technology, tablets that will recognize handwriting and touch-screen surfaces that will integrate a wide variety of information.”

“I don’t see anything that will stop the rapid advance,” Gates said. I appreciate the insight that a corporate mogul and business insider like Gates provides.

The predictions did make me think about this observation from Alasdair MacIntyre, however, which serves to temper some of the more audacious claims often made about technological progress.

MacIntyre writes,

Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radically new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent.

To his credit, much of what Gates is describing doesn’t meet these criteria. They are not “radically new” concepts, but the integrative alteration of already existing concepts (some might argue that this has essentially been the modus operandi for Microsoft’s success: not innovation per se, but rather innovative popularization of integration).

That said, we need to be cautious about the precision of our claims about future innovation. Statistically we can predict that radical innovations are quite likely to happen, but by definition we can’t know what they will be.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, November 29, 2007

In my Acton Commentary this week, I argued against government funding for stem cell research.

The developments that served as my springboard have unsurprisingly prompted a lot of other reflections from various quarters as well. A sampling:

Joseph Bottum on politics, religion, and stem cells.

Fr. Thomas Berg on the reaction of the scientific community.

Malcolm Ritter on obstacles remaining in the path toward medically useful applications.

After attending GodblogCon last week, largely due to the efforts of Rhett Smith, “New Media Ministry to the MySpace-Facebook Generation: Employing New Media Technologies Effectively In Youth Ministries” (a podcast of his talk is here), I started a Facebook page.

But I also urge you to read the experience of Agnieszka Tennant, a relatively new columnist at CT with whom I’m quite impressed, who writes that she “yielded to peer pressure and have begun to lead a modestly active Facebook life.” It’s a real temptation, as she points out, perhaps a greater one in virtual reality, to reduce people to means and consider only their utility for your own pursuits. “Social capital” can be a dangerous thing.

As persons, true sociality respects the personhood of the other. That’s the only kind of “social capital” really worth having.

More on technology and the Gospel: “Plugging the Planet Into the Word” (HT).

More on BlogWorld & New Media expo: Mark Cuban, who gave one of the keynote addresses, is profiled in this lengthy Fortune magazine piece, “Mark Cuban wants a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.