The Examined Year - 2012

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What Is It

A new year offers an opportunity to reflect on the significant events of the previous year.  But what ideas and events took shape over the past twelve months that have prompted us to question our assumptions and to think about things in new ways?  Join John, Ken, and their special guests as they celebrate the examined year with a philosophical look back at 2012.

• The Year in Philosophy: Barbara Grosz from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences discusses the legacy of Alan Turing, whose centennial was celebrated in 2012.
• The Year in Politics: Jason Stanley from Rutgers University explores the precarious place of Truth in the presidential election and beyond.
• The Year in Science: Hank Greely from the Stanford Law School talks about the ethical and legal implications of the year's advances in genetics.

Listening Notes

Ken and John introduce the main events of the year 2012 to be examined through a philosophical lens: truth in politics, advances in the biosciences, and the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing. The guests who will be joining Ken and John in each segment are introduced. They are, respectively, Jason Stanley, Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, Hank Greely, Director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences, and Barbara Grosz, Professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and the Applied Sciences.

Ken and John are joined by Barbara for the first segment of the show. John asks Barbara to explain the state of computer science and artificial intelligence in the year 2012, particularly in relation to Turing’s hopes for the two fields. Barbara says that were Turing to see the state of these fields today, he would be tremendously excited. Many widely used systems utilize artificial intelligence, and Barbara explains why she believes we are in a golden age of artificial intelligence. Ken asks Barbara to discuss the extent of intelligence that computing systems exhibit. Barbara explains that while computers can use statistics and collected data to answer a command, computers cannot yet reply to questions or commands that they have not been specifically prepared to reply to. The Turing Test and its impact is also discussed.

Ken and John welcome Jason to speak of the relevance of truth in politics, especially in light of the 2012 presidential election. John asks Jason whether he believes the notion of telling the truth in politics was worse this year than in past elections. Jason says that he does, as one side of the political debate believed that the truth was no longer relevant to the assessment of a candidate. In contrast to the McCain campaign, the Romney/Ryan campaign, explains Jason, was relatively open about its inconsistencies and expected its public to be understanding of them. Jason explains that there has been a change in the degree that people trust politicians and speaks about the use of sarcasm in delivering political news. This use of sarcasm, Jason explains, may be a sign that stating one’s opinion in an honest fashion in a public forum is no longer possible and must be done via indirect means. Jason then speaks of the confirmation bias that exists in news outlets such as FOX News or MSNBC and of the idea that people like to feel as though they are rooting for their own team when watching these channels.

In the short segment that follows, Ken asks John whether there are philosophical implications to gun laws and restrictions. John says that in order to answer this question, we ought to look at the metaphysics of guns. A gun is a method used to make a hole in something from a distance. But substitute the hole for another effect, says John, such as cancer, and think of the laws that would ensue. We must forget symbolism and heroism, says John, and think about, at their core, what guns really are and what reasonable people would do about them.

Ken and John welcome Hank, and Ken asks Hank to explain some of the highlights in the field of the biosciences in 2012. Hank says that the lowered cost of DNA sequencing is leading to a greater understanding of DNA. He predicts that once the cost of sequencing is even lower and more accessible, everyone will have had their entire genome sequenced. John asks Hank what the use of DNA sequencing is, and Hank explains that from a sequence, one is able to approximate the risk for developing certain illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s or colon cancer. Ken asks Hank to speak of the downsides of DNA sequencing, including the potential power of companies to refuse to hire a person or an insurance company to refuse insurance. Hank says that there are several laws that serve to protect from genetic discrimination, and he also speaks about the risks of potential pre-natal fine-tuning. Hank also speaks about another breakthrough regarding genetics that occurred this year: using stem cells to make sperm and eggs in mice. Hank explains his prediction that in the near future, babies will be conceived via IVF and, based on specific genome sequences, parents will have the option to select a specific embryo out of many. The implications of this matter are further discussed and include the potential of a single-gender culture and the elimination of certain illnesses.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 1:58): Caitlin Esch talks to Patrick Sammon, creator and Executive Producer of Codebreaker, a documentary that tells the story of Alan Turing. Patrick speaks of certain aspects of Turing’s personal and professional life, including the construction of the world’s first computer, and of Turing’s legacy.