Monday, December 28, 2020

Trust and the COVID-19 Vaccine


In the last three weeks, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines for use against COVID-19.  Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed in less than a year, a stunning technical achievement that relied on cutting-edge science and engineering.  Now the big question is, how many people will be willing to take it? 


The only vaccine rollout of comparable importance in my lifetime was the advent of polio vaccines in the late 1950s.  I was not old enough to be reading the newspaper regularly when I ate the sugar cube the Sabin vaccine came on, being about eight years of age, but I understood by the way my parents acted that it was a big deal. 


Polio was a terrifying disease for two reasons:  it tended to strike children and teenagers, and it usually crippled rather than killed you, putting many of its victims in clumsy braces, wheelchairs, or a medieval-looking contraption called an iron lung.  So it's not surprising that polio vaccines received near-universal acceptance in the far-off days when your doctor's word was tantamount to the word of God and the only people who objected to vaccines were Christian Scientists and other minority groups.


Things are different now in a lot of ways.  Public trust in expertise of all kinds has seen a decline in recent years.  There is now a substantial anti-vaccine movement motivated by a variety of factors, but sharing a common belief that the harm vaccines do may well outweigh the good, and assurances to the contrary by scientists or the medical profession should not be trusted.  Surveys asking people whether they will be willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine turn up substantial numbers of people who don't want it, although recent trends have been in the more-willing direction.  For example, a Kaiser Foundation survey conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 8 and reported in U. S. News says that 41% of Americans say they will definitely get it and 30% will "probably" get it.  The number of people who say they definitely won't get a vaccination is 15%, and 12% say probably not. 


The poll broke down respondents by rural versus urban, Republican versus Democrat, and African-American versus everything else.  Those in rural areas, Republicans, and African-Americans are less willing than other groups to get vaccinated for COVID-19.  Why is this?


One factor cited for the reluctance of African-Americans to receive the vaccine is the bad track record of medical experimentation on Black Americans exemplified by the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study conducted between 1932 and 1972, which followed the course of the untreated disease in African-American men by lying to them that they were receiving free medical treatment, when in fact they were not being helped at all, just observed as the disease progressed to its fatal conclusion.  This study is a poster child for unethical experimentation on human subjects, and it's not surprising that after betraying trust in this manner, the U. S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control find that Blacks are less than enthusiastic than other ethnic groups about government-supported vaccine programs. 


But that doesn't explain why 27% of the U. S. population still doesn't want a COVID-19 vaccination. 


Part of the reason may simply be that younger people don't think catching COVID-19 will hurt them that much, whereas the vaccine makers are admitting up front that the second of the two necessary injections makes many people mildly ill for a day or two.  Absent a job requirement to receive the vaccine (and I'm not aware of any organizations which have yet implemented such a requirement), that is a judgment call that is up to the individual. 


The novel factor in this whole situation is the way that a vaccine that can keep you from contracting a widespread potentially fatal disease has become a political football, with Republicans showing more reluctance to take it than Democrats.  The simplistic answer to this question, namely that followers of Donald Trump are a bunch of ignorant morons who he can lead around by their noses, won't do.  At least before the November election, Trump was boasting about how fast Operation Warp Speed was going to produce and distribute the vaccine.  So why aren't Republicans all on board with it? 


A better answer may be that trust in governmental institutions in general, rather than in individual politicians, has undergone severe erosion in the last decade or two, and perhaps more so among Republicans than among Democrats.  The Gallup poll organization publishes annual samplings of how ethical various professions and members of institutions are perceived to be.  The poll asks, "Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields—very high, high, average, low, or very low?"  Their findings are instructive.


Members of Congress, for example, don't do very well in these polls.  In the latest poll conducted earlier this month, Congresspeople rated only 1% very high, 7% high, 29% average, 39% low, and 24% very low.  Contrast this to the public perception of, say, engineers (in 2019):  17% very high, 49% high, 31% average, 2% low, and 1% very low (1% had no opinion).  This is better than engineers were doing in the 1970s, for example, when only 10% of respondents rated them very high. 


Now engineers don't have to run for public office by raising millions of dollars of campaign funds, and if they did, their public perception might be different.  Interestingly, of all the major professions, nurses come out even better than engineers:  41% of the public in December 2020 thought nurses' ethics and honesty were very high and 48% thought they were high.  So maybe public-service ads featuring nurses encouraging you to get a COVID-19 vaccine would be more effective than government pronouncements.


As you probably know, the vaccines will not begin to affect the overall spread and persistence of COVID-19 until a substantial fraction of the public receives effective vaccines.  Estimates of the substantial fraction vary, but it's somewhere around half.  And one thing that is still unknown is whether the vaccines only prevent people from suffering adverse symptoms of COVID-19 (it's pretty clear that they do that), or whether they prevent people from spreading it as well.  There simply hasn't been enough time to determine their effectiveness at reducing infectiousness.


Well, my sister (a nurse, whom I trust) received the first of her pair of COVID-19 vaccine injections last week, and assuming it's eventually available to people in my category (engineer, college teacher, over 65), I plan to get it too.  But I can understand that people may have reasons to refuse, and so far, this is a free enough country where you can do that.


Sources:  The U. S. News report on the Kaiser poll about willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine appeared at  The Gallup organization has posted historical and up-to-date responses to its honesty-and-ethics polls at  I also consulted the Wikipedia article on "Tuskegee Syphilis Study."

Monday, December 21, 2020

Agreeing On Evil: Sexual Exploitation and PornHub


As New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof revealed in a Dec. 4 article, "The Children of Pornhub," the pornographic-video-sharing website Pornhub encourages the sexual exploitation of women and girls by allowing sexually explicit videos of them to be uploaded for viewing by anybody.  Many of these videos are uploaded without the participant's consent, and such actions can literally wreck lives. 


Pornhub is owned by the Canadian company MindGeek, which for protection against legal challenges in the U. S. hides behind Section 230 of the ironically-named Communications Decency Act.  That act generally exempts internet service providers from being sued about content uploaded by third parties.  But Section 230 was never intended to protect pornographers and their enablers who exploit victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable populations for profit.


A National Review report last week describes how Sens. Ben Sasse and Jeff Markley have co-sponsored a bill called the "Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act" which aims to enable those who find themselves unwillingly portrayed in such videos to fight back.  The bill would require pornographic websites to obtain written consent from every person portrayed in a video before it could be uploaded, and would require identity verification of the person doing the uploading.  If someone in the video still objects to its being posted, the bill creates a "private right of action" (presumably, the right to sue) agains the uploader for anyone portrayed.  Websites would be required to maintain a 24-hour hotline for removal requests and to remove any video within two hours of receiving such a request.  The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the law, and the Department of Justice would maintain a database of those who do not consent to sharing of their pornographic material online.


These days it is hard to get bipartisan agreement on what time of day it is, let alone a significant piece of legislation such as this.  But Republican Sasse and Democrat Markley have not only managed to agree on the proposed law, but are trying to attract others to their cause on both sides of the aisle.  Surely, most reasonable people can agree on the principle that an unwilling victim of sexual exploitation should be able to do something about the continual use of pornographic material in which he or she appears.


The old saying that "technology is neutral, it's only people who are good or bad" often comes up in discussions of engineering ethics.  It is at best a half-truth, in that some technological systems lend themselves much more easily to evil purposes than to good ones.  While the Internet has conferred many benefits upon modern societies, the portion of its traffic devoted to pornography (which is a considerable part of overall Internet traffic) is a bleeding sore whose negative consequences are manifold.


The tip of the evil iceberg of Internet porn is the plight of those who end up having images of themselves posted for the pleasure of anonymous eyes, against their will.  Some of these victims have lapses of judgment that they later regret.  Others are tricked into getting involved in pornography by enticing lies that involve human trafficking.  Whatever the reason, when a person decides that they no longer wish to be exploited in this way, any meaningful measure of human decency requires that the law defend that person against whatever entity is continuing to exploit their image. 


MindGeek, the corporation that operates PornHub and similar sites, is a large corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue.  As such, it can afford fancy lawyers and legal defenses that easily overpower the attempts of individuals to restrict the use of uploaded pornographic materials. 


The bill sponsored by Sens. Sasse and Markley would be a step toward redressing this wrong.  It is precisely targeted at the specific abuse of internet porn using images of people who object to the use of those images, and would not otherwise disturb the precedent of Section 230.  This means that it stands a better chance of passage than broader measures floated from time to time which would abolish Section 230 altogether.  No one wants to be the one who kills the Internet goose that lays golden eggs, and while opinions differ about the role that Section 230 has played in the growth of the Internet, it would be unwise at this point to undertake major tinkering with it.


On the other hand, I can't image anyone other than pornographers, their enablers, and hard-core customers being opposed to the idea that before porn is posted online for anyone to see, everyone portrayed in it should affirmatively consent to such posting, and retain the right to change their minds later.  Imagine that you participated in such a video out of poor judgment, intoxication, or coercion.  Later you regret what you've done.  But without this legislation, MindGeek can keep embarrassing images of you online for anyone to see indefinitely. 


Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my least favorite authors, but his novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the heroine Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a red "A" for the rest of her life, created a vivid portrayal of the way a society can inflict suffering on a person long after the sinner has repented of her sin.  In allowing evil organizations such as PornHub to keep exploiting the victims of sexual exploitation indefinitely, we as a society are allowing a similar kind of torment to be visited on those who either regret their earlier involvement in pornography or had no real choice in the matter.  Hawthorne's Puritans are universally condemned by many of today's opinion-makers, but PornHub effectively follows around thousands of women with explicitly public reminders of their past indiscretions. 


With COVID-19 and all the other political shenanigans we have witnessed lately, the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act may not get the attention it deserves.  But I hope that the partisan strife in Washington can die down long enough for Congress to enact, and the President to sign, this bill that every decent human being should support.


Sources:  Nicholas Kristof's article "The Children of Pornhub" appeared on Dec. 4 at  National Review's website carried the article by Alexandra DeSanctis "Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Require Consent before Sharing Pornography Online" at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Mindgeek.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Is China Moving Toward Geoengineering?


Earlier this month, the State Council of China (its main administrative body) announced that it was planning to expand its weather-modification efforts to cover an area of about 5.5 million square kilometers, which is more than half the size of the United States.  In addition to rainmaking (which the announcement called "precipitation control"), the government-funded efforts include prevention of hailstorms, enhanced accuracy of weather forecasts, and emergency response plans to deal with crises such as forest fires.


This is not China's first venture into weather modification.  To prevent rain from dampening the festivitives at the opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing on August 8 of that year, over a thousand rockets filled with silver iodide crystals were fired into the skies prior to the event.  Whether the party would have been rained out without the rockets is something we'll never know, but the Party leaders didn't want to take a chance that rain would spoil their parade.


Not counting things such as Indian rain dances, the history of scientific weather modification goes back to the late 1940s, when meteorologist Bernard Vonnegut (brother of author Kurt) and the Nobelist Irving Langmuir independently found ways to encourage clouds to form precipitation.  Vonnegut's method involved silver iodide crystals, and the U. S. Army showed in large-scale experiments that spreading finely-divided crystals into actual clouds could cause or increase rainfall under certain conditions. 


In the U. S., large-scale cloud-seeding efforts are no longer common, although numerous experiments with hurricanes and conventional storms were carried out as late as the 1970s.  For one thing, it is difficult to do a controlled experiment with cloud seeding, as no two clouds are ever alike and the ideal of changing only one variable (to seed or not to seed) can never be achieved.  Consequently, the typical outcome of an experiment, which can cost many thousands of dollars in flight time, shells, or rockets, is "well, maybe it did something, but we're not sure."  Another issue is that if more rain comes down in location A, that same rain can't also fall in location B, and if A and B are in different states, for example, you have a potential conflict between administrative entities.


That may be one reason that, after employing weather modification to a limited extent in theVietnam War, the U. S. signed the Environmental Modification Convention in 1978, which  bans the use of weather modification for hostile purposes.  The Peoples' Republic of China is also a participant in that convention, but that may not make adjacent countries such as India feel much better, as China could always claim that their cloud seeding was for peaceful purposes.


The term "geoengineering" is usually reserved for technological activities that would affect the entire globe, not just a part of it.  For example, at various times scientists have floated the idea that to combat global warming, we should inject a lot of sulfur dioxide particles into the air in order to reduce the influx of radiation to the earth's surface and counteract the greenhouse effect of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  So far, weather modification efforts on the scale that we have seen historically don't amount to geoengineering.  But if the area in which such work is being done gets large enough, and 5.5 million square kilometers is pretty large, then you can begin to wonder whether we are putting the robustness of large-scale weather systems to a test.


We already know that seemingly subtle shifts in things such as the El Niño circulation off the Pacific coast of South America can have significant effects on our weather here in North America.  I don't know anything about typical weather patterns in the Far East, but it only stands to reason that mucking around with the weather over a large enough area of China is going to have some kind of effect in areas outside the region as well. 


Of course, this assumes that everything the State Council wants to do is successful.  If the history of weather modification tells us anything, it says that the best-laid plans in this field turn out to work less well than the designers hoped they would.  But most of the large-scale experiments in cloud seeding were carried out decades ago, before the advent of modern supercomputer-based weather modeling and enhanced automated weather data acquisition.  It's quite possible that with modern weather-forecasting technology, something closer to a truly controlled experiment can be carried out that will give us a better idea of whether all that silver iodide is doing any good, or whether it's just as useless as shooting off fireworks.


China has the dubious advantage of not having to worry about interstate lawsuits or any of the other administrative inconveniences that go with democracy.  Dictatorships can do large-scale, long-term things that democracies find difficult.  It's not an advantage that I personally think is worth the cost, but if the State Council decides to do a thing, there's not much anybody else can do to stop them, whether it's weather modification or a one-child policy. 


If the experiments turn out to be successful, I doubt that China will be very generous in sharing the results with the rest of the world, except maybe to brag.  And even if everything works as well as they hope, I'm not sure how applicable the results will be for the rest of the world, unless Russia or some other country dealing with huge land masses gets interested. 


You've probably heard someone say, "water is the new oil," meaning that as populations increase and live in cities with modern water supplies, the need for clean water may outstrip the need for fossil fuels.  While water resources will always be important, if weather modification turns out to be as useful as China thinks, that will add a new factor to the question of where future generations will find enough water to use.  My suspicion is that the basic natural processes that put water in the air in the first place are not going to change that much by means of weather modification, and any changes China or any other country can make will be relatively small-scale and short-term.  But I've been wrong before.


Sources:  The South China Morning Post carried an article describing the Chinese State Council's announcement of its plans for weather modification at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on cloud seeding, the Environmental Modification Convention, and El Niño.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Betrayal of Faith: Muslim Pro and the U. S. Military


Faithful Muslims are required to pray five times a day, facing toward Mecca.  In our smartphone era, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with an app that reminds the Muslim user that it's time to pray, and conveniently uses GPS data to direct the user toward Mecca from anywhere in the world.  Muslim Pro is the most popular app to do these and other helpful things for members of Islam, and has been downloaded some 98 million times. 


When a person downloads an app that is advertised to do a certain function, the question of what else it might be doing in the background rarely arises.  If the app is free, most people are aware at some level that the developer must make money somehow, typically through advertising.  But rarely does the typical user even read the boilerplate that sometimes appears during installation, because it would take a lawyer to figure out what it means, and all the relevant information might not even show up in the user agreement.  So there is an implied agreement or good-faith assumption on the part of the user, that the app developer won't do anything with the user's data that the user would object to.


Users of Muslm Pro received a shock last month when the Motherboard column of the website Vice revealed that through a third-party vendor, Muslim Pro had sold location data on its users to contractors for the U. S. military.  True, the data was "anonymized," meaning that names and other explicit identifying information was stripped from the data before it was sold.  But if a contractor obtains data from several different anonymized sources, it is often a fairly straightforward matter to "de-anonymize" the data and identify specific individuals.  If an anonymous individual spends a lot of time at a particular street address that can be associated independently with a particular name, so much for anonymity. 


Although no one has traced any specific military actions to the use of Muslim Pro data, users of the app have every right to feel betrayed.  Muslims aren't the only religious group using faith-related apps.  Just to pick a random example, the Catholic radio network Relevant Radio has developed an app that assists users in saying the Rosary and pursuing other devotional practices.  Imagine how users of that app in a Christian-hostile country would feel if they discovered that the network was selling location data gleaned from the app to representatives of the country that was persecuting them.  Betrayal is a mild word.


After Vice revealed the practice, Muslim Pro announced that it was cutting off its association with X-Mode, the company that was buying location data from Muslim Pro and other apps and selling it to contractors who specialize in providing intelligence data to the U. S. military.  For its part, X-Mode encourages developers who provide data to insert warning phrases in their user agreements.  Even if such verbiage was provided by each of the 400 or so apps that X-Mode obtains data from, it is unlikely that most users would even read it. 


I will admit that the first time I heard of a special watch that informed the wearer of the correct direction to pray toward Mecca, it struck me as incongruous, to say the least.  Here was a practice of a 1400-year-old faith being aided by up-to-date technology.  But religion is an important part of the lives of billions of people, and as technology advances and provides conveniences and assistance for every part of life, it's understandable that religious practices would take advantage of it too. 


The Muslim Pro-X-Mode revelation is a good example of how compartmentalizing is encouraged by the way large-scale technical systems work.  Most religions deal with the whole person, one at a time.  This is the opposite tendency of the way a company like X-Mode operates:  stripping identifying information from bits of location data and selling it wholesale to similar organizations that deal in dehumanized blocks of information, which however can be easily reversed to reveal the location of any particular individual.  Those who handle the data along the way—the programmers and managers and salesmen—easily forget that the only reason their data is valuable is because it pertains to human beings.  They would rather think about correlations and data quality and other mathematical measures, than to consider that just possibly, one of the bits of data they sell may be used to end the life of a human being. 


I am not a pacifist, and I realize that war is sometimes the least bad alternative in certain situations.  But historically, one of the most common practices a warring nation will adopt against a rival nation is to convince its own people that the rivals are not really human, but are something less than human—animals, maybe, or even just numbers in a census record somewhere.  In anonymizing the location data Muslim Pro collected, X-Mode unwittingly carried out that first step in making it easier for someone else to treat human beings as less than human.  What looked like a good thing—removing personal identifying data—turned out to be the first step in a process that wound up as a betrayal.


Information technology is an unavoidable part of our lives now, and can be the source or driving force behind many benefits.  Without computers and anonymized testing, we would not be looking forward to getting vaccines for COVID-19 within a year of the virus's spread to humans.  But those who use data derived from humans must never forget the humans behind the data, and everyone working in such fields needs to exercise their moral imaginations enough to ask, "Supposing I was a user, are we doing anything that I'd object to?"  And if the answer is yes, don't just shrug and go on about your business.


Sources:  The original report on X-Mode's use of Muslim Pro location data was "How the U. S. Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps" by Joseph Cox, which appeared on the Vice website on Nov. 16, 2020 at  Articles derived from this source appeared in many locations including the Austin American-Statesman, where I first learned of it.