Edge 124—July 24, 2003

(2,000 words)



New THE MORAL SENSE TEST

"Our new web site is up and running," writes Marc D. Hauser of Harvard's Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. "We are interested in understanding people's moral intuitions. The web site, includes background information and importantly, The Moral Sense Test. I would very much appreciate it if you would not only take the test, but also spread the word to your friends and colleagues, of all ages. We are particularly interested in getting cross-cultural data as well as developmental information, so even young children who can read would be terrifically helpful. The more the word spreads, the better for us. Thanks a lot for your help." — Marc ...[more]


BLACKOUT!: An Edge Conversation

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edge can be an interesting venue for mounting a serious conversation about the blackout of August 14th. Within the community is invaluable expertise in many pertinent areas, not to mention the intelligence that the "Edgies" can bring to the subjects. I am asking for "hard-edge" comments, derived from empirical results or experience specific to the expertise of the participant. The first contribution is by Albert-László Barabási, author of Linked: The New Science of Networks.

"We're All On The Grid Together"
By Albert-László Barabási


Once power is fully restored, it will take little time to find the culprit: most likely, it will be a malfunctioning switch or fuse, a snapped power line or some other local failure. Somebody will be fired, promotions and raises denied, and lawmakers will draw up legislation guaranteeing that this problem will not occur again.

Something will be inevitably missed, however, during all this finger-pointing: this week's blackout has little to do with faulty equipment, negligence or bad design. President Bush's call to upgrade the power grid will do little to eliminate power failures. The magnitude of the blackout is rooted in an often ignored aspect of our globalized world: vulnerability due to interconnectivity....[more]

We will post pieces as they come in.



New THE MORAL SENSE TEST

"Our new web site is up and running," writes Marc D. Hauser. "We are interested in understanding people's moral intuitions. The web site, includes background information and importantly, The Moral Sense Test. I would very much appreciate it if you would not only take the test, but also spread the word to your friends and colleagues, of all ages. We are particularly interested in getting cross-cultural data as well as developmental information, so even young children who can read would be terrifically helpful. The more the word spreads, the better for us. Thanks a lot for your help." — Marc

[From the MST Website:] "The Moral Sense Test is a Web-based study into the nature of moral intuitions. How do humans, throughout the world, decide what is right and wrong? To answer this question, we have designed a series of moral dilemmas designed to probe the psychological mechanisms underlying our ethical judgments. By putting these questions on the Web, we hope to gain insight into the similarities and differences between the moral intuitions of people of different ages, from different cultures, with different educational backgrounds and religious beliefs, involved in different occupations and exposed to very different circumstances. Participation in the study is easy, quick and completely confidential. Click above to learn more about our research, and to take to the test.

"About the Moral Sense Test:
Nothing captures human attention more than a moral dilemma. Whether we are soap opera fanatics or not, we can’t help sticking our noses in other people’s affairs, pronouncing our views on right and wrong, permissible and impermissible, justified or not. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that our moral judgments arise from rational, conscious, voluntary, reflective deliberations about what ought to be. This perspective has generated the further belief that our moral psychology is a slowly developing capacity, founded entirely on experience and education, and subject to considerable variation across cultures. With the exception of a few trivial examples, one culture’s right is another’s wrong. We believe this hyper rational, culturally-specific view is no longer tenable. The MST has been designed to show why and offer an alternative. Most of our moral intuitions are unconscious, involuntary, and universal, developing in each child despite formal education. When humans, from the hunter-gathers of the Rift Valley to the billionaire dot-com-ers of the Silicon Valley generate moral intuitions they are like reflexes, something that happens to us without our being aware of how or even why. We call this capacity our moral faculty. Our aim is to use data from the MST, as well as other experiments, to explain what it is, how it evolved, and how it develops in our species, creating individuals with moral responsibilities and concerns about human welfare. The MST has been designed for all humans who are curious about that puzzling little word “ought” — about the principles that make one action right and another wrong, and why we feel elated about the former and guilty about the latter.

"As in every modernly held view, there are significant historical antecedents. The origins of our own perspective date back at least 300 years to the philosopher David Hume and more recently, to the political philosopher John Rawls. But unlike these prescient thinkers, we can now validate the intuitions with significant scientific evidence. Over the past twenty years, there has been growing evidence for a universally shared moral faculty based on findings in evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, anthropology, economics, linguistics, and neurobiology. This evidence has created a powerful movement directed at the core aspects of human nature. It is a movement that has the power to reshape our lives by uncovering the deep structure of our moral intuitions and showing how they can either support or conflict with our conscious, often legally supported decisions.

"You have the opportunity to participate in the Moral Sense Test right now. The test only takes about 10 minutes, and your responses are completely confidential. For more information, read our our privacy statement.

"
This research is sponsored by the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, which is part of the Psychology Department at Harvard University."

MARC D. HAUSER, an evolutionary psychologist, is Harvard College Professor, Professor of Psychology and Program in Neurosciences, and Director of Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. He is the author of The Evolution of Communication, and Wild Minds: What Animals Think.


BLACKOUT!: An Edge Conversation

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edge can be an interesting venue for mounting a serious conversation about the blackout of August 14th. Within the community is invaluable expertise in many pertinent areas, not to mention the intelligence that the "Edgies" can bring to the subjects. I am asking for "hard-edge" comments, derived from empirical results or experience specific to the expertise of the participant. The first contribution is by Albert-László Barabási, author of Linked: The New Science of Networks. We will post pieces as they come in.


Albert-László Barabási

We're All On The Grid Together

Once power is fully restored, it will take little time to find the culprit: most likely, it will be a malfunctioning switch or fuse, a snapped power line or some other local failure. Somebody will be fired, promotions and raises denied, and lawmakers will draw up legislation guaranteeing that this problem will not occur again.

Something will be inevitably missed, however, during all this finger-pointing: this week's blackout has little to do with faulty equipment, negligence or bad design. President Bush's call to upgrade the power grid will do little to eliminate power failures. The magnitude of the blackout is rooted in an often ignored aspect of our globalized world: vulnerability due to interconnectivity.

In the early days of electricity, all power was produced locally. First each neighborhood, later each city, had its own power plant. Local generators had to satisfy the peak demands of hot summer nights, when everything from air-conditioners to televisions run full power. That means that the generators were idle most of the time outside of peak hours.

That extra capacity was shared as utilities learned to decrease costs by connecting their facilities and helping each other out during peak-demand periods. The current power grid linked up formerly isolated systems with enough wire to stretch to the moon and back. It requires only a computer keystroke to redirect power produced in New York to the Midwest.

With thousands of generators and hundreds of thousands of miles of lines, the network became so interconnected that even on a normal day a single perturbance can be detected thousands of miles away. This created a whole new set of problems and vulnerabilities, the effects of which have been felt by millions in the past two days.

Because electricity cannot be stored, when a line goes down, its power must be shifted to other lines. Most of the time the neighboring lines have no difficulty carrying the extra load. If they do, however, they will also tip and redistribute their increased load to their neighbors.

This occasionally leads to a cascading failure — a series of lines becomes overburdened and malfunctions in a short period of time. This is exactly what happened in August 1996 when, because of unusually warm weather, a 1,300-megawatt power line in Oregon sagged, hit a tree and went dead. Power was redistributed automatically but the other lines also failed, causing a blackout in 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces.

Cascading failures are common in most complex networks. They take place on the Internet, where traffic is rerouted to bypass malfunctioning routers, occasionally creating denial of service attacks on routers that are not equipped to handle extra traffic. We witnessed one in 1997, when the International Monetary Fund pressured the central banks of several Pacific nations to limit their credit. That started a cascading monetary failure that left behind scores of failed banks and corporations around the world.

Cascading failures are occasionally our ally, however. The American effort to dry up the money supply of terrorist organizations is aimed at crippling terrorist networks. And doctors and researchers hope to induce cascading failures to kill cancer cells.

The effect of power blackouts, economic crises and terrorism can easily be limited or even eliminated if we are willing to cut the links. Strictly local energy production would guarantee that each blackout would also be strictly local.

But severing the ties would also cripple the network. Shutting down international trade would surely eliminate the impact of the Japanese central bank on the American economy, but it would also guarantee a global economic meltdown. Closing our borders would reduce the chance of terrorist attacks, but it would also risk the American dream of diversity and openness.

The events of the past few days — unwanted side effects of our network society — are just one of the periodic reminders that we live in a globalized world. While celebrating that everybody on earth is only six handshakes from us, we need to accept that so are their problems and vulnerabilities.

Most failures emerge and evaporate locally, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. A few, however, percolate through our dense technological and social networks, hitting us from the most unexpected directions. Unless we are willing to cut the connections, the only way to change the world is to improve all nodes and links.

Albert-László Barabási, a physicist at Notre Dame, is author of Linked: The New Science of Networks.

[Editor's Note: First published as an Op-Ed Page article in The New York Times on August 16th.]


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