Thursday, June 29, 2006

Campaign finance restrictions

Eugene Volokh, of the Volokh Conspiracy, has a piece on the recent decision by the Supreme Court striking down Randall v. Sorrel.

The reason that the court struck down the law here--which, among other things, would have limited a candidate's total spending for Vermont state representative races to $2,000 for both the primary election and general election put together--is not that money is speech. Rather, it's that restrictions on spending money to speak are restrictions on speech, and "money is speech" is, I think, a misleading way of expressing this claim.

It's fun to read some of the analogies Eugene comes up with to illustrate why a restriction on campaign spending is a restriction on speech.

Would we say "money is abortion"? I doubt it, but a law that banned the spending of money would surely be a serious restriction on abortion rights (whether or not you think that the court was right to recognize such rights). A law that capped the spending of money for abortions at a small amount, far smaller than abortions often cost, would likewise be a burden on abortion rights, and dismissing this argument as "it is quite wrong to equate money and abortion" would be unsound.

Likewise, we wouldn't say "money is education," or "money is lawyering." Yet a law that capped private-school tuitions at $2,000 (not just limited the amount of government-provided scholarships, but capped private spending by parents for tuition) would be a serious, likely unconstitutional, burden on the right to educate one's child at a private school. Likewise, a law that barred wealthy defendants from spending more than $20,000--or even $200,000--for assistance of counsel would violate the Sixth Amendment. Even if for some reason you thought that these laws should be upheld, the response that "it is quite wrong to equate money and [education/lawyering]" would be an unsound response.

Debate over?

I saw a Ziggy cartoon one time. Ziggy was at a restaurant, sitting under a sign reading "All You Can Eat". The waitress had just set a plate in front of him and was saying, "There. That's all you can eat."

The Surgeon General's office has declared the debate on secondhand smoke "over". Is this because their latest report has produced a smoking gun, or has their waitress come up and said, "That's all you can debate?"

"Secondhand smoke debate ‘over.” That’s the message from the Surgeon General’s office, delivered by a sycophantic media. The claim is that the science has now overwhelmingly proved that smoke from others’ cigarettes can kill you. Actually, “debate over” simply means: “If you have your doubts, shut up!”

But you definitely should have doubts over the new Surgeon General’s report, a massive 727-page door stop. Like many massive reports on controversial issues, it’s probably designed that way so nobody (especially reporters on deadline) will want to or have time to read beyond the executive summary. That includes me; if I had that much time I’d reread War and Peace. Twice. But the report admits it contains no new science so we can evaluate it based on research already available.
First consider the 1993 EPA study that began the passive smoking crusade....

But the EPA’s report had more holes than a spaghetti strainer. Its greatest weakness was the agency’s refusal to use the gold standard in epidemiology, the 95 percent confidence interval. This simply means there are only five chances in 100 that the conclusion came about just by chance, even if the study itself was done correctly.

Curiously, the EPA decided to use a 90 percent level, effectively doubling the likelihood of getting its result by sheer luck of the draw.

Why would it do such a strange thing? You guessed it. Its results weren't significant at the 95 percent level. Essentially, it moved the goal posts back because the football had fallen short. In scientific terminology this is know as “dishonesty.”

Meta-analyses of small studies have their problems. What is really needed is a single, well-conducted, large study.

in the prestigious British Medical Journal in 2003. Research professor James Enstrom of UCLA and professor Geoffrey Kabat of the State University of New York, Stony Brook presented results of a 39-year study of 35,561 Californians, which dwarfed in size everything that came before. It found no “causal relationship between exposure to [passive smoke] and tobacco-related mortality,” adding, however “a small effect” can’t be ruled out.

Well, you know what? "A small effect" can never be ruled out. No matter how large a study you put together, you can never get the margin of error down to zero. There's always some tiny statistical error in a study, which means any "small effect" that's less then the margin of error will go undetected.

The reason active tobacco smoking could be such a terrible killer while passive smoke may cause no deaths lies in the dictum "the dose makes the poison." We are constantly bombarded by carcinogens, but in tiny amounts the body usually easily fends them off.

A New England Journal of Medicine study found that even back in 1975 – when having smoke obnoxiously puffed into your face was ubiquitous in restaurants, cocktail lounges, and transportation lounges – the concentration was equal to merely 0.004 cigarettes an hour. That’s not quite the same as smoking two packs a day, is it?

I'll save you pulling out your calculator. That's 1/208 of a pack per day, or 1¾ packs per year.

Tobacco-phobes (and in this case, it really is a phobia – an unreasoning fear – will say, "Oh, but secondhand smoke is much more dangerous than primary smoke.

I fail to see how it could be that much more dangerous, but even if we stipulate that, how can it be any more dangerous to breathe secondhand smoke than to be the smoker who's breathing both the primary smoke and the secondhand smoke?

When phobia runs public policy debate, the most bizarre "facts" are swallowed whole, as long as they give the right answer.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bad theories kill people

A column by Jack Woodall in The Scientist addresses what "infectious disease says about humanity's penchant for self-destruction".

Hum. I must confess, I'm not quite sure what his point is, but he gives some wonderful examples of how bad theories kill people.

In an earlier column I related what had happened when a malicious rumor about polio vaccine circulated in one African country in early 2004, and vaccination was halted. The infection has now spread back to 20 countries from which, at great effort and expense, it had been eradicated.

Look at another crippling disease, tuberculosis. The cure requires daily doses of antibiotics for a number of weeks. But in countries where people have to travel far from home to receive health care, as soon as they start to feel better they head for home, not yet cured, carrying back with them bacteria that have survived the treatment and are now resistant, to be spread again in the community.

Doctors keep warning us we need to finish the whole course of antibiotics, and not stop taking them just because we feel better. But we're used to associating symptoms with disease, and we tend to run on the theory that when the symptom goes away, so does the disease.

Look also at HIV/AIDS, the 25th anniversary of which is the subject of a feature in this issue (see p. 36 ). Educated people know how it is spread and what to do about it, but nevertheless get carried away and ignore precautions in the heat of passion. As a wise friend of mine likes to say, "Hormones will always trump neurons." A Swiss teenager who was told her drug-addicted boyfriend was HIV-positive said, "I know he loves me and would never do anything to hurt me." In the face of such emotional responses, what chance do precautions have of succeeding?

Just a few leaps of logic, eh? Theory: He loves me. Evidence: usually not much besides the fact that she has the hots for him. Theory: He'd never do anything to hurt me. Evidence: He loves her, and (lesser included theory) he knows how to keep her from contracting AIDS. The evidence supporting the sub-theory? Not much. The fact that he's HIV-positive makes it hard to have much faith in his ability to prevent infection.

Some scientists have convinced themselves that AIDS is not caused by HIV but by anti-AIDS drugs. Worse yet, they have succeeded in convincing politically powerful figures, setting back AIDS control programs for years as in the case of South Africa. That country's leaders have changed their views, but the damage has been done.

And that's another case where a bad theory kills people.

Turn now to the less-educated majority. When I ran the CDC's dengue lab in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I accompanied sanitary inspectors on their tour of the city to look for mosquito breeding places. We lifted the lid of a rain barrel to find a swarm of mosquito larvae inside. When we showed them to the homeowner, he said, "You gringos all think we are stupid. Don't try to tell me these worms are going to turn into mosquitoes. Get out of my house!"

Bad theory: worms are worms, and worms they'll always be. Better theory: some worms are larval stages of mosquitos, and will grow up to carry dengue fever if you let them.

(Interestingly, the use of the term "gringos" points to a larger theory, which seems to spawn a lot of these bad theories. This theory says, "the white man is out to get us." White people tell people in Puerto Rico that worms will turn into mosquitos. White people tell black Africans that HIV causes AIDS, and the anti-AIDS drugs are a treatment. Woodall doesn't say what the polio vaccine rumor was, but I bet it had something to do with killing off the black population.

Well, according to theory, white people are racist, so they must have some nefarious purpose for saying this, and they think the other races are stupid enough to fall for it. And when they die from the side-effects of their theories, the white men will be right there, still going strong, and great targets for blame.)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Carnival of the Recipes (last week)

Bookmarking last week's and noting where this week's will appear.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Is God spelled D-N-A?

(Hat tip: Dennis Prager, Clayton Craymer, Hugh Hewitt)

It didn't take long.

On June 11, The Times runs an article about Dr. Francis Collins. Dr. Collins led the team that cracked the human genome, and sees the hand of God in the genome.

It was promptly picked up by Dennis Prager on his radio show, as well as Clayton Cramer in his blog:

Latest Knuckle Dragging Yahoo To Claim Science Shows God's Handiwork
The director of the National Human Genome Research Institute:

Prager, Cramer, and Hewitt do little more than take note of the fact that here's a top-rank scientist who believes God exists, and the genome shows His handiwork.

For many people, the most important paragraph in the Times article seems to be:

Collins joins a line of scientists whose research deepened their belief in God. Isaac Newton, whose discovery of the laws of gravity reshaped our understanding of the universe, said: "This most beautiful system could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful being."

I have some questions for those who are busy linking this article on their blogs and dancing their happy dances on Darwin's grave.

Question 1: Do you believe there are knowable, discoverable natural laws that govern the universe?

Back in the days of Isaac Newton, science was called "Natural Philosophy". Natural philosophy was the study of how nature works, and the natural philosopher considered himself on a quest to discover the rules God had created so the world would run in an orderly manner.

Kepler, for example, spent his lifetime looking for the central principle on which the orbits of the planets were organized. At first, he proposed that the celestial spheres were spaced at distances that corresponded to the dimensions of the regular polygons. After years of trial and effort, the model refused to work for him. He finally abandoned it, and came up with three laws of planetary motion -- laws which did work.

Newton came up with his laws of motion, and his law of universal gravitation; other scientists developed the three laws of thermodynamics.

Although "scientific law" has a specific definition nowadays, its roots trace back to the notion that science was discovering the rules laid down when the universe was created. They believed in a universe governed by laws, so that God seldom, if ever, needed to intervene. For example, rather than imagining that God would personally direct the course of every star and planet in the universe, they held that God established laws of motion at the outset, and the stars and planets -- and everything else -- moved in accord with those laws.

Newton's laws have been spectacularly successful. We can use them to launch a space probe to the outer planets, with enough fuel on board to change their speed by a total of a few hundred feet-per-second. This requires very precise targeting, and is a feat at least as impressive as any of the Green Arrow's trick shots.

However, Newton's laws aren't the whole story. They've been superseded by Einstein's equations. That doesn't mean we throw them out -- they're still very useful in the areas where they apply. They just don't tell the whole story.

Scientists have also studied living things, and made a number of discoveries. These include the chemical makeup of life, eventually down to the sequence of molecules in its DNA. They've discovered patterns of similarity and differences among living things, and they've come up with theories (it's no longer fashionable to call them "laws") to explain them. Some of these theories are what is collectively known as "evolution".

What does Dr. Collins say about evolution?

COLLINS: Well, evolution is a theory. It's a very compelling one. As somebody who studies DNA, the fact that we are 98.4 percent identical at the DNA level to a chimpanzee, it's pretty hard to ignore the fact that when I am studying a particular gene, I can go to the mouse and find it's the similar gene, and it's 90 percent the same. It's certainly compatible with the theory of evolution, although it will always be a theory that we cannot actually prove. I'm a theistic evolutionist. I take the view that God, in His wisdom, used evolution as His creative scheme. I don't see why that's such a bad idea. That's pretty amazingly creative on His part. And what is wrong with that as a way of putting together in a synthetic way the view of God who is interested in creating a group of individuals that He can have fellowship with -- us? Why is evolution not an appropriate way to get to that goal? I don't see a problem with that. (link)

It would seem Dr. Collins has no problem with the notion that evolution is one of the rules laid down at the creation of the universe.

Question 2: Do you believe there are processes which can never be accounted for by any law of science, discovered or undiscovered?

The advocates of Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory (ID/IOT) believe that some phenomena are too complex, too intricate, too improbable, or too special to have arisen through the operation of natural law. They like to point to astonishing features in the natural world, and declare it impossible that they could have evolved. One example is the blood clotting cascade, which involves a dizzying array of enzymes in an intricate sequence of processes. They point to this as an "irreducibly complex" system, where all the pieces need to be in place for the thing to work.

The ID/IOT advocates point to the blood clotting cascade, among other features of the biological world, and aren't content to say, "we have no idea how these features came to be". They're not even content to say, "evolutionary theory is inadequate to explain it without the discovery of new laws." To be sure, that's as far as they ever want to take it in open debate, but when you read what these folks write to each other, you will see that the explanation they're pushing is not any sort of scientific law, but rather a miracle. Their "scientific" alternative is to bypass science altogether. In essence, it calls for miracles.

Now as it happens, Dr. Collins does believe in miracles.

However, I don't think miracles happen frequently. It seems to me reading the Bible there were times when miracles were occurring at greater frequency, such as in the time of Moses or Elijah or the time of Christ. I have not personally witnessed a spiritual miracle. And I reject the comments that people make sometimes like the fact that a flower is blooming is a miracle. I don't think so. That's a matter that science can actually explain. How did you go from that seed to that blooming flower? I can answer that. Now, why did the seed exist in the first place? That, perhaps, is a miracle. We don't really know how the universe got here. (link)

Fair enough, this is actually known as the "god of the gaps" conjecture. It makes the statement that whenever there's anything in the universe we can't explain, it happened because of divine intervention. But there's a grave danger in hanging your faith on miraculous intervention.

Suppose, for example, your faith stands or falls on the belief that the blood clotting cascade could not possibly have arisen without being designed from scratch. If researchers piece together a scenario by which it could have happened, and fill in enough of the intermediate steps with actual, living examples that show the intermediates work, then your faith starts looking awfully wobbly.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, says intelligent design holds "that there are some things in nature that are just so incredibly complex that they could not be the result of natural cause."
But Collins suggests this approach essentially "puts God in the gaps, and it says if there's some part of science that you can't understand, that must be where God is. Historically, that hasn't gone well."
"If we've put him in a box -- if we said, 'Okay, God has to be in this particular part of nature and science explains that,' then we have potentially done great harm to people's faith," says Collins. (link)

You see, if you decide your faith stands or falls based on whether science can explain this or that natural phenomenon, you're in for a crisis when a scientific explanation pops up. And the track record for those betting against science has been pretty dismal.

One of the topics Dennis Prager keeps returning to is the actual meaning of the commandment, "you shall not carry [not "take"] the Lord's name in vain." He has explained this forbids doing stupid or evil things in the name of God, causing him to look stupid or evil. This commandment would forbid, for example, blowing up busloads of children in the name of God, or telling people God commands them to rape children. It can also be held to forbid telling people they have to believe untruths in order to be right with God.

I saw an interview with some folks from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishna people), and they confirmed that according to their religion, the sun is closer to the earth than the moon is. I guess, in order to be right with Krishna, you have to believe that, even though it's very easy to show the opposite is true. Maybe Krishna didn't think of imposing that commandment. Or maybe he doesn't care if his believers come across as blind and stupid.

In the final analysis, I think a lot of the opposition to evolution has to do with arrogance. There's lots of arrogance on both sides – many of science's spokesmen ooze the stuff. They have all the answers, even to questions outside the realm of science. Or if they don't, they're absolutely certain you don't either.

Believers, on the other hand, have their form of arrogance. They know how God works. They're intimately familiar with God in all his works, and they know anyone who tries to say God may have worked in a different way must be lying. Above all, they know that, however God may have made anything, from the universe to the blood clotting cascade to snowflakes, he didn't make them the way those dang scientistic types say he did.

I'll suggest these folks read 1 Corinthians 25-27:

25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. 26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Atoms and molecules are far from wise – they do what they do entirely as the result of blind, unguided natural forces. Yet under the influence of these forces, over the age of the universe, they accomplish marvels enough to shame the greatest minds on this planet.

House Resolution 861

(Hat tip: Hugh Hewitt)

House Resolution 861 has passed the House of Representatives.

This controversial, divisive, and partisan resolution says:


Declaring that the United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror, the struggle to protect freedom from the terrorist adversary.

Whereas the United States and its allies are engaged in a Global War on Terror, a long and demanding struggle against an adversary that is driven by hatred of American values and that is committed to imposing, by the use of terror, its repressive ideology throughout the world;

Whereas for the past two decades, terrorists have used violence in a futile attempt to intimidate the United States;

Whereas it is essential to the security of the American people and to world security that the United States, together with its allies, take the battle to the terrorists and to those who provide them assistance;

Whereas the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other terrorists failed to stop free elections in Afghanistan and the first popularly-elected President in that nation's history has taken office;

Whereas the continued determination of Afghanistan, the United States, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will be required to sustain a sovereign, free, and secure Afghanistan;

Whereas the steadfast resolve of the United States and its partners since September 11, 2001, helped persuade the government of Libya to surrender its weapons of mass destruction;

Whereas by early 2003 Saddam Hussein and his criminal, Ba'athist regime in Iraq, which had supported terrorists, constituted a threat against global peace and security and was in violation of mandatory United Nations Security Council Resolutions;

Whereas the mission of the United States and its Coalition partners, having removed Saddam Hussein and his regime from power, is to establish a sovereign, free, secure, and united Iraq at peace with its neighbors;

Whereas the terrorists have declared Iraq to be the central front in their war against all who oppose their ideology;

Whereas the Iraqi people, with the help of the United States and other Coalition partners, have formed a permanent, representative government under a newly ratified constitution;

Whereas the terrorists seek to destroy the new unity government because it threatens the terrorists' aspirations for Iraq and the broader Middle East;

Whereas United States Armed Forces, in coordination with Iraqi security forces and Coalition and other friendly forces, have scored impressive victories in Iraq including finding and killing the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi;

Whereas Iraqi security forces are, over time, taking over from United States and Coalition forces a growing proportion of independent operations and increasingly lead the fight to secure Iraq;

Whereas the United States and Coalition servicemembers and civilians and the members of the Iraqi security forces and those assisting them who have made the ultimate sacrifice or been wounded in Iraq have done so nobly, in the cause of freedom; and

Whereas the United States and its Coalition partners will continue to support Iraq as part of the Global War on Terror: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives--
(1) honors all those Americans who have taken an active part in the Global War on Terror, whether as first responders protecting the homeland, as servicemembers overseas, as diplomats and intelligence officers, or in other roles;
(2) honors the sacrifices of the United States Armed Forces and of partners in the Coalition, and of the Iraqis and Afghans who fight alongside them, especially those who have fallen or been wounded in the struggle, and honors as well the sacrifices of their families and of others who risk their lives to help defend freedom;
(3) declares that it is not in the national security interest of the United States to set an arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment of United States Armed Forces from Iraq;
(4) declares that the United States is committed to the completion of the mission to create a sovereign, free, secure, and united Iraq;
(5) congratulates Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the Iraqi people on the courage they have shown by participating, in increasing millions, in the elections of 2005 and on the formation of the first government under Iraq's new constitution;
(6) calls upon the nations of the world to promote global peace and security by standing with the United States and other Coalition partners to support the efforts of the Iraqi and Afghan people to live in freedom; and
(7) declares that the United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror, the noble struggle to protect freedom from the terrorist adversary.

I wonder which points those voting "nay" objected to.

Limbaugh on Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter is taking considerable flak over her latest book, and over the comments she's made on her book tour.

David Limbaugh has some comments, including:

Nor is it harshness, offensiveness or insulting tones that bother them; otherwise, they'd have to denounce 90 percent of the Democratic Party's leadership for the vicious slander they've hurled at George W. Bush for six years or at Justice Clarence Thomas. They would excommunicate from their movement cartoonists for their racist depictions of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They would condemn Michael Moore and the entire lineup at Air America. And they would be outraged at the defamatory drumbeat against Ann Coulter herself and portray her as a victim. One major newspaper called her book "pornography"; a magazine called for her to kill herself; a major news anchor said she had trampled on something "sacred"; and New York Daily News featured her on the cover as "Coulter the Cruel."

Coulter's comments pale in comparison to the nastiness that routinely comes out of liberals' mouths about conservatives, as when Sen. Harry Reid called President Bush a liar and Alan Greenspan a hack. So please, spare us the indignation.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Green deserts?

The biotech may soon be able to produce cheap, rugged enzymes that will break down cellulose into sugars, which can be fermented into ethanol. This may not be a good thing.

People in third-world countries have been using cellulose for energy for years. The result is that when a population needs more energy than can grow in any one year, they hit the reserves – stands of trees, and the like.

Cheap conversion of cellulose to ethanol will accelerate the process.

However sensibly we Americans might use the enzymes in Kansas, we know where cow-gut chemistry will inevitably lead in rural Burundi, India or China. Sure, a villager will fill the still with waste cellulose first. The enzymes, however, are just as happy to take apart freshly cut wood or grass, and that's what villagers will use instead when they need or want more energy than waste alone can supply. Just as villagers do today when they cook. The one difference is this: When the villager harvests wood or grass today, he can only bake chapatis, heat his hut or feed his cow. With cheap enzymes at hand, he can also power a generator and a motorbike.

History has already taught us what a carbohydrate energy economy does to a rich, green landscape--it levels it. The carbon balance goes sharply negative, too, when stove or cow is fueled with anything but waste or crops from existing farmland. It's pleasant to imagine that humanity might get all its liquid fuels from stable, legacy farms or from debris that would otherwise end up as fungus food. But that just isn't how humans have historically fed whatever they could feed with cellulose.

WP on Haditha

Some balance on Haditha:

A sergeant who led a squad of Marines during the incident in Haditha, Iraq, that left as many as 24 civilians dead said his unit did not intentionally target any civilians, followed military rules of engagement and never tried to cover up the shootings, his attorney said.
Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, told his attorney that several civilians were killed Nov. 19 when his squad went after insurgents who were firing at them from inside a house. The Marine said there was no vengeful massacre, but he described a house-to-house hunt that went tragically awry in the middle of a chaotic battlefield.

The story's still developing, but most of the news outlets seem to have reached a decision.


I can remember when "rush to judgment" was supposed to be a bad thing.