Monday, June 30, 2008

Gun control control

How the gun controllers lost

Steve Chapman writes at about what happened to reverse the trend toward stricter limits on guns.

l Gun control didn't work. In the 1990s, despite its draconian ban, Washington became the murder capital of the United States. Chicago's homicide rate, which had been declining in the years before it banned handguns, climbed over the following decade. Gun control didn't work.

l Laws allowing concealed weapons proliferated -- with no ill effects. In 1987, Florida gained national attention -- and notoriety -- by passing a law allowing citizens to get permits to carry concealed handguns. Opponents predicted a wave of carnage by pistol-packing hotheads, but it didn't happen. In fact, murders and other violent crimes subsided. Permit holders proved to be sober and restrained.

l The Second Amendment got a second look. In 1983, a San Francisco lawyer named Don Kates published an article in the University of Michigan Law Review arguing that, contrary to prevailing wisdom in the judiciary and law schools, the Constitution upholds an individual right to keep and bear arms.

Numerous legal scholars, spurred to examine the record, reached the same surprising conclusion. Before long, even some liberal law professors were coming around.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Conservatives are Nicer People

This from the Daily Mail:

There is plenty of data that shows that Right-wingers are happier, more generous to charities, less likely to commit suicide - and even hug their children more than those on the Left.

In my experience, they are also more honest, friendly and well-adjusted.

Much of this springs from the destructive influence of modern liberal ideas.

In the Sixties, we saw the beginning of a narcissism and self-absorption that gripped the Left and has not let go.

The statistics I base this on come from the General Social Survey, America's premier social research database, but they are just as relevant to the UK, as I believe political belief systems drive one's attitudes, regardless of where you happen to live.

Those surveyed were asked: 'Is it your obligation to care for a seriously injured/ill spouse or parent, or should you give care only if you really want to?' Of those describing themselves as 'conservative', 71 per cent said it was. Only 46 per cent of those on the Left agreed.

To the question: 'Do you get happiness by putting someone else's happiness ahead of your own?', 55 per cent of those who said they were 'very conservative' said Yes, compared with 20 per cent of those who were 'very liberal'.

Michael Yon on Torture

Michael Yon gives what I think is a pretty balanced take on torture.

Ideologies traffic in received ideas, which give people the illusion of thinking, without actually having to do the hard work of thought. Received ideas, like some religious and cult beliefs, are not challenged, merely accepted, and repeated until they become so important to those who hold them that to challenge these ideas would be to question one’s very identity. People who hold received ideas seem to feel personally threatened by the prospect of being wrong. Instead of reading and listening to possibly change their minds, they seek to reinforce the received ideas they already hold dear. On the Left, one received idea is that the Iraq War is lost. On the Right, one received idea is that torture is acceptable. The Left is wrong. We are winning the war in Iraq. The Right is wrong. Torture is unacceptable.

There is no way to know how many American lives were lost in Iraq due to the tortures we inflicted upon Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and other places. This is no argument of moral equivalence. I have seen the atrocities committed by al Qaeda and other terrorists, and I am not saying that Americans have ever come close to those acts. New Yorkers saw the atrocities of al Qaeda, as did many others.

Yet, when we tortured detainees, we lost something very important, something that America and its allies need in order to prevail against terrorists, not just in Iraq, but all over the world. We scarred our honor.

Torture works. There is no doubt that we can squeeze information from people. A lot of people say that information derived from torture is useless and suspect, and, of course, torture can make someone say anything just to stop the pain. But the fact is, torture does work. That does not mean we should do it.

And this is where I differ with at least one Human Intelligence Collector. He frames his argument as a "utilitarian" argument, and declares that Torture Doesn't Work. This is to be taken as received wisdom, and on the strength of this doctrine, torture is supposed to be completely beyond consideration.

But his "utilitarian argument" is only as strong as the data, and he has to explain away any and all contradictory data that pops up. Either the facts are being misinterpreted, or somewhere, someone along the line is misrepresenting them. The third option – that the reports are factually correct – is not to be considered. His argument loses its power as a result.

While torture might provide tactical gains, it delivers a strategic blunder. Let’s not argue whether it works or not. Let’s have the hard argument – whether or not it’s consistent with our values. We can obtain short term benefits from using torture, but in the long run we inflict far more pain on ourselves. The scars of torture never heal. Conversely, when detainees are treated with respect, they never forget it. Obviously, there are some hardcore prisoners who should be kept locked away until they die, but there is a much larger part who just want to go back to life without war.

Hint to certain Human Intelligence Collectors: Don't lie to me. Don't think you can build your case on a lie. It doesn't work, and it taints the rest of what you say, much the way torture taints the rest of what we do.

Let the Market Work

Beldar has a suggestion for dealing with oil speculators. Let the market deal with them.

...there is already in place a devastatingly efficient mechanism to punish any who've artificially inflated the current price of oil by reckless, collusive, or abusive trading in oil futures. It's a two-step mechanism:

(1) Start in a serious way to do what we can do to both reduce demand (i.e., conserve) and increase supply (i.e., drill and promote alternative energy sources).

(2) Let the market work.

Basically, speculators are betting that supplies will stay tight, and demand will stay high. As soon as you start drilling or taking other steps to increase the supply, and taking real steps to decrease demand (including building nuclear plants), the price of oil will plummet.

As soon as that happens, the speculators, with their huge holdings in oil, will take a bath. If they're very, very lucky, they'll have gotten in while prices were low, and they'll only lose a few percent of their investment, or maybe even make a small profit. The speculators who bought in near the peak will lose their shirts.

We don't know for sure how many market manipulators there are, or who they are, or how much of the current high prices are the result of their manipulation. Nor are we likely to track them down: Crooks hide their tracks, and the difference between a crook and an entrepreneur is often purely a matter of subjective judgment.

The market doesn't care; the market doesn't need tracks. The market passes its relentless judgments automatically, inexorably, and with the closest thing to perfect justice we're likely to see in our lifetimes — if, but only if, it's allowed by government to function normally, i.e., freed from government interference.

You want to purge the market of manipulative speculators? Let the markets work. Permit and encourage conservation to reduce demand; permit and encourage development (both drilling and alternative sources) to increase supply; and drive the price down using basic laws of economics that are more powerful than even Barack Obama on his best day when he's got a full gospel choir and both chambers of Congress singing with him in harmony.

And then, it'll be "all over but the gloating".

Behe caught in a lie

One thing that amazes me is how people who should consider truth and honesty a virtue continue to take the intelligent design movement seriously. They lie. They seem to believe their agenda is more important than telling the truth. For an illustration, I turn the floor over to Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs:

...I stumbled on this interesting article (from 10 years ago but sadly still relevant) by University of Chicago Professor Jerry Coyne about the deceptive tactics employed by Discovery Institute advocate Michael Behe: Boston Review: Is Darwin in the Details? A Debate - More Crank Science.

Behe’s arguments, like those of Biblical creationists, are heavily larded with quotations from evolutionists, many taken out of context to make it seem that our field is riven with self-doubt. More than anything else, it is this use of selective quotation that shows Behe’s close kinship to his religious predecessors.

I am painfully and personally acquainted with Behe’s penchant for fiddling with quotations. On page 29 of Darwin’s Black Box he writes:

Jerry Coyne, of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, arrives at an unanticipated verdict: “We conclude—unexpectedly—that there is little evidence for the neo-Darwinian view: its theoretical foundations and the experimental evidence supporting it are weak.”

Apparently I am one of those faint-hearted biologists who see the errors of Darwinism but cannot admit it. This was news to me. I am surely numbered among the more orthodox evolutionists, and hardly see our field as fatally flawed. The paper in question (actually by Allen Orr and myself) addresses a technical debate among evolutionists: are adaptations based on a lot of small genetic mutations (the traditional neo-Darwinian view), a few big mutations, or some mixture of the two? We concluded that although there was not much evidence one way or the other, there were indications that mutations of large effect might occasionally be important. Our paper cast no doubt whatever on the existence of evolution or the ability of natural selection to explain adaptations.

I went back to see exactly what Orr and I had written. It turns out that, in the middle of our sentence, Behe found a period that wasn’t there. Here’s the full citation, placed in its context:

Although a few biologists have suggested an evolutionary role for mutations or large effect (Gould 1980; Maynard Smith 1983: Gottlieb, 1984; Turner, 1985), the neo-Darwinian view has largely triumphed, and the genetic basis of adaptation now receives little attention. Indeed, the question is considered so dead that few may know the evidence responsible for its demise.

Here we review this evidence. We conclude—unexpectedly—that there is little evidence for the neo-Darwinian view: its theoretical foundations and the experimental evidence supporting it are weak, and there is no doubt that mutations of large effect are sometimes important in adaptation.

We hasten to add, however, that we are not “macromutationists” who believe that adaptations are nearly always based on major genes. The neo-Darwinian view could well be correct. It is almost certainly true, however, that some adaptations involve many genes of small effect and others involve major genes. The question we address is, How often does adaptation involve a major gene? We hope to encourage evolutionists to reexamine this neglected question and to provide the evidence to settle it.

By inserting the period (and removing the sentence from its neighbors), Behe has twisted our meaning. Our discussion of one aspect of Darwinism—the relative size of adaptive mutations—has suddenly become a critique of the entire Darwinian enterprise. This is not sloppy scholarship, but deliberate distortion.

Perhaps I unduly belabor this point, but we know what they say about God and the details. Can anyone who alters quotations be trusted to give an unbiased view of the scientific data?

This kind of thing is not unique. In fact, it's common enough to have developed a term to describe it – "quote mining".

Other problems ID has with the truth are less egregious. When Behe, for example, went through his entire discussion of the blood clotting cascade without mentioning Kenneth Miller's work on the same topic, this could just possibly be explained as bad research. Somehow, in his search of the literature, he managed to miss a decade of research which, ten years before his book was published, answered the question he said science had no plausible answer for. It's possible that, even after having been exposed to that work, it completely slipped his mind while he was wrestling with the question in his book. But wrenching a sentence in a paper out of context is a deliberate lie.

When ID advocates claim they want schools to teach the "problems" with evolution, do they also want kids taught the ID movement's lies?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Heller decision

At Bench Memos, National

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Teaching the "weaknesses" in evolutionary theory

Oh, let's do!

I looked at the website where the Texans for Better Science Education lay out examples of the "weaknesses" that should be taught. They're pretty weak, all right. I think that most of these could be included in a science course as "common myths about evolutionary theory."

Consider these:

The Cambrian explosion quickly produced all of the basically different body structures, and some of these have since become extinct. This is very different from the evolutionary tree of life, which suggests a slow and gradual increase in body structures.

No, no it doesn't. Evolutionary theory provides no reason to think that body structures should change at a slow constant rate. The synthetic theory emphasizes why bursts of adaptive change should happen episodically.

Many life forms persist through large expanses of geologic time with essentially no change. Evolution theory suggests that mutations occur randomly over time and are selected to produce continuing change as the environment continually changes.

No, no it doesn't. Some organisms may well have relatively constant environments for millions of years.

Selective breeding has produced only very limited change with no new structures occurring over thousands of years and multitudes of generations of selection.

Umm... teosinte? I think that biology texts should devote a lot more attention to selective breeding, as the best concrete examples of evolution in action.

So, that reflects on the basic problem with the idea of teaching evolution's "weaknesses": A real weakness is not a matter of ignorance, but a matter of evidence weighing in favor of some alternative hypothesis. We don't have that here.

How much does money matter?

The authors of Freakonomics argued that campaign money doesn't buy popularity nearly as much as popularity buys campaign money. In other words, candidates who have huge war chests have huge war chests because they're winning candidates. They don't become winning candidates simply because they have a lot of money. (As Mike Huffington, Steve Forbes, and Ross Perot can attest.)

Dafydd at Big Lizards links to a piece suggesting there's a campaign saturation point (CSP) above which further spending is at best ineffective, and more likely, hurts the candidate. As a candidate advertizes above the CSP, he winds up irritating voters.

I emphatically believe that every campaign in every election generates a campaign saturation point (CSP), beyond which further campaigning -- ads on TV and radio, appearances on talk shows, billboards, posters, signs, rallies, debates, GOTV, and door-knocking electioneering -- diminish, rather that augment a candidate's electoral performance. This factor should be measured in campaign density, not duration: You don't want to stop campaigning two months before the election, but you might want to throttle back on your campaigning to avoid oversaturating the market (inundating voters).

Past that point, no amount of money a campaign has on hand will help... and it can hurt a candidate badly, since there is an almost irresistable impulse for a campaign to burn through every penny it raises... even if doing so hurts rather than helps. Thus, Obama's "advantage" over McCain in campaign cash won't be as big as the raw figures naively indicate... and may not exist at all, depending where Obama's CSP lands.

So where does the CSP land? That's the hard question.

CSP is a very hard factor to measure, not least because the CSP depends upon several variables, including (a non-exhaustive list):

  • The intelligence of the campaign: A smart campaign has a higher CSP than a stupid one;
  • The importance of the underlying issues: If the contested issues impact the lives of ordinary voters, they will have a greater tolerance for the candidates campaigning on those issues;
  • The likability of the candidate himself: Voters will be more tolerant of a candidate they like than one they dislike;
  • Competing interests: If there are many other stories competing for voters' interests, they will be less tolerant of a candidate campaigning.

This phenomenon looks a bit like other invariants that show up in finance and economics, such as the finding that the revenue from a taxed population is about 20% of their income, pretty much regardless of what the income tax rate is. Another one Dafydd mentions is disaster aid.

The concept of CSP is homologous to a similar phenomenon I learned about anent reconstruction money in areas devastated by war or natural disaster: You can only pump so much money into reconstruction, an amount determined by the available infrastructure: Beyond that, money is simply flushed away. In Iraq, for example, there are only so many people available at any one time, based on skill and security, to rebuild an electrical grid or sewer lines; even if you have more money in your pocket, it won't do any good to throw it around.

Maybe campaign spending is subject to the same sort of forces that make other invariants so reluctant to vary. Once you saturate the system, further increases in the independent variable (tax rate, dollars thrown into a campaign) have no further effect on the dependent variable (tax revenue, votes).

Did you know Obama's black?

Davydd at Big Lizards quotes Barack Obama's claim that:

We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?"

While it's virtually certain that someone, or even a few someones, will put something on the Internet pounding on Obama's color, Dafydd believes we should expect a major race campaign in the week before the election. This timing is important.

For a very good reason: The perpetrators of that series of attacks do not want there to be enough time to discover the actual source of the "attacks"... 0>which will originate from some radical leftist group hoping for a "backlash" against McCain.

Obama as much as begs for a "false-flag" operation by his phraseology: "They're going to try to make you afraid. They're going to try to make you afraid of me." Translation: If you see any racist or xenophobic ads, you will know that they put them up. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain... blame McCain, blame McConnell, blame the racist, fascist Republicans!

So what should the McCain campaign do in response?

The only defense is an immediate credible counter-accusation that if Democrats want to find the real racists, they should look in a mirror. After all, so far in this election cycle, the only candidate to raise the point of Obama's race has been – Hillary Clinton, who noted (correctly) that the only reason Obama was ahead of her in the delegate count was his overwhelming support by black voters.

In fact, to even raise an unsupported, fabricated accusation of racism trivializes real racism -- and it hurts blacks; just as Tawana Brawley's and Crystal Gail Mangum's false charges of racism and rape trivialized both evils, thus hurting both blacks and women who have been vicimized by real racism or actual rape.

McCain's rapid-response team had better get those counter-accusation ads ready now, so he'll be prepared to hit back before the first slime has a chance to settle and change voters' perceptions.

A reducibly simple cell?

New Way To Think About Earth's First Cells

(, 6/6/2008)

A team of researchers at Harvard University have modeled in the laboratory a primitive cell, or protocell, that is capable of building, copying and containing DNA. Since there are no physical records of what the first primitive cells on Earth looked like, or how they grew and divided, the research team's protocell project offers a useful way to learn about how Earth's earliest cells may have interacted with their environment approximately 3.5 billion years ago.

The protocell's fatty acid membrane allows chemical compounds, including the building blocks of DNA, to enter into the cell without the assistance of the protein channels and pumps required by today's highly developed cell membranes. Also unlike modern cells, the protocell does not use enzymes for copying its DNA.

Led by Jack W. Szostak of the Harvard Medical School, the research team published its findings in the June 4, 2008, edition of the journal Nature's advance online publication.

"Szostak's group took a creative approach to this research challenge and made a significant contribution to our understanding of small molecule transport through membranes," said Luis Echegoyen, director of the NSF Division of Chemistry.

When the team started its work, the researchers were not sure that the building blocks required for copying the protocell's genetic material would be able to enter the cell.

"By showing that this can happen, and indeed happen quite efficiently, we have come a little closer to our goal of making a functional protocell that, in the right environment, is able to grow and divide on its own," said Szostak.

"We have found that membranes made from fatty acids and related molecules -- the most likely components of primitive cell membranes -- have properties very different from those of the modern cell membrane, which uses specialized pumps, channels or pores to control what gets in and out," says Jack Szostak, PhD, of the MGH Department of Molecular Biology and Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, the report's senior author. "Our report shows that very primitive cells may have absorbed nutrients from their environment, rather than having to manufacture needed materials internally, which supports one of two competing theories about fundamental properties of these cells."

Ron Bailey on Expelled

Flunk This Movie!

Ben Stein's Expelled is all worldview and no evidence.

Ronald Bailey | July 2008 Print Edition

“This is not a religious argument,” Discovery
Institute President Bruce Chapman asserts in the new
anti-evolution propaganda movie, Expelled: No
Intelligence Allowed. Yet the film is free of
scientific content: It gives no scientific evidence
against biological evolution and none for “intelligent
design.” Instead, host Ben Stein spends most of the
movie asking various proponents of evolutionary theory
for their religious views.

The film begins with moody shots of Stein backstage
before he addresses an unidentified audience on the
alleged suppression of scientific research in the name
of Darwinian orthodoxy. Stein stalks onstage and
suggests that we are losing our scientific freedom.

As evidence, Stein trots out a small parade of
martyrs. In 2004, Richard Sternberg, then editor of
Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington,
published an article by Stephen Meyer arguing that the
“Cambrian explosion” 570 to 530 million years ago in
which most of the body types of animals developed was
evidence for intelligent design.

Many of Sternberg’s colleagues reacted with dismay,
and the journal retracted the article. In the film,
Sternberg says he lost his office at the Smithsonian’s
Museum of Natural History, was pressured to resign,
and had his religious and political beliefs
questioned. Yet he still has office space in the
museum and has been reappointed for three more years.
True, some of his colleagues might not want to hang
out with him anymore. But that is a far cry from the
grim black-and-white shots of Soviet armies and
concentration camps featured in the film.

In 2005, George Mason University did not renew a
teaching contract with Caroline Crocker, an adjunct
biology lecturer who believes in intelligent design.
She tells Stein that she only wanted to teach students
to question scientific orthodoxies: “I was only trying
to teach what the university stands for—academic
freedom.” Since George Mason let her go, she says, she
can no longer find work.

Interestingly, Crocker delivered the same offending
lecture at a local community college later. It didn’t
turn out to be a “balanced” presentation of evidence
for and against biological evolution. Why not? “There
really is not a lot of evidence for evolution,” she

An assistant professor of astronomy, Guillermo
Gonzalez, was denied tenure at Iowa State University
in 2007. In 2004 Gonzalez co-wrote The Privileged
Planet, which argues the Earth was precisely
positioned to enable researchers like him to make
scientific measurements. An Iowa State colleague,
Hector Avalos, neatly skewers this conceit: “This
rationale is analogous to a plumber arguing that if
our planet had not been positioned precisely where it
is, then he might not be able to do his work as a
plumber. Lead pipes might melt if the Sun were much
closer. And, if our planet were any farther from the
Sun, it might be so frozen that plumbers might not
exist at all. Therefore, plumbing must have been the
reason that our planet was located where it is.”

Did Gonzalez fail to get tenure because of his views?
The university denies it, but my guess is he did. On
the evidence of The Privileged Planet, Guillermo’s
colleagues could reasonably worry that his views
weren’t likely to lead to fruitful research results.

The most egregious part of the movie is the attempt to
link evolution with Communism and Nazism. The claim
that Communism was motivated by Darwin is just silly.
Official Soviet biological doctrine was Lysenkoism,
and Russian Darwinists were denounced as “Trotskyite
agents of international fascism” and thrown into the
Gulag for their scientific sins.

And Nazism? In the film, the mathematician David
Berlinski says, “Darwinism is not a sufficient
condition for a phenomenon like Nazism, but I think it
was a necessary one.” Berlinski is suggesting that
scientific materialism undermines the notion that
human beings occupy a special place in the universe.
If humans aren’t special, goes this line of thinking,
then morals don’t apply.

But people through the millennia have found all sorts
of justifications for murdering each other, including
plunder, nationalism, and, yes, religion. Meanwhile,
insights from evolutionary psychology are helping us
understand how our in-group/out-group dynamics
contribute to our disturbing capacity for racism,
xenophobia, genocide, and warfare. The field also
offers new ideas about how human morality developed,
including our capacities for cooperation, love, and

At one point in the film, the science studies gadfly
Steve Fuller archly poses the question: Which comes
first, worldview or evidence? Fuller aims his question
at the proponents of evolutionary biology. As this
dreary film itself makes it painfully clear, the
question is far more relevant to the supporters of
intelligent design.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Subordinate Clauses

A hypertext grammar online.

Absolute clauses

XRLQ takes on a the "linguist brief" in the Heller case.

The Second Amendment

Clear to anyone with a lick of sense.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Do the Gods repeat themselves?

This is a question that's been floating around in cosmological circles.

For example:

If space goes on forever, then there must be other regions like ours — in fact, an infinite number of them. No matter how unlikely it is to have another planet just like Earth, we know that in an infinite universe it is bound to happen again.

Your hear that a lot from cosmologists, but it's shoddy thinking. An infinite space doesn't have to contain every possible combination of matter. It might just contain an infinity of Cabbage Patch Dolls arranged at the intersections of a cubic lattice. Or it might, beyond a certain point, just be empty. The positive odd integers 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, … are an infinite set, but the set doesn't contain any even integers.

There are serious problems with this argument. First of all, we have a problem with the definition of "possible". While it's true that the set of positive odd integers is infinite, and while it's true no even integers appear in it, it also reeks of – well, design. If you pulled numbered balls out of a barrel, and all you ever found was even numbers, you might be tempted to conclude that the odd numbers had been excluded. By defining a set as "the positive odd integers", Derbyshire has defined a set which specifically excludes even numbers. Thus, under this definition, it's impossible for an odd integer to appear in the set.

Scientists work with a number of basic assumptions – axioms, if you will.

One of these is, if something exists, it's possible.

Since the Earth exists, it is, by definition, possible. (It happened.)

Since it's possible, the probability that it would actually happen in some volume of space is greater than zero. (In contrast to the probability of finding an even integer in the set of positive odd integers.)

Science also assumes no one or nothing is stacking the deck. There is no reason to assume that, because anything has appeared once, its chance of appearing in the next region of space is changed in any way. (That is, the "gambler's fallacy" doesn't apply to natural events.)

In particular, if the earth can arise in the universe once, it must have some chance of appearing in any other volume of space, however low that chance may be. And if you examine a large enough volume of space, you will hit the jackpot sooner or later.

The trick is to live long enough.

If the odds are sufficiently long, there may be no other Earths close enough to ever show up in our radar.

Why conservatives hate science

John Derbyshire at the Corner on why so many conservatives hate science.

There are two big reasons and a host of smaller ones. Top of the list:

  • Big reason 1: Science has no moral content. This is simply appalling to a lot of conservatives — that a body of knowledge with so much prestige and importance can be morally empty. Human beings want to know how to live, and a mass of knowledge that contains no guidance on this is just abhorrent to many, most of them self-identifying conservatives.
  • Big reason 2: Scientists are irreligious. They mostly are. On the broadest definition of "scientist," over 60 percent are unbelievers.
  • Small reason 1: Science is incomplete. Our core of scientific knowledge about topics that have been thoroughly investigated for decades or centuries — combustion, electromagnetism, gravitation, evolution — is as solid and indisputable as human knowledge can be, but there's a lot of stuff around the edges we're not sure about, and plenty beyond that where we just don't have much of a clue. For reasons I don't understand, some people find this intolerable.
  • Small reason 2: Scientists are left-wing. Again, largely true. Check out the comment threads on any science blog. (GNXP is one of the very few exceptions.)

More on this thread here, here, here, and here.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The two faces of Obama

(Hat tips: Dennis Prager, Dean Barnett)
It's interesting to read a fan of Barack Obama listing what Obama's "thrown under the truck" in the course of his campaign:
  • From time to time, he threw his voting power under the truck.
  • Then the political costs of Rev. Wright escalated and Fast Eddie Obama threw Wright under the truck.
  • [P]rimary candidates don’t do tough votes, so Fast Eddie Obama threw the workhorse duties under the truck.
  • John McCain offered to have a series of extended town-hall meetings around the country. But favored candidates don’t go in for unscripted free-range conversations. Fast Eddie Obama threw the new-politics mantra under the truck.
  • Thursday, at the first breath of political inconvenience, Fast Eddie Obama threw public financing under the truck.
How is all this admirable?
I have to admit, I’m ambivalent watching all this. On the one hand, Obama did sell out the primary cause of his professional life, all for a tiny political advantage. If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out? On the other hand, global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.
All I know for sure is that this guy is no liberal goo-goo. Republicans keep calling him naïve. But naïve is the last word I’d use to describe Barack Obama. He’s the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades. Even Bill Clinton wasn’t smart enough to succeed in politics by pretending to renounce politics.
I can understand the theory here. It's the same theory that says when shopping for a lawyer to represent you in a divorce, you talk to your divorced friends and find out which lawyer screwed them over the worst, and then get that lawyer on your side.
Barack Obama may well be the most effective weapon available in the battlefield of international politics. My only question is, in what direction will he be pointed?

Bush Lied?

(Hat tip: Cheat-Seeking Missiles.)

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, set out to provide the official foundation for what has become not only a thriving business but, more important, an article of faith among millions of Americans. And in releasing a committee report Thursday, he claimed to have accomplished his mission, though he did not use the L-word.
"In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent," he said.

But dive into Rockefeller's report, in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and you may be surprised by what you find.

On Iraq's nuclear weapons program? The president's statements "were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates."

On biological weapons, production capability and those infamous mobile laboratories? The president's statements "were substantiated by intelligence information."

On chemical weapons, then? "Substantiated by intelligence information."

On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information." Delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles? "Generally substantiated by available intelligence." Unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to deliver WMDs? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information."

What about ties to terrorism?

But statements regarding Iraq's support for terrorist groups other than al-Qaeda "were substantiated by intelligence information." Statements that Iraq provided safe haven for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda "were substantiated by the intelligence assessments," and statements regarding Iraq's contacts with al-Qaeda "were substantiated by intelligence information."

OK, so where is the disagreement?

The report is left to complain about "implications" and statements that "left the impression" that those contacts led to substantive Iraqi cooperation.

In the report's final section, the committee takes issue with Bush's statements about Saddam Hussein's intentions and what the future might have held. But was that really a question of misrepresenting intelligence, or was it a question of judgment that politicians are expected to make?

After all, it was not Bush, but Rockefeller, who said in October 2002: "There has been some debate over how 'imminent' a threat Iraq poses. I do believe Iraq poses an imminent threat. I also believe after September 11, that question is increasingly outdated. . . . To insist on further evidence could put some of our fellow Americans at risk. Can we afford to take that chance? I do not think we can."

Bush leaves office in just over half a year. At this point, does it matter?

Yes, it does.

[T]he phony "Bush lied" story line distracts from the biggest prewar failure: the fact that so much of the intelligence upon which Bush and Rockefeller and everyone else relied turned out to be tragically, catastrophically wrong.

And it trivializes a double dilemma that President Bill Clinton faced before Bush and that President Obama or McCain may well face after: when to act on a threat in the inevitable absence of perfect intelligence and how to mobilize popular support for such action, if deemed essential for national security, in a democracy that will always, and rightly, be reluctant.

For the next president, it may be Iran's nuclear program, or al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan, or, more likely, some potential horror that today no one even imagines. When that time comes, there will be plenty of warnings to heed from the Iraq experience, without the need to fictionalize more.

In sum, if this whole affair causes the next President, or any of his successors, to wait for better information when an attack really is imminent, the result will be property destroyed and lives lost that need not have been. And although we won't see bumper stickers making the claim, it will be the case that "Democrats Lied, People Died".

What do creationists get right?

What do creationists get right?

This just in over the transom at I'm quoting very heavily from it, mainly because I don't know how long the link in the headline will stay valid, and I want access to the points and links.

Two and a half years ago, in what is so far the "trial of this century," federal district judge John Jones III ruled that it was unconstitutional for a school board in Dover, PA to teach intelligent design (ID) theory in a public high school science class. The decision was stunning; the ID movement lost on every front. When Jones called the school board's efforts to introduce ID into the curriculum "staggering inanity," the anti-ID chorus roared its support. Jones declared the ID movement's science bogus, their tactics corrupt, and their religious motivations transparent. Intelligent design, Jones said, is the most recent species in the highly adaptive lineage known as American Creationism.

The Dover trial seemed, for a brief moment, to be a wooden stake driven into the heart of creationism. But ID is once again back up and on the march. So far in 2008, legislators in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan, and Missouri have tried to require that classrooms teach both "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory," code for unteaching evolution. Similar legislation passed both houses of the Louisiana legislature this month and is coming perilously close to passing in Texas. the debate over evolution, I also think creationists' doggedness has to do with the fact that they make a few worthy points. And as long as evolutionists like me reflexively react with ridicule and self-righteous rage, we may paradoxically be adding years to creationism's lifespan.

First, I have to agree with the ID crowd that there are some very big (and frankly exciting) questions that should keep evolutionists humble. While there is important work going on in the area of biogenesis, for instance, I think it's fair to say that science is still in the dark about this fundamental question. It's hard to draw conclusions about the significance of what we don't know. Still, I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant than the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology. Evolution should be able to explain, in theory at least, all the way back to the very first organism that could replicate itself through biological or chemical processes. And to understand that organism fully, we would simply have to know what came before it. And right now we are nowhere close. I believe a material explanation will be found, but that confidence comes from my faith that science is up to the task of explaining, in purely material or naturalistic terms, the whole history of life. My faith is well founded, but it is still faith.

Second, IDers also argue that the cell is far more complex than Darwin could have imagined 149 years ago when he published On the Origin of Species. There is much more explaining to do than those who came before us could have predicted. Sure, we also know a lot more about natural selection and evolution, including the horizontal transfer of portions of genomes from one species to another. But scientists still have much to learn about the process of evolution if they are to fully explain the phenomenon. Again, I have faith that science will complete that picture, but I suspect there will be some big surprises. Will one of them be that an intelligent being designed life? I doubt it. Even if someone found compelling evidence for a designer, for us materialists, it would just push the ultimate question down the road a bit. If a Smart One designed life, what is the material explanation for its existence?

The third noteworthy point IDers make has its roots, paradoxically, in a kind of psychological empiricism. Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God's existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters. I can't imagine a scientific argument in the world that could convince me that I didn't really love my children. And if there were such an argument, I have to admit I'd be reluctant to accept it, however compelling it appeared on paper. I have too much respect for my own experience.

Which leads me to a final concession to my ID foes: When they say that some proponents of evolution are blind followers, they're right. A few years ago I covered a conference of the American Atheists in Las Vegas. I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn't know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection. They came to their Darwinism via a commitment to naturalism and atheism not through the study of science. They're still correct when they say evolution happens. But I'm afraid they're wrong to call themselves skeptics unencumbered by ideology. Many of them are best described as zealots. Ideological zeal isn't incompatible with good science; its coincidence with a theory proves nothing about that theory's explanatory power.

Should IDers be allowed to pursue their still very eccentric and outlying theory? Absolutely. There must be room, even respect, for eccentricity in science; it can lead to great discoveries. Alchemy led to chemistry. Astrology to astronomy. Much more often, of course, it leads nowhere. Looking for evidence of design in the natural world isn't itself unscientific (though, as I argue in my book, insisting that any designer must be a supernatural being is!) and if it were found, that would be big and fascinating news. But if I had a biology department with only seven faculty spots in it, I would not want someone who believed the cornerstone of modern biology was hogwash filling one of them. And I certainly don't want an improbable outlying hypothesis taught to my own teenage son as an alternative to one of the most powerful explanatory theories to illuminate the human mind.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

To Keep and Bear Arms

(Hat tip: Volokh Conspiracy )

One of the centers of furious argument with respect to the Second Amendment has to do with the meaning of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms". Bill Posner at Language Log looks at the meaning of the term "bear arms".

One of the issues is whether the Second Amendment guarantees a private right, that is, a right of individuals to own and carry arms, or a public right, that is, a right of militias to own and carry arms, or both. Many advocates of restrictions on the right of individuals to own and carry arms promote the interpretation that the Second Amendment is meant only to protect the organized militia units, which, they typically argue, are now subsumed under the National Guard. For advocates of this interpretation, there is no individual right to own and carry weapons.

One aspect of this argument is the interpretation of the leading clause of the amendment. Advocates of the "public only" interpretation consider this clause to indicate that the needs of the militia are the exclusive motivation for the Second Amendment and that its scope is therefore limited to the militia.


[T]he so-called "Linguists' Brief"...that the Second Amendment protects only a public right on two grounds: the afore-mentioned interpretation of the leading clause, and the argument that the expression "bear arms" refers only to the organized military use of arms, not to individual use. They claim that the term "bear arms" is "an idiomatic expression that means 'to serve as a soldier, do military service'".

If true, this would be quite surprising, since there is what seems to me to be a very strong case, nicely put in the The Cato Institute Brief, that the right to bear arms in English law prior to the Bill of Rights was an individual right and that the Founders saw the Second Amendment and similar provisions in state constitutions as continuations and extensions of that tradition. A view contrary to that of the Linguists' Brief is presented by Clayton Cramer, a software engineer and historian, and Joseph Olson, a historian, in their paper What did 'Bear Arms' Mean in the Second Amendment. English usage of the late 18th century is not my area of expertise, but it seems to me that it is the non-linguists who have the stronger case.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fertility panics

Kerry Howley has a piece on population panics, including some discussion of America Alone

And there are blog entries by Megan McArdle and Will Wilkerson.

Legalize All Drugs

Legalize All Drugs

John Stossel says this over at

His reasons, with which I tend to agree are:

After years of reporting on the drug war, I'm convinced that this "war" does more harm than any drug.

Independent of that harm, adults ought to own our own bodies, so it's not intellectually honest to argue that "only marijuana" should be legal -- and only for certain sick people approved by the state. Every drug should be legal.


While drugs harm many, the drug war's black market harms more.

And most importantly, in a free country, adults should have the right to harm themselves.

He feels compelled to deal with some myths of the drug war, including:

Myth No. 1: Heroin and cocaine have a permanent effect.

Truth: There is no evidence of that.

Myth No. 2: If you do crack once, you are hooked.

Truth: Look at the numbers -- 15 percent of young adults have tried crack, but only 2 percent used it in the last month. If crack is so addictive, why do most people who've tried it no longer use it?

Myth No. 3: Drugs cause crime.

Truth: The drug war causes the crime.


In turn, some buyers steal to pay the high black-market prices. The government says heroin, cocaine and nicotine are similarly addictive, and about half the people who both smoke cigarettes and use cocaine say smoking is at least as strong an urge. But no one robs convenience stores for Marlboros.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rice age?

Apparently you don't need to flood rice fields.

It's a technique that emphasizes growing fewer, but more robust rice plants.

It's met with opposition from "experts", but a million rice farmers are using the system. (And they're the ones whose livelihood depends on the system working. I'm inclined to believe they know if they're getting better yields or not.) This saves on water use, seed costs, and methane production. Since methane is a greenhouse gas, this is a meaningful change.

Of course, if the greenhouse gas is all that's staving off global cooling, we may get an ice age to go with our rice age.

Habeas Crappus

Tom DeLay posts his thoughts on the Boumediene v. Bush decision:

Neither the United States military, its elected commanders in the executive branch, nor its representatives in Congress are now in control of America’s prosecution of the war on terror. Justice Kennedy is, or he seems to think.

Until he is disabused of this notion by a Congress with the guts to assert itself, the following not only may happen, but will, and very quickly:

- Captured terrorists will refuse to answer any questions without access to a lawyer;

- Captured terrorists will demand the public disclosure of the military’s evidence against them, thus exposing the means and methods employed by our intelligence community to gather such evidence;

- Captured terrorists will demand to confront their accusers, who will be soldiers on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, in open court back here in the states; and,

- Captured terrorists will go venue shopping, filing their habeas claims in dozens of courts in hopes of getting the most liberal activist judge they can find.

Unless, I suppose, terrorists suddenly start fighting to the death in the battlefield.

The question is, what are conservative legislators going to do about it. Beginning in 1996 and continuing throughout the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, we had an aggressive, concrete agenda to combat judicial activism and supremacy.

Because Congress creates lower federal courts, Congress can also set its jurisdiction. Thus, except for the narrow field of cases in which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction – cases involving individual states, ambassadors, and the like – Congress can simply remove the Supreme Court from the picture. A “court stripping” strategy would reassert the legislative and executive branches’ co-equal status as interpreters of the Constitution. Much of the groundwork has already been set.

Notice, by the way, what is not being considered.

We're not hearing anyone say, "They have made their ruling, now let them enforce it."

Nor, despite the ravings of the "911 Truth" or "BusHitler" crowd, does anyone seem the least bit worried that Justice Kennedy is going to disappear some night.

Iraq War Numbers

Clayton Cramer looks at a report warning of the numbers that are being racked up in the course of the war in Iraq, and finds some problems with them.

Among problems, he finds:

Lott points out that a great many experts in the field--and significantly, many who opposed the Iraq War--find the methodology atypical and incorrect, with examples of double counting of costs, highly arguable assumptions about future interest rates...

One possible example of double-counting is to add in to the total the cost of maintaining the same military units if there were no war on. I don't know if the report does this, but it's certainly something to be on guard against.

Another number Clayton finds exaggerated (Quoting John Lott):

Possibly the most controversial claim in the book involves their estimate that well over one million Iraqis will have died from the US invasion by the year 2010. Without any caution or hesitation, they rely on an extremely controversial study published in the medical journal, Lancet. Stiglitz and Bilmes took Lancet’s estimated 654,965 deaths from the American involvement in Iraq from March 2003 to July 2006 and assumed that Iraqis would continue dying at that the same yearly rate through March 2010. The Lancet number is over 10 times the number of Iraqi deaths claimed by the Iraqi and US governments.

There are any number of people who are perfectly happy to take the numbers from the Lancet study at face value. However, one of the features of science is a ripple effect from facts. Facts don't exist in spendid isolation from each other -- they have consequences in the world. If the Lancet study is right, there are certain other facts that are implied, and these facts will be different from what they would be if the study is a gross exaggeration. These facts include:

A new study has been released by the Lancet medical journal estimating over 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq. The Iraqi mortality estimates published in the Lancet in October 2006 imply, among other things, that:

  1. On average, a thousand Iraqis have been violently killed every single day in the first half of 2006, with less than a tenth of them being noticed by any public surveillance mechanisms;
  2. Some 800,000 or more Iraqis suffered blast wounds and other serious conflict-related injuries in the past two years, but less than a tenth of them received any kind of hospital treatment;
  3. Over 7% of the entire adult male population of Iraq has already been killed in violence, with no less than 10% in the worst affected areas covering most of central Iraq;
  4. Half a million death certificates were received by families which were never officially recorded as having been issued;
  5. The Coalition has killed far more Iraqis in the last year than in earlier years containing the initial massive "Shock and Awe" invasion and the major assaults on Falluja.

If these assertions are true, they further imply:

  • incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries, on a local, regional and national level, perfectly coordinated from the moment the occupation began
  • bizarre and self-destructive behaviour on the part of all but a small minority of 800,000 injured, mostly non-combatant, Iraqis;
  • the utter failure of local or external agencies to notice and respond to a decimation of the adult male population in key urban areas;
  • an abject failure of the media, Iraqi as well as international, to observe that Coalition-caused events of the scale they reported during the three-week invasion in 2003 have been occurring every month for over a year.

These are things that should be pretty easy to spot, if they exist. Those who believe the numbers in the Lancet study are welcome to look for them. If they persistently fail to turn up, that should be pretty evidence that the numbers published in The Lancet are bogus.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bush didn't lie

Bush got bad data. He made mistakes. He didn't lie.

That's not me saying this – it's James Kirchick, an assistant editor of the New Republic. (A magazine which, you may note, has not been a rabid supporter of Bush.

...many Democrats ... attacking the Bush administration's case for war against Saddam Hussein, employ essentially the same argument. In 2006, John F. Kerry explained the Senate's 77-23 passage of the Iraq war resolution this way: "We were misled. We were given evidence that was not true." On the campaign trail, Hillary Rodham Clinton dodged blame for her pro-war vote by claiming that "the mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress."

Nearly every prominent Democrat in the country has repeated some version of this charge, and the notion that the Bush administration deceived the American people has become the accepted narrative of how we went to war.

Yet in spite of all the accusations of White House "manipulation" -- that it pressured intelligence analysts into connecting Hussein and Al Qaeda and concocted evidence about weapons of mass destruction -- administration critics continually demonstrate an inability to distinguish making claims based on flawed intelligence from knowingly propagating falsehoods.

In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved a report acknowledging that it "did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments." The following year, the bipartisan Robb-Silberman report similarly found "no indication that the intelligence community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

Contrast those conclusions with the Senate Intelligence Committee report issued June 5, the production of which excluded Republican staffers and which only two GOP senators endorsed. In a news release announcing the report, committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV got in this familiar shot: "Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretenses."

Yet Rockefeller's highly partisan report does not substantiate its most explosive claims. Rockefeller, for instance, charges that "top administration officials made repeated statements that falsely linked Iraq and Al Qaeda as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11." Yet what did his report actually find? That Iraq-Al Qaeda links were "substantiated by intelligence information." The same goes for claims about Hussein's possession of biological and chemical weapons, as well as his alleged operation of a nuclear weapons program.

Four years on from the first Senate Intelligence Committee report, war critics, old and newfangled, still don't get that a lie is an act of deliberate, not unwitting, deception. If Democrats wish to contend they were "misled" into war, they should vent their spleen at the CIA.

In 2003, top Senate Democrats -- not just Rockefeller but also Carl Levin, Clinton, Kerry and others -- sounded just as alarmist. Conveniently, this month's report, titled "Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information," includes only statements by the executive branch. Had it scrutinized public statements of Democrats on the Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees -- who have access to the same intelligence information as the president and his chief advisors -- many senators would be unable to distinguish their own words from what they today characterize as warmongering.

Yet in spite of all the accusations of White House "manipulation" -- that it pressured intelligence analysts into connecting Hussein and Al Qaeda and concocted evidence about weapons of mass destruction -- administration critics continually demonstrate an inability to distinguish making claims based on flawed intelligence from knowingly propagating falsehoods.

In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved a report acknowledging that it "did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments." The following year, the bipartisan Robb-Silberman report similarly found "no indication that the intelligence community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

Contrast those conclusions with the Senate Intelligence Committee report issued June 5, the production of which excluded Republican staffers and which only two GOP senators endorsed. In a news release announcing the report, committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV got in this familiar shot: "Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretenses."

Yet Rockefeller's highly partisan report does not substantiate its most explosive claims. Rockefeller, for instance, charges that "top administration officials made repeated statements that falsely linked Iraq and Al Qaeda as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11." Yet what did his report actually find? That Iraq-Al Qaeda links were "substantiated by intelligence information." The same goes for claims about Hussein's possession of biological and chemical weapons, as well as his alleged operation of a nuclear weapons program.

Four years on from the first Senate Intelligence Committee report, war critics, old and newfangled, still don't get that a lie is an act of deliberate, not unwitting, deception. If Democrats wish to contend they were "misled" into war, they should vent their spleen at the CIA.

In 2003, top Senate Democrats -- not just Rockefeller but also Carl Levin, Clinton, Kerry and others -- sounded just as alarmist. Conveniently, this month's report, titled "Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information," includes only statements by the executive branch. Had it scrutinized public statements of Democrats on the Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees -- who have access to the same intelligence information as the president and his chief advisors -- many senators would be unable to distinguish their own words from what they today characterize as warmongering.

This may sound like ancient history, but it matters. After Sept. 11, President Bush did not want to risk allowing Hussein, who had twice invaded neighboring nations, murdered more than 1 million Iraqis and stood in violation of 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions, to remain in possession of what he believed were stocks of chemical and biological warheads and a nuclear weapons program. By glossing over this history, the Democrats' lies-led-to-war narrative provides false comfort in a world of significant dangers.

"I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop communist aggression in Southeast Asia," Romney elaborated in that infamous 1967 interview. That was an intellectually justifiable view then, just as it is intellectually justifiable for erstwhile Iraq war supporters to say -- given the way it's turned out -- that they don't think the effort has been worth it. But predicating such a reversal on the unsubstantiated allegation that one was lied to is cowardly and dishonest.

A journalist who accompanied Romney on his 1965 foray to Vietnam remarked that if the governor had indeed been brainwashed, it was not because of American propaganda but because he had "brought so light a load to the laundromat." Given the similarity between Romney's explanation and the protestations of Democrats 40 years later, one wonders why the news media aren't saying the same thing today.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

An Afghan Torturer is interviewed

For reference

In an astonishing interview with Christina Lamb, the Afghan leader's former bodyguard reveals the full brutality of the fundamentalist regime sheltering Osama bin Laden

"YOU must become so notorious for bad things that when you come into an area people will tremble in their sandals. Anyone can do beatings and starve people. I want your unit to find new ways of torture so terrible that the screams will frighten even crows from their nests and if the person survives he will never again have a night's sleep."

These were the instructions of the commandant of the Afghan secret police to his new recruits. For more than three years one of those recruits, Hafiz Sadiqulla Hassani, ruthlessly carried out his orders. But sickened by the atrocities that he was forced to commit, last week he defected to Pakistan, joining a growing number of Taliban officials who are escaping across the border.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Harboring al Qaeda

THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE has once again released a report claiming that the Bush administration hyped prewar intelligence. The so-called Phase Two report is supposed to investigate the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence. In reality, the report is little more than yet another attempt by partisan Democrats to make political hay out of flawed prewar intelligence. (The only Republicans to endorse the report were two of the Senate's most liberal GOP members.) The committee focused exclusively on prewar statements by Bush administration officials, ignoring similar statements by leading Democrats. Therefore, the report is intended to portray the Bush administration in the worst possible light. But even with this bias, the committee came to a noteworthy conclusion: The Bush administration was right to claim that Saddam's regime was harboring al Qaeda members.

These conclusions should not be surprising. In his book At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet provided a number of details concerning the safe haven al Qaeda members received in Saddam's Iraq. For example, Tenet wrote that two of Ayman al-Zawahiri's top operatives, Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri, received safe haven in Baghdad. Tenet says that there was "concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq."

The first report on the uses of prewar intelligence published by the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2004 also found that Zarqawi freely roamed around Iraq and Saddam's goons must have been aware of his presence. The authors of the Butler Report, the British government's investigation into prewar intelligence, found roughly the same. Even other al Qaeda members have, on occasion, been open about the relationship between Zarqawi, other al Qaeda operatives, and Saddam's regime in prewar Iraq.

One glaring illustration is the following baseless finding:

Iraq and al Qaeda did not have a cooperative relationship. Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al Qaeda to provide material or operational support.

Here, the committee simply regurgitated an old storyline invented by some analysts within the CIA and other intelligence bureaucracies. The truth is that this was a prewar assumption that went untested and is contradicted by a variety of pieces of evidence discovered both in the prewar as well as postwar period. Some of this evidence is cited in the committee's own report!

For example, if Saddam was willing to harbor al Qaeda terrorists, as the committee itself admits was substantiated by "postwar information," then how can the committee claim that Saddam spurned all offers of cooperation and was entirely "distrustful" of al Qaeda members? Isn't giving safe haven to wanted terrorists--who, according to George Tenet, may have been plotting attacks around the world--evidence of a "cooperative relationship"? And if Saddam was willing to give al Qaeda members safe haven, how can the committee be sure that he wasn't willing to do more for them?

Another document from the mid-1990s, which was not cited in the IDA's analysis, relays Osama bin Laden's request for Iraqi assistance in performing "joint operations against the foreign forces in the land of Hijaz." That is, bin Laden wanted Iraq's assistance in attacking U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. We do not know what, exactly, came of bin Laden's request. But the document indicates that Saddam's operatives "were left to develop the relationship and the cooperation between the two sides to see what other doors of cooperation and agreement open up." According to the regime's own documents, therefore, Saddam did not "[refuse] all requests from al Qaeda to provide material or operational support." Saddam was willing to leave the relationship open to see what avenues for cooperation between his intelligence operatives and al Qaeda's terrorists may open up.

There's more, of course, but the Senate Intelligence Committee managed to avoid any direct mention of such documents, which contradict some of its findings. The report is, therefore, hardly comprehensive. However, we can be certain of at least one thing: Saddam harbored al Qaeda terrorists.

Even the Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee now admit that.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Charging for Free Speech

Deborah Gyapong has been following the MacLeans "hate crime" trial.

She cites an editoral in the Herald:

Commissions were given such powers to fight discrimination in employment and accommodation, not for interest groups to silence their opponents in kangaroo courts. The system is out of control.

Nor does Andreachuk understand the limits of her mandate. Announcing the punishment last Friday, she awarded $5,000 "damages" to Lund -- "although not a direct victim, (he) did expend considerable time and energy."


Finally, Boissoin is to provide Lund with a written apology for the sincerely held opinion he published in the Advocate.

As apologies that do not spring from changed minds mean nothing, this must be seen for what it is: the kind of recantation squeezed by an inquisition from some unfortunate, a denial of conscience for the sole purpose of grinding the dissenter's face into the dust, the better that he may eat his words.

Rowling and totalitarianism

J.K.Rowling had a job before she wrote Harry Potter.

Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

She has seen the evidence of things we in civilized nations are mostly sheltered from. Things she says we need to imagine.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read. …

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

Frank Warner goes on to say:

Give a nation twenty years of prosperity, and a quarter of its people will believe prosperity takes no work.

Give a nation twenty years of peace, and a quarter of its people will believe peace comes from ignoring enemies.

Give a nation twenty years of freedom, and a quarter of its people will lose the ability to imagine the misery of a life in chains.

We in the Free World have been given so much that many of us have lost the feel for real suffering. Somehow we’re able to play pretend, and yet too many of us have lost our imaginations.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the civilized Western world is an anomaly in human history. It is a delicate balance of factors, and if you destroy the balance in one of them, you risk the entire structure falling to pieces.

Imagine that.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

"Lies" about Saddam and Iraq

"Lies" about Saddam and Iraq

Ed Morrissey takes a look at a Senate report, claiming statements about Iraq were untrue.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a report accusing George Bush and Dick Cheney of knowingly using untrue statements to foster support for the war in Iraq. The chair of the committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) admitted that everyone operated from the same “flawed” intelligence, but accused the administration of outright deception. Oddly enough, at least one of the supposed deceptions have proven true, while another continues to get support from the intelligence agency that supplied it:

Among the reports conclusions:

  • Claims by President Bush that Iraq and al Qaida had a partnership “were not substantiated by the intelligence.”
  • The president and vice president misrepresented what was known about Iraq’s chemical weapons capabiliies [sic].
  • Rumsfeld misrepresented what the intelligence community knew when he said Iraq’s weapons productions facilities were buried deeply underground.
  • Cheney’s claim that the intelligence community had confirmed that lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in 2001 was not true.

The last claim comes from Czech intelligence, which they have repeatedly defended. The 9/11 Commission reported concluded that it was unlikely, given the pattern of use from Atta’s cell phone, but (a) no one can put Atta in the US outside of that data, and (b) it ignores the possibility that Atta loaned his phone to an associate while he traveled abroad. With the Czechs standing behind that intelligence before and during the war, it’s nothing more than a political cheap shot to call it a “deception”.

The first claim is even more laughable. Less than three months ago, the Pentagon released a report on the captured documents from the Saddam Hussein regime’s intelligence service, the IIS, which detailed support for two separate al-Qaeda terrorist partners. The Iraqis provided financial backing for the Army of Mohammed, a Bahraini terrorist organization that explicitly planned to target American assets in the region and around the world. The IIS and the Saddam regime in its own documents noted the necessity of keeping those arrangements quiet so as not to trigger another American invasion. The IIS also provided support for Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which incorporated itself into the AQ network when Osama bin Laden made its leader his right-hand man: Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Where Obama found Jesus

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama was sorry to leave the church he's belonged to for the last twenty years, because:

"This is where I found Jesus Christ, where we were married, where our children were baptized."

So he "found Jesus Christ" no more than twenty years ago. He's forty-six now, which means he became a Christian at age twenty-six. Maybe twenty-five. Maybe he was irreligious before this conversion. Maybe not.

Of course, one problem is, since he was born to and raised by Muslims, he will be presumed to have been Muslim himself. If he converted away at a young enough age, there are authorities who won't call for his head.

But there are going to be many who will. And I have a feeling many of those will be the very people he's willing to meet with, "without preconditions".

Freedom of speech

Mark Steyn is on trial for "hate crimes" – because of what he's written in his columns and book.

The only other invitation I’ve had from Vancouver is from the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal which begins its case against my “hate speech” next Monday. I confess until this case came about I’d always assumed Canada had freedom of speech.


...the British Columbia Human Rights Code is so broadly drawn that, if someone takes offence, you as the offence-giver are almost by definition guilty. And once that happens under Section 37 (2) the Tribunal issues a statutory cease-and-desist order which will prevent Maclean’s from publishing any similar material by me or anybody else on Islam and the west, demography and terrorism and a whole host of other issues.

A joke, modified a little from the time it was circulating in the Soviet Union:

"The difference between Canada and the USA? In Canada, we have freedom of speech. In the USA, you have freedom after speech!"

Also liveblogging here and here.

Color me unsurprised

Color me unsurprised

(hat tip: Distributed Republic )

I've been reading articles and seeing news clips about people who have been powering their diesel trucks with used oil from restaurant deep fat fryers. They've been extremely pleased at being able to use fuel that is, essentially, free for the hauling away.

Of course, that's a situation that can't last. As long as only one or two trucks have been modified to run on vegetable oil, used oil from restaurants will be free, or very cheap. But there's got to be a certain minimum number of such vehicles any one city can provide oil for, and once you exceed that number, you have more people who can use the oil than you have oil to give away. What happens then? Well, people start having to compete for it. In a free market, people compete by offering something in exchange for it. In other words, the used oil goes from being free to costing money -- how much depending on how many people are bidding up the price.

"Fryer grease has become gold," Damianidis said. "And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away."

Much to the surprise of Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon. (That would make the 2,500-gallon haul in the Burger King case worth more than $6,000.)

Of course, with diesel fuel going for over $5 per gallon, even $2.50 a gallon is cheap. (Depending, of course, on the cost of refitting a truck to burn it, how efficient is compared with diesel, and other factors.)

Economics may still be in its infancy, but this application was a no-brainer.

What's So Scary About Evolution?

What's So Scary About Evolution? — For Both Right and Left, a Lot

John Derbyshire writes about evolution, and why it offends people on both the left and the right.

Strict fundamentalists in all three of the big Abrahamic religions regard his theories with loathing. The degree of loathing is different among the three faiths, being highest among Muslims, lowest among Jews, and intermediate among Christians. The loathing is real, though, and among some groups of believers it is very intense.

There are two reasons for this. In the first place, Darwin's theories contradict the holy books, if those books are read with a close and literal meaning. In the second, the broad outlook on human nature implied by Darwinian ideas contradicts the notion of human exceptionalism, without which the Abrahamic religions lose their point. To put it crudely, those big old Western faiths see humanity as a Chosen Species, uniquely gifted by God with powers of moral discrimination and (though there are sectarian differences here) with the prospect of an afterlife. To modern biologists, informed by Darwin, we are merely another branch on Nature's tree, our particular mental and social gifts in plain line of descent from homologues among the higher animals.

OK, that's the Right. (Religious fundamentalists are always Rightists, by definition.) What about the left?

The race issue in fact presents a conundrum for Darwinists of the political left, a conundrum eagerly exploited by religious anti-Darwinists keen to don the mantle of Political Correctness. Evolution is racist! Darwin was a racist! Darwinism inspired the Holocaust! In reply to these gleeful denunciations, the poor Darwinist can only mumble, with perfect truth but rhetorical feebleness, that as a scientific theory, Darwin's is as ethically neutral as Newton's or Faraday's. It prescribes no human action or attitude, neither "racism" nor "anti-racism" nor any other.

It cannot be denied, though, that Darwinism's metaphysical implications are hard to square with any view of human nature not flatly biological; and this applies as much to the "blank slate" egalitarianism of the irreligious Left as to the soul-based universalism of the religious Right. This is inevitable. As an empirical view of living matter, chasing down its truths one by one through thickets of patient observation, Darwinism is bound to offend systems derived from introspection, revelation, or social approval.

Here are the three prevalent views of human nature, in chronological order by origin. The "Abrahamic" view is the one promoted by the big old Western faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Darwinian view is the one implied (though not dispositively proved) by Darwinism. The third view I have labeled "Boasian" after anthropologist Franz Boas, who was the first to use it as basis for a comprehensive modern account of human nature.

Abrahamic: Our species homo sapiens is the special creation of God, either as a one-off miracle or by God-guided evolution. Human nature is a mix of attributes, some biological, some inserted by God. The God-given attributes are unique to our species. They are the same in all human populations, forming the foundation of our essential equality. Their existence is independent of our biological nature, even to the degree that they can continue to exist after our deaths. Being non-biological, they certainly do not evolve, even if other features of the living world do, so that our evolution, if it ever took place, ended (except perhaps for some incidental biological features) when God decreed we have these attributes. God rules!

Darwinian: Our species homo sapiens arose, like all other species, from the ordinary processes of evolution, which have continued to the present day. Human nature is a collection of characteristics all susceptible to biological explanation. These characteristics show variation in any one population. A human population that breeds mostly within itself for many generations will develop distinctive profiles of variation, as a result of ordinary biological laws, causing it to diverge from other such populations. Neither individual human beings nor human populations are equal. Some human-nature characteristics can be shaped to some degree by "cultural" (i.e. social or environmental) forces; some cannot. Biology rules!

Boasian: Our species homo sapiens arose, like all other species, from the ordinary processes of evolution. However, these processes ceased in the very early history of the species, leaving us with a human nature uniform across all populations and unchanging over time, forming the foundation of our essential equality. This human nature is infinitely resilient, like a water-filled balloon. Any of its characteristics can be pushed into almost any shape by "cultural" forces (see above), but will submit to radical re-shaping if different forces are applied. Observed variations in human-nature characteristics have probably (in the case of individuals) and certainly (in the case of populations) no biological foundation. Culture rules!

A thing you notice when these three views of human nature are lined up is how far the Darwinian explanation stands from the other two. I have worked my phrasing somewhat to bring this out, but it wasn't difficult to do so. A Darwinian view of human nature really is quite sensationally revolutionary. In particular, it makes a hash of intrinsic human equality. We may of course — and we should, and I hope we ever shall! — hold equal treatment under the law to be an organizing principle of our civilization; but that is a social agreement, like driving on the right, not a pre-existing fact in the world.

We might even speculate that the Abrahamic and the Boasian views are really the same, or that the second is a scientistic nineteenth-century derivative of the first, as Marxism was of traditional religious millenarianism. As the authors of math textbooks say: I leave this as an exercise for the reader.


You see, it is wrong, wrong, wrong to think that anyone — even Moshe Kai Cavalin — is smarter than anyone else. That would be educational nihilism, a denial of human equality. We are all equally smart. Some people just take the wrong approach to learning, that's all.

You may have noticed there that little Moshe's Mom is Chinese. From his forename you may further have deduced, what is in fact the case, that his Dad is Jewish. Chinese … Jewish … super-smart … What is at work here: God, biology, or culture? CULTURE! screams back the entire world of right-thinking people, and who dares deny it? Well, a legendary geneticist might, but what does he know?

Only one view of human nature can be correct. Either we are the ensouled favorites of an omniscient deity; or we are biology and nothing else; or we are biological vehicles for a perfectly plastic uniform essence whose every trait is a consequence of the world immediately around us. The first option, in current American society, is largely the property of the political Right; the third, of the political Left. The middle option has no true political home, any more than Pythagoras' Theorem has. Like Pythagoras' Theorem, it is much the most useful of the three, and very likely true. Unlike the theorem, though, it tells us things about ourselves we cannot bear to hear. For that reason, it will probably never have wide acceptance.

The right objects to the notion that we arose by evolution, because it means we're apes with upgrades.

The left objects to the notion that we arose by evolution, if it means evolution kept happening as different groups of humans went their separate ways.

Both of these are logical implications of evolution, and both are denied by fundamentalists of one stripe or another.