Monday, August 31, 2009

Talking about torture

Ryan Sager blogs about torture, and how to make the case against it.

It’s such an easy argument, isn’t it?:
We shouldn’t torture because torture is morally wrong; and, guys, why are we even arguing?… torture doesn’t work, so it’s really a non-issue.
How tempting an argument that last bit is — and how utterly destructive to the anti-torture cause.

The reason this tidbit is so destructive is quite simple: It puts the anti-torture side in the position of having to prove a negative. And, thus, every time new documents are released, you’ll have the exact same argument — and, if you’re an opponent of torture, you’ll lose that argument every time.

Interestingly enough, this seems to be one of the few arguments certain people are able to make, even when its weakness is pointed out to them.

After some thought, I've decided they want the arguments against torture to be weak. That way, they gain the benefit of having torture available somewhere, but their hands are clean, and purified by the fires of their own moral outrage.

Sager is not such a person. He honestly opposes torture.

He recognizes he's working against popular sentiment:

Liberals ... may think their sophisticated argument is better than the conservatives’ simple one. But guess which one the public is likely to believe.

Most Americans support torture. An even bigger majority of Americans oppose an investigation into Bush-era abuses.

You can not like it, but it’s where our country’s mind is on the issue. One in five Americans in the poll linked above believes waterboarding is torture and that we should torture suspected terrorists.

It might be noted that 60% of those questioned think waterboarding is torture, and 38% disagree (margin of error = 3% points). This brings up the question of just what we mean by "torture". I've seen one "professional interrogator" define "torture" as "any physical or mental coercion – any. This is a silly definition, which only serves, in my opinion, to further weaken his case.

I suspect some of the techniques laid out in the Al Qaeda manuals would be considered torture by a higher percentage of respondants. I'd like to know if there is any more reluctance to use more extreme techniques on terrorists.

Arguing that torture isn’t effective is a losing proposition. No matter how convinced you are that torture isn’t a good idea — even separate from the moral dimensions — you have to recognize that (obviously!) torture is going to work, at least sometimes. There will be clear cases where someone is tortured and then starts cooperating to avoid more torture. It’s simply ridiculous to pretend otherwise. And when those cases come to light, torture proponents will be there, waiting to say “I told you so.” And they will appear to be vindicated.

I do the "i told you so" routine on occasion, though I try to save it for those people who insist that TORTURE NEVER WORKS. I figure if spectators see them having to jump through hoops to buttress a claim that all the people who have reported those clear cases are either dupes or liars, they'll come to their own conclusions about the person's credibility.

So, how do you argue against torture without the “it doesn’t work” argument? Well, it’s not easy (which is why people adopted the “It Doesn’t Work” argument in the first place). You can argue from pure morality, but that’s not very persuasive to the great body of people who would pull out KSM’s fingernails personally. And Americans aren’t likely to be convinced that terrorists (and don’t tell them there’s a difference between accused and actual terrorists, they won’t hear you) deserve any rights whatsoever.

First of all, I for one do know there is a difference between accused and actual. I also know there's a difference between civil law and wartime conduct. For one thing, soldiers are allowed to shoot enemy soldiers, merely for being enemy soldiers in the field of battle. And I'm sure any number of people who object to torture also object to being shot.

Many of the rules of civilized society are set aside in war.

Enemy soldiers are subject to imprisonment for the duration of the war, even though being an enemy soldier is not a crime. It's not considered false imprisonment; it's simply removing a soldier from the battle, even though his status as an enemy combatant may not be known with 100% certainty.

Frankly, I think I'd rather have a system in place with command oversight over a system where individual soldiers act on their own initiative. I prefer that prisoners of war be kept in prison camps rather than wherever individual soldiers can find a place to stash them. Likewise, I prefer whatever coercive techniques are used be used with deliberation and oversight rather than at the whim of whatever soldier happens to be in the area.

Now, for the "right" arguments:

Find instances of innocent people being tortured...

It's said the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you hold out for a perfect system, whether it be for extracting information or supplying medical care to the poor, you will never implement any system, however good it may be.

I can find horror stories in anything that's being administered by human beings. Anything. I can find abuse cases in schools, therefore we should have no schools. I can find cases of mind-numbingly incompetent doctors, so we should have no medicine. I can find cases where police have abused their authority, so no police. I can find cases where people have choked to death on food or water, so none of either.

A real debate must attempt to balance costs and benefits. For example, for most people, the benefits of eating and drinking far outweigh the costs. Maybe the cost of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques outweighs the benefit, but prove it, don't merely hand-wave it into the argument.

Find instances of people brought around to cooperating by non-torture means

I admit to not being the most immersed-in-the-torture-debate person in the world. But I’m sure there are specific cases that could be brought up of people brought around to cooperating without resort to the waterboard. Again, those cases need to be beaten into the public consciousness.

This is an false dichotomy. If A works, B is unnecessary. Because I can walk to work, I don't need to drive (or bicycle). Because I can drive across the country, there's no need for airplanes. Because a helicopter can get me to the corner store, there's no need to walk.

Producing instances where non-torture means worked does not prove either: a) those means will work in every case, in the amount of time available; or b) torture will never be a better tool for the job.

A real debate must attempt to make that case.

Show how torture harms U.S. interests

There’s some evidence that torture correlates to more terror. More importantly, it harms the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it makes our allies less likely to cooperate and locals less likely to collaborate.

Again, cost vs. benefit. This may actually be the strongest argument, but both sides have to make their case, based on all the available data, not on isolated anecdotes. I sometimes ask, half seriously, "Where are the studies?" I figure there won't be any, because of the difficulty in getting a realistic scenario past a human use committee. But someone must be collecting the data.

I hope.

Appeal to the image Americans want to have of America

That's an approach, and indeed, it's also why, I believe, the CIA has restricted itself to non-damaging techniques, and those are used only rarely. But when all is said and done, if there's a choice between image and survival, a lot of people are going to choose survival. Maybe enhanced interrogation doesn't work, or maybe it costs more than it gains us. Maybe it's the intelligence community's version of quack medicine.

But when it's a matter of survival and limited options, a lot of people will try the quack medicine.

No Peaking?

In the New York Times, Michael Lynch rebuts "peak oil" claims in an op-ed piece.

A careful examination of the facts shows that most arguments about peak oil are based on anecdotal information, vague references and ignorance of how the oil industry goes about finding fields and extracting petroleum. And this has been demonstrated over and over again: the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil first claimed in 1989 that the peak had already been reached, and Mr. Schlesinger argued a decade earlier that production was unlikely to ever go much higher.
for the most part the peak-oil crowd rests its case on three major claims: that the world is discovering only one barrel for every three or four produced; that political instability in oil-producing countries puts us at an unprecedented risk of having the spigots turned off; and that we have already used half of the two trillion barrels of oil that the earth contained.

Let’s take the rate-of-discovery argument first: it is a statement that reflects ignorance of industry terminology. When a new field is found, it is given a size estimate that indicates how much is thought to be recoverable at that point in time. But as years pass, the estimate is almost always revised upward, either because more pockets of oil are found in the field or because new technology makes it possible to extract oil that was previously unreachable. Yet because petroleum geologists don’t report that additional recoverable oil as “newly discovered,” the peak oil advocates tend to ignore it. In truth, the combination of new discoveries and revisions to size estimates of older fields has been keeping pace with production for many years.

A related argument — that the “easy oil” is gone and that extraction can only become more difficult and cost-ineffective — should be recognized as vague and irrelevant. Drillers in Persia a century ago certainly didn’t consider their work easy, and the mechanized, computerized industry of today is a far sight from 19th-century mule-drawn rigs. Hundreds of fields that produce “easy oil” today were once thought technologically unreachable.

The latest acorn in the discovery debate is a recent increase in the overall estimated rate at which production is declining in large oil fields. This is assumed to be the result of the “superstraw” technologies that have become dominant over the past decade, which can drain fields faster than ever. True, because quicker extraction causes the fluid pressure in the field to drop rapidly, the wells become less and less productive over time. But this declining return on individual wells doesn’t necessarily mean that whole fields are being cleaned out. As the Saudis have proved in recent years at Ghawar, additional investment — to find new deposits and drill new wells — can keep a field’s overall production from falling.
In the end, perhaps the most misleading claim of the peak-oil advocates is that the earth was endowed with only 2 trillion barrels of “recoverable” oil. Actually, the consensus among geologists is that there are some 10 trillion barrels out there. A century ago, only 10 percent of it was considered recoverable, but improvements in technology should allow us to recover some 35 percent — another 2.5 trillion barrels — in an economically viable way. And this doesn’t even include such potential sources as tar sands, which in time we may be able to efficiently tap.

Oil remains abundant, and the price will likely come down closer to the historical level of $30 a barrel as new supplies come forward in the deep waters off West Africa and Latin America, in East Africa, and perhaps in the Bakken oil shale fields of Montana and North Dakota. But that may not keep the Chicken Littles from convincing policymakers in Washington and elsewhere that oil, being finite, must increase in price. (That’s the logic that led the Carter administration to create the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, a $3 billion boondoggle that never produced a gallon of useable fuel.)

This is not to say that we shouldn’t keep looking for other cost-effective, low-pollution energy sources — why not broaden our options? But we can’t let the false threat of disappearing oil lead the government to throw money away on harebrained renewable energy schemes or impose unnecessary and expensive conservation measures on a public already struggling through tough economic times.

Another set of health care myths

Ed Morrissey looks at another "debunking" of health care myths on Yahoo Live Science.

In order of their appearance, let’s do a little mythbusting ourselves:
  • Wait times - Arguable. As government controls more and more of the payment decisions, resources could become more scarce and wait times may increase as a result. That certainly has been the experience in Canada and the UK, two systems which Obama lauds as models for rational health-care delivery. Wait times and accessibility have gotten so bad in Canada that the state-run system has had to contract with private-sector providers in the US to alleviate the problem (and to avoid the political consequences of it).
  • Government will get directly involved in health-care decisions - Reality. What do people think Obama means when he says the new system will prevent Tonsil Vultures and Foot Rustlers from enriching themselves at our expense? The ObamaCare initiative explicitly calls for comparative-effectiveness management of treatment, which means that government will seek to influence treatment … and non-treatment. “Maybe she should just take a painkiller” is an explicit call for government involvement in those decisions.
  • Tax money for abortions - Reality. Even the Annenberg folks admit that.
  • Health care coverage for illegal immigrants - Myth, at the moment. The House bill currently has a restriction on federal funding for “undocumented aliens” (Section 246): “Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.”
  • Public option will increase premiums - Reality. In fact, the entire idea of the exchanges is to force insurers to meet a standard of coverage that some plans do not now supply, for various reasons. That will force premiums up across the board, especially if “community rating” rules get applied. Maine’s DirigoChoice boondoggle proved this rather clearly.
  • Medicare cuts to finance ObamaCare - Reality. In fact, Obama himself proposed $313 billion in Medicare cuts, including the virtual elimination of Medicare Advantage. How anyone can call this a “myth” even in scare quotes is beyond me.

Problems with a health care myths survey

Volokh Conspiracy's Jim Lindgren thinks the University of Indiana's survey on health care myths may have ... well... mythed a few points.

If you look at the survey, you see that most of the supposed knowledge questions do not turn completely on known facts, which can have true or false answers. The myth questions are mostly subjective — expectations or predictions about the future — which by nature have no right or wrong answers. This distinction is axiomatic in the field of survey research.

Of course, most of these predictions could at some future time be determined to be true or false by most fair-minded observers, but not now. A few of the predictions about the future strike me as being extremely likely to turn out to be correct (if Obama's plans were enacted) and a few strike me as strike me as being extremely likely to turn out to be incorrect predictions. If Obama's plans are ever enacted, time will tell. But they are not now “myths.”
In other words, most of the myth questions in the Indiana survey are questions about subjective views (expectations, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs), not currently knowable facts. For a social scientist reporting a survey to call them “myths” violates general principles of opinion polling.


Before getting into the survey questions themselves, people should remember what President Obama said in his first August town hall meeting on health care in New Hampshire:
Under the reform we're proposing, insurance companies will be prohibited from denying coverage because of a person's medical history. Period. . . .

Now, when we pass health insurance reform, insurance companies will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime. And we will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because no one in America should go broke because they get sick. (Applause.)

And finally — this is important — we will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies — (applause) — because there's no reason we shouldn't be catching diseases like breast cancer and prostate cancer on the front end. . . .

So this is what reform is about.
I quote this to remind skeptics that President Obama is promising to prohibit insurance companies from offering lower cost plans with high deductibles, which some younger people in good health currently prefer. In other words, some of you who like your current health plans will not be allowed to keep them.

And in part 2

Here are the relevant myth questions on the survey and my own comments about what is likely to occur if President Obama's reforms were to be enacted:
1. Millions of Americans will lose their current health insurance.
COMMENT: This strikes me as extraordinarily likely to occur, especially given Obama’s promises quoted in the last post. Given that Obama is proposing to change coverage, plans, and incentives, enough will change that it is either naïve or dishonest (or both) for a survey researcher to call this statement a “myth.”
2. Wait times for health care services like surgery will increase.
COMMENT: This strikes me as extraordinarily likely to occur. Increasing the scope of coverage without appreciably increasing the number of doctors should lead to longer wait times. Again, it is either naïve or dishonest (or both) to call this a “myth.” Further, the Massachusetts experience is not encouraging.
3. Health care services such as treatments, physicians, and care will be rationed.
COMMENT: Given that the White House admits that rationing is already happening by private insurance carriers, I don’t understand why they think that rationing in some form is unlikely under their proposed reforms. I suspect, however, that the government will find it difficult to make many of the tough decisions, so that most "rationing" will occur not by the government denying care but by doctors being unable or unwilling to treat many of the patients covered under government or private insurance plans. Time will tell.
7. The Federal Government will become directly involved in making personal health care decisions for you.
COMMENT: Whether this is likely to turn out to be TRUE depends on what is meant by “directly involved in making personal health care decisions for you.” By creating panels that will mandate some coverage and refuse to reimburse other coverage, this assertion will probably be TRUE for many people. But if the question means that government officials will decide on your treatment on a case-by-case basis, this is likely to be FALSE. Participants in the public option, however, may have case-by-case decisions made on which sorts of coverage will be reimbursed, given their diagnosis and condition.
8. The Federal Government will make decisions about whether you will be treated or not.
COMMENT: Again, whether this is likely to turn out to be TRUE depends on what is meant by making “decisions about whether you will be treated or not.” By creating panels that will mandate some coverage and refuse to reimburse other coverage, this assertion will probably be TRUE for many people. But if the statement means that government officials will decide on your treatment on a case-by-case basis, this is likely to be FALSE. Participants in the public option, however, may have case-by-case decisions made on which sorts of coverage will be reimbursed.

Health care at Reason magazine

Topic page is here

This looks interesting...

Life expectancy and health care

Also at Reason

In all, there are 29 countries whose citizens have longer life expectancies than Americans.

So why do Americans die younger than people living in most other developed democracies? Well, there is the Michael Moore answer delivered in his "documentary" Sicko—it's because we lack a benevolent government funded health care system. But life expectancy is not dependent on just medical care. For example, Texas A&M health economist Robert Ohsfeldt and health economics consultant John Schneider point out that deaths from accidents and homicides in America are much higher than in any other of the developed countries. Taking accidental deaths and homicides between 1980 and 1999 into account, they calculate that instead of being at near the bottom of the list of developed countries, U.S. life expectancy would actually rank at the top.
America's relatively high infant mortality rate also lowers our life expectancy ranking. A 2007 study done by Baruch College economists June and David O"Neill sheds some light on why U.S. infant mortality rates are higher—more low weight births. In their study, U.S. infant mortality was 6.8 per 1,000 live births, and Canada's was 5.3. Low birth weight significantly increases an infant's chance of dying. Teen mothers are much more likely to bear low birth weight babies and teen motherhood is almost three times higher in the U.S. than it is in Canada. The authors calculate that if Canada had the same the distribution of low-weight births as the U.S., its infant mortality rate would rise above the U.S. rate of 6.8 per 1,000 live births to 7.06. On the other hand, if the U.S. had Canada's distribution of low-weight births, its infant mortality rate would fall to 5.4. In other words, the American health care system is much better than Canada's at saving low birth weight babies —we just have more babies who are likely to die before their first birthdays.

Sweden as a utopian paradise?

From Reason Magazine:

And a link to another piece on Sweden

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Infant mortality and health care

One of the claims offered is that the higher rate of infant mortality in the US over other countries with single-payer health care is evidence that these single-payer plans work better than the US system. Reason Magazine's Steve Chapman looks at this claim.

The American medical system has the latest technology, the greatest variety of new drugs, and unparalleled resources. But anyone who thinks we're getting something great for our dollars inevitably encounters a two-word rebuke: infant mortality.

The United States is the richest nation on Earth, but it comes in 29th in the world in survival rates among babies. This mediocre ranking is supposed to make an irrefutable case for health care reform. If we cared enough to insure everyone, we are told, we would soon rise to the health standards of other modern nations. It's just a matter of getting over our weird resistance to a bigger government role in medical care.

But not every health issue is a health care issue. The reason boxers are unusually prone to concussions is not that they lack medical insurance. Doctors may treat head injuries, but it's a lot easier to prevent them. Absent prevention, we shouldn't blame the medical industry for punch-drunk fighters.

Like life expectancy (the subject of a previous column), infant mortality is a function of many factors. The more you look at the problem, the less it seems to be correctable by a big new federal role in medical insurance—and, in fact, the less it seems to be mainly a medical issue at all.
...In a 2007 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists June O'Neill and Dave O'Neill noted that "a multitude of behaviors unrelated to the health care system such as substance abuse, smoking and obesity" are connected "to the low birth weight and preterm births that underlie the infant death syndrome."
African-American babies are far more likely to die than white ones, which is often taken as evidence that poverty and lack of health insurance are to blame. That's entirely plausible until you notice another racial/ethnic gap: Hispanics of Mexican or Central or South American ancestry not only do consistently better than blacks on infant mortality, they do better than whites. Social disadvantage doesn't explain very much.

Nor does access to prenatal care, as the health care critique implies. It used to be assumed that if you assured that pregnant low-income women could see a physician, their infants would do much better. Not necessarily.

When New York expanded access to prenatal care under Medicaid, the effort reduced the rate of low birth weight infants by just 1 percent. In Tennessee, after a similar effort, researchers found "no concomitant improvements in use of early prenatal care, birth weight or neonatal mortality."

So why does our infant mortality rate exceed that of, say, Canada, where health care is free at the point of service? One reason is that we have a lot more tiny newborns. But underweight babies don't fare worse here than in Canada—quite the contrary.

The NBER paper points out that among the smallest infants, survival rates are better on this side of the border. What that suggests is that if we lived under the Canadian health care system, we would not have a lower rate of infant mortality. We would have a higher one.

Dostoyevski and Omelas

Betsy Newmark looks at the question raised by Dostoyevski, and echoed elsewhere throughout the world.

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, he poses the moral question of whether a person could or should kill one person if it would benefit humanity. Would you agree to the death of an unknown person in China if no one would know and the Chinaman's wealth could be used to benefit you and your family. Raskolnikov goes beyond the death of a stranger in China to the murder of a crabby pawnbroker to get the money to help his impoverished mother and sister. The reader, while understanding his motivation, still recoils at his moral choice.

But killing for wealth is something that most of us would reject. However, that is a relatively easy moral question. A much tougher one was the question in front of the Bush administration with the capture of high level Al Qaeda operatives. Would you agree to what some perceive as torture in order to save the lives of innocents around the world? That is a much more difficult one and all of us are reacting with different answers. Some seek to define what was done not as torture, but something just short of torture. Limiting sleep and simulated drowning is markedly different from acts that leave a permanent, physical mark such as the torture that we've read about in other wars. But even if you endorse the broadest definition and classify sleep deprivation and waterboarding as torture, would you be willing to accept this if it saved lives? Throw in that the person undergoing it was one of the most evil in the world, a man responsible for conceiving and planning 9/11. Now would it be worth it?

Others come at it from a different direction and reject the proposition that the information that was given up as worth anything. They want to downplay its value or posit that the detainee would have given up that information if we'd just had world enough and time to wait until he gave it up on his own.
Ultimately, it all comes down to a moral question worthy of Dostoevsky. Fortunately, we don't face such questions in our ordinary lives. But back in 2002 and 2003, members of our government, tasked with the responsibility of preventing the deaths of innocent Americans had to answer that question. They chose one answer and the evidence seems to bear them out that the result was information that prevented further attacks. You can debate the value of that evidence, but can you deny that there was the will on the part of Al Qaeda to kill many more Americans and that there haven't been such attacks since 9/11? Do you think they just gave up?

Some experts even posit that the captured members of Al Qaeda had accepted a certain amount of treatment so that they could satisfy themselves that they'd resisted enough and could then give up that information.

In Ursula LeGuin's short story, everyone in the town of Omelas is perfectly happy. Well, almost everyone. The price for the happiness of these people is that one child is kept in utter misery. As part of growing up in Omelas, everyone is taken to see this child, so everyone in the town knows the price that's being paid. Only a few choose to walk away from Omelas.

Here, we have a case where some people have been made unhappy in order to save lives. Most of the population is content with that choice.

Where do the protestors come from?

John C. Goodman looks at the question in the Wall Street Journal.

These are a very diverse group of people. Some of them are part of a 40,000-person network of former Obama supporters who are experiencing buyer's remorse. Others are part of various disease networks, including patients concerned about the future of cancer care. There are networks of senior citizens worried about cuts in Medicare and the possible closing of their private Medicare insurance plans. There are Christian conservatives worried about taxpayer-funded abortions and subsidies for euthanasia. And there are an enormous number of people who are simply concerned about their health care.

For the most part, these individuals are not funded or organized by anybody. They really are grass roots. Sure, there may be a few top-down "astroturf" groups and some special-interest groups that are secretly gleeful. But there is no way the kind of spontaneous outpouring we've witnessed could be bought or organized by anyone.

Why are they so angry? The reasons are manifold, but the single biggest reason is the arrogance of our elected officials in Washington. Think about it. For the past seven months a small group of politicians has been meeting behind-closed-doors with powerful special interests to decide whether you will be able to keep your current insurance, where you will be directed to get new insurance and at what price, what fines you and your employer will have to pay if you don't conform, and how they're going to get your doctor to change the way he or she practices medicine. In the process, they never asked you what you thought about anything. If you are not mad about this, odds are you don't understand the situation.
the Obama administration is pulling out all the stops for its "public option." While the mainstream media generally fail to cover it, at least once a week a message on health care goes out from the president, his staff, or someone from the DNC to 13 million Americans. These messages convey talking points defending the bills in Congress, attacking points aimed at critics, and suggested "to dos" for the faithful.

To counteract that, my colleagues and I have used talk radio and the Internet to send out counter messages, using material that has previously been posted at John Goodman's Health Policy Blog—where everything is vetted in the clear light of day by policy wonks on the left and the right. We pride ourselves on being accurate and believe we're far more accurate than the White House on the issues.
In truth, there is a deadly serious issue here: How do you get rid of waste and inefficiency without denying people care they really need? The answer is not easy. No other country has found it. And if the president wants to tackle this challenge he, not his opponents, bears the burden of proof to show how that will work.

Yet far from accepting this responsibility, the White House is ducking the issue. For example, they have chosen to scapegoat the insurance industry, making them out to be the villains in the health-care debate. These are the very same companies that have been negotiating with the administration behind closed doors in good faith, and are even spending millions of dollars on television ads supporting health reform.

Maybe enhanced interrogation does work after all...

Stephen Hayes at The Weekly Standard is seeing evidence that the major news media are finding it harder to ignore evidence that enhanced techniques, including waterboarding, may actually work.

The Washington Post has an important front-page story this morning, with matter-of-fact reporting on the importance of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as an intelligence source and the enhanced interrogation techniques that made him talk. The piece is headlined: "How a Detainee Became an Asset: September 11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding."

One key source is former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson, who acknowledged that two of the CIA’s “most powerful” enhanced interrogation techniques “elicited a lot of information."

"Certain of the techniques seemed to have little effect, whereas waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information," he said in an interview with the Post.
...there seems to be a subtle shift in his argument. In the IG report Helgerson had written that “measuring the overall effectiveness of EITs” is challenging and a “subjective process.”

In his interview with the Post, Helgerson narrowed the reasons he gave for his reluctance to draw conclusions. Count the qualifiers. Helgerson said he was not in "a position to reach definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of particular interrogation methods" and that “we didn't have the time or resources to do a careful, systematic analysis of the use of particular techniques with particular individuals and independently confirm the quality of the information that came out."

But that kind of analysis misses the point. The fact Helgerson didn’t perform such a study hardly prevents us from concluding that EITs were effective. It is not the effectiveness of “particular interrogation methods” that matters. It’s whether the EITs were effective used together, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes sequentially. And they were.
Helgerson says something else important. He acknowledges that EITs, particularly sleep deprivation and waterboarding, “elicited a lot of information” but he laments his inability to assess the quality of that intelligence. And the quality does matter. If EITs simply elicited lots of bad information nobody would consider them effective. They didn’t.

He provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists including Sayfullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, businessmen who Khalid Shaykh Muhammad planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States; Saleh Almari, a sleeper operative in New York; and Majid Khan, an operative who could enter the United States easily and was tasked to research attacks [redacted]. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s information also led to the investigation and prosecution of Iyman Faris, the truck driver arrested in early 2003 in Ohio.
Regardless of whether one believes CIA-inflicted waterboarding, sleep deprivation or severe psychological coercion (suggesting that harm could come to a family member of a taciturn al Qaeda detainee) constitute torture, such actions may have produced an intelligence bonanza and saved thousands of lives.

There may soon be more information made public that will demonstrate the effectiveness of EITs. Current and former CIA officials supportive of the program are pushing to have other reports declassified -– including a “rebuttal” document to the IG report written by senior officials in the directorate of operations; two internal CIA reviews of the program; and, perhaps most important, the interrogation logs written by interrogators to share the information they elicited with other interrogators and others at the CIA.

Fathers matter

From the Daily Mail:

In a world where advances in cloning and genetics are threatening to make men redundant, scientists finally have some reassuring news.

A study has shown that fathers play a crucial in family life - and that without a dad present in the crucial first stage of life, offspring grow up to be less sociable.

Although the findings come from a study of animals, it adds to the growing evidence that fathers influence the way children develop.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why there probably is a God -- review

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse reviews the book, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God.

...I decided to check it out. I'm glad I did. Ward's book is the best I have seen on this subject, and he is worth reading if just for the clarity of hs prose (not something you can count on from either philosophers or theologians). Surely if there were a convincing case to be made on behalf of the reasonableness of traditional religious belief Ward would be the one to present it. That he did not do so is telling us something about the hopelessness of the enterprise.

So at least one person found it unconvincing.

He has comments on topics raised in the book, which are well worth reading.

As a place to start, let us consider Ward's strange interpretation of Occam's Razor. Referring to the possibility of multiple universes Ward writes:

It has to be admited, however, that this is a very extravagant theory. It completely contradicts the principle of Occam's Razor, which says that you should not multiply entities unnecessarily. One of Dawkins' main motivations is to explain the complex in terms of simpler parts and general laws. But that motivation disappears completely if we have an infinite number of universes, and every possible combination of laws. Dawkins resists this conclusion by saying that `if each of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable'. That sounds like a despearate attempt to save a failed theory. The hypothesis that every possible universe exists is the most extravagant hypothesis anyone could think if, and it breaks Occam's rule of simplicity with a resounding smash. If the simple is good, then the fewer universes there are the better.

Skipping ahead a bit:

I agree with Dawkins that it would be preferable to have a simpler, less extravagant theory, if we could. Luckily, such a theory exists. It is God. If you introduce God, you can say that all Platonic turtles do exist, but they all exist in the mind of God, who is not a turtle at all.

This is all perfectly absurd, of course. By such logic we should prefer to explain disease via one demon over many bacteria.

The entities Occam encourages us not to multiply are not physical entities or even types of physical entities. It is assumptions or postulates that are to be minimized. You don't invoke extravagant, implausible hypotheses when mundane ones will do. A corollary to Occam's Razor would be that if physical entities and processes that are known to exist are adequate to explain something, you should not invent an all-powerful supernatural being to explain the same something.

We know our universe exists. The multiple universe hypothesis just says there is more of the same. (As an aside, we should mention that there are many multiverse hypotheses, and not just the specific one Ward considers). It can claim support from both inflationary cosmology and string theory, and it is worth noting that physicists have been seriously speculating about multiple universes since long before anyone noticed the anthropic principle had rheotrical value in arguments with atheists. Occam said not to multiply entities unnecessarily, but modern theories of physics are increasingly making multiple universe seem very necessary indeed.

And while we are at it, is there any particular reason to think there is only one universe? Whatever it is that makes universes, whether some sort of quantum fluctuation or an all-powerful God or something else entirely, could surely have made more than one. You can argue that this is all highly speculative since we have no direct evidence of those other universes, and I would agree. But since the God hypothesis suffers from the same defect I hardly think this is a strong point against the multiverse. Why is it simpler to think that there is one unique universe, rather than think that ours is just one of many universes, produced by some simple process to which we do not have access?

Against the more-of-the-same hypothesis Ward places the God hypothesis. This, he claims, is the simple, satisfying explanation for which we have been looking. Right, because what could be simpler than a disembodied, eternal intelligence capable of bringing worlds into being with an act of its will?

This is where I really part company with religious people, Ward included. They seem to think it is the most natural thing in the world to hypothesize into existence an entity with the powers typically attributed to the Christian God.


skipping ahead:

Could there be an unembodied mind, a pure Spirit, that has knowledge and awareness? I can see no reason why not. The God hypothesis has at least as much plausibility as the materialist hypothesis . Both are hard to imagine, but neither seems to be incoherent or self-contradictory. Either might be true.

I can think of some reasons why not. For starters, the idea of an unembodied consciousness is flatly contradicted by everything we know about consciousness. It looks like an oxymoron to me.

Regardless of the philosophy of mind to which you adhere, it seems absolutely clear that for us physical creatures a lot of complexly organized matter is essential to consciousness. No complexly organized matter, no consciousness. Thoughts and ideas may themselves be non-material entities, but as far as we know they require a physical substrate in order to exist.

Then there is the idea that God, while being himself immaterial, can interact with matter to the point of being able to bring whole universe into existence. This, again, is something utterly contrary to everything we know about intelligence. Here in the purely physical world something as simple as telekinesis is, as far as we know, impossible. There is a deck of cards on the desk in front of me, but I can not budge it with the power of my mind alone. How then does God interact causally with the material universe?

It is natural forces and processes that are constantly surprising us with their fecundity and creative prowess. Intelligence, by contrast and to the extent that we have experience with it, is utterly indequate to the task of creating universes and fiddling with fundamental constants.


At least materialism only relies on entities and forces I know exist, and says that the sorts of physical forces that have adequately explained ninety-nine percent of everything in our lives are also adequate for the remaining one percent.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The EIT Memo

Thomas Joscelyn at the Weekly Standard blog looks at what may become the conventional wisdom with respect to the Inspector General's report on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.

What made KSM talk? Taken at face value, the IG’s report suggests that it was the waterboard, and the waterboard alone, that led to this gusher of intelligence. The un-redacted portions of the IG’s report do not mention any other possible reason for KSM’s change of heart when it came to dealing with his debriefers. And he wasn’t in custody very long before KSM started naming names – some of the terrorists he gave up were captured within a matter of weeks.

So, there you have it. Zubaydah gave up more intelligence after being waterboarded. The waterboard made Nashiri compliant. When Nashiri stopped cooperating, other EITs were used to make him talk. And talk he did, giving up the “operational” details of his plotting. And, finally, KSM gave up little of value prior to being waterboarded. Afterwards, he became the CIA’s most important source on al Qaeda.

Of course, opponents of waterboarding and other enhanced methods will claim all the information obtained was garbage, and led down blind alleys in pursuit of wild geese.

Hawking's Medical Care

Stephen Hawking has been cited as the sort of patient who would do very badly under Britain's National Health Service.  But he's been under NHS for years now.

The story turns out to be a bit involved...

Hawking biographers Michael White and John Gribben, in the second edition of their 2003 book, "Stephen Hawking, A Life In Science," found that back when Hawking was less well-known, NHS wasn't nearly as good to him.

In the mid-1960s, Hawking's father became disillusioned with the care Hawking was getting from NHS and took over his son's treatment himself, doing his own research and prescribing vitamins.

On his own Web site, Hawking recalls that private help was also critical. "I caught pneumonia in 1985," he says. "I had to have a tracheotomy operation. After this, I had to have 24-hour nursing care. This was made possible by grants from several foundations."

White and Gribben describe what that meant: "The best the National Health Service could offer was seven hours' nursing help a week . . . They would have to pay for private nursing. It was obvious they would have to find financial support from somewhere.

"Jane (his wife) wrote letter after letter to charitable organizations around the world and called upon the help of family friends in approaching institutions that might be interested in assisting them.

"Help arrived from an American foundation aware of Hawking's work and international reputation, which agreed to pay £50,000 a year toward the costs of nursing. Shortly afterward several other charitable organizations on both sides of the Atlantic followed suit with smaller donations.

Of this, Bookworm says:

I hope you caught the irony there — it was Americans who stepped in and saved Hawkings' life when the NHS was willing to abandon his care.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Party purchases

Bob McEwen looks at why health care costs have skyrocketed, and it has to do with parties. 

No, not that kind....

When you buy something for yourself you are very careful with your money. You care about Price and Quality. You might pay 3.00 for a cup of coffee at 7:00 a.m. in the morning but wouldn't pay 50 cents for it at three in the afternoon. This is known as a first party purchase. You are spending your own money. For this reason you care about cost and personal consumption, or, the price and quality of the product.

When you buy something for someone else that is known as a second party purchase. It's still your money so you care about price, but you are more flexible about the quality of the product.

However, with a government run healthcare program you get the worst of both worlds: the third party purchase. The government will be buying something with money that is not theirs (therefore, they don't care about price) to buy something they will not personally consume (they are exempt, and, therefore, they aren't concerned a wit about quality). Here's the rub. By definition, ALL GOVERNMENT PURCHASES ARE THIRD PARTY PURCHASES. Hence, there will always be waste and fraud in government. The Pentagon? You bet. The Department of Health and Human Services? Count on it. The local county highway department? In every pothole.

Since 1942 most Americans have experienced second party purchases of their health insurance. The result? We have the finest healthcare system in the world because we care about quality; but we are not concerned about price because someone else is paying for it. The solution is not to make matters worse by going deeper in the direction away from accountability. We should be free to choose our health insurance just as we do every other piece of insurance we need. Let the marketplace compete with millions of consumers to give a little more coverage for a little less cost. It only works every time.

Consider the fields of cosmetic and Lasic eye surgery. Neither one is covered by health insurance so there are no second party purchases. Consumers must make a first party purchase. The net result? With the free market in place, the price of these surgeries has dramatically reduced while the quality has improved.

Actually, there are two types of second party purchases.  There's the kind he mentions, where you're spending your money on a product for someone else, and the kind where you're spending someone else's money on a product for yourself.  You can actually chart it in a grid:

Your moneyOther's money
your usefirst partysecond party
other's usesecond partythird party

The result [of second party purchasing] is that we have the best health care system in the world, but costs that are out of control. The solution is not to imitate the rest of the world. (After all where would the rest of the world-- at least those who can afford it--go to get their health care if we change our system?) The solution is not to do more of what is causing us problems-but less of it. This means free market reforms that create more of a first party pay system.

Obama's proposed government run system cannot defy the law of economics-even though he would like us to believe that it could.

Part of the problem is that the left doesn't believe the laws of economics are laws -- merely guidelines, subject to revision as proves to be convenient.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Did enhanced interrogation work?

Stephen Hayes at The Weekly Standard looks at the question:

...why the reluctance? Maybe it's because of the mainstream media's well-known pro-Cheney bias. We all remember the endless stream of flattering pieces about Cheney's ability to keep secrets, his willingness to listen quietly in meetings, and his eagerness to sacrifice his own personal popularity to defend unpopular policies that he believed kept the nation safe.

Or maybe it's because the documents -- including the much-ballyhooed Inspector General report -- actually do demonstrate that EITs were effective. Consider the IG report's section on Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.

With respect to al Nashiri [redacted] reported two waterboard sessions in November 2002, after which the psychologist/interrogations determined that al Nashiri was compliant. However, after being moved [redacted] al Nashiri was thought to be withholding information. Al Nashiri subsequently received additional EITs, [redacted] but not the waterboard. The Agency then determined al Nashiri to be "compliant." Because of the litany of techniques used by different interrogators over a relatively short period of time, it is difficult to identify why exactly al Nashiri became more willing to provide information. However, following the use of EITs, he provided information about his most current operational planning and [redacted] as opposed to the historical information he provided before the use of EITs.

Let's examine those last two sentences again. "Because of the litany of techniques used by different interrogators over a relatively short period of time, it is difficult to identify why exactly al Nashiri became more willing to provide information." The context makes the meaning clear: We cannot specify which EIT made al Nashiri more willing to provide more information. And in case there were any doubt, the final sentence is categorical. "Following the use of EITs, he provided information about his most current operational planning and [redacted] as opposed to the historical information he provided before the use of EITs."

Similarly, on page 91, the IG report notes that Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, "an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete." But four pages earlier, we learn from the IG about the valuable information that KSM did give up. KSM provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists including Sayfullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, businessmen who Khalid Shaykh Muhammad planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States; Saleh Almari, a sleeper operative in New York; and Majid Khan, an operative who could enter the United States easily and was tasked to research attacks [redacted]. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad's information also led to the investigation and prosecution of Iyman Faris, the truck driver arrested in early 2003 in Ohio.

So, we know that before KSM was waterboarded, he gave up virtually nothing and what little intelligence he did provide was mostly "outdated, inaccurate or incomplete." And we also know that some of KSM's interrogations provided detailed, valuable information that led to the detention of sleeper agents in the United States plotting attacks. Despite this, Sargent wants to believe -- and wants big news orgs to report -- that this second batch of intelligence reports from KSM -- the highly-valuable ones -- came from the pre-waterboarding interrogations.

Must have been a coincidence.

What Good are Profits

Bookworm Blogger has a take on this question:

Oh, I understand the envy mentality that says, "if someone is earning profits, it's unfair and I demand my fair share." I also understand the entitlement mentality of people that say, "I have a right to food, shelter, health care, etc. and therefore if someone profits there from they are stealing from me." These are social justice arguments peddled by morons.

Here's my proposition: I propose that profits are good and that profit-making should be encouraged.


Let's say that that I decide to build a backyard jungle gym. I pay a certain amount of money for the raw materials. To that, I add the cost of my labor and intellectual property (the design. This is the cost of my jungle gym…the total cost of inputs. If I cannot sell the jungle gym for a price that equates to more-than the cost of these inputs, the net perceived value of that jungle gym to the buyer is negative to zero. There is, therefore, no incentive for me to build more, although I might donate the one already built.

However, if the buyer is willing to pay more for that jungle gym than the cost of its component parts, then I have created value. By contrast, should the prospective buyer believe that they should be able to obtain my jungle gym for less than the cost of its inputs then I will have created something worth less (i.e., worthless).

What I am trying to say is applies directly to the current health care debate and all other government entitlements under contemplation. A brother in-law, a renowned professor of finance economics, told me that he believes the world moves forward purely based on incentives. Profit (i.e., added value) is the incentive for value-creation. Take away profit, either by trying to control prices (Cap and Trade) or providing something for "free", destroys the perceived value of the goods and services in question. Things of high value are treasured, things of low value are trashed.

We've seen what happens to societies from which the profit motive has been stripped away, such as communist societies (where profit was forbidden) or third world oligarchies (where profit is stolen from the many by the few). Such societies lack incentives to grow and instead decay. However, where profit is valued, societies flourish and add value to the general good.

Let me share a specific example: an aging friend of my mother-in-law, living in a Florida retirement community that spends its days plotting devious ways to extract as much as possible out of their limited budgets, has figured out a splendid way to avoid waiting lines in emergency care whenever she perceives herself to have a health problem, no matter how minor. You see, she dials *911 to get ambulance service "for free". No need to wait, go to the head of the line! It costs her nothing. It costs her community quite a bit.

What I believe has happened here is that subsidized Florida Care has enabled this person to disconnect the "price" (cost plus profit) of the services provided from its value. For this person, the price ergo value of emergency health services had been discounted to zero and can therefore be squandered. Obviously, this is not sustainable.

When people disconnect the relationship between costs and profit to the concept of value, goods and services lose all value. I fear that this is exactly where we are going under the current mindset –an economy stripped of the profit motive will ultimately be devoid of perceived value.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Same-sex marriage silence

Over at Reason Magazine, Steve Chapman writes about the silence of opponents of same-sex marriage.

Opponents of same-sex marriage reject it on religious and moral grounds but also on practical ones. If we let homosexuals marry, they believe, a parade of horribles will follow—the weakening of marriage as an institution, children at increased risk of broken homes, the eventual legalization of polygamy, and who knows what all.

Well, guess what? We're about to find out if they're right. Unlike most public policy debates, this one is the subject of a gigantic experiment, which should definitively answer whether same-sex marriage will have a broad, destructive social impact.
I contacted three serious conservative thinkers who have written extensively about the dangers of allowing gay marriage and asked them to make simple, concrete predictions about measurable social indicators—marriage rates, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, child poverty, you name it.

You would think they would react like Albert Pujols when presented with a hanging curveball. Yet none was prepared to forecast what would happen in same-sex marriage states versus other states.

Maggie Gallagher, president of the Virginia-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, has declared that losing this battle "means losing American civilization." But she politely declined my invitation.

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, has been equally dire. The change, he has warned, would weaken social taboos against adultery and incest and "set in motion a series of threats to the ethos of monogamy from which the institution of marriage may never recover."

When it came time to offer more specific predictions, Kurtz was missing in action. I e-mailed him twice and left a message on his office voicemail. After two weeks, I'm beginning to lose hope.

Evolution in action

From The Scientist:

...Ever since Charles Darwin, a prevailing attitude among medical practitioners has been that evolution does not operate in humans because modern medicine and culture have greatly leveled the playing field by homogenizing survival rates...

Not so, says Yale University's Stephen Stearns, who specializes in life history evolution. Survival rates have indeed evened out, particularly among children, yet human birth rates remain highly variable. Some people simply have more children than others. And if there's variation in lifetime reproductive success, and if some heritable trait is associated with that variation, then natural selection must be acting. To demonstrate natural selection in humans, however, requires a multitude of data collected over successive generations. Enter Framingham.


Early results show that women with lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower blood glucose, and women who conceive earlier in life and reached menopause at a later age, all had more offspring. As a result, a model based on the data (that also controlled for social factors that influence fertility) predicts that levels of all these genetically based traits will change over the next generation. "People, myself included, may have written off evolution in humans," says Ewbank. "But it's still there. It's still happening." But the same response won't continue indefinitely. Obviously, says Stearns, "if selection continued to reduce cholesterol, we couldn't build a brain."

The researchers also plan to study several other traits of medical interest, including high-density lipoproteins, triglycerides, and bilirubin levels. The researchers have not yet looked at the genetics behind the trend, but neither did Darwin when he was studying natural selection, which can be demonstrated solely by showing statistically that a trait can be heritable and lead to larger family sizes. ...

When Medicine is Socialized

From the Mises Institute:

In 1918, the Soviet Union became the first country to promise universal "cradle-to-grave" healthcare coverage, to be accomplished through the complete socialization of medicine. The "right to health" became a "constitutional right" of Soviet citizens.

The proclaimed advantages of this system were that it would "reduce costs" and eliminate the "waste" that stemmed from "unnecessary duplication and parallelism" — i.e., competition.

These goals were similar to the ones declared by Mr. Obama and Ms. Pelosi — attractive and humane goals of universal coverage and low costs. What's not to like?

The system had many decades to work, but widespread apathy and low quality of work paralyzed the healthcare system. In the depths of the socialist experiment, healthcare institutions in Russia were at least a hundred years behind the average US level. Moreover, the filth, odors, cats roaming the halls, drunken medical personnel, and absence of soap and cleaning supplies added to an overall impression of hopelessness and frustration that paralyzed the system. According to official Russian estimates, 78 percent of all AIDS victims in Russia contracted the virus through dirty needles or HIV-tainted blood in the state-run hospitals.


Socialized medical systems have not served to raise general health or living standards anywhere. In fact, both analytical reasoning and empirical evidence point to the opposite conclusion. But the dismal failure of socialized medicine to raise people's health and longevity has not affected its appeal for politicians, administrators, and their intellectual servants in search of absolute power and total control.

Most countries enslaved by the Soviet empire moved out of a fully socialized system through privatization and insuring competition in the healthcare system. Others, including many European social democracies, intend to privatize the healthcare system in the long run and decentralize medical control. The private ownership of hospitals and other units is seen as a critical determining factor of the new, more efficient, and humane system

Sunday, August 23, 2009

When scientists disagree

This was posted over at Real Climate under the title, Resolving Technical Issues in Science.

One of the strengths of science is its capacity to resolve controversies by generally accepted procedures and standards. Many scientific questions (especially more technical ones) are not matters of opinion but have a correct answer.

Scientists document their procedures and findings in the peer-reviewed literature in such a way that they can be double-checked and challenged by others. The proper way to challenge results is, of course, also through the peer-reviewed literature, so that the challenge follows the same standards of documentation as did the original finding.

Such a challenge can either be in form of a new, independent paper, or in the form of a comment to a published paper. The latter is the appropriate avenue if the challenge is not based on new data (and is thus a piece of research in its own right), but is a criticism of the methods used in a paper.
There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism, and pointing out errors — even fairly minor ones — is important and useful. The difference, though, between people who want to find out something about the real world and people who just want to score political points, is what is made of those errors. That is the test of constructive scientific dialog. Specious accusations of fraud, plagiarism and the like don’t pass such a test; instead they simply poison the atmosphere to everyone’s loss.

Intelligent Design, or orderly universe?

Also from The Panda's Thumb

William Dembski and Robert Marks have published what Dembski describes as a “peer-reviewed pro-ID article”. It is in the computer engineering journal IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans in the September 2009 issue. In a post at his Uncommon Descent blog (where a link to a PDF of the article will also be found) Dembski describes it as critiquing Richard Dawkins’s “Methinks it is like a weasel” simulation and that “in critiquing his example and arguing that information is not created by unguided evolutionary processes, we are indeed making an argument that supports ID.” But what does it really say about ID?

In effect, the picture the article paints is that information is out there in the shape of the fitness surface — the way fitnesses change as we move among neighboring genotypes. So, on this view, natural selection does not create information, it just transfers it into the genotype. The information is out there already, lying around. Dembski and Marks at one point say that “the active information comes from knowledge of the fitness”. If the fitness surface is smooth, as in the Weasel case, natural selection will readily be successful. D&M would then regard the information as provided by a Designer in advance.

In that case natural selection works. If a Designer has structured our genotype-phenotype space so that fitness surfaces are often smooth, if mutations do not typically instantly reduce the organism to a chaotic organic soup, if successful genotypes are often found to be close in sequence to other successful genotypes, then the Designer is not designing individual organisms — she is leaving natural selection to do the job. Dembski and Marks’s argument would then at most favor theistic evolution and could not be used to favor ID over that.

One can wonder whether one needs any particular Designer to structure reality in that way. The laws of physics do not make all objects interact intimately and strongly. When I move a pebble in my back yard, the dirt, grass, trees, and fences do not instantly reorder themselves into a totally different arrangement, unrecognizably different. If they did, of course natural selection would not be able to cope. But as they interact much less strongly than that, only a few leaves of grass change noticeably. I can cope, and so can natural selection. Does the smoothness of fitness surfaces come from this weakness of long-range interactions in physics? If so, then Dembski and Marks’s argument ends up leaving us to argue about where the laws of physics ultimately come from, and most evolutionary biologists will not feel too worried.

And from the comments...

So, on this view, natural selection does not create information, it just transfers it into the genotype. The information is out there already, lying around.
Exactly. So as long as there is an environment, no intelligence is needed in order to create information, in genomes, complex, specified or any other. This guy has just disproven all of his own previous nonsense. And of course, now that it is in a journal for all to see, I’m sure that many people are going to point this out to him.

Why would someone with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about genetics, population genetics, selection or fitness try to make such obviously flawed arguments? Who exactly does he think he is fooling? Who does he think is going to read this journal? Does he think that he can get away with calling this evidence for ID? Next thing you know he will be trying to patent phylogenetics!

Darwin's Appendix

...Or maybe his bibliography?

This piece is from The Panda's Thumb, under the category of "blogging on peer-reviewed research":

Last night, I asked for a copy of an article (I have plenty now, thanks!) that was getting a lot of press. The reason I was looking for it is two-fold: the PR looked awful, expressing some annoying cliches about evolution, but the data looked interesting, good stuff that I was glad to see done. Awful and interesting — I’m a sucker for those jarring combinations. My favorite pizza is jalapeno and pineapple, too.

The paper is about the appendix, that tiny little organ in your gut that doesn’t have a whole lot of obvious function. The point of the work is to try and show that yes, it does something — which is fine and interesting, although I will quibble a bit with their interpretation. Where they go awry, though, is in trying to pick a fight with a dead man, and making that the focus of their public relations.
Now, some of those same researchers are back, reporting on the first-ever study of the appendix through the ages. Writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Duke scientists and collaborators from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University conclude that Charles Darwin was wrong: The appendix is a whole lot more than an evolutionary remnant. Not only does it appear in nature much more frequently than previously acknowledged, but it has been around much longer than anyone had suspected.

“Maybe it’s time to correct the textbooks,” says William Parker, Ph.D., assistant professor of surgical sciences at Duke and the senior author of the study. “Many biology texts today still refer to the appendix as a ‘vestigial organ.’”

Charles Darwin is dead. Your research can’t be very cogent if your approach to drum up interest is to dig up a 120-year-old corpse and kick it around; is there anyone alive who disagrees with you who can put up a more informative and entertaining struggle? What this does is pick this one fellow as a symbol of the whole edifice of evolutionary theory, which has the advantage of making one’s work seem very, very important (even if one is stacking the deck to do it), but has the disadvantage of giving every creationist on the planet something to masturbate over, and they’re icky enough without your help.

It’s also annoying. Charles Darwin was wrong about many things — I’ll even give an example at the end of this article — and it’s part of the nature of science that everyone’s work will be revised and refined over time, and some of us will even be shown to be completely wrong. It’s rather unseemly to collect a lot of data that Darwin did not have, run it through PAUP 4.0 on a fast computer, map the data onto a molecular consensus phylogeny, and cackle gleefully over discovering something Darwin did not know. Really, it doesn’t make you a better scientist than Darwin.

To make it even worse, people who do this can’t even make the corpse-fight a fair fight — they have to stuff the pathetic dead body with straw. In this case, they’re padding Darwin’s investment in the appendix a fair amount. They cite one work by Darwin, The Descent of Man, which mentions this issue. He wrote one whole paragraph on the topic, and here it is, in its entirety; it was presented briefly as part of a long list of human rudimentary structures, such as wisdom teeth, muscles of the ear, and the semilunar fold of the eye.

Note why Darwin classed this appendage as vestigial: because it is greatly reduced compared to the homologous organs in non-human relatives, and because it currently exhibits a great range of variation, which is apparently non-functional. These are criteria which the paper in question does not refute at all. Darwin does say that the appendix is “useless”, and the paper will show some evidence that that is wrong. It’s also irrelevant.

The reason why it is irrelevant is that the presence of some function is not part of the definition of a vestigial or rudimentary organ — Darwin obligingly concedes that evolution will salvage some utility out of organs with little retention of their original function, but which are present as a consequence of contingency. He discusses this at greater length in On the Origin of Species, and here is a significant chunk of the relevant writing.
Organs or parts in this strange condition, bearing the plain stamp of inutility, are extremely common, or even general, throughout nature. It would be impossible to name one of the higher animals in which some part or other is not in a rudimentary condition. In the mammalia, for instance, the males possess rudimentary mammae; in snakes one lobe of the lungs is rudimentary; in birds the “bastardwing” may safely be considered as a rudimentary digit, and in some species the whole wing is so far rudimentary that it cannot be used for flight. What can be more curious than the presence of teeth in foetal whales, which when grown up have not a tooth in their heads; or the teeth, which never cut through the gums, in the upper jaws of unborn calves?

Rudimentary organs plainly declare their origin and meaning in various ways. There are beetles belonging to closely allied species, or even to the same identical species, which have either full-sized and perfect wings, or mere rudiments of membrane, which not rarely lie under wing-covers firmly soldered together; and in these cases it is impossible to doubt, that the rudiments represent wings....

An organ, serving for two purposes, may become rudimentary or utterly aborted for one, even the more important purpose, and remain perfectly efficient for the other. Thus in plants, the office of the pistil is to allow the pollen-tubes to reach the ovules within the ovarium. The pistil consists of a stigma supported on a style; but in some Compositae, the male florets, which of course cannot be fecundated, have a rudimentary pistil, for it is not crowned with a stigma; but the style remains well developed and is clothed in the usual manner with hairs, which serve to brush the pollen out of the surrounding and conjoined anthers. Again, an organ may become rudimentary for its proper purpose, and be used for a distinct one: in certain fishes the swimbladder seems to be rudimentary for its proper function of giving buoyancy, but has become converted into a nascent breathing organ or lung. Many similar instances could be given.
I’ve highlighted the part most important for this discussion. Darwin did not discuss the appendix or caecum at all in the Origin, but this description does apply. If a portion of the gut, a digestive organ, is diminished in size such that it no longer contributes to the primary function of the organ, but does retain a secondary function, such as assisting in immunity, or as the authors of the recent paper will argue, in acting as a reservoir of bacteria for recolonizing the gut, then it is still a vestigial organ. It has lost much of its ancestral function.

I do not understand why this is so hard for so many people to comprehend. Biology is plastic and opportunistic. Accidents of history will always still be incorporated into the whole of the organism; we make do, or we die. Just because something is does not mean that the entirety of its nature is the product of selection.
I mentioned that I’d point out errors in Darwin’s understanding. They’re there, but note that seeing them now 150 years after he wrote his big book does not make me smarter than Darwin, nor does it invalidate the overall picture of his theory. You can see one ‘error’ in the quote above: we are now pretty certain that the original function of the swimbladder in fish was respiratory. It evolved first as a supplement to the gills, providing access to the rich oxygen content of the atmosphere, and was secondarily adapted to function for bouyancy. Hah, silly Darwin, that he did not know a detail of paleontology and phylogeny that would be worked out a century after his death!

He also made a more substantial error. He wondered how organs became smaller over time, and his answer was, unfortunately, a bit Lamarckian and also a bit muddled.
“Disuse” is the magic word there: if a cavefish lived in the dark and never used its eyes, the idea was that its progeny would then have smaller eyes. This is not correct, but it was a central part of Darwin’s invalid theory of heredity. This is a much more substantial failing of Darwin’s work, but again, I can’t claim credit for figuring this out; it took the work of Mendel to get the core of genetics puzzled out, and then it took a whole generation of scientists to work out how genetics and evolution fit together. We can say “DARWIN WAS WRONG!” about that, but we can’t really say that about his treatment of vestigial organs in general, which seems to hold up fairly well…perhaps because Darwin himself was not so fervently committed to the absolute adaptedness of every single feature of every single organism as some of his later followers.

VA pushing death?

From the Wall Street Journal:

If President Obama wants to better understand why America's discomfort with end-of-life discussions threatens to derail his health-care reform, he might begin with his own Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He will quickly discover how government bureaucrats are greasing the slippery slope that can start with cost containment but quickly become a systematic denial of care.
"Your Life, Your Choices" presents end-of-life choices in a way aimed at steering users toward predetermined conclusions, much like a political "push poll." For example, a worksheet on page 21 lists various scenarios and asks users to then decide whether their own life would be "not worth living."

The circumstances listed include ones common among the elderly and disabled: living in a nursing home, being in a wheelchair and not being able to "shake the blues." There is a section which provocatively asks, "Have you ever heard anyone say, 'If I'm a vegetable, pull the plug'?" There also are guilt-inducing scenarios such as "I can no longer contribute to my family's well being," "I am a severe financial burden on my family" and that the vet's situation "causes severe emotional burden for my family."

When the government can steer vulnerable individuals to conclude for themselves that life is not worth living, who needs a death panel?

One can only imagine a soldier surviving the war in Iraq and returning without all of his limbs only to encounter a veteran's health-care system that seems intent on his surrender.
If President Obama is sincere in stating that he is not trying to cut costs by pressuring the disabled to forgo critical care, one good way to show that commitment is to walk two blocks from the Oval Office and pull the plug on "Your Life, Your Choices." He should make sure in the future that VA decisions are guided by values that treat the lives of our veterans as gifts, not burdens.

New website

Are You Sorry Yet Bumper Sticker

Projection and the Left

Robert Ringer writes in his blog on The Art of Vilification:

I've written extensively about teacher and student bullying  (The Cho Factor, Parts I-XXXIV), so what the Obamaviks are now doing rings a familiar bell with me. Almost without fail, the schoolyard bully, when confronted, accuses his victim of doing precisely what he himself is guilty of. And, sadly, all too often it works.

Whether it's Kathleen Sebelius calling town-hall protestors terrorists, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs chuckling and waving them aside as angry mobs, or the arrogant Wizard of Words in the Oval Office lashing out at Fox News, their tactics are childish, pathetic, and shameless.

Birthers … deathers … teabaggers … astroturfers … truthers … the left has an endless arsenal of epithets with which to vilify, discredit, and dismiss their dissatisfied employers. As Ann Coulter says, if you want to know what liberals are up to, just listen to what they accuse conservatives of.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Written or wrong?

From The American Conservative:
Reid Buckley teaches public speaking -- or tries to.  Not everyone is receptive to his methods.
One student shouted indignantly, "I thought this was a course in public speaking!" There were murmurs of assent. I explained that, all things being equal, one's thoughts were best written out before they were spoken. But the 30 or so members of the class remained upset. They wished to "wing it."
That is the essence of the contemporary zeitgeist, which preaches spontaneous efflorescence born of inspiration issuing from a well of authenticity and soaring on the exuberant wings of conceit. It is the philosophy of ejaculation and orgasm and no Catholic guilt. These young people had not been taught to edit. They had not been taught self-criticism. They had been reared in an environment of self-esteem, even when this went unexamined and was unearned.

And the result:

And when they returned a week later with the fruits of their labors, I was appalled. I took the papers home and spent two afternoons and two evenings past midnight editing them.
I had to contend with an illiterate heaping of multisyllabic social-studies mush whose meaning was either obscured or contradicted by other heapings of academic mush, as indecipherable as they were ungrammatical. Illicit inferences lurked under false premises like salamanders under rocks. Logical connections did not exist. Non sequiturs were thick as chiggers. Do not mention grace or style. Of the 28 papers I labored through, only in two did I detect talent buried in the rubble. I had never seen anything so hopeless.

So how did they fail so utterly to learn even the basics?

When I proceeded to go over the essay of another young man, his voice caught in his throat and he broke down. I was taken aback. We hadn't proceeded beyond the first page. His wasn't the worst effort, either. But he wasn't protesting my criticisms. To the contrary. "You're right," he kept repeating, tears flowing, "It's awful. I can't write my thoughts down. They come out a mess, I know!" And then he related a scandal. Not in four years of high school and three years of college had a single teacher expressed concern about his writing or offered to edit it. When he said this, other students spoke out to confirm cognate experiences. "What can I do now?" this young man asked me despairingly. "I graduate in two months!"

I can give presentations to groups of strangers.  I was one of the people teaching courses at an American Water Works Association event last week.  We had fifty minute time slots to fill.  The last PowerPoint slide came up fifty minutes after I started, despite the fact that I like go on digressions from the bullet points on the slides.

I worked from an outline, and was able to do the "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" lecture structure.  I covered all the material in my presentation, partly because I made darn sure I wasn't trying to cram in too much.

I seem to have an unfair advantage over today's graduates.  But I studied English in an era when people still learned to write outlines and diagram sentences.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Where does BDS go when there's no "B"?

Where do the vapors of Bush Derangement Syndrome go when there's no Bush to attack?

Now that Mr. Bush is quietly going about his retirement, this strain of rage - the GWB43 virus - has spread like wildfire, finding unsuspecting targets, each granting us greater perspective into what not long ago seemed like a mysterious phenomenon isolated only on our 43rd president.

The first person to catch the virus was Sarah Palin, whose family also was infected, including, unforgivably, her children.

Then it was Joe the Plumber, for asking a question.

Next were the Mormons.

Then it was Rush Limbaugh - who hit back.

Next, tax-day "tea party" attendees were "tea bagged."

Then there was a beauty contestant.

And a Cambridge cop, too.

And now we have town-hall "mobs."

Smile ... you've been "community organized."

When put on the media stage, these individuals and groups have been isolated for destruction for standing in the way of a resurgent modern progressive movement and for challenging its charismatic once-in-a-lifetime standard-bearer, Barack Obama.
The origins of manufactured "politics of personal destruction" is Saul Alinsky, the mentor of a young Hillary Rodham, who wrote her 92-page Wellesley College senior thesis on the late Chicago-based "progressive" street agitator titled, "There Is Only the Fight."

Mr. Obama and his Fighting Illini, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, have perfected Mr. Alinsky's techniques as laid out in his guidebook to political warfare, "Rules for Radicals." In plain language, we see how normal, decent and even private citizens become nationally vilified symbols overnight - all in the pursuit of progressive political victory.

"Rule 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)"

With the complicity of the mainstream media and abetted by George Soros' money and netroots nation, Mr. Bush never stood a chance.

But the more the virus spreads, the more we study it and, perhaps, find the cure. The repetitive use of the same technique against anyone who would dare stand up and oppose the progressive movement and especially its leader has exposed the game and rendered its tactics less effective.

In fact, one could make the argument that the Republican Party, usually slow on the uptake, has finally figured it out. There are no major Republican targets out there opposing Mr. Obama and his aggressive agenda. The conservative movement appears leaderless, but perhaps for the best.

Maybe that is the strategy: Standing back and letting the Obama machine flail in its pursuit of its next victim.

A grass-roots movement of average Americans has stood up, making it extremely difficult to isolate and demonize an individual.

Mr. Alinsky noted in "Rule 12" that it is difficult to go after "institutions." And attacking "tea baggers" and "mobs" has only created more resistance and drawn attention to the left's limited playbook. Even Americans expressing their constitutionally protected right to free speech are open game.

Now that many people are Googling the Alinsky rule book and catching up with the way Chicago thugs play their political games, Mr. Obama and the Fighting Illini are going to be forced to create new rules - or double down on the old ones.

Worse yet, as his approval ratings descend rapidly - Rasmussen has him at 47 percent, the lowest of his presidency - angry citizens may be turning the tables on him, using Mr. Alinsky against him.

They won't have to "freeze" and "personalize" him either. He's got 3 1/2 years left with the klieg lights focused on him. And if Mr. Obama can't get the economy rolling and continues to demonize everyday folks for his failures, he will be further isolated from sympathy and even ridiculed.

Yes, it's cruel - and effective.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The "death panel" issue

From Contentions at Commentary Magazine: main criticism of Sarah Palin's "death panel" remarks is that they reduce in scope the disapproval of the proposed health-care bill to a concern that, while not wholly unfounded as you pointed out, sounds exaggerated and rhetorically ill-pitched. Rightfully fearing a backlash from senior voters, Democrats yielded to the opposition regarding provisions for end-of-life counseling and removed them from the bill—and some consider this a victory for Palin.

But her outrage seems to have been misallocated, as now more must be mustered for countering the rest of the bill, which remains chock-full of problematic stipulations, some much more deleterious to both the health-insurance industry and the interests of health-care consumers than what Sarah Palin chose to focus on....


Obama's statements that you quoted are suggestive of the extreme utilitarian mindset that permeates the bill. To be sure, its architects do intend to ration care to the elderly and the chronically ill, but how such rationing would be implemented is not through any "death panels" but rather through the perverse actuarial calculus known as comparative effectiveness research. This is a formula that divides the cost of a treatment by the number of "quality-adjusted life years" that the patient is likely to enjoy—a cost-benefit quotient to guide bureaucratic boards on allocating medical resources. In Britain, the formula leads to denying treatments for older patients who have fewer years to benefit from care than do younger patients: until recently, older patients with macular degeneration, which causes blindness, were told that they had to go totally blind in one eye before they could get an expensive new drug to save the other eye.

As Betsy McCaughey notes at the Wall Street Journal: "The House bill shifts resources from specialty medicine to primary care based on the misconception that Americans overuse specialist care and drive up costs in the process (pp. 660-686). In fact, heart-disease patients treated by generalists instead of specialists are often misdiagnosed and treated incorrectly. They are readmitted to the hospital more frequently, and die sooner."

This is just another corollary of the utilitarian ethics motivating the bill, concerned with allocating communal resources for the greatest benefit to the greatest number. In such context, it's hardly a misconception that Americans overuse specialty care. Indeed, however grave a disease may be, if it ails only an unlucky few, the medical resources tied to treating it could instead help a greater number of people stricken by more common ailments. If such considerations dictate the allocation of scarce resources on a large scale, the result will be generic health care for all and specialized treatments—those needed the most—for few or none.

The uninsured

Clayton Cramer cites a paramedic blogger:

First, I don't see that the problem is as acute as the interests I cited above want us to believe. Which is not to say that there are not some problems, but they don't require the drastic overhaul, restructuring, and ceding control to the federal government that Obamacare would require.

Second, lets talk about the uninsured. Most of the patients I see that are uninsured are young, male, working, and don't think they need insurance. I often see them after they've done something stupid and now need emergency care. A few of them have been reluctant to go to the hospital because they don't have insurance. I don't see a lot of them with chronic or even acute (well not related to alcohol) medical problems. Those few that do have medical problems also seem to have health insurance.

Children, elderly, homeless? Maybe it's just my limited experience, but I have yet to see a kid that didn't have some sort of insurance. For the purposes of this post, Medicaid, whatever name your state uses for it, is insurance. In the real world it's welfare, because the beneficiaries don't pay premiums. Same with the elderly, Medicare may not pay well, but it does pay, and many of the elderly I see have supplemental insurance. NO, Medicare is NOT welfare, since most of the beneficiaries have paid taxes over the years. That includes both my mother and my mother in law. Neither is wealthy, but both have insurance. Same for the patients I see. As to the homeless, my experience is limited to this geographic area, but they seem to have access to health care. Whether they use it or not is a different issue. Every homeless shelter I've responded to (which is a lot) has a clinic available to their clients. Some clinics are better than others, but that's how medicine goes. Nor are the homeless ever turned down at emergency departments, even though the hospital knows that it's highly likely they'll never see a penny of reimbursement.
He has a number of thoughtful suggestions for reforms that seem pretty sensible (such as expanding Medicaid to allow those who can afford insurance, but don't currently have it, to buy into it). Worth reading in full.

UPDATE: To clarify: Medicaid provides coverage for the poor, but there is no option for a person who is employed and above the requisite poverty level, to pay for Medicaid coverage. From what I have read, Medicaid coverage isn't spectacularly wonderful, since it uses the same type of payment schedule as Medicare (although not the exact same schedule)--but it would be better than no coverage at all, and probably less expensive than individual health insurance.

Indeed.  The government has control of medicare, medicaid, and the VA, at the very least.  Why not allow people to pay some amount by way of a premium and obtain coverage that way?