Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Optimism in Evolution

Working my way up the spindle...

Subject: [DebunkCreation] Optimism in Evolution

Optimism in Evolution

When the dog days of summer come to an end, one thing we can be sure of is that the school year that follows will see more fights over the teaching of evolution and whether intelligent design, or even Biblical accounts of creation, have a place in America's science classrooms.

In these arguments, evolution is treated as an abstract subject that deals with the age of the earth or how fish first flopped onto land. It's discussed as though it were an optional, quaint and largely irrelevant part of biology. And a common consequence of the arguments is that evolution gets dropped from the curriculum entirely.

This is a travesty.

It is also dangerous.

Evolution should be taught — indeed, it should be central to beginning biology classes — for at least three reasons.

First, it provides a powerful framework for investigating the world we live in. Without evolution, biology is merely a collection of disconnected facts, a set of descriptions. The astonishing variety of nature, from the tree shrew that guzzles vast quantities of alcohol every night to the lichens that grow in the Antarctic wastes, cannot be probed and understood. Add evolution — and it becomes possible to make inferences and predictions and (sometimes) to do experiments to test those predictions. All of a sudden patterns emerge everywhere, and apparently trivial details become interesting.

The second reason for teaching evolution is that the subject is immediately relevant here and now. The impact we are having on the planet is causing other organisms to evolve — and fast. And I'm not talking just about the obvious examples: widespread resistance to pesticides among insects; the evolution of drug resistance in the agents of disease, from malaria to tuberculosis; the possibility that, say, the virus that causes bird flu will evolve into a form that spreads easily from person to person. The impact we are having is much broader.

For instance, we are causing animals to evolve just by hunting them. The North Atlantic cod fishery has caused the evolution of cod that mature smaller and younger than they did 40 years ago. Fishing for grayling in Norwegian lakes has caused a similar pattern in these fish. Human trophy hunting for bighorn rams has caused the population to evolve into one of smaller-horn rams. (All of which, incidentally, is in line with evolutionary predictions.)

Conversely, hunting animals to extinction may cause evolution in their former prey species. Experiments on guppies have shown that, without predators, these fish evolve more brightly colored scales, mature later, bunch together in shoals less and lose their ability to suddenly swim away from something. Such changes can happen in fewer than five generations. If you then reintroduce some predators, the population typically goes extinct.

Thus, a failure to consider the evolution of other species may result in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, to preserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short, evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure to teach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead.

The third reason to teach evolution is more philosophical. It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, "The Republican War on Science," the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence — or indeed, evidence of any kind — has permeated the Bush administration's policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.

Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt for evidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it first begins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute for evidence can go badly awry. (This is not to suggest that science is never distorted by the ideological left; it sometimes is, and the results are no better.)

But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It's that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don't have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore.  To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

Olivia Judson, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes The Wild Side at nytimes.com/opinion.

God Centers in the Brain

This, from the Economist:

Where angels no longer fear to tread
Mar 19th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Science and religion have often been at loggerheads. Now the former has decided to resolve the problem by trying to explain the existence of the latter

Illustration by Stephen Jeffrey
BY THE standards of European scientific collaboration, €2m ($3.1m) is not a huge sum. But it might be the start of something that will challenge human perceptions of reality at least as much as the billions being spent by the European particle-physics laboratory (CERN) at Geneva. The first task of CERN's new machine, the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to open later this year, will be to search for the Higgs boson—an object that has been dubbed, with a certain amount of hyperbole, the God particle. The €2m, by contrast, will be spent on the search for God Himself—or, rather, for the biological reasons why so many people believe in God, gods and religion in general.
"Explaining Religion", as the project is known, is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities and a range of disciplines from psychology to economics. And it is merely the latest manifestation of a growing tendency for science to poke its nose into the God business. Click Here!
Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

I have no need of that hypothesis

Explaining Religion is an ambitious attempt to do this. The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a "surveillance-camera" God might improve reproductive success to an individual's Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person's reputation—for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.
It is an ambitious shopping list. Fortunately, other researchers have blazed a trail. Patrick McNamara, for example, is the head of the Evolutionary Neurobehaviour Laboratory at Boston University's School of Medicine. He works with people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. This illness is caused by low levels of a messenger molecule called dopamine in certain parts of the brain. In a preliminary study, Dr McNamara discovered that those with Parkinson's had lower levels of religiosity than healthy individuals, and that the difference seemed to correlate with the disease's severity. He therefore suspects a link with dopamine levels and is now conducting a follow-up involving some patients who are taking dopamine-boosting medicine and some of whom are not.
Such neurochemical work, though preliminary, may tie in with scanning studies conducted to try to find out which parts of the brain are involved in religious experience. Nina Azari, a neuroscientist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who also has a doctorate in theology, has looked at the brains of religious people. She used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure brain activity in six fundamentalist Christians and six non-religious (though not atheist) controls. The Christians all said that reciting the first verse of the 23rd psalm helped them enter a religious state of mind, so both groups were scanned in six different sets of circumstances: while reading the first verse of the 23rd psalm, while reciting it out loud, while reading a happy story (a well-known German children's rhyme), while reciting that story out loud, while reading a neutral text (how to use a calling card) and while at rest.
Dr Azari was expecting to see activity in the limbic systems of the Christians when they recited the psalm. Previous research had suggested that this part of the brain (which regulates emotion) is an important centre of religious activity. In fact what happened was increased activity in three areas of the frontal and parietal cortex, some of which are better known for their involvement in rational thought. The control group did not show activity in these parts of their brains when listening to the psalm. And, intriguingly, the only thing that triggered limbic activity in either group was reading the happy story.
Dr Azari's PET study, together with one by Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, which used single-photon emission computed tomography done on Buddhist monks, and another by Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal, which put Carmelite nuns in a magnetic-resonance-imaging machine, all suggest that religious activity is spread across many parts of the brain. That conflicts not only with the limbic-system theory but also with earlier reports of a so-called God Spot that derived partly from work conducted on epileptics. These reports suggested that religiosity originates specifically in the brain's temporal lobe, and that religious visions are the result of epileptic seizures that affect this part of the brain.
Though there is clearly still a long way to go, this sort of imaging should eventually tie down the circuitry of religious experience and that, combined with work on messenger molecules of the sort that Dr McNamara is doing, will illuminate how the brain generates and processes religious experiences. Dr Azari, however, is sceptical that such work will say much about religion's evolution and function. For this, other methods are needed.
Dr McNamara, for example, plans to analyse a database called the Ethnographic Atlas to see if he can find any correlations between the amount of cultural co-operation found in a society and the intensity of its religious rituals. And Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, has already done some research which suggests that the long-term co-operative benefits of religion outweigh the short-term costs it imposes in the form of praying many times a day, avoiding certain foods, fasting and so on.

Leviticus's children

On the face of things, it is puzzling that such costly behaviour should persist. Some scholars, however, draw an analogy with sexual selection. The splendour of a peacock's tail and the throaty roar of a stag really do show which males are fittest, and thus help females choose. Similarly, signs of religious commitment that are hard to fake provide a costly and reliable signal to others in a group that anyone engaging in them is committed to that group. Free-riders, in other words, would not be able to gain the advantages of group membership.
To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes published in 1988 by Yaacov Oved of Tel Aviv University. Dr Sosis picked 200 of these for his analysis; 88 were religious and 112 were secular. Dr Oved's data include the span of each commune's existence and Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year.
A follow-up study that Dr Sosis conducted in collaboration with Eric Bressler of McMaster University in Canada focused on 83 of these communes (30 religious, 53 secular) to see if the amount of time they survived correlated with the strictures and expectations they imposed on the behaviour of their members. The two researchers examined things like food consumption, attitudes to material possessions, rules about communication, rituals and taboos, and rules about marriage and sexual relationships.
As they expected, they found that the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted (one is still going, at the grand old age of 149). But the same did not hold true of secular communes, where the oldest was 40. Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community—what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.
Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. Because a kibbutz, by its nature, depends on group co-operation, the principal difference between the two is the use of religious ritual. Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. It should, therefore, be possible to observe whether group rituals do improve co-operation, based on the behaviour of men and women.
To do so, Dr Sosis teamed up with Bradley Ruffle, an economist at Ben-Gurion University, in Israel. They devised a game to be played by two members of a kibbutz. This was a variant of what is known to economists as the common-pool-resource dilemma, which involves two people trying to divide a pot of money without knowing how much the other is asking for. In the version of the game devised by Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle, each participant was told that there was an envelope with 100 shekels in it (between 1/6th and 1/8th of normal monthly income). Both players could request money from the envelope, but if the sum of their requests exceeded its contents, neither got any cash. If, however, their request equalled, or was less than, the 100 shekels, not only did they keep the money, but the amount left was increased by 50% and split between them.
Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle picked the common-pool-resource dilemma because the communal lives of kibbutz members mean they often face similar dilemmas over things such as communal food, power and cars. The researchers' hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened.

Big father is watching you

Dr Sosis is not the only researcher to employ economic games to investigate the nature and possible advantages of religion. Ara Norenzayan, an experimental psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has conducted experiments using what is known as the dictator game. This, too, is a well-established test used to gauge altruistic behaviour. Participants receive a sum of money—Dr Norenzayan set it at $10—and are asked if they would like to share it with another player. The dictator game thus differs from another familiar economic game in which one person divides the money and the other decides whether to accept or reject that division.
As might be expected, in the simple version of the dictator game most people take most or all of the money. However, Dr Norenzayan and his graduate student Azim Shariff tried to tweak the game by introducing the idea of God. They did this by priming half of their volunteers to think about religion by getting them to unscramble sentences containing religious words such as God, spirit, divine, sacred and prophet. Those thus primed left an average of $4.22, while the unprimed left $1.84.
Exactly what Dr Norenzayan has discovered here is not clear. A follow-up experiment which primed people with secular words that might, nevertheless, have prompted them to behave in an altruistic manner (civic, jury, court, police and contract) had similar effects, so it may be that he has touched on a general question of morality, rather than a specific one of religion. However, an experiment carried out by Jesse Bering, of Queen's University in Belfast, showed quite specifically that the perceived presence of a supernatural being can affect a person's behaviour—although in this case the being was not God, but the ghost of a dead person.
Illustration by Stephen Jeffrey
Dr Bering, too, likes the hypothesis that religion promotes fitness by promoting collaboration within groups. One way that might work would be to rely not just on other individuals to detect cheats by noticing things like slacking on the prayers or eating during fasts, but for cheats to detect and police themselves as well. In that case a sense of being watched by a supernatural being might be useful. Dr Bering thus proposes that belief in such beings would prevent what he called "dangerous risk miscalculations" that would lead to social deviance and reduced fitness.
One of the experiments he did to test this idea was to subject a bunch of undergraduates to a quiz. His volunteers were told that the best performer among them would receive a $50 prize. They were also told that the computer program that presented the questions had a bug in it, which sometimes caused the answer to appear on the screen before the question. The volunteers were therefore instructed to hit the space bar immediately if the word "Answer" appeared on the screen. That would remove the answer and ensure the test results were fair.
The volunteers were then divided into three groups. Two began by reading a note dedicating the test to a recently deceased graduate student. One did not see the note. Of the two groups shown the note, one was told by the experimenter that the student's ghost had sometimes been seen in the room. The other group was not given this suggestion.
The so-called glitch occurred five times for each student. Dr Bering measured the amount of time it took to press the space bar on each occasion. He discarded the first result as likely to be unreliable and then averaged the other four. He found that those who had been told the ghost story were much quicker to press the space bar than those who had not. They did so in an average of 4.3 seconds. That compared with 6.3 seconds for those who had only read the note about the student's death and 7.2 for those who had not heard any of the story concerning the dead student. In short, awareness of a ghost—a supernatural agent—made people less likely to cheat.

Who is my neighbour?

It all sounds very Darwinian. But there is a catch. The American communes, the kibbutzim, the students of the University of British Columbia and even the supernatural self-censorship observed by Dr Bering all seem to involve behaviour that promotes the group over the individual. That is the opposite of Darwinism as conventionally understood. But it might be explained by an idea that most Darwinians dropped in the 1960s—group selection.
The idea that evolution can work by the differential survival of entire groups of organisms, rather than just of individuals, was rejected because it is mathematically implausible. But it has been revived recently, in particular by David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University, in New York, as a way of explaining the evolution of human morality in the context of inter-tribal warfare. Such warfare can be so murderous that groups whose members fail to collaborate in an individually self-sacrificial way may be wiped out entirely. This negates the benefits of selfish behaviour within a group. Morality and religion are often closely connected, of course (as Dr Norenzayan's work confirms), so what holds for the one might be expected to hold for the other, too.
Dr Wilson himself has studied the relationship between social insecurity and religious fervour, and discovered that, regardless of the religion in question, it is the least secure societies that tend to be most fundamentalist. That would make sense if adherence to the rules is a condition for the security which comes from membership of a group. He is also interested in what some religions hold out as the ultimate reward for good behaviour—life after death. That can promote any amount of self-sacrifice in a believer, up to and including suicidal behaviour—as recent events in the Islamic world have emphasised. However, belief in an afterlife is not equally well developed in all religions, and he suspects the differences may be illuminating.
That does not mean there are no explanations for religion that are based on individual selection. For example, Jason Slone, a professor of religious studies at Webster University in St Louis, argues that people who are religious will be seen as more likely to be faithful and to help in parenting than those who are not. That makes them desirable as mates. He plans to conduct experiments designed to find out whether this is so. And, slightly tongue in cheek, Dr Wilson quips that "secularism is very maladaptive biologically. We're the ones who at best are having only two kids. Religious people are the ones who aren't smoking and drinking, and are living longer and having the health benefits."
That quip, though, makes an intriguing point. Evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists, and most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view. But if a propensity to religious behaviour really is an evolved trait, then they have talked themselves into a position where they cannot benefit from it, much as a sceptic cannot benefit from the placebo effect of homeopathy. Maybe, therefore, it is God who will have the last laugh after all—whether He actually exists or not.

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Patterico on Obama

From way down at the bottom of the spindle....

3/18/2008: Fisking Obama's Speech Today — Didn't See It, Just Reading The Text

Posted By WLS:
I'm in no way enamored of Obama — neither his style nor his politics.
So, I'm looking at his speech with a very jaundiced eye.  And there are lots of things I don't particularly like in the text:
I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together
 From what I've read over the last few days, he didn't learn "togetherness" as a method of problem solving from Rev. Wright.

Family, Marriage, and Law

Apparently, international law is not terribly gender-neutral with respect to marriage.  Rita Joseph sets out "twelve facts" about family and marriage, including:

2. Article 23 of the ICCPR guarantees, first, protection by society and the state for the family as "the natural and fundamental group unit of society" and second, "the right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family".

3. In the event of the introduction of State or Territory laws that tamper with these protections, the Federal parliament has a constitutional external powers authority (and duty) to enact a general overriding law restoring marriage and family obligations originally promised in Article 23.

4. This article, according to the UN Human Rights Committee (General Comment 19), "implies, in principle, the possibility to procreate". (A General Comment is the most authoritative of all the prescriptions that may be issued by the UN human rights monitoring bodies.)

5. With specific regard to "the right to marry and to found a family", there is, of course, no requirement to procreate but rather a more exacting requirement for the two rights holders of this right to have "in principle, the possibility to procreate" through their marriage. This term, "in principle, the possibility to procreate", rules out definitively any genuine legal right of two persons of the same sex to marry.
10. Promoting same-sex "marriage" contravenes international human rights obligations for governments to provide "the widest possible protection and assistance" for the family, "particularly for its establishment" as "the natural and fundamental group unit of society" (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Article 10).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Pew + Marriage = Confusion

Pew + Marriage = Confusion: "Once again, the Pew Foundation has come out with a poll that has given liberals a sound bite moment. You've probably heard that 39% of Americans said that marriage is becoming obsolete."
It seems odd that in four years, the number of Americans who reject marriage would increase threefold. Perhaps the apparent change is due to how the Pew poll question was worded. The actual question was "Some people say that the present institution of marriage is becoming obsolete -- do you agree or disagree?" The first thing to note is that this is a push-poll type of question: the wording is going to raise concern in some individuals about being out of step or controversial if they disagree with the question's premise. After all, studies have shown that people will lie to pollsters to avoid appearing reactionary.
Sometimes, I cause all kinds of trouble by answering precisely the question asked, which is not always the question someone intended to ask.
"Some people say that the present institution of marriage is becoming obsolete -- do you agree or disagree?" — Um... "agree or disagree" with what? What they said? Or that they said it?

MercatorNet: Marriage is no place for me-too-ism

Why have marriage as a legal institution at all? I'm no longer the only one asking that question. MercatorNet: Marriage is no place for me-too-ism

Before you start telling me that refusing to recognise same-sex marriage is a breach of human rights, you need to explain what you understand marriage to be, and why you think it’s a good idea in the first place. You need to explain what the key characteristics of marriage are (or should be), and why each of those characteristics is essential. You need to explain why you think it is appropriate that marriage should form part of our legal framework at all.

In short, you need to justify – from scratch – this strange public institution by which you would have two persons publicly promise to remain exclusively faithful to one another for their entire lives, for better or for worse. In any other context, such an all-encompassing promise would be regarded with suspicion, incredulity, even cynicism. In this debate, we can’t keep ignoring the proverbial pink elephant in the room.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Scooter Libby's Bigger Picture

Quin Hillyer writes at The American Spectator: Scooter Libby's Bigger Picture
Libby's lawyers had argued that he did not commit perjury because he testified as accurately as possible about a conversation that, months later, different people could legitimately remember differently. My column makes the case that Libby never should have been convicted. So did several other excellent pieces. Libby did not perjure himself or obstruct justice. Period.
What is clear is that prosecutor Fitzgerald's theory was that Libby invented and lied about the information coming from Russert in order to excuse subsequent mentions of Plame to the New York Times' Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper. But the judge and jury threw out the charges relating to Cooper and Miller: Libby was innocent on those counts. In that case, though, why would Libby have made up the bit about Russert, months later, if he had no reason to try to hide something else the jury concluded he didn't do?

The man had no reason to lie or to knowingly deceive the FBI or the courts. He quite literally had no motive.
But a Special Prosecutor had been appointed, and millions of dollars spent finding a culprit. Someone had to be found guilty of something.
AS for the WMD question:
Here's what the official Robb-Silberman commission that later looked into the WMD question found out:
The intelligence community had learned a hard lesson after the 1991 Gulf War, which revealed that the intelligence community's pre-war assessments had underestimated Iraq's nuclear program and had failed to identify all its chemical weapons sites. Intelligence analysts [HILLYER NOTE: intelligence analysts, not political pressure from the V-P's office] were determined not to fall victim again to the same mistake…. Collectors and analysts too readily accepted any evidence that supported their theory that Iraq had stockpiles and was developing weapons programs…. For good reason, it was hard to conclude that Saddam Hussein had indeed abandoned his weapons programs.
In short, the simple fact is that Ambassador Wilson's fulminations about the "16 words" were almost irrelevant. So much evidence led so many intelligence analysts and agencies into believing that Iraq had WMD that the Bush statement about uranium was mere icing not on, but in the guise of, the yellowcake.

What for strange reasons has never received the attention necessary is that American forces did actually find WMD materials after toppling Saddam Hussein. As Deroy Murdock has noted in several columns, Iraq still possessed mustard and sarin nerve agent, low-enriched uranium, and live botulinum toxin. For what it's worth, Iraq also operated a terrorist training camp just south of Baghdad called Salman Pak, and it knowingly harbored some terrorists and provided material support to many others. It repeatedly violated United Nations sanctions and repeatedly fired on American planes enforcing the "no-fly zone." And it had a history of gassing its own people.

All of which makes all of Scooter Libby's deep concerns abut Iraq, and his actions and those of the whole Bush administration, not sinister or in any way dishonest but instead understandable and even wise efforts to protect Americans from deadly future attacks.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Moon vs Muslims

Skepticlawyer » The Higher Criticism
I think one of the program items at Loscon is a "The Myth of Fannish Tolerance" panel.

Until I was published, I had not experienced that phenomenon known as ‘the literary festival’ or the ‘science fiction convention’ or the ‘[insert favoured genre here] convention’. They are–for one who hasn’t encountered them before–strange beasts, not entirely to be trusted. Like all large, loosely organised events, they are prone to ideological capture, something I soon learnt to my cost (viz, ‘help, I’m the only non-leftie in the room!’).
Seldom, however, do they descend to the level of ideological cant evinced by the Wiscon Science Fiction Convention in its treatment of leading science fiction author Elizabeth Moon. Here is Russell Blackford’s account of events:
Here is the thoughtful, rather temperately-worded blog piece by Elizabeth Moon that led to her being disinvited as a guest of honour at the feminist science fiction convention, Wiscon 35 (to be held in May next year in Madison, Wisconsin). Moon is actually much less temperate about people like me, i.e. baby boomers, than she is about Muslims (I have no idea what her opening sentences are all about, but do read on). However, her remarks on Muslims in America were apparently considered so inflammatory that she was no longer a viable guest of honour for a relatively small convention held in a relatively small American city.
Like Russell, I agree that Moon’s piece is temperate and thoughtful. I disagree with much of what she says, but that’s because she’s coming from a position that I’d describe as ‘liberal left’. I think, for example, that she mischaracterizes libertarians, although I do concede that there is some terrible hypocrisy in the Tea Party movement, especially over welfare (en brief, many conservative Tea Partiers think they should be paid welfare for their large families, and that single mothers should not). One thing I do find extraordinary: the criticism of her for closing the thread and deleting comments after she was subjected to abuse. Believe me, anyone who does that here will get me doing my ‘libertarian property dance’ and will be SOONED into submission. Our blog, our rules.
However, not only was she disinvited by Wiscon:
Her post was, apparently, “an anti-Muslim rant”. No, actually, it wasn’t; as anyone who reads it—and whose cognition is not stuck somewhere within their own posterior—can tell for themselves.
Moon’s piece promulgates a mild form of assimilation policy, one that would be familiar to many Australians (and Americans). She is intelligently critical of Islam from an explicitly feminist perspective...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Clayton Cramer's Blog: What Went Wrong

Clayton Cramer's Blog: What Went Wrong

What caused the housing bubble and subsequent crash...

Those yellowcake blues

From the AP: U.S. removes 'yellowcake' from Iraq - World news - Mideast/N. Africa - Conflict in Iraq - msnbc.com
The last major remnant of Saddam Hussein's nuclear program — a huge stockpile of concentrated natural uranium — reached a Canadian port Saturday to complete a secret U.S. operation that included a two-week airlift from Baghdad and a ship voyage crossing two oceans.

The removal of 550 metric tons of "yellowcake" — the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment — was a significant step toward closing the books on Saddam's nuclear legacy. It also brought relief to U.S. and Iraqi authorities who had worried the cache would reach insurgents or smugglers crossing to Iran to aid its nuclear ambitions.
And, in a symbolic way, the mission linked the current attempts to stabilize Iraq with some of the high-profile claims about Saddam's weapons capabilities in the buildup to the 2003 invasion.

Accusations that Saddam had tried to purchase more yellowcake from the African nation of Niger — and an article by a former U.S. ambassador refuting the claims — led to a wide-ranging probe into Washington leaks that reached high into the Bush administration.

The Rational Optimist on climate change

From Matt Ridley's blog: The best shot?

Now, if for the past 20 years we had been told that there is a probability of some change in the climate due to CO2, and a very small possibility that it is likely to lead to a drastic lurch, then I could join with you and the consensus. Instead of which I have been repeatedly told that trillions must be spent urgently because there are only a few months to save the world and it is the most urgent problem, more urgent than hunger, malaria and indoor air pollution, likely to lead to the collapse of the entire economy and moreover that the science is settled and to question it is to be equivalent to a criminal. So, apologies if I sound a little exercised on this, but as a huge champion of science I feel very, very let down by the science establishment, especially the laughably poor enquiries on the emails published this year. Ask yourself if these emails had been within a drug company about a drug trial, whether the establishment would have been so determined to excuse them.


The lack of limits on "limited resources"

First, from Spiked Online: Think the Earth is finite? Think again

Malthusians are simply wrong to say that resources are fixed, that we can measure and predict when they will run out. It seems commonsensical to say that the Earth is finite, and a bit mad to say that it isn’t, but it’s important to recognise how fluid and changeable resources are. It’s important to recognise that the usefulness and longevity of a resource is determined as much by us – by the level of social development we have reached – as it is by the existence of that resource in the first place.

Resources are not fixed in any meaningful sense. Resources have a history and a future, just as human beings do. The question of what we consider to be a resource changes as society changes.
A very early resource panicker was the second-century Christian philosopher Tertullian. In 200AD, Tertullian said: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’

But back then, there were only 180million human beings on the entire planet – about the same number that currently lives in the eastern part of the United States. The problem for Tertullian was his understandably limited imagination. In his time, pretty much the only known resources were animals, plants and various metals and minerals. Tertullian had no way of conceiving of the enormous abundance of resources inside the Earth, which lay dormant because of social limitations not natural ones.

From the Mises Institute, A Primer on Natural Resources and the Environment.

Banning the Banning of Sharia In Oklahoma

Aaron Worthing at Patterico's Pontifications on the judge's ruling Banning the Banning of Sharia In Oklahoma

He finds it problematic.

So this won sufficient votes to become officially part of Oklahoma’s constitution, and a federal judge has enjoined the state from certifying the election results. In other words, Judge LeGrange said that they are not allowed to say that this constitutional amendment was ratified.
For lawyers that is the first alarm bell that this judge is making a mistake. I have never heard of a federal judge saying that they are going to pretend that the constitution has not actually been amended unless there was a problem in the voting itself. What they typically do is enjoin enforcement of the state constitutional provisions that violates the federal constitution. In other words, the law is there, but it’s a dead letter. The judge wants to declare that this law hasn’t even been rightfully passed, which is wrong. If there is a violation of the first amendment’s religion clauses, the correct solution is to enjoin enforcement of the offending part.
It also has serious issues with standing. Based on the case law, the plaintiff doesn’t have standing by virtue of the fact that he is a muslim and thus offended by this whole thing. That kind of injury is not seen as particularized enough. But he has a less laughable claim that this will invalidate his will, depending on what the document says. Since I have not found a copy of it, I will just assume the judge is right on this point.
...this federal court is seeking to interpret a proposed provision of the state constitution. Shouldn’t the courts just let the state courts figure out what the amendment means, first, and then let people challenge whether that amendment, as interpreted, is unconstitutional? In other words, the plaintiff belongs in state court, not federal court. And that would appear to be an issue of ripeness. It might very well be the case that if the judge had let the amendment be placed into the state constitution, and let the plaintiff fight it out in state court that the state courts would have said simply that they will only interpret this constitution to prevent the courts from citing sharia law as authority, but where a contract or a will incorporates a sharia concept, even by name, they will honor that private contract or will. And if that is their interpretation, guess what? He doesn’t even have standing anymore.
Getting to the merits, the court goes through the old “Lemon Test” that requires that “the governmental action (1) must have a secular legislative purpose, (2) its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) it must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.” Of course the continuing vitality of Lemon v. Kurtzman is questionable at best, but let’s assume it applies.

Let’s start with the most dubious claim, that this results in “excessive entanglement with religion.” You might think that it would be hard to claim that a law that prohibits courts from considering religious law in its decisions represents entanglement. And guess what? You would right. This is best described as “disengagement,” not “entanglement.”
To me the most natural interpretation is as follows. The courts cannot cite Islamic law as even persuasive authority. And maybe, if a person’s private contract or will incorporates Islamic concepts by name, the courts would be required to disregard that concept. So for instance if a private contract to rent out a ballroom requires the tenant to obey Islamic law while on the premises, the courts might be forced to render that provision a nullity.

But the Plaintiff’s theory of interpretation of the amendment goes even further seeming to argue that the courts will see it as their duty to determine what Islamic law is and even if a provision of a contract or will is facially secular in origin, still nullify it if it is too similar to Sharia (or any other prohibited system of law).
I am no great scholar on Sharia, but I will go out on a limb and guess it is generally opposed to theft, rape and murder. So does that mean that Oklahoma’s laws against the same are invalid because Sharia law coincidentally agrees? Does that mean a loan contract that doesn’t include interest is somehow invalid because Sharia law agrees? Or is that only the rule if one of the parties is Muslim?

Lots more. RTWT.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : Wealth Creators vs Wealth Spreaders

The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : Wealth Creators vs Wealth Spreaders

Also references The peasant approach to commerce by Victor Davis Hanson:

Traditional peasant societies believe in only a limited amount of good. The more your neighbor earns, the less someone else gets. Profits are seen as a sort of theft; they must be either hidden or redistributed. Envy, rather than admiration of success, reigns.

In contrast, Western civilization began with a very different, ancient Greek idea of an autonomous citizen, not an indentured serf or subsistence peasant. The small, independent landowner — if he was left to his own talents, and if his success was protected by, and from, government — would create new sources of wealth for everyone. The resulting greater bounty for the poor soon trumped their old jealousy of the better-off.

Fwd: Bill Whittle's Firewall: 'What We Believe, Part 4: Natural Law'

via American Power by Donald Douglas on 10/30/10

Excellent commentary, as usual

City Passes Filming Waiver Extension, Sales Tax Rebate

From the San Fernando Valley Business Journal: City Passes Filming Waiver Extension, Sales Tax Rebate

Extending free filming at most city facilities and refunding sales tax for production-related purchases were approved Oct. 26 by the Los Angeles City Council with the aim to make it easier and cheaper to produce films, television shows and commercials within city limits.

The measures are part of a larger commitment to make the city more cost-competitive in the fight to reduce the bottom line for productions and to create local jobs and stimulate the economy, said Councilman Richard Alarcon.

The City Council has noticed that the film industry is perfectly capable of "outsourcing" production activities, and is taking what steps it can to reduce this incentive.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Allegations Against Clarence Thomas Highlight Media’s Double Standard (Again)

via Big Journalism by AWR Hawkins on 11/3/10

When Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1991, his Senate confirmation turned out to be what he described to as a "high tech lynching." This was chiefly because accusations of sexual harassment by a co-worker, Anita Hill, were "leaked" to the press, then given a position of prominence in the hearings. With this, the white, liberal onslaught against a black conservative began in earnest.

Following the tortuous hearings, the Senate rejected Hill's accusations and confirmed Thomas 52-48.

End of story, right? Wrong. Although Thomas became an Associate Justice, the mainstream media has continued to remind people of Hill's accusations again and again (in a not-so-subtle attempt to discredit Thomas and his conservatism altogether).

As a matter of fact, on October 24, 2010, a full nineteen years since Thomas was confirmed, Lillian McEwen, a woman who describes herself as one of his past girlfriends, appeared on CNN's Larry King to revisit Hill's accusations.

When King brought up Hill's accusations, McEwen would not denounce them. But she did tell King that when she was in a relationship with Thomas, he was a "raving alcoholic" whose worldview was framed by pornography.

While King and McEwen interacted on air, I couldn't help but notice that he never once asked her if someone could verify her claims. In other words, he didn't seem to care that her claims might prove as vacuous as Hill's had nineteen years ago. Rather, he treasured the opportunity to ask leading questions that succeeded in securing what every liberal the world over wanted to see: newspaper headlines highlighting a drinking problem and a porn addiction Thomas allegedly had in years gone by.

But if King's interview of McEwen is the only substantiation of such claims available, how can honest journalists and news outlets run with this storyline?

Or, to put it another way, where is this same degree of media interest in revisiting Juanita Broaddrick's claim that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted her?  (Doesn't Clinton's track record at least make it feasible that he could have possibly assaulted her, and shouldn't such feasibility justify a few tough questions?) And when is Larry King hosting a guest who will provide an overview of Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner's tax problems and his failure to pay the standard Social Security and Medicare paycheck deductions "from 2001 to 2004"? And when are we going to have a series of solid interviews with some of President Obama's old friends, so we can figure out just how much "blow" he did when was trying to "ease the pain of his ongoing struggle to define his racial identity" during his college years?

Call it a hunch, but I think it's a safe bet that King won't bring up Broaddrick's allegations, Geithner's tax problems, or Obama's cocaine use any time soon. Yet I'll bet the farm that if anyone wants to step up and accuse Associate Justice Thomas of bestiality, King will rearrange his entire schedule to air more unfounded claims against the black conservative.

Rarely has the double-standard of current journalism been so visible (if one can really consider King's show an example of journalism).

Econ 101: Deadweight Loss

Another island off the shores of Stage One.
Popularizing Deadweight Loss
Let's do the deadweight loss from a tax.

Imagine that you want to go to New York on a trip.  You value the trip at $50 and a bus ticket costs $40.  Do you take the trip? 

A. Yes.  The value ($50) of the trip exceeds the cost of the ticket ($40) so you travel to New York.   

How much consumer surplus (net value) do you get from the trip?

A. $10=$50-$40.

The government taxes bus tickets which raises the price of a bus ticket to $60.  Do you take the trip?

A. No. The value of the trip is now less than the price of the ticket.

What happened to the $10 consumer surplus which you used to get when there was no tax?

A. It's gone since no trip takes place.

Did the government get any tax revenue from you?

A. No.

Key idea: Consumers lose but the government does not gain from trips that are not taken.

Conclusion: Deadweight loss is the value of the trips (trades) which do not happen because of the tax.


Feminism and DNA Testing

It's not about truth or factual accuracy, it's about allowing women to pick from the deepest pocket available.

DNA Sayer

By Andrew Stuttaford

Sadly, this article ("Who's the Daddy?" by Melanie McDonagh) lurks behind the London Spectator's paywall. That's a shame, because in its own quite astoundingly malevolent way, it's not without interest. The author's complaint? That DNA tests now allow men to know whether they are truly the fathers of the children that they are being asked to provide for. I would have thought that this was a good thing. Ms. McDonagh does not.

DNA tests are an anti-feminist appliance of science, a change in the balance of power between the sexes that we've hardly come to terms with. And that holds true even though many women have the economic potential to provide for their children themselves ... Uncertainty allows mothers to select for their children the father who would be best for them. The point is that paternity was ambiguous and it was effectively up to the mother to name her child's father, or not ... Many men have, of course, ended up raising children who were not genetically their own, but really, does it matter…in making paternity conditional on a test rather than the say-so of the mother, it has removed from women a powerful instrument of choice.

How many people die from lack of health insurance?

 If people are dying from lack of health insurance, then when a population is placed on health insurance, the death rate should drop.  Does it?

Megan McArdle has an excellent post on that question and here is her column.  Here is one startling bit:

To my mind probably the single most solid piece of evidence is this:  turning 65--i.e., going on Medicare--doesn't reduce your risk of dying.  If lack of insurance leads to death, then that should show up as a discontinuity in the mortality rate around the age of 65.  It doesn't.  There are some caveats--if the effects are sufficiently long term, then it's hard to measure, because of course as elderly people age, their mortality rate starts rising dramatically.  But still, there should be some kink in the curve, and in the best data we have, it just isn't there.

And this:

The possibility that no one risks death by going without health insurance may be startling, but some research supports it. Richard Kronick of the University of California at San Diego's Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, an adviser to the Clinton administration, recently published the results of what may be the largest and most comprehensive analysis yet done of the effect of insurance on mortality. He used a sample of more than 600,000, and controlled not only for the standard factors, but for how long the subjects went without insurance, whether their disease was particularly amenable to early intervention, and even whether they lived in a mobile home. In test after test, he found no significantly elevated risk of death among the uninsured.

I agree with her conclusion:

Intuitively, I feel as if there should be some effect.  But if the results are this messy, I would guess that the effect is not very big.


And Bush Was Stupid?

And Bush Was Stupid?

via Clayton Cramer's BLOG by Clayton on 7/8/09

And Bush Was Stupid?

Obama's remarks in Russia, from July 7, 2009 Reuters:

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama made a pointed quip Tuesday about Russia's sale of Alaska to the United States in the 19th century.

Referring to the long history of Russia-U.S. trade stretching back more than two centuries, Obama told an audience of business people in Moscow:

"Along the way, you gave us a pretty good deal on Alaska. Thank you."

As the Reuters article points out, the sale is regarded as a national disgrace in Russia. At least at one point, the Soviet Union's history books used to claim that the U.S. threatened Russia into making the sale. Moe Lane points out that these remarks only make sense if you are trying to actively insult the Russians (or are too stupid, or too ignorant of history, to realize what you have done).

The nearest equivalent would be to go to Mexico and say, "Hey, thanks for losing the Mexican War, so that we got the Southwest dirt cheap. See how nice it is now?"

This guy is an idiot.

How to be biased

That is, if you're a newspaper:

But watch a TV news bulletin, or read a news story in many newspapers or magazines, and things may not be so clear. The writer will not helpfully include statements of open bias in his story. He will not use adjectives to show his approval or disapproval. But he might even so be biased, and seeking to persuade the reader of his opinion. And if so he will be far better-placed than I am to do so. For people are much more easily persuaded (as advertisers know) if they do not realise that they are being persuaded.

For instance he might present a controversy in a number of interesting ways.

He might open the story with the allegation made by the body, or country, or party of which he approves, which he and his editor have agreed to place prominently in the newspaper or the TV bulletin. In which case he might say that this body or country 'said' or 'announced' whatever it did. And then he might add that the body or country of which he disapproves 'denied' the report. Immediately, the denier is at a disadvantage, precisely because he is the denier. The presumption of guilt is universal in the media. The decision to run the allegation, and give it prominence, is itself motivated by bias. Israel suffers particularly from this form of reporting. But allegations of wrongdoing against the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas (or indeed any Arab government) are rarely reported. Thus the context in which Israel's undoubted wrong doing takes place is seldom stated.

Or he might use such words as 'claimed' to describe the statements made by one side, while using the word 'said' for the other side. Or a person may be said to have 'insisted' such and such, the unstated implication being that this insistence is an irritating refusal to accept the blazing truth.

But above all, unseen bias is achieved by selection of material, selection of pictures, choice of which story to run and which to dump or put on an obscure page. Now if, in an article attacking Mrs Theresa May I use a picture making her look silly, it will be clear what I am up to. But if a newspaper repeatedly uses in its news columns a picture of a politician grimacing, or with his head in his hands, or his hand over his mouth, or next to a sign marked 'exit' (and it is impossible, in public life, to avoid having your picture taken next to such a sign so such a picture will exist), the purpose is not stated or seen, and the cumulative effect of ridicule and contempt on minds which do not even realise they are being exposed to propaganda is not actually felt by its victim, the innocent reader.

Broadcasters, as I have often said, have an extra battery of techniques, from tone of voice, to camera angle, to lighting, to who gets the last word, to the way in which questions are formulated. In none of these does the viewer or listener see the unstated bias, unless his ear is tuned to listen or watch for it. And each act of bias is so small and subtle that, taken by itself, it seems entirely harmless and cannot be used to formulate an official complaint. But believe me, it goes on.

Oh, and how about this story? When I worked for another newspaper, in the early years of the Blair government, I continued to write a strongly anti-Blair column - despite the fact that the newspaper's editorial line was strongly pro-Blair. No difficulties arose. I was the paper's recognised and tolerated dissenter. Openly biased comment is actually not that sensitive. But on one occasion (as sometimes happens to columnists) I was sent a startling story by a reader. The story was that Cherie Blair had been hosting a trip on the Royal Train for the wives of foreign leaders.

The story checked out as true, and I wrote it. And there was a kind of collective panic among the paper's editorial executives - because they knew (as I did) that the headline 'Cherie takes over the Royal Train', or whatever it might have been, would be more damaging to the Blairs, among our largely monarchist readership, than any number of columns written by me. In the former days when my newspaper had been anti-Labour, I reckon the story would have led the front page, and been picked up by all the other papers and quite possibly the BBC.

But on this occasion they ran it, after much tooth-sucking, on such an obscure page that hardly anyone noticed it, and a rival paper ran it as a (much-followed) 'exclusive' on its front page several months later, in the sincere belief that the story was new, while I ground my teeth. There's another part of this story that I will not set out here because I cannot prove it, but hope one day to do when a certain spin-doctor's full diaries are published.

News, you see, is much more politically sensitive than comment.

But to grasp this, you have to understand that the two are different things, and I suspect the root of Mr Everett's difficulty is that he won't see this.

By the way, Mr Everett, in a laborious effort to avoid my counter-arguments, tries to make out that there is an inconsistency in my pointing out that the group of influential political journalists is tiny, while also describing them as a 'phalanx'. Not so. They are indeed tiny in number in comparison with (say) the members of the Tory or Labour Parties, voting in leadership elections. But they are a pretty formidable and effective unit and they outnumber me by many dozens to one.


Who Discovers New Drugs?

 It's not just a matter of wanting to give lots of money to those nice drug companies. It's a matter of improving health care over the long term.
via John Goodman's Health Policy Blog by Linda Gorman on 11/9/10

From 1997 to 2005 252 drugs were approved by the FDA. In a summary of a paper in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, Derek Lowe (In the Pipeline blog) summarizes where most of the drug discoveries come from:

  • 58% from pharmaceutical companies
  • 18% from biotech companies
  • 16% from universities, transferred to biotech
  • 8% from universities, transferred to pharma.

Dr. Lowe notes that it is good to have some "numbers to point to I next run into someone who tries to tell me that all drugs are found with NIH grants, and that drug companies hardly do any research. (I know that this sounds like the most ridiculous strawman, but believe me, there are people – who regard themselves as intelligent and informed – who believe this passionately, in nearly those exact words)."

Bush defended, in 3 UN Motions

This points out the UN authorized the invasion in 1990, and Iraq never abided by the terms of the cease-fire.  Thus, the Gulf War never officially ended.
With that in mind, remember these three steps.
In 1990, the world had its eyes on Iraq.  After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (as condemned in UN Security Council resolution 660), a global consensus demanded that Iraq return to their own borders.  When Iraq failed to comply, coalition forces were granted the right by the UN to invade Iraq the first time.
After Iraq had been soundly defeated, the terms for a conditional, temporary ceasefire were drafted.   If Iraq failed to comply with the terms, the coalition could end the ceasefire and invade Iraq the second time. 
It's interesting to note the in 2000, before Bush was president and before 9/11, the Republican party's platform specifically mentioned Iraq's violations of international law, and sought to directly address the issue.   By 2002, in light of Saddam's mounting violations and American anger over terrorist attacks, the UN drafted resolution 1441, highlighting Saddam's violations of the UN's ceasefire terms. 

Palin knocks another one out of the ballpark


The problem isn't that this current inflation rate is somehow historically large.  It isn't, as Reddy and the original WSJ article notes, although retailers are already having problems in getting consumers to purchase goods in normal quantities because of it.  The point Palin made was that taking a voyage on the QE2 would make a difficult issue for consumers and retailers much worse through the deliberate introduction of even higher inflation, an explicit motivation behind the Fed's actions.

So Palin was right once again, and once again a reporter winds up with egg on face from starting out with an assumption that Palin couldn't possibly know what she's talking about.  Lather, rinse, repeat.