Sunday, January 28, 2007

Clarence Thomas is a Weirdo

With defenders like Ilya Somin, Clarence Thomas doesn't need attackers:
The systematic disagreements between Thomas and Scalia, to my mind, stem from three principle sources: Thomas' greater commitment to originalism in cases where the original meaning clashes with precedent or modern policy preferences (evident in the federalism cases, especially Raich); Thomas' libertarian streak, which sometimes clashes with Scalia's social conservatism (evident in the First Amendment cases where they disagree; and perhaps also in Kelo); and Thomas' commitment to a broader view of executive power than Scalia is willing to support (as in the Guantanamo cases, where Thomas is the only justice to fully endorse the Bush Administration's sweeping claims of wartime executive power).
If you have a set of beliefs that simultaneously 1) insist that the Constitution be narrowly interpreted based on its original, specific meaning, 2) insist that the executive branch have essentially unlimited wartime power, and 3) invite the description of "libertarian", then it's not clear to me that you have a coherent philosophy. Consider me unimpressed that Thomas' independence from Scalia amounts to departing more-or-less randomly from the Scalian line, without reliable correlation with any sort of underlying ideological differences.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Liberal-hating Liberal disease?

The great pundit-god Yglesias observes:
[I]n today's offering [Thomas Friedman] is still playing what Greg Sargent has dubbed the "conditional shuffle" responding to Bush's proposals by listing scenarios under which he could support them rather than facing the reality that Bush isn't going to do any of these things. The trouble, obviously, is that were Friedman to acknowledge that Bush won't, say, hold a regional peace conference, he'd have to admit that the right thing to do in Iraq is withdraw.

And, of course, once you don the Moustache of Understanding you'll realize that in order to be a Serious Person it's important that you never agree with liberals.

It's easy for me - as a liberal on foreign policy - to believe that Friedman is undergoing these contortions because he is emotionally averse to adopting the left-wing opinion on matters of foreign policy but surely people who don't hold my left-wing foreign policy position won't find this kind of explanation terribly compelling. I'm curious how they explain this kind of rhetorical two-stepping on the part of Friedman.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Economists vs. Normative Conclusions

A while back my friend noted how he hates when economists use their economic principals to draw normative conclusions offering as an example this piece from Slate which said "spending on gifts is a resource allocation disaster". Another friend rejoined that no, real economists never do this and that it just looks like economists are making normative statements because certain subjects are easier to study than others when using the tools of economics. So for example, it's not that economicis normatively favor free-trade over economic equality, it's just that it's easier to measure GDP than it is to quantify how much inequality increases due to free trade.

Today I read Tyler Cowen, one of my favorite libertarian blogger post this:
My colleague Dan Klein continues his pathbreaking work on the sociology of the economics profession. He asked petition signatories why they favor increasing the minimum wage. The results are striking, most of all for how far they stand outside traditional economic reasoning...
(emphasis mine)
What follows is a list of comments by lefty economists where they argue for raising the minimum wage on normative - not economic - grounds. Very few of them make any kind of economic argument at all. Most of them make arguments concerning a desire for equality.

It seems Cowen is jumping from "increased economic output is what we usually study in economics" to "if you concern yourself with other things than you are acting contrary to economic thought". This kind of thinking is just pernicious.

Monday, January 22, 2007

I like the 1950s

The 50s has sort of emerged as the nadir of gender/racial oppression in the US. I've been reading Fiancee's Gender Theory Sociology class materials. The theme is similar: the war ends, millions of American men return home, and turn their creative energies to the beating-down of housewives and black people. Other minorities wait in line for their turn to be repressed.

But, as far as I can tell, the 1950s was the LEAST repressive decade in American history.. UP TO THAT POINT. Lets just focus on women for the time being. What decade was an improvement? Women didn't even get the right to vote until 1920, after all. While there were some notable improvements to the status of women in the 1930s -- including in Social Security legislation -- everyone was really too preoccupied with staying alive, excepting some notable Socialists. There was no significant movement of women into the work force until the 1940s, during the war.

The 50s seems to get the attention because its milieu was what the early feminist movement rebelled against. Here's the summation from Wikipedia:
With radical political activity suppressed by McCarthyism, consumerism being fostered by the retooling of wartime factories for domestic use, and the nuclear family at one of its historic peaks, the scene was set for a major reconsideration of women's roles. The symbolic fuse was the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which critiqued suburban white women's socialization and experience as intolerable.
But this reconsideration was not made possible by the fate of women being at a historic nadir. Their legal status was at an unprecedented high. They could vote. Legally, they were given nearly the same rights as men. The social sphere might've been stifling, but it was also domestically tranquil: no major wars, no Depression -- a long period of economic prosperity that made it possible to consider liberalizing social arrangements. And don't forget that one of the major changes of the 1950s is that it was one of the few decades when literacy was universal. Women could band together to READ. It was also an era of unprecedented spending money -- revolution takes cash.

Still, it seems like the most important change was technological. The shift to consumerism is apparently one of the major problems with suburban life. Consumerism was a dramatic improvement! Labor-saving devices gave homemakers free time for the first time -- the vaccuum, telephone, dishwasher, refrigerator -- you weren't spending 12 hours a day scrubbing floors. Legal and available contraception meant that the era of 9 babies was over. Television and cars meant that housewives were no longer isolated in the home -- they were free to travel widely and meet similarly-bored women.

This is not to say that the 1950s were great. They were repressive. But they were nonetheless the least repressive era ever -- and they gave women the tools and time to rebel for even greater opportunities.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

More on Consciousness

I'd blogged a little bit about the metaphysics of the mind last week, and now I see that Time has dedicated its most recent issue to the brain.

Steven Pinker gives gives an overview of "a bracing new field, the science of consciousness." Pinker mentions the philosophical controversy around the relationship between the mind and the body, but Daniel Dennett spends a few hundred words suggesting that there's not really anything very mysterious about consciousness in the first place; it's probably just a novel physical phenomenon we'll figure out in due time. Colin McGinn agrees about the metaphysics but is less sanguine about the epistemology.

I'd just add that cognitive science is one of those fields that has depended pretty heavily on analytic philosophy for its advancement. Metaphysics going at least as far back as Descartes has done a lot of the work of directing scientists to the right sorts of questions to ask and the right places to look for answers. Ditto for Einstein and special relativity. Of course, once a branch of philosophy becomes incorporated into a branch of the hard sciences, everybody stops thinking about it as philosophy. Philosophy itself is therefore doomed to always appear irrelevant and frivolous to most people. A pity.

Purity, abstience, agency, and the Woman's Burden of Virginity

In the holy name of accuracy, why does the nefarious world of abstinence-only sex education make cozy bedfellows with the equally vomit-inducing community of offensive gender stereotyping? It was documented in the Waxman Report that sex education programs that promote abstinence until marriage also "treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact." Now come more examples in some Washington state sex education curricula, specifically from a program called SHARE.
[Cally Leighton, SHARE instructor] tells the students about a class of all boys she taught last year in Kent. When asked how many of them wanted to marry virgins, "100 percent of those boys flew their hands up," says Leighton. ...

"Women and men are wired very differently," she tells the class again and again. "Men are kind of like a lightbulb. You turn a lightbulb on—ta dah!—it's on. Women are like a curling iron. You plug a curling iron in . . . it takes a while to warm up."

To illustrate the "progression of sexual expression," as it is labeled on the overhead projector, she tells an elaborate story about a hypothetical Billy Joe Bob and Mary Sue, who run through all the stages. First they meet, spend time together, hold hands, and engage in a simple kiss. Then they move into a prolonged kiss (nicknamed "prune" by SHARE because you pucker you lips together as you say the word) and French kissing (nicknamed "alfalfa" because you use your tongue to pronounce it).

At this stage, she says, Billy Joe Bob is aroused, though Mary Sue is not yet. They start petting. Now Mary Sue is aroused. The inevitable result, she says: intercourse.

Leighton then asks the class: If you've made the decision to be abstinent, at what stage do you think you should draw the line? There's a brief silence. "Prolonged kissing?" ventures one boy. "Does that seem about right?" she asks the students. She notes that her daughter used to draw the line at French kissing—until she almost got raped after doing so on a date.

There are multiple disturbing themes in this part of SHARE's instructional curriculum. This program perpetuates the notion that girls and women are naturally passive (like a slow-heating curling iron), while boys and men are innately aggressive (like a fast-heating light bulb). This leads to the idea that females are slower to arouse and, implicitly, less sexual than are males. The extension of this principle is that if women aren't supposed to be sexual then only "sluts" have sex, whereas it's acceptable for men to want sex and thus sexually active men are "normal."

This slutty female/normal male dichotomy is made explicit by SHARE when its instructor asks a classroom full of boys how many of them want to grow up and marry virgins. Naturally she would never ask a group of girls if they want to grow up and marry virgin men; it's a cultural expectation that a woman isn't supposed to care about her partner's sexual past (lest she have sexual agency in the relationship) and that, even if she did care, she'd be hard-pressed to find a man who hadn't already fulfilled his "normal" social role and had sex. Furthermore, girls are groomed to feel that their value is inextricably tied up in their sexual purity; no such burden is placed on boys.

The most troubling element of the SHARE curriculum, more troubling even than its grossly ineffective focus on abstinence, is the burden it places on girls and women to prevent sexual violence. It's shocking and nauseating that paid professionals are telling children that by choosing to French kiss a girl is inviting intercourse and even rape. That is absolutely inexcusable. At no point does the instructor suggest that boys are responsible for drawing the line during kissing or even controlling their behavior; boys are yet again being told that they have no obligation to prevent sexual assault, except instead of hearing just from their uncles and cable TV, now they're hearing it in their classroom.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy and the Iraq war

Via Atrios, Lieberman explains what we'll do if the mini-surge/escalation in Iraq doesn't work:
Yeah, well, you know, we will then look at the situation and decide what we can do, and the alternatives are limited here. The other alternatives–the main alternative that the opponents of what the President has done are offering is to simply begin to withdraw. And the theory there is that somehow if you with– I mean some people want to withdraw because they just want to get out. They think the thing–They want to give up. They think the thing is not winnable. I'm afraid they don't agree with me that the consequences of pulling out would be a disaster for everybody, including most important, us. But some say if you begin to withdraw, then Maliki and the other Iraqis will say 'Oh, my God, they're leaving. We got to get our act together. I don't think so. I think what is more likely is that the Iraqi politicians will begin to hedge their bets, and the militias and the Al Qaeda terrorists will just hold back until the day we're gone, and then chaos will break out, and unfortunately as McCain says, we'll probably be back there in a larger war, you know, two, three, four, five years from now. I think this is our chance, so I'd guess I'd say to you in war–There's a famous old saying that war is a series of catastrophes that ends up in victory for one side, and right now I'd say this plan is the best next step we've got. Let's hope it works, pray it works, and if it doesn't, then we'll figure out what we're gonna do then.
It's funny but - in stringing together a bunch of half-truths and misconceptions - Lieberman managed to be so wrong that he's right again. All the crappy things that will probably happen when we pull out of Iraq really aren't a consequence of pulling out. They're a consequence of the original invasion.

Leiberman employs the sunk-cost fallacy in order to take losses already incurred - losses to Iraqi stability, safety, and to American military readiness - and shift their responsibility from his poor decision to invade to the option which cuts our losses. This is classic "chasing" gambling behavior at it's best. So long as we don't leave the roulette table, we haven't really lost all our money. We always have the (slim) chance of winning it all back!

Given the instability Bush (aided by Lieberman) caused in Iraq the question is how best to fix it. If you think staying (or mini-escalating) will work then it makes sense to stay in Iraq. If on the other hand you don't think that'll work, than you should oppose keeping the troops in harms way for no reason. It's telling that many Iraq war supporters have given up on arguing that we can achieve victory and are reduced to arguing that we should keep soldiers in harms way to merely delay the bad consequences of their poor choices.

Bonus unrelated Ass-hattery quote!:
FRIEDMAN: Look, I understand people who opposed the war. Some opposed it for military reasons, because they’re against war, some opposed it because they hate George Bush, some opposed it because they didn’t believe Arabs are capable of democracy. I wasn’t in that group. I really believed that finding a different kind of politics in collaboration with people in that region was a really important project.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Politcal Cartoons: Stupid and Uninformative

My hatred of political cartoons is matched only by my contempt for Marmaduke. Like America's favorite two-dimensional great Dane, political cartoons are repetitive, obvious, unfunny, hyperbolic, and founded in an essentialist understanding of the world. But at least Marmaduke doesn't lie about global warming.

I browsed over a hundred of the "Energy and the Environment" cartoons reprinted by Slate, and I discovered a few themes: different artists tell the exact same jokes (I mean, c'mon), political cartoonists love excessive and bizarrely abstracted labeling, some authors don't get it that cattle wouldn't be so numerous if people didn't eat them, still others can't fathom that science should influence policy, and apparently everybody hates Al Gore (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Most disturbing is that political cartoonists, like most journalists, didn't have to pass a science exam to get their job, which leads to ass-hattery like this cartoon:

Sorry, Glenn McCoy, but no one with even a basic understanding of global warming would claim that the effects of climate change occur in the span of a few years and without anomalous years. If our artist knew anything about science, he'd comprehend that climate change is measured over the span of decades, not months, and that within a trend outliers may exist. This strip demonstrates a similar misconception about global warming, namely that if global warming were a real climatological force then global temperatures would rise consistently across time and that all locations on the planet would experience an equal increase in heat.

I'm also troubled that environmentalists are being portrayed as doomsday prognosticators, easily dismissed alongside nut jobs professing the impending Apocalypse. I don't recall Al Gore saying that ocean levels were going to rise up and swallow Manhattan next summer. Environmental groups, backed by many members of the scientific community, are simply stating that severe climate change and irreversible pollution are eventual outcomes of our current behaviors. I guess that concept is a little too nuanced to convey in a comic strip, though.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Andrew Sullivan is not a great thinker

Andrew Sullivan quotes someone who blames the rush to war on the inarticulateness of war opponents and then writes:
I agree. A few people - James Fallows, Joe Klein, Brent Scowcroft, for example - opposed the war for sane reasons. They deserve kudos as much as I deserve criticism for not listening to them closely enough. But I went to the pre-war anti-war marches as an observer. I did not hear arguments about the difficulties of managing a sectarian society, nor questions about troop levels, nor worries about the impact of the war on Iran's status in the region. I heard and saw often reflexive hostility to American power, partisan hatred of Bush, and blindness toward Saddam's atrocities. I remember what I saw. And I feel as estranged from that reflexive position today as I did then.
Sullivan attends a protest thinking that he will hear articulate and thoughtful arguments. He implicitly believes that - unlike the anti-war population - the vast majority of people supporting the Iraq war could explain it in coherant terms and not in terms of "we have to find us some Arabs to beat on". Sullivan has a lot of ideas that don't seem to comport with the truth. Why read him?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

You Do the Math

My sweet old grandma (as opposed to my bipolar Vicidan-popping grandma) once said, "I think most people are better than average looking!" Hearing this, even at the age of six, I knew her math was off. But that's because I'm of siginificantly above average intelligence.

I hear a lot of folks complaining that only half of people have an IQ above 100, implying that our species is facing an epidemic that warrants correction. Unfortunately, we can't pull more people above the 100 mark if, by definition, 100 marks the median IQ, and if, by definition, the median marks the 50th percentile rank. Try as we may, half of all people will always below the median of intelligence (and looks, and dancing ability, and fitness, and income, and "Futurama" fast-action recall quoting ability).

Of course when people suggest life would be better if more people had IQs above 100, they don't literally expect the basic principles of statistics to bend to their will. Instead, they're imagining a utopia of an absolute, rather than relative, IQ jump within the population. These critics are treating IQ like fixed-value dollars, like when you see charts comparing skilled labor wages from 1890 to 1990, and in the bottom there's a little note that says "All figures in 1990 dollars." Ideally, the average IQ would go up in fixed "2007 IQ dollars."

But, not surprisingly, the world average IQ
is continually going up in fixed 2007 IQ dollars! It's called the Flynn Effect, and its causes are highly logical. It's like inflation for the population's brain. You can tell your kids, "Back when I took the IQ test, a 148 actually meant something. You could take the SAT, solve one of those Sudoku puzzles, buy a pop, and still have 38 IQ points left over to put toward your M.A."

I don't get too worked up when folks talk about IQ in casual terms, either complaining about how stupid everyone is or about how stupid everyone isn't. I do get worked up, however, when the quest for higher fixed-value scores on intelligence measurements negatively affects policy or prompt society to dismiss the value of entire groups of citizens. The IQ test is a severely flawed measurement of individuals' intelligence--it's riddled with cultural biases that favor wealthy white males--and neither the IQ test nor any other single measurement tool should sway policy.

This op-ed in the Wall Street Journal disappointed me in its conclusions. The author, unlike many, displays a proper understanding of the math behind IQ distribution (what a relief!), but he persists in treating IQs as a re
liable measurement of individuals' base educational potential:
Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. It is a matter of ceilings. Suppose a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, is getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Now suppose the boy sitting behind her is getting a D, but his IQ is a bit below 100, at the 49th percentile.

We can hope to raise his grade. But teaching him more vocabulary words or drilling him on the parts of speech will not open up new vistas for him. It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.
He ultimately falls for the abysmal "you're poor because you're dumb" argument so popular among many conservatives.
It is true that many social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is often low intelligence. Refusing to come to grips with that reality has produced policies that have been ineffectual at best and damaging at worst.
If this were true, as fixed-value IQs increased, fixed-value wealth would also increase, which simply isn't happening. We're damned to live in a world where, for any given population, half of all members will sit below the median level of wealth, just as they do for intelligence. And even my sweet old grandma isn't stupid enough to say that being dumb makes you poor.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Preventative War

Kevin Drum comments on the lessons of Iraq:
However, I also made a specific comment about preventive war: namely that the failure in Iraq doesn't especially vindicate the argument that preventive war is almost always wrong. It is almost always wrong, and the fact that Iraq was a preventive war was a good reason to oppose it. But the specific quagmire that we find ourselves in now has very little to do with the fact that the Iraq war was preventive.

On that last point, I'd welcome argument. Maybe I'm off base. Would the war have gone better if it hadn't been preventive? Maybe so, though everyone seems to think we would have been screwed in 1991 if we'd gone all the way to Baghdad in the Gulf War, and that wasn't a preventive war. But I'm wide open to argument on this point.
It seems to me that the answer to his question is that "the" war - that is, the one we're fighting right now, defined by its aims and effects - wouldn't have happened at all if we'd launched a military intervention against a hypothetical Iraq that posed some actual, concrete threat as opposed to just being generally unsavory. In the hypothetical case, we'd be fighting an entirely different war that would have had very different goals. Presumably those would be narrower, more specific goals that would have been fairly easy to accomplish given our tremendous military superiority.

But by the same token, a preventative war is, almost by definition, a war with only vague, abstract goals. I say "almost" because in practice, though not in theory, it seems unlikely that we'd be able to articulate and stay focused on a few narrow objectives against an adversary that is dangerous only in principle. Quite to the contrary, we're much more likely to instead either 1) set goals that do not correspond to actual facts (e.g., "eliminate weapons of mass destruction") or 2) set goals that do not admit of easily-quantifiable measures of success (e.g., "establish a stable, independent democracy"). In neither case is there much chance of having a successful mission because in neither case are we likely to have accomplished our goals. In both cases, meanwhile, we're likely to flail around for something resembling a useful goal and muddle around until we settle on one.

I think that's a built-in problem with preventative wars: it's too hard to set meaningful goals, and you can't accomplish a goal that isn't well set. But once you've committed yourself to the intervention, withdrawing sans victory becomes difficult. Preventative wars will therefore, as a consequence of their preventative nature, rarely result in success and will often be prone to greater misfortune.

In so many words, then, I disagree with Kevin. I think Iraq illustrates well the difficulties a war faces just in virtue of being preventative. It illustrates lots of other things, too - the dangers of incompetent leadership, for one - but it also demonstrates the nearly-inherent dangers of preventative war qua preventative.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Trojan Candidate

When I read stuff like this, I get a little confused about what the liberal position on Mitt Romney ought to be. I mean, what's the sense in trying to sabotage his primary campaign, exactly? I know he's making lots of shameless dashes to conservative safe-ground on a multitude of issues, but what's the evidence as to where his genuine beliefs lie? If there's some reason to believe he's significantly more liberal than he wants everybody in the GOP to believe, that seems like an awfully good reason to root for him, right? I know, too many questions.

But in all seriousness, the other contenders aren't really any better on the merits than Romney, as far as I can tell, except maybe Giuliani. The one thing you can say for Romney's conservatism is that it's inconsistent, but from my point of view that's a virtue. Why not let the GOP buy into his conversion and field a candidate who might - might - be more liberal than they expect?

I mean, sure, I'd love to see them field Ron Paul so that we could steamroll them in the general election, but if they're going to nominate a plausible candidate, it might as well be one who's espoused all sorts of leftist views in the past.

Dawkins, Nagel, and The God Delusion

I just finished reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and I liked it very much. It's a book trying to popularize certain biological and philosophical ideas, and having studied both biology and philosophy in college, there was much I found unoriginal and a little that I felt was poorly treated. Nonetheless, on the whole the book is very interesting, not least for it's hard-line stance against religion. The central project of the book is well captured by the title of the fourth chapter: "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God". And Dawkins makes a point of being as blunt as possible about his anti-theism. Raising the young to be religious is child abuse, he thinks, and he fails to see why theology ought to be viewed as a field of study at all.

As my acquaintances may guess, I am broadly sympathetic to these sorts of ideas. I'll come right out and say that I think the world would be a better place, on balance, without religion, and I too resent the privileged status granted to religious beliefs such that they are considered to be above criticism. Believing something to be true in the absence of supporting evidence is, to put it mildly, silly, and when the evidence is in opposition to your belief, well, then, you're just being willfully stupid.

When it comes to matters of faith, though, a great many people are willfully stupid, and a great many of the criticisms of The God Delusion are predictably unintelligent. There is the fair charge that the book is poorly edited and contemptuous, but none of that speaks to the merits of its argumentation. I'd like to have read a clearer, more disciplined book, but that sort of quibble is a distraction. It's also true that Dawkins could have been more polite in his delivery but, again, the most this gets you as a criticism is that the book is likely to offend people it could otherwise persuade.

To date, I've read only one insightful criticism of this book, and it comes from Thomas Nagel. I'd known that Nagel had written a review , but prior to reading the book I didn't see why I should particularly care what he had to say about it since it wasn't obviously his field. Dawkins, though, makes some dismissive comments about moral absolutism and ontological dualism. After reading the book, I can see why Nagel would be interested, since Nagel is among the world's foremost advocates of both moral absolutism and ontological dualism. And besides, Nagel's a genuinely brilliant guy - a fact I can testify to not just as a result of reading his work but also from personal experience - so, I signed up for a trial subscription to the otherwise-lame New Republic just to read what he had to say.

Nagel's objection boils down to this:
The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.
In other words, Dawkins has succumbed to the temptation to think that everything that exists has to be explained exclusively and ultimately in physical terms. Initially, Nagel dismissively refers to this as "amateur philosophy". Eventually he concedes in an off-hand way that there are actually a lot of questions left unanswered by "[a]ny anti-reductionist view", but the gist of the complaint seems to be that if Dawkins had just read "What is it Like to be a Bat?", his book would be very different (and, presumably, better.)

Now, I think Nagel is right that Dawkins is too dismissive of dualism in general, probably because his exposure to philosophy is limited. You can file a similar complaint against Dawkins's contempt of moral absolutism, best captured by this bit from pg. 232:
Moral philosophers are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong. As Robert Hinde succinctly put it, they agree that 'moral precepts, while not necessarily constructed by reason, should be defensible by reason'. They classify themselves in many ways, but in modern terminology the major divide is between 'deontologists' (such as Kant) and 'consequentialists' (including 'utilitarians' such as Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832). Deontology is a fancy name for the belief that morality consists in the obeying of rules. It is literally the science of duty, from the Greek for 'that which is binding'. Deontology is not quite the same thing as moral absolutism, but for most purposes in a book about religion there is no need to dwell on the distinction. Absolutists believe there are absolutes of right and wrong, imperatives whose rightness makes no reference to their consequences. Consequentialists more pragmatically hold that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences.


Not all absolutism is derived from religion. Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.
Since Dawkins himself had pointed out only a few pages earlier that there are very plausible arguments that Kant was himself an atheist, it's not clear why he now dismisses deontologists out of hand as religious nuts. Certainly today there are no shortage of non-religious deontologists among the ranks of those moral philosophers who "are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong." (Nagel is one, as a matter of fact.)

One is forced to conclude that Dawkins isn't actually very familiar with the ins-and-outs of contemporary philosophy, since he seems oblivious to the widely-respected arguments for both ontological dualism and ethical absolutism. In both cases he just assumes - without any evident reason - that the position he disfavors is necessarily bound up with religion, and must therefore be summarily tossed out.

Plainly put, Dawkins is wrong to reject dualism and absolutism on the basis of the arguments he offers. At the same time, those technical philosophical criticisms have almost no practical impact on the arguments of the book. One need not reject ontological dualism to point out that religious people ascribe all sorts of ridiculous characteristics to the non-physical world and tend to assume that if non-physical phenomena exist, they must be the sort of phenomena that are described in, for instance, the Bible. Similarly, one need not reject moral absolutism to acknowledge that religious groups tend to come up with really lousy moral absolutes.

In other words, Dawkins assumes in multiple instances that when the content of religious beliefs is absurd, the underlying ethics or metaphysics must be equally absurd. That's a baby-with-the-bathwater mistake, and Dawkins of all people probably has friends who could have helped him clarify his thinking. Instead, he gets the philosophy wrong even though it's got no significance to his central thesis: namely, that we'd do well to get rid of religion altogether.

Update: Because Tom asked, and because I felt like this post wasn't quite long enough, I thought I'd expand on my thoughts on dualism a little bit.

I personally don't know that I subscribe to dualism. But I don't think I'm really committed to monism, either. My issue with Dawkins is that he just acts like dualism is obviously wrong, but in fact that is one of the central and most contentious questions in contemporary metaphysics.

I think dualism's got problems - most notably, a dualist has got to give some account of how it is that an essentially non-physical thing can interact causally with a physical thing (without running into conservation of energy problems, no less!) But dualism also has some very powerful arguments going for it.

The gist of the problem was formulated with force by Nagel, in that "Bat" article I linked to.
I have said that the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat. Now we know that most bats (the microchiroptera, to be precise) perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion, and texture comparable to those we make by vision. But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the bat from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.


It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character of an experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it. After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?

Reducing the mind down to physical facts about the body isn't like, say, reducing proteins down to individual amino acids, he thinks, because mental phenomena are necessarily subjective, while the physicalist project is aimed at moving toward ever-increasing objectivity. I can imagine, at best, what it would be like for me to be a bat, but no amount of physical knowledge could possibly let me know what it's like for the bat. This isn't a problem about being able to reproduce neurological states; it's a problem about being able to actually occupy a point of view that's not your own.

I think Nagel identifies a very real problem here, but Frank Jackson probably did it more clearly in "What Mary Didn't Know", the central argument of which is this:

Mary is a girl who is locked up in a black and white room without windows, where she is taught every physical fact about the world (using, of course, only black and white materials.) If it is actually possible to explain everything in the world in terms of physical facts, Mary knows everything there is to know.

Presumably, though, if Mary is then let out of the room, she will learn something new: namely, what it is like to see, for instance, red.

The underlying concern in both cases is that mental phenomena seem to have these subjective properties - "qualia", in the jargon - that you just can't get at with any quantity of physical knowledge. It's difficult to see how any set of physical facts could possibly lead to knowledge about what a mental phenomenon is like.

Of course, the way that philosophy works is that a lot of very smart people - Dawkins's buddy Daniel Dennett, for instance - have come up with really brilliant reasons why we shouldn't think that Mary learns anything new at all when she leaves her room. But it's not like the case has been closed, and my only real problem was with Dawkins acting like it was.

For my own part, I have physicalist sympathies, and I get the impression that monism generally is on the rise these days. But I am by no means confident that I could ever know what being a bat is like for a bat, and I think that's a real dilemma.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Idiocracy and Dysgenics

I watched Idiocracy and it disturbed me more than most dystopian visions have. In the film, stupid people were said to reproduced more than smart people leading too a general dumbing down of the population to the point that - when the protagonist is defrosted in the year 2500 - humanity finds itself in a food crisis when they try to grow crops with Gatorade. That's good old fashioned Dysgenics which you might remember from such books as The Marching Morons.

Upon researching the topic I've become a lot less worried about any such effect but I wanted to describe some weakness in the theory I saw off the top of my head:
  • People with low IQs might have more babies but they die young more often, so it's a wash
  • People with high IQs don't necessarily have to reproduce more just so long as they recruit more. IE, they support progressive policies that help uplift others and make them reach their intellectual potential.
  • As we gain more knowledge about genetics we draw closer to the end of evolution as we know it. IE, in the future if you think your baby is going to be dumb you'll just go to a doctor and have them fix it.
  • If the effect were ever to become manifest it's highly improbable that it would effect the whole world equally. One society would figure out a way around it and would end up invading and taking over the rest.

Really? Both of you?

It's common among many socially progressive couples--different sex and same sex alike--to exclaim, when one member of the partnership is pregnant, that "we're" pregnant. "When we were pregnant, Ellen got horrible morning sickness." "We're pregnant right now, so Jen's feet are swollen."

I appreciate the sentiment behind this choice of words, especially in heterosexual couples where, for logistical reasons, any attempt to equally divide the duty of pregnancy would be impossible. Namely, the couple is trying to verbally indicate that both members are invested in the creation, outcome, and, most saliently, backbreaking work associated with a pregnancy. It's nice when the man in the partnership steps out of the customary male role and contributes to the pregnancy, too, which usually means taking care of all the other miserable work (driving the future mom to doctor visits, shopping for tiny footsie pajamas, sending baby shower invites, all the usual housework) that pregnant women usually are expected to perform in addition to carrying around a 30-pound parasite with foreign genetic material for nine months. Usually the "we" designation indicates that, contrary to tradition, both mom and dad will play active roles in rearing the child-to-be. Further, exclusively referring to the pregnancy as "hers" comes off as dismissive, disinterested, or unwilling to absorb the duties that you formerly divided equally. "Oh, that's her shoe rack; I have nothing to do with that. Oh, that's her pregnancy; I'm sure glad I don't have to help out with that mess!"

On the other hand, any semantical attempt at equality aside, men simply can't get pregnant (yet!), and it's absurd and insulting to imply that the burden of pregnancy can shared equally between both partners. Sorry, bub, but you're not the one peeing on a stick, putting on weight, getting stretch marks, enduring strange hormonal shifts, passing a basketball through your vagina, getting stitched up, breast feeding, and potentially suffering severe depression as a result of this pregnancy.

This isn't to say that good future fathers don't have to do extra work when their partners are pregnant. Even soon-to-be older siblings have to pick up the slack when Mom isn't able to do all the work she normally does. But the concept of mutual pregnancy justifies related phenomena such as "sympathy weight," or the idea that PMS hurts men as much as it huts women ("She gets so irritable when she's about to start her period; it affects me, too!"). Yes, women's issues are everyone's issues, but there's no comparing being a male in solidarity to actually being a woman. (I might also accuse men who "suffer" from PMS of just being wimpy. Brother, if you had any idea how bad it actually is...)

The greater implications of a "shared" pregnancy, though no one who uses "we" has this in mind, is that ownership of the pregnancy shifts from the pregnant woman to both members of the partnership. A major tenet of abortion rights is that the pregnancy, fetus, and choice to carry the pregnancy to term belong solely to the pregnant woman, not her husband, boyfriend, father, mother, community, or local legislators. Of course the progressive men who refer to "our" pregnancy probably don't question this philosophical foundation of abortion rights. I fear, though, that many anti-feminists and anti-abortion proponents have a knack for co-opting feminist and socially progressive terminology or ideals and insidiously twisting them beyond recognition. A popular example is, "Feminists say they want to have sex as freely as men do, so it's feminists' faults when college men rape their woman classmates. These poor boys are getting mixed messages from those sex-crazed feminists!" That's not far from, "If the pregnancy is both of yours, then the fetus belongs to both of you, too. If feminists want to share the pregnancy, then men should have to approve it before their wives and girlfriends get abortions!"

Admittedly, I'm being a bit of a worry wart, and will label myself as such. In the meantime, when I get pregnant, I'll let my partner spend all the time he wants decorating for our baby shower.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Is it bad

That in 2009 I want:

My Mayor to be a four-time failure at passing the Bar
My Governor to be a former steroid user
And my President to have once used coke?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Forget about Wii. Maybe the problem is Yuu.

Beware, parents: the Nintendo Wii "can be porn gateway," even in the hands of six-year-old girls! Due to the game console's internet access, apparently otherwise innocent children can now browse gigabyte upon gigabyte of dirty, filthy, steamy fetish pornography (we're talking donkeys-in-pantyhose dirty) that would make Larry Flynt blush ... all between frames of video bowling.

Some parents are calling for Nintendo to install a "cyber-nanny" function that would allow guardians to filter the content that reaches the Wii. Maybe after they've achieved that goal these parents can start a letter writing campaign to Sony demanding that PS3s help their teens with their algebra homework and provide Junior an interactive, 3-D graphics version of "the talk."

If you're worried about your elementary-aged kids using their game consoles to access porn, maybe you should examine your parenting skills, not the filtering features on your Wii. Something tells me that your average well-adjusted first grade girl isn't trolling the Internet for clips of hot lunches and light BDSM.

I'm no parenting counselor, but I get the feeling that telling kids that there's a world of super-secret pictures out there that only grown-ups are allowed to look at is just a little too intriguing to pass up. It seems that those most obsessed with sex are those fighting the hardest to suppress it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What a Girl Wants

Something I’ve written about before, in other forums, is the likely misconception that many women adopt their husbands’ surnames not because society demands that they do so, but because they think it’s just a nice gesture. This strikes me as unlikely for two reasons. First, it seems much more reasonable, to me, to suppose that what’s really going on in cases that look that way is that the woman is coming up with a ad hoc justification for not taking the more courageous step of bucking the status quo. Declining your husband’s name probably invites lots of uncomfortable questions from all sorts of people, quite possibly including the groom. That a woman wouldn’t want to deal with all of that is entirely understandable, even in the face of a strong emotional attachment to her own name. In that context, taking the “it’s just a sweet thing to do” argument at face value seems kind of naïve.

The second problem is the plain empirical fact that you don’t see men deciding to give up their last names as a symbol of their love. If the niceness of the gesture is its most salient feature, then you’d expect to see men and women making it at roughly comparable rates. But you don’t. In fact, you almost never hear about a man taking his wife’s name. Almost never:
All Michael Buday wanted to do was marry Diana Bijon and live happily ever after, with one tiny twist: He agreed to take her last name.

Quickly, the couple were plunged into what they describe as a bureaucratic inequity that has sparked both a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and new legislation to alter marriage licenses.

Buday said California discriminates by making it easy for women to take their husband's name upon marriage, but not vice versa.


Their complaint, filed Dec. 15 in a Los Angeles federal court, says:

• Los Angeles County's marriage application provides a space for the bride to enter her married name, but not the groom.
So rare is the practice of the groom adopting the bride's name that the marriage paperwork doesn't even accommodate it.

It's no surprise, of course, that women change their last name far more often than men, but what did strike me was that a number of parties seem to have the conviction that the problem with LA County's application is that it discriminates against men. The Sacramento Bee, for instance, takes the following position:
The path to full gender equality is a long and tortuous one, and it turns out that it's not only women who face discrimination.


When Buday sought to change his name to that of his fiancée, Diana Bijon, he was confronted by a four-step process requiring him to petition the state, pay a $32 application fee (in addition to the $70 marriage license fee), publish the change in a local newspaper for four weeks (which in another case cost a man $475), then go to court to get a judge's blessing.

Buday was not amused. Neither was the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit in federal court on behalf of the now-married couple, charging that Buday is a victim of discrimination under the Constitution's 14th Amendment. Six states allow men to change their names as easily as women can. California should do the same.
That seems like a peculiar way of looking at the situation. It seems to me that the underlying problem is discrimination against women, not against men. The reason that Buday can't change his name on his marriage application isn't that the government especially cares about whether he does so. Rather, it's that society and the government have conspired to pressure women into getting rid of their family names for the sake of men.

In other words, there's a real asymmetry here in the way the government treats the sexes. The source of that asymmetry, though, isn't that the government is forcibly preventing men from doing something highly desirable, it's that the government is helping to force women to do something undesirable. It can't be right to say that men are the victims of society's unreasonable demands here, can it? Men are just getting an unfair assist from the state in their own misogynistic project.

A Tremendous What?

Given that I've knocked Right on the Left Coast for ranting rather than arguing in the past, I think it's only fair to mention that I think this is basically right.

It turns out that the teacher who also happens to paint stuff with his butt in his spare time has been fired. As Darren says, "when doing something entirely legal, completely outside of school, becomes a cause to fire a teacher, we've gone too far." One wonders why we shouldn't just outlaw butt painting altogether.

Darren inexplicably fails, however, to mention this quote, from the teacher's attorney:
Chesterfield [County public schools] lost a tremendous asset today.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Firmly in the Third Quadrant

I know that these things are supposed to be viewed as silly and uninformative, but I actually think the Political Compass test is reasonably interesting. I've been taking it every couple of years at least since I started college, just to see whether and to what extent my views shift over time. I also think comparing scores between people can be illuminating, since I often assume that people, especially bloggers that I have no actual personal experience with, are more liberal or conservative than they really are.

As of today, I'm -4.38 on the economic axis and -5.49 on the social issues axis. My economic score almost never varies much, but my social score tends to vacillate a point and a half in either direction. Not sure if that's a function of my mood at the time or what, since I don't keep any record of how I answer individual questions. I'm definitely still a liberal though. Phew.

Don't be snotty

Joe Klein is catching flak for this statement:
Liberals were "right" about Vietnam, but they have paid a price ever since because they were so obnoxious about their correctness.
I have never seen a better, more concise explanation of the struggles I've had to be a true, full-fledged liberal.

Because, in my heart of hearts, I found a lot of liberals to be very irritating. Berkeley cemented this. I met a lot of Progressives who are snotty, humorless, intolerant of dissenting opinions, love to needle, quick to badger. And so forth. In sum, do not pass the Beer Test. Would I have a beer with this guy? At Berkeley I read a lot of self-haters like kausfiles and actual-conservatives like Instapundit because I was so tired of going through the Daily Planet's letter page. They seemed more fun!

Thankfully for my Liberalism, I moved to LA. Where people are more friendly. It's a lot easier here to understand the difference between the occasional moonbats espousing certain causes, and the underlying correctness of those causes. The war in Iraq IS stupid. National Health Insurance IS a good idea. Now I feel sad for those beknighted sorta-Democrats like Klein who cannot divorce their personal revulsion of the people behind Liberalism and the policies about it. What a crappy way to live! Intellectually convinced in your position but unable to party with your fellow adherents. So angry at Liberals that you morally equate the slaughter and torture of Vietnam with... being snotty about it afterwards! How many Cambodian bombings equal one Michael Moore documentary?

Nationally, the Democrats and Republicans have made the distinction easier. Mostly because the Democrats have increasingly understood the importance of presentability. 2004 was certainly a nadir. Michael Moore is even unpleasant to look at. Kerry was such a dour, pompous ass I have no idea what we were thinking. Now we've got Obama. Even Hillary has worked hard to cement a friendly image. Meanwhile, Republicans, urged on by the blogs and talk radio, have become so unhinged and wide-eyed they just come off as giant dicks.

This could explain the accession of Jonah Goldberg to the upper ranks of Republican commentariat. He's not the deepest thinker, nor does he make much sense. But he's NICE. He makes JOKES. Stuff like that is a positive.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Maybe he IS a visionary!

Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed universal health care for the great state of California. I haven't immersed myself in the analysis of this potential policy, but at first blush it appears to be really ... great!

It shifts the costs of emergency room care into preventative care, it requires that all employers (with some exceptions for small businesses) offer health care plans or pay a 4% payroll tax to contribute to the resource pool, and it covers all kids.

I'm waiting for my better-informed colleagues to explain why this is a bad idea.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Ezra Klien asks a question

Ezra Klein wonders what's wrong with Joe Klein:
Joe Klein And The Politics of Tone: ... Klein's actual complaint is staggering in its mendacity: Democrats, who he thinks arerightabout the uselessness of a "surge" strategy, are being too nasty in saying so. Let's go over that again: In Joe Klein's very first blog post, his initial chance to opine in an instant and high-profile medium, he doesn't choose to inveigh against a dangerous and counterproductive strategy which he admittedly believes would cost thousands of lives and prolong an immoral, grievously wrong-headed war. No, he chooses to toss off a tantrum against Democrats who are too rhetorically dismissive of the strategy he admittedly believes would cost thousands of lives and prolong an immoral, grievously wrong-headed war.

What is wrong with these people?

My guess: Joe Klein is unable to understand a world where liberals suffer more from timidity than they do from overreach. It makes him antsy anytime a liberal uses strong language or says things plainly. It bothers him even more when these liberals do so on issues of national defense where Joe instinctively assumes that the Democratic position should be hidden and downplayed - lest the public punish them - no matter how correct it is.

From my experience this is common in people who formed their political opinions in the 70's (like Joe Klein) and people who formed their political views thinking that BAMN is actually something worth thinking about. Why Time magazine pays Klein to provide political analysis that's 30 years out of date I can't say.

Update: Brad Delong is driven shrill by Joe Klein's foolishness.

Update: Chris Bowler weighs in with an alternate answer. He says that Joe Klein is simply acting to preserve the power of pundits in the face of discrediting facts:
As someone who opposed the war from long before it began, and thus was long branded as "not serious" as a result, it is remarkable to me how those who now support escalation are immediately branded as "serious" by those who do not support escalation but who did support the war in the first place. In fact, the entire Washington Post editorial yesterday seemed simply to be a defense of the people who support escalation as "serious" and otherwise good people, even if the Washington Post itself can't bring itself to personally step onto the ashbin of history. This isn't surprising really, since another serious commentator, Richard Cohen, has recently stated that the main reason he opposed supported the war was because he didn't want to throw his lot with the unserious, dirty hippies who opposed it.

There may be disagreements within the DLC-nexus of pundits from time to time, but as we can see form the DLC-nexus pundits are dealing with the current schism over escalation, maintaining the power and image of the punditry nexus itself is more important than any short term schism. For Joe Klein and Fred Hyatt, the most important point is that the people who wrongly support escalation are still serious and worthy of our attention. They are not, heaven forbid, any of those unserious, dirty fucking hippies who are not worthy of serious attention.
Update: Greg Sargent has another theory. He thinks Joe Klein just wants to think he's courageous. That's why he assume that liberals who oppose the surge must have nefarious motives.

Here's a possible answer, and it's something you see this again and again in today's pundits. It's not enough for them to be getting six-figure salaries to spout their opinions; to be feted at cocktail parties; invited on TV chat shows; sucked up to by star-struck underlings; and constantly told by colleagues how incisive and witty their latest effort was. No, they also need to feel that they are brave and heroic in holding their opinions, too.

To look into the mirror and see a brave and heroic pundit staring back, of course, you need to flatter yourself into believing that you're challenging entrenched ideas and the people who hold them in some way, even if you aren't. This impression can be created in several ways. One is to simply dream up a whole class of people, claim they hold "extreme" opinions based on nothing at all, and set yourself up as a lonely warrior against them -- preferably while standing shoulder to shoulder with other lonely heroes of moderation like John McCain and Joe Lieberman. That's David Broder's preferred approach. Another way is to dream up a whole series of nefarious but nonexistent motives driving colleagues' opinions, so that you can deprive those colleagues of credit for those opinions, and position yourself as, again, braver and more heroic than they are -- even though you agree with them. That is Klein's approach -- and I submit that at bottom it's all about vanity.

Klein issued a challenge in his column today that was deftly handled by Boo Man. So here's a challenge for Klein: Back up your arguments with facts and evidence. Produce one example of someone whose comments betray the fact that they're tacitly rooting for American failure. Quote this person. Explain why this person's quotes should be interpreted that way. And finally, explain why that one person's motives reveal those of the whole class of people you're so dedicated to disparaging.

Update: Kevin Drum has no idea what's gone wrong with Joe Klein.
Klein knows this perfectly well, just as he knows that the "motivating force" behind the surge almost certainly doesn't come from "military intellectuals" anyway. It comes from George Bush and Dick Cheney, who are casting around for something -- anything -- to fend off calls for withdrawal, and are desperately latching on to the tiny number of people who believe (or claim to believe) that a surge will work.

Why Klein pretends otherwise I don't know. Today, though, he goes from merely incoherent to completely flipped out. Unhappy at being criticized, and apparently unable to marshal any further arguments for his case, he lashes out:

And so a challenge to those who slagged me in their comments. Can you honestly say the following:

Even though I disagree with this escalation, I am hoping that General Petraeus succeeds in calming down Baghdad.

Does the thought even cross your mind?

I'd like to respond with some kind of snappy comment here, but words fail me. I suspect Klein would be better off if words failed him too.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mmm.. coke

Were you guys as surprised as I was that Obama once used cocaine?
Obama writes about smoking marijuana and trying cocaine during his teenage years. Inviting journalists to contrast his earlier admission with Bill Clinton's "didn't inhale" remarks made during the 1992 presidential campaign, Obama recently stated: "I inhaled—that was the point." Obama added: "It was reflective of the struggles and confusion of a teenage boy; teenage boys are frequently confused."
My significant other concluded, upon hearing this, that Obama has no prayer. And isn't that the automatic reaction most would reach? I mean, geeze, coke!

I guess the reason I felt differently was the persistent exaltation of redemption in American public life. Even when it's pathetic -- Mark Foley -- some sort of renunciation/apology/rehabilitation cycle is usually acceptable to restart a stalled career. And Obama is nothing if not about the possibilities of redemption and second chances. Probably the reason Clinton took so much flack for marginal pot use was that you got the feeling he'd smoke a bowl today, if Stephenopolous was carrying.

Still, this should be an interesting thing to explore when the media types go after Barack.

Scaffolding Your Way to the Truth

Looking at this post and its update, it's remarkable how smoothly Glenn Reynolds transitions from treating media bias as the conclusion of an argument to just treating media bias as an axiom once his argument gets debunked. People who think that the media has some sort of significant partisan bias seem to think that arguments are just a kind of scaffolding, and it doesn't really matter if the argument falls apart as long as you've already put in place the conclusion you want.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Man With A Plan

Watching the folks at the Corner get all excited about the prospect of a troop "surge" in Iraq reminded me of something I wanted to say several weeks ago but forgot about. I think a lot of people who realize we ought to be pulling out of Iraq as soon as possible made a mistake in complaining that Bush was advocating sending in more troops without having a specific plan for what to do with them. Now the guy's going to come up with a plan and, by that very fact, he'll take the wind out of the anti-surge/withdrawal argument.

But the problem was never that Bush didn't have a plan, it was that no plan whatever would stand any real chance of success. Obviously Bush was going to slap together a plan for the surge at some point, so it was kind of silly to lower the bar for him by making the absence of a plan the main obstacle for him to overcome. The appropriate strategy was to prep everybody for the fact that Bush was going to come up, inevitably, with a strategy that was doomed to failure. Now we're going to have to hear grudging concessions about Bush's wisdom just because he decided to figure out what to do with the troops before actually deploying them.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir, At Long Last?

An interesting fact I was not aware of until today: immigration form I-485 - the application to apply for permanent residence in the U.S. - asks applicants, "Have you ever been a member of, or in any way affiliated with, the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party?"

An immigration attorney assures me that despite the sizable number of individuals from China and the former Soviet Union who apply for permanent residence, nobody checks the "Yes" box.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Does anyone else feel like they're going to survive Bush?

I've been thinking about the past six years. It's been that long since I learned Bush won, sitting in my dorm room at Berkeley. Screams of pronounced horror echoed across faux-Scandinavian rooftops.

But six years in, I have yet to feel personally affected by Bush. Not once in the past six years have I felt like something he has done has actually affected my day-to-day life.

Now, this isn't to say that he hasn't. At the very least, his tax cuts and budget deficits will shape fiscal policy for untold decades, in ways that I will never directly notice. And he has personally affected anybody with a friend or family member in the military. Or a New Orleans resident.

But politics is, first and foremost, about individual needs and desires. And in my daily life, in what I do, Bush has affected me not even the slightest. No draft. No national legislation that really changes my life. He doesn't even run the economy. Kind of sad. Not even social security legislation.

Has anyone else here felt affected by something Bush has caused, outside of something they saw on a TV screen? I don't mean to imply that others have not, just that I haven't.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Mean Girls

Matthew Yglesias links to this article about women discriminating against each other in the workplace and says:
Let me note that these survey results could have been framed in any number of ways. The newspaper chooses to frame it as debunking the notion that women are held back in the workplace by discrimination by men. As best I can tell, however, the survey actually indicates that men and women were both inclined to discriminate against women candidates, but that men were somewhat less so inclined than were women.
Another qualification that has to be added is that it does not follow from the fact that women are more likely to discriminate against female employees that women do most of the discriminating against female employees. Most of the people making these sorts of decisions about who gets promoted and who doesn't, after all, are probably men.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Gay Sheep

I'm a little bit late to the game, but there are some researchers in Oregon trying to see if they can manipulate the sexual preferences of sheep by tinkering with their physiologies. The moral issues involved have gotten a little muddled, thanks to the combined efforts of PETA and Martina Navratilova, but I think I understand the form of the objections from liberal quarters. In particular, I think Navratilova's big objection is that the implication of working to figure out how to manipulate sexual preference seems to be that we would want to manipulate sexual preference. That would further imply, presumably, that certain sexual preferences are more desirable than, and thus superior to, others.

First, let me say that I think Navratilova mischaracterizes the research being done in Oregon; I think a fairer way of describing things is to say that researchers feel that the ability to manipulate sexual preference is a major test of our knowledge of the mechanisms involved.

Second, I want to just briefly mention one of my pet issues, which is that the distinction between genetics and choice in discussions of sexual preference acquisition is more apparent than real. It just doesn't make sense to talk about people choosing what they like and don't like. When people choose, all they're really doing is taking one course of action instead of the alternatives, but they do so on the basis of their previously-existing preferences. That is, what is a choice supposed to be if it's not an expression of preferences? The most charitable thing you can say about the whole thing is that you can't explain preference acquisition in terms of choice without falling into an infinite regress. Really, though, I think you can file this under "it's not even wrong". Actually, I'll do just that.

Update: To clarify, the only thing, here, I really consider "not even wrong" is the argument that people choose their sexual preferences. That particular position just doesn't make any kind of sense.

The concerns that Navratilova brings up are another matter. Those are coherent beliefs about the issues, they're just wrong or misapplied for various reasons. I don't think that the research should stop, nor am I especially worried about its implications, but I can at least understand what her objections are supposed to be.