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Blog Crushes And The Real You

Milbarge has a guest post at Crescat Sententia on the subject of blog crushes. My own admiration of various bloggers has been surprisingly free of romantic overtones*, though I do have some experience with message board crushes and IM crushes. Milbarge is concerned to respond to the criticism that online identities aren't the "real you," and so someone with a blog crush is falling for a fictional or deceptive personality. Now, it's obvious that blog personalities don't always match "real life" personalities. Blog crush critics assume that the latter is the "real you," while the former is fake whenever the two diverge. Certainly the scope for deliberate deception is greater online, but in my experience few of the people you meet online are the fabled 40-year-old pervert pretending to be a teenage girl.

Milbarge (echoed by Belle Waring) points out that it's quite possible for people to be very deceptive in person. This is true. Indeed, I'd take it farther even than Waring does, and say that blogging is just another arena of social interaction, so someone who spills everything online can't be said to be "really" shy no matter how withdrawn they are offline (or vice-versa). However, I think Milbarge and Waring accept one of the premises of the critics' argument: the claim that unchosen elements of personality are the "real you," while chosen elements are just an act. Stated so baldly, it seems strange to me. The real you is things that just happened to you, while things you put effort into shaping are less important?

When I think about who I am, and what I'd want others to know about me, I think of things that I've chosen to make part of myself, things I've worked on or fought for (or at least deliberately laid claim to out of my stock of natural traits). Indeed, a big part of the appeal of the internet is that, by giving you more control over your self-presentation, it helps you express the "real you" better than you can in real life. For example, I'm not just putting on a show in this blog -- I really am very interested in politics. But you'd hardly know that if you only knew me in person, because I'm no good at in-person political discussions. And if it weren't for the internet (or for print journalism before that, which shares some characteristics with political blogging) I never would have been able to create that aspect of my personality. In some respects, readers of my blog can see who I want to be, whereas real-life friends see only how I was born to be.

There is a reason that the premise that the automatic is more fundamental than the chosen has some validity in judging crushes. There is an assumption that still colors a lot of our thinking about romantic relationships, that once a long-term commitment is made, peopl relax and let it all hang out. By this view, the main reason people would swim against the current of their own inborn personalities is to impress a potential mate, so once the agreement is sealed, they don't need to keep up appearances anymore. If this is the case, then it is in one's best interests to find out about the unchosen elements of a prospective mate, and ignore the ephemeral chosen ones. But I don't think it's necessarily the case. People are acting all the time. What matters is the outcome, not whether it's natural or deliberate.

*(stupid comment removed)

Kerry Speechifies

As of Thursday night, it looks like some people are moving from anti-Bush to pro-Kerry. I find this weird, especially coming from political junkies who have been following the campaign for over a year. Kerry hasn't changed who he is. He didn't lay out any new directions in how he'd handle the presidency. The same arguments about the merits of his candidacy still apply. He (or his speechwriters) just thought up a more inspiring spin to put on it. I can see how a speech like this could convince someone who hadn't been paying much attention to the race, because they would learn new information about who John Kerry is and what he stands for. But seasoned political observers shouldn't change their views over a prettier bunch of words.



Earlier this week, I went to a workshop about the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's brownfields cleanup program. It seems NJDEP has just recently realized that involving the community in cleanups is important. The big issue on most attendees' minds was a recently passed law setting a 45-day deadline for approval of some redevlopment projects. Citizens were concerned (with good reason) that such a tight timeframe would hinder the public's ability to have meaningful input, since communities are slower to organize than developers. The career DEP employees seemed to share the citizens' concerns. The best spin they could put on it was that it was unclear how the bill would translate into implementation, and they'd do their best not to let it cramp the community participation initiative. Then we heard from Bradley Campbell, the political appointee who heads the DEP (he praised "this governor" often enough to show where his loyalties lay). He claimed that the fast-track permitting would benefit anti-development interests, because it's easier to say no right away than to say no after the process has dragged out and developers have invested so much in it. It's an interesting hypothesis, though I'm skeptical. And today I discovered that the Pennsylvania DEP doesn't agree:

[Army for a Clean Environment leader Dante] Picciano supported Weinrich's comments by reading from the minutes of an Oct. 23, 2003 meeting of the Mining and Reclamation Environmental Board of the DEP, where one official allegedly said a network of groups could pose a problem for pro-coal ash groups.

"The more time DEP takes to issue a permit, the more time Dante's Army has to network with more environmental groups," Picciano quoted from the minutes.

"I'm Your Deity, That's Why"

Will Wilkinson raises the old question of whether non-religious morality is possible. The claim as he states it is a factual one (whether people actually would act morally without God) rather than a moral one (whether morality can be justified without God) -- though people often use a sort of vulgar pragmatism to slide from the former to the latter. Such a move is basically a "noble lie" position -- it assumes that you and I agree that morality exists (whether for secular or religious reasons), but only religious reasons can keep the masses in line.

I can say anecdotally (corroborated somewhat here*) that the factual claim is untrue, as I know a large number of quite moral secular people. But I can see there being a little something to the religion-only viewpoint during a transitional phase from religion to a secularism. If all along you're hearing that God's decree is the sole basis of morality -- particularly if it's framed in the selfish-Santa Claus way of "if you're good you'll go to heaven, if you're bad you'll go to hell" -- then it's not surprising that an initial reaction upon deciding that God doesn't exist would be to give up on morality as well. (Indeed, I suspect the temptation of giving up on morality can be a motivation for questioning God's existence.) The fault here, though, lies not with the transition to secularism, but with the crude way that popular religion teaches ethics. A more mature ethical position, one going beyond an arbitrary "because I said so," would be more robust in the face of theological doubt. This is not to go so far as to say that religious people must justify their moral beliefs in purely secular terms, or even to give up on the divine command theory's central idea that God's can make anything he pleases moral or immoral. God's say-so need not be the only evidence of an obligation that he created any more than his say-so is the only evidence of a physical fact that he created.

While a person's morality can be expected to change when they undergo a religious change, they would be unlikely to decide they can kill babies and so forth. This saps the force behind the pragmatic appeal, since it's based on the threat that without religion, people will do things that even atheist hearers will agree are really really bad. So you're left with the relatively trivial assertion "if people don't believe in my religion, then their behavior won't match the details of my religion's commands."

*The Wikipedia article seems to be using evidence about the factual claim regarding how atheists actually do behave to address the moral claim that atheists have no justification for acting morally. This is an argumentum ad popularum ("millions of atheists can't be wrong about whether their behavior is justified").


Against Obama

Here's some evidence for my deeply cynical disposition at the moment: I'm getting to dislike Barack Obama. I didn't see his speech, and I haven't read more than a few excerpts of the transcript. But I'm put off by the way the entire liberal commentariat (and some conservatives, too) has gone head-over-heels for him. The general principle here is something I worked out while trying to figure out how I felt about Howard Dean (back when it looked like Dean might actually make a difference). Regular politicians like George Bush and John Kerry are unprincipled and scheming. But at least they have trouble hiding their unprincipled scheming. The politicians you really have to watch out for are the ones who look like straight talkers, the ones who look like they really understand the public and care about doing the right thing. I'm pretty convinced that political Darwinism will quickly weed out any actual principled politicians.

Unfortunately, years and years of being led by scumbags has left Americans desperate for a leader they can love, someone they can feel good about having at the helm, someone they can trust to look after them. This has been amplified in the modern Democratic party, as we've been confronted by the depth of the Bush's mendacity and the crowd of losers that wanted to take him on in November. It surprised even me that "Anybody But Bush" is still, at this late date, the dominant theme on the left -- that even the worst partisan hacks, while they've pragmatically refrained from attacking Kerry, have been unable to convince themselves that he would make a really good president.

Obama is a dream politician for disenchanted Democrats. He's charismatic and tells us exactly what we want to hear. He's a safe crush, too -- only the people of Illinois will have the chance to vote for him, and even there he doesn't face a serious Republican opponent who would eat a truly sincere candidate alive (as many -- incorrectly, I think -- feared Bush would do to Dean). And so it seems everyone has fallen for him.

I plan to keep a wary distance. Maybe Obama really is trustworthy -- I hardly know anything about him, so I can't make a personal judgement. But trust is too easily exploited, especially when the truster really wants to be able to trust someone. Every other politician I've ever encountered has left Obama with a big burden of proof.

I-93 Is Closed For "Democracy"

I'm sort of lying low for the duration of the Covention. Seeing the blogosphere wet its collective pants with excitement about how it gets to be one of the cool kids who can go to this wasteful and meaningless charade isn't helping my cynicism about politics.


Earth Monitoring

Nations Collaborate To Take Planet's 'Pulse'

The grandly titled Global Earth Observation System of Systems, which boasts nearly 50 countries as participants, is an ambitious attempt by governments, scientists and industry to launch a network that will continuously monitor the land, sea and air. If it meets expectations, it could transform the way farmers plant their crops, sailors plot their voyages and doctors work to prevent the spread of disease in remote regions.

For starters, the network would link data from 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys and 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, officials said. Ultimately, it would vacuum up information from myriad other sources, including satellites monitoring ground and air movements, and feed it all into computers that will process it.

... "This is not a power grab by the United States or ultra-extremist organizations trying to seize control of the Earth," Lautenbacher said, adding that some nations are joining even though they "don't like our Iraqi policy. They certainly don't like our Kyoto policy" -- the Bush administration's decision to reject the 1997 pact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

It's not a power grab to sieze control of the Earth because the people doing this already control the Earth.

From the persepctive of a human-environment researcher, this is an exciting development. However, the data being produced is highly one-sided. It's easy to set up global monitoring of physical processes like ocean circulation and land cover change. It's much more difficult -- and often unethical -- to create comparably rich databases about human systems. This contributes to a natural-science bias in thinking about, and dealing with, environmental problems. On the other hand, it's an open question whether the people that already control the Eath can be trusted with that more detailed human information.



Maybe I should continue not posting, as my hits seem to go up every time I take a day off. I probably won't be posting much over the next few days, as my home internet is borked* and I have a wedding to go to and other travel to do.

*I meant to type "borked," but I got a "typo" of "broke" on the first try.


Lying Liars And The Bloggers Who Censor Them

David Bernstein says that:

I, along with I think anyone else sensible (including James Madison in his day), would be happy to censor false and deceptive speech if we (1) had a reliable mechanism for separating it from "good" speech, and (2) could ensure that censoring deceptive and false speech wouldn't lead to a slippery slope culminating in the censorship of "good" speech disliked by the government.

Will Baude offers as a counterexample someone engaging in a lawful activity who is being threatened with unlawful violence because of inadequate police protection -- a Jew in an anti-Semitic town, for example. Baude makes the reasonable case that such a person ought to be allowed to lie in order to save his or her own skin. But it seems that if we're assuming an unrealistically perfect honesty law, it would be very strange not to also assume reliable enforcement of assault laws. If our society is advanced enough to be able to carry out Bernstein's honesty law, it could protect Jews and other unpopular people from their neighbors.

One might rescue the example by restating it so that the harassment is within the law -- being shunned, not getting votes when you run for public office, and so forth. I think a good case could be made that it should be permissible for our hypothetical Jew to lie to his anti-Semitic neighbors to avoid such treatment. Then again, if our government is in the business of legislating morality in the realm of honesty, then it seems like they would also pass much more restrictive laws against bigotry and harassment (and enforce them well) so that there would be little scope for lawful harm to an unpopular person.

UPDATE: I should point out that I'm not necessarily defending Bernstein's claim. I'm not certain that my uneasiness with strong censorship is merely a case of moral instincts calibrated for our own imperfect world and which are therefore misleading in strange hypothetical situations. As someone with utilitarian sympathies, I'm forced to accept a number of strange hypothetical situations in which lying is not just permissible but morally required.


People Who Believe The X-Files

Development of Beliefs in Paranormal And Supernatural Phenomena

Two important findings emerged from a recent study I conducted on learning scientific information from prime-time television programming (Whittle 2003). The study used an Internet-based survey questionnaire posted to Internet chat groups for three popular television programs, The X-Files, ER, and Friends. Scientific (and pseudoscientific) dialogue from ER and The X-Files collected in a nine-month-long content analysis created two scales, ER science content and The X-Files pseudoscience content. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements from each program (such as, "Rene Laennec used a rolled-up newspaper as the first stethoscope" [ER], and "The Wanshang Dhole, an Asian dog thought to be extinct, has pre-evolutionary features including a fifth toe pad, a dew claw, and a prehensile thumb" [The X-Files].

My first finding, that ER viewers learned specific ER science content, is an indicator that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from their favorite television programs. The second finding was spooky. There was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files. This finding does not seem surprising in light of Gallup and Harris polls demonstrating high levels of paranormal belief in the United States, but the beliefs assessed in the study were fictional paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs created by the writers of The X-Files. Paranormal researchers ask questions such as, "Do you believe in astral projection, or the leaving of the body by one's spirit?" My research asked, [Do you believe] "[d]uring astral projection, or the leaving of the body for short periods of time, a person could commit a murder?" A homicidal astral projector was the plot of an X-Files episode, but ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!

I think the author is being a little too skeptical. In light of the example he gives*, it doesn't surprise me that ER viewers would profess beliefs in the kind of paraparanormal things that appear on The X-Files. "Homicidal astral projector" seems like a perfectly plausible extension of "astral projector," given that what's being astrally projected -- a person -- is something we're familiar with seeing as potentially homicidal. It's not something so bizarre that it requires The X-Files to make you think of it. The ER viewers probably never thought much about homicidal astral projectors, but when they saw the survey question, they thought "yeah, I suppose that makes sense." Indeed, it would seem like these kind of plausible extensions are exactly what the writers for The X-Files are trying to create, as they enhance the spooky "what if" vibe that makes the show successful. So all he's discovered is that The X-Files is well-written.

*I'm not sure if I've ever watched a full episode of The X-Files, so I'm not an expert on the types of things they show.


The Pointlessness Of The Draft

I'm not sure I've ever done an Instapundit-style post with a link and an instruction to go read it. But today Michael Kinsley so perfectly summed up what I had tried to say about the draft that I have to make an exception.

Model Madness

Bay Pollution Progress Overstated

At news conferences, on its Web site and in its regular publications, the government agency leading the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay has documented more than a decade of steady progress.

The Chesapeake Bay Program has reported that the flow of major pollutants from rivers into North America's largest estuary has declined nearly 40 percent since 1985, bolstering the claims of politicians in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District that they were "saving the bay" and helping the states fend off criticism and lawsuits from environmentalists.

Those reports, however, significantly overstated the environmental achievements.

The estimates of pollution reduction were based on a computer model -- not water samples -- that program officials now say was distorted by overly generous assumptions.

The modelers claim that this is just how science works, and models always need improvement. That's true. It's been sobering for me to listen to some of my professors here, who are on the cutting edge of land change modeling, explain how poorly their models do. But given that, and given the fact that you can (and have) directly test the factor in question, who in their right mind would rely on a model? You use models for things you can't directly measure (such as the future).


Footnotes In The Kiosk

The new posting screen in Blogger seems to have taken care of the "unexpected changes in window size" problem that had heretofore been in the Kiosk (and as an added bonus, Blogger seems to have picked up on the fact that I prefer to start on the "Edit HTML" tab rather than the "Compose" tab). Luckily, we have a new candidate for the Kiosk. I'm not a huge fan of the posting style in which you put the first few paragraphs of your post on your main page, then you have to click "read more" to finish the post. But I can accept it when you have a really long post. What I can't accept is when all that's behind the "read more" link is footnotes. Maybe -- maybe -- this is all right when you have 20 academic-style footnotes and you say on the main page something like "click on 'read more' for the footnotes." But when I click "read more" expecting further paragraphs, but find only a single asterisked aside, then I am not a happy camper.

Bush The Prophet

I must admit that I'm a bit skeptical of this quote that's going around. President Bush reportedly told a group of Amish people "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job." It's just too over-the-top while perfectly capturing our fears that Bush has a messiah complex. I think it could very easily be a misquotation (or a misspeak) of "I trust God speaks to me." That would be perfectly consistent with his previous claims to be recieving direct guidance from on high, without trying to claim the gift of prophecy.

Climate Change And Global Justice

Climate change isn't really my main issue, but while I'm on the subject, Abiola Lapite has a relatively sensible view of the issue from a libertarian standpoint. It restores some of my confidence after an earlier post in which he asked whether global warming was falsifiable (the comments thread on that one did help make it clear that this wasn't just a rhetorical gambit like the creationist claim that natural selection is a tautology). He points out that there will be both winners and losers from climate change -- a point often made by proponents of action, though they do so in order to emphasize the presence of the worst losers and the implications for international justice that the unevenness of the effects raise, rather than to temper our pessimism by reminding us that there are winners. In the comments, Brad DeLong makes a typical ecological imperialism/ecological modernization argument, that industrialization will greatly benefit developing countries and that it shouldn't be restricted in the name of combatting climate change. This is more or less the logic behind the two-tiered model in the Kyoto Protocol, in which only already-industrialized countries face quantified emissions reductions targets (though the Clean Development Mechanism would allow them to meet those targets through aid and technology transfer that helps developing countries develop without increasing their emissions). DeLong concludes from this that it might be prudent to hold off on addressing climate change until China and India have caught up.

I see it in a somewhat different way (and not only because I'm skeptical of the single-trajectory model in which third world countries are all South Koreas waiting to happen). Those developing countries that have the most to gain from emissions are also generally accepted to be those most likely to be the losers from climate change. This reduces the practical pressure on the US to unilaterally reduce its emissions, as we can more easily externalize the worst effects. But it also increases the moral pressure, as it limits the degree to which third world countries can accept or reject the industrialization-climate change tradeoff for themselves. Only by reducing the first world's emissions will there be enough slack in the climate system to allow the third world to industrialize without screwing themselves over climate-wise.


Kerry Vs. Kyoto

Yesterday I was reading Emery Roe's book Narrative Policy Analysis. He has a chapter on climate change, in which he claims that the problem with the discourse surrounding global warming is the word "global." It implies that the problem must be tackled at the global level, because countries acting on their own face a prisoner's dilemma or tragedy of the commons situation -- everyone wants to be the one polluter while the rest of the world reduces their emissions in order to stabilize the climate. Roe argues that getting the whole world to agree is an impossible task, but the discourse of global warming suggests that that's the only solution, and that we may as well keep polluting until a global agreement is reached. He suggests that we ought to instead focus on the fact that most steps that would be needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have an overall beneficial impact independent of their impact on climate.

Yesterday I was pretty skeptical. But today I see that John Kerry wants to give Roe's argument a boost (via Quark Soup):

Many news stories in 1997 referred to Kerry's support of Kyoto, undeterred by the Massachusetts senator's vote with 94 other senators for a resolution that directed President Clinton to not agree to a global warming pact that exempted developing nations. (Veep Al Gore ignored the Senate and agreed to a pact that exempts China, India and other developing nations from any pollution caps, while requiring the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.)

At the February ed board meeting, Kerry said, "I believe there is a formula to bring the less-developed countries into this solution. And that's what you have to do. You can't have the United States of America and the developed world reducing emissions, while China and Mexico, South Korea and other countries, India just going crazy spewing about."

This is a classic American dodge. It's the same logic that Bush used to give up on Kyoto altogether. Kerry, on the other hand, wants to renegotiate, renegotiate, renegotiate. It's leadership in word rather than deed.

As by far the world's largest producer of greenhouse gasses, the US is in a unique position to act without concern for being the "sucker" in a prisoner's dilemma. What's more, we're far more able to make reductions than are India and China. China is a major greenhouse gas emitter simply because it's got so many people. Developed countries like the US, on the other hand, produce far more emissions per capita -- and are thus in the position to reduce their emissions with less negative impact. But the longer we wait, the harder the transition will be -- unless Kerry also plans to renegotiate the US's emissions targets.

Kerry claims that he'll take agressive action to stabilize the US's greenhouse gas emissions. But it's hard to square that with his position that we'll only do Kyoto if China and India do. Which is the flip, and which is the flop here?


Children In Non-Traditional Families

(UPDATE: D'oh! I forgot to include the links the first time.)

David Morrison points out a new line of clothing for children of non-traditional families bearing the slogan "My daddy's name is donor." I shared some of his discomfort at the idea, though for different reasons. I think the slogan points in the wrong direction in terms of what constitutes parenthood. An important step in making non-traditional families legitimate is severing the link between procreation and parenthood. Your real parents are the people who raise you, nurture you, and prepare you to be a functional and independent adult. Whether they had sex or went to the lab 9 months before you were born is of much less importance. So while assigning the name "daddy" (a word much more loaded with affectionate connotation than, say, "father" or "sire") to a man who produced the sperm for you but has had little other involvement in your life seems to emphasize the role of procreation and denigrate the role of post-procreation parenting.

Morrison's main point, though, is an objection to using one's children as billboards for your own causes. I can somewhat agree with that insofar as drawing your kids into your causes is unavoidable, though the "My daddy's name is donor" shirts strike me as no more or less appropriate than the "Deanie Baby" shirts that Howard's followers put on their little ones.

Then again, those who support traditional families are not above doing the same thing. In a recent column in the New Zealand Herald (unfortunately no longer online), a single mother related her dauther's unhappiness with not having a father and used that as a basis for condemning same-sex parenting. Now, I don't know anything about their situation beyond what's in that column, so it may be that this particular child needs something that only a father, rather than a second mother (which she also lacks), can provide. The implication, though -- which surfaces in Morrison's post as well -- is that children just know what constitutes a proper family*. There's no consideration that children are especially attuned to questions of normality and fitting in, particularly when certain ways of not fitting in are stigmatized (as is the case with non-traditional families). The fact that some children are unhappy with their situation tells us nothing about whether the proper course of action is to avoid putting them in that situation, or to help them to accept and even love it (perhaps in part through clothing expressing that pride?), as many children of non-traditional families have.

Morrison goes on to quote a question submitted to the Evolved Moms site in which a lesbian mother asks for advice on circumcizing her son and keeping his genitals clean. She says that she has no aesthetic preference for or against circumcision, because "to me the penis has never exactly been a beautiful thingregardless of which way it looks." Morrison asks "how are you going to convey that you love this kid when you have decided in advance that part of him 'has never exactly been a beautiful thing?'" I imagine, though, that the same comment could be made with regard to many men. To me, "the penis has never exactly been a beautiful thing," and I've got one attached to my own body. But I don't see that opinion interfering with my own hygeine decisions, or those I would make if I had a son.

An anonymous commenter on Morrison's post takes it a step further:
he's going to grow up knowing that the reason he doesn't have a Daddy is because his Mommy doesn't like boys. And since he's a boy...

Here we see a conflation of affection with sexual affection. We slide from "not interested in romantic relationships with men" to "doesn't like men." Since my relationship with my own father was not adversely affected by the fact that he "doesn't like boys" in a romantic sense, I fail to see how this is much of an argument. If anything, it depends on the idea that a boy's sense of self-worth is tied up in the idea that his specifically and uniquely masculine qualities will be vital to raising a child of his own. If that were true -- and it's a pretty grim view of human nature -- then perhaps "it's not necessary that one parent be male" could translate into a negative statement toward boys. (You rarely hear much concern about the reverse situation -- a daughter of a gay male couple doubting her femininity because she thinks mothers are unnecessary.)

*This gets us into the meta-ethical question of inherent conscience -- the idea that deep down inside everyone knows what's right and wrong, and that children innocently express this whereas adults' consciences can be buried under social pressures and selfishness. I'm a proponent of the idea that conscience is largely learned, but I don't have room to defend that idea here.


Kerry's Forest Plan

Kerry Proposes $100M For New Forest Corps

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry proposes cutting $100 million in annual government subsidies to the timber industry to pay for a new Forest Restoration Corps that would invest in the long-term health of national forests, his campaign said Tuesday.

... A Kerry administration would pledge to budget annually to cover all federal firefighting costs, make necessary additions to aerial firefighting fleets, and focus reduction of fuels in overstocked forests on those areas posing the most immediate threats to communities, according to the plan.

Kerry would support "balanced forest management proposals and seek out input from the public rather than this extreme, one-sided approach benefiting big timber companies like the Bush administration has taken," said Sean Smith, Nevada communications director for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

-- via The Hamster

I can't find the details on Kerry's site yet, but I tentatively give my approval to anything that would cut timber subsidies and direct fire management to areas closest to homes.


Wilderness And Charity

From time to time I've written about my uneasiness with the focus on wilderness as a means to environmental protection. Now, I'm personally a fan of wild areas. But I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the essence of saving nature is to exclude humans from it. Part of it is the fact that the existence of real wilderness is largely a myth. A big part of it is also the separation it creates between untouched natural landscapes and degraded human landscapes. It distracts us from the need to practice environmentally sustainable living everywhere, in downtown Worcester just as much as in the Adirondacks. I was reminded of this by a recent post by Hugo Schwyzer. In discussing the need to have a Christian ethic of economic activity, he says:

Indeed, I find that the more I give to church and charity, the more I begin to feel that what remains is mine to spend entirely as I will.

The alternative -- which Schwyzer understandably finds difficult to put into practice -- is to infuse all his spending decisions with a consideration of ethics. It seems that the postmodernists are onto something in pointing out the pernicious effects of creating binary categories.

Same Old Nader

I wonder whether the discussion over Ralph Nader's candidacy has ever convinced anyone of anything. Discussions of Bush and Kerry have traversed a great swath of policy and strategy terrain. But I've yet to see more than a tiny handful posts on Nader that's not a rehash of the same "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush" or "stay true to your principles" lines that we heard in 2000. And yet people continue to post it with this sort of earnestness, as if someone will read it and say "hey, I never thought of it that way before!"

On the other hand, the state of Nader discourse bolsters my theory that blogging isn't about convincing anyone, it's just about venting to an audience.

"New Roads, Old Rhetoric"

... is the title of my latest post at Open Source Politics, which discusses how the new roadless area rule fits the larger thrust of the Bush administration's approach to environmental issues.


Only Haters Oppose Hate Crimes Legislation

Amanda nicely summarizes the case for hate crimes legislation:

What hate crime legislation does, or should do at least, is make it also a crime to commit a crime against an individual in an attempt to intimidate an entire group or community of people. So, while killing a black man over ordinary murder-type stuff is a regular murder, killing a black man in order to remind the entire black population of a community that their lot in life is that of random, racist violence is another crime entirely. In the second case, you have committed murder, which is a crime. You have also threatened violence against an entire community, which is also a crime. In Texas, you cannot be put to death for murder alone. It must be in the commission of another crime. Hate crime legislation creates that other crime. You are guilty of murder and threatening an entire community. Murder plus a felony means the death penalty in this state.

What I must disagree with, however, is her subsequent implication that opposing hate crime legislation is evidence of racism (and sexism, homophobia, etc.). I'm not about to claim that I'm free of racism etc., but I don't think that in my case it was prejudice was a factor in my longstanding uneasiness with the idea of hate crimes legislation. Amanda assumes that the nature of the "second crime" in a hate crime situation is obvious, and that therefore anyone against hate crimes legislation is for intimidating various oppressed groups. Given that framing of the issue, it is tough to come up with justifications aside from prejudice for opposing hate crimes legislation (perhaps one would be a strong libertarianism that claims that only direct physical harm is a legitimate basis for government intervention). So her point holds some weight in the case of the friends she's mentioned who have heard her argument yet remain opposed to hate crimes legislation.

But it's not so obvious, particularly to someone who hasn't done much research on the topic, what the "second crime" in a hate crime is. My understanding prior to reading Amanda's post was that, as the name suggests, the second crime is hate. The perpetrator is being punished for killing (or raping or beating or whatever) someone, and for hating some group that the victim was a member of. Hate crimes legislation was meant, I thought, to eliminate hate either because of its inherent badness, or because it presents such a high risk of leading to additional crimes. Punishing hate is not something that I'm happy having the government do, as it opens the door to infringing on freedom of thought. In Amanda's framing of the issue, however, determining whether the perpetrator hates the victim's group is not a matter of establishing guilt, but of establishing intent -- someone who isn't racist can't have meant to intimidate all black people any more than someone who didn't want the victim dead could have meant to kill them (though perhaps there should be a category of "unintended hate crime" -- a sort of "hate manslaughter").

So I stand by my prior uneasiness about hate crimes legislation, given the framing in which I understood it. Hopefully the fact that I quickly rethought my position after reading Amanda's post demonstrates that I was not simply willfully holding onto a wrong framing in order to avoid having to take a straightforwardly racist, etc. position. And I don't think my situation is all that uncommon.


Feeding Africa

No Quick Fix To Africa's Food Problems

If United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan had expected a simple answer when he asked scientists two years ago what they could do about the food crisis in Africa, he will have been disappointed when he received their reply last week. The implication behind the way that Annan's question was phrased — how can a 'green revolution' be achieved in Africa? — is that the solution might be found in a set of relatively straightforward scientific and technical innovations in plant breeding. After all, it was the development of new, high-yielding strains of rice and wheat that lay behind the original 'green revolution' that was achieved in Asia and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps Africa could benefit in a similar way?

... One of the main virtues of the IAC report is the extent to which it underlines that, unlike Asia and Latin America, there are no technical fixes to Africa's food problems (a particularly refreshing conclusion at a time when proponents of genetically-modified foods are claiming to offer one). Rather, it emphasises that creating a situation in which the continent is able to provide enough food for its population requires action at many levels.

Some of these are scientific; new, high-yielding crop varieties are certainly needed, and GM foods are likely to have their place, alongside new varieties produced by more conventional breeding techniques. Others range from the need to stem the brain drain of the best and brightest graduates in agricultural sciences, to the political measures required to ensure an adequate 'enabling environment'.

... It also means ensuring that the potential benefits of agricultural science are genuinely moulded to the needs of local farmers (hence the insistence in the report that farmers organisations become directly involved in research priority setting). Which in turn means concentrated efforts at using modern communications technology to provide information on the range of choices that are available; M. S. Swaminathan, the 'father' of the Green Revolution in India, and one of the co-chairs of the IAC panel, speaks of the way that such technology can be used for the important task of 'demystification' of modern science and technology (for example, in the techniques of tissue culture).

I was a bit worried by the subhead blurb on this article, which claimed that the report found that Africa needed a "cultural revolution" and "belief in science-based innovation." I was prepared to read old stereotypes about how Africa is mired in tribalism and superstition, and how big science on the model of the green revolution is the key. And maybe the report does say that -- I haven't read it yet. But the body of the article went some way toward alleviating my fears. It gives some attention to the need for political and economic reforms in Africa and elsewhere, though I have little faith that the UN can do much on that front (the virtue of emphasizing technical fixes is that you don't offend anyone powerful). It also points out the need to be sensitive to the diversity of ecological and social conditions in different parts of the continent, working with local farmers to improve things rather than bringing them a pre-concocted package of technology. In a best-case scenario we would see international aid agencies pushing adaptive management, in which research and practice are closely knit together, and giving local people real power in order to make the process effective, sustainable, and responsive to self-defined local needs.

The lesson of adaptive management in food security is not, however, something to be learned from the special diversity of Africa's environments and people. It's something to be learned from the mixed record of the green revolution in Latin America and Asia, two equally diverse continents. The article presents the green revolution as an unmitigated success. In certain respects it was, staving off starvation for millions of people. But political ecologists have documented numerous ways that the green revolution fell short. It damaged the environment by promoting monocropping and heavy chemical use, increased the level of risk and uncertainty faced by farmers by exposing them to the vicissitudes of the global market, socially and economically disempowered them by making them beholden to agro corporations, and disrupted social systems that provided for a range of people's needs.

If it's combined with the larger-scale reforms needed to enable it, an adaptive management approach could offer the benefits of agricultural science to Africa (and other parts of the world) without destroying what's useful in current local practice. The original green revolution meant well, but we can do better.

Is Polygamy The Problem?

Hunting Bountiful

They like to think they do a good job protecting women's rights and fighting paedophilia. Canadians would not be so smug if they knew of the dirty little secret in the Creston Valley, in south-eastern British Columbia. For half a century, a hotbed of polygamy has quietly flourished there in a commune called Bountiful. It is run by a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church, in successful defiance of the law.

Bountiful is no secret to local people, some of whom enjoy its business. Nor is it to the province's police and social workers. It is known to British Columbia's top law-enforcement officer, the attorney-general. His office was first made aware of concerns about Bountiful more than a decade ago. But the provincial government has felt constrained by an untested legal opinion that Canada's law banning polygamy was unconstitutional.

Bountiful claims allegiance to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Based in Utah, this dissenting Mormon sect teaches that men must have three or more wives and as many children as possible to enter heaven. The role of women and girls is to serve men. If women disobey men, their souls will burn in hell for eternity.

... Both groups run schools. These receive grants from the provincial government totalling more than C$600,000 ($450,000) a year. Yet critics say they provide minimal education, preparing boys only to work on Bountiful's farms and forests and girls to be "young brides and mothers". Women who have fled tell of girls as young as 13 being married off to polygamous men three times their age; of babies born to girls of 14 and 15; and of under-age girls being brought in from similar American communes for arranged marriages and to serve as "breeding stock".

Now, perhaps this is non-lawyer naievete speaking, but it seems to me that when you're not sure whether a law is constitutional, the thing to do is not to ignore it, effectively endorsing the view that it's unconstitutional. The thing to do is to charge someone and see whether the court allows it. Then you'd know where you stood, and you could either get on with enforcing it, or do the opposite with a clear conscience.

It also seems that even if polygamy is unconstitutional in Canada, that shouldn't stop the police from cracking down on Bountiful. Indeed, the fact that one man has multiple wives seems to be the least of the injustices -- if it even is one at all -- when set next to coercion into marrying someone, underage marriage, severe inequality between partners, and restrictions on children's educational and mental development. If the polygamy law is upheld and allows them to prosecute the people of Bountiful, that's all well and good, but it seems to be more a proxy solution than a direct attack on the main problem.


A Frivolous Post

With all the excitement about the Kerry-Edwards ticket (particularly regarding Edwards' reputed good looks), I thought I'd offer a bit of contrarianism. Obviously this has no bearing on their fitness for office, but I sometimes find the Democrats a bit creepy. I've rarely seen a picture of Kerry in which he doesn't have his fist in the air. He's like some sort of reverse Bob Dole who can't hold his arms below his shoulders. And then there's Edwards, who smiles all the time. He's the Cheshire Candidate.

Homophobia In The Service Of Gay Rights

It's Outing Season!

As the July 12 date nears for a vote on the federal marriage amendment, an outing panic has gripped Washington's political and media circles. Some gay activists have vowed to expose those closeted members of Congress who are supporting the amendment, as well as the closeted gay staffers of any member backing it. And it's not only right-wing Republicans who should be on notice. After initially indicating that she would vote against the constitutional amendment that would make gays and lesbians into second-class citizens, Sen. Barbara Mikulski's opposition to the amendment appears to have gone into the closet: Now that a vote is near, the Maryland Democrat—who is up for reelection in November—is suddenly not returning reporters' phone calls seeking her intentions on the vote, nor is she issuing any statements on the matter.

Mikulski's position on same-sex marriage isn't the only thing in her closet: The sexual orientation of the forever-unmarried 67-year-old has been an open secret for many years. But Mikulski has apparently always worried about what her working-class Democratic base in Maryland might think of her sexual orientation, making her irrationally petrified of ever discussing it (except to make heterosexual allusions).

-- via Joe Carter

I've made no secret of my opposition to the FMA. But I can't condone this sort of strongarm tactic for bringing it down. What's being proposed is to subject someone to homophobia in order to prevent the passage of homophobic legislation. It's like burning a cross on someone's lawn because they oppose affirmative action.

And what happens once you've used up your "focrible outing" weapon (or once the other side has used it up)? Mikulski may be out of office, replaced by someone who probably won't have anything to hide. If the FMA goes down this year, it will be back. It will keep coming back as long as the kind of homophobia that keeps people like Mikulski in the closet persists. It will keep coming back until we learn to respect people's sexual choices, rather than using them as a weapon.

And I hate the charge of hypocrisy -- that a lesbian has a special duty to support gay rights. If voting against the FMA puts Mikulski in electoral danger, then it means that voting for it would be representing the wishes of her constituents. The real problem is that the people of Maryland don't support gay rights. To call Mikulski a hypocrite feeds the notion that gay rights is something selfish, like a bit of pork-barrel spending, rather than a matter of justice. People like Mikulski can make their own peace with who they are and what they should vote for, without other people telling them that some personal characteristic should dictate their vote.


Colorblind Hunter-Gatherers

Evidence That Men And Women Literally See The World Differently

It's long been known that color blindness is caused, usually in men, by changes in the red and green opsin genes, the genes that enable humans to perceive color. But a new study of randomly selected people from geographically diverse populations shows that normal variation in the red opsin gene may have been maintained by natural selection to give humans, especially women, a better perception of color.

... Those variations may have been especially important, Verrelli and Tishkoff speculate, in a time when humans were hunter-gatherers. Enhanced color perception would have allowed women, who were traditionally gatherers, to better discriminate among colored fruits, insects and background foliage.

... The chromosomal difference between women and men is the key to why variation of the OPN1LW gene may have different results in women and men. Women have two X-chromosomes; men have only one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome. Because this color vision gene resides on the X-chromosome, rare detrimental changes at this gene cause color-blindness in males, whereas females are likely to have at least one good copy of the gene.

-- via Feministing

The headline to this article is a nice example of what happens when people try too hard to make science interesting to the lay public -- a subtle difference in color perception with a great deal of intra-sex variability is inflated into a men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus issue. The substance incorporates a nice bit of reverse sociobiology, in which a just-so-story about human society is used to explain something biological.

On the one hand, I'm glad that the issue of gender roles in hunter-gatherer society, and the contribution of women to their subsistence, has become part of the public consciousness. On the other hand, it's frequently misused, as we see here.

The problem is that it's too simple to say that hunter-gatherer men hunt while the women gather. It would be more accurate to say* that adult hunter-gatherer men are the sole hunters of big game, while hunter-gatherer women and children of both sexes do most of the socially-shared gathering. Hunter-gatherer males do quite a bit of the fruit gathering that the authors claim requires better color vision. They do it all the time when they're children (when selection pressure would seem to be the greatest, since death as a child prevents you from ever having any offspring). And they gather extensively to feed themselves while out on the hunt, since big game would only be killed once a week or so.

I'm no geneticist, but it seems to me that the sex difference in color perception is not an adaptation. It's just a side-effect of the fact that color perception is controlled by the X chromosome, and men only happen to have one of those.

*Insofar as contemporary tropical hunter-gatherers give us any indication of how our ancestors lived.


Mason And Dixon Are Spinning In Their Graves

I caught this ad on TAPPED this morning:

It seems Maryland has decided to annex Amish country while we weren't looking.



Fire Fight: Prepare For Worst

Fire authorities across eastern Australia are bracing for a devastating bushfire season as the drought forces crucial hazard reduction programs to be cancelled.

NSW and Victorian volunteer firefighters have so far completed about half of the prescribed burning planned for autumn and winter, leaving large tracts of land laden with bushfire fuel.

Non-Anthropocentric Intuitionism

Systems of environmental ethics are typically classified into two camps -- the anthropocentric and the non-anthropocentric, depending on whether they attribute intrinsic value to non-humans. In theory, one would establish a correct ethical system, then derive prescriptions for action from that system. But arguments for non-anthropocentric ethics tend to take an intuitionist path. Proponents take as given a certain level of desire to protect the environment. They then claim that that level of protection can't be justified on anthropocentric principles. In this they agree with anti-environmentalists. The difference is that anti-environmentalists conclude that therefore the desire is misplaced, and ought to be abandoned in light of a more rigorous calculation of human interests. Non-anthropocentrists, on the other hand, conclude that therefore the anthropocentric theory is wrong -- it stands refuted by its inability to justify wide-ranging environmental protections. It's supposed inability, anyway -- non-anthropocentrists seem at times to have a remarkably rosy view of how degraded a landscape humans could live comfortably in. Non-anthropocentrists then turn around and challenge our intuitions as not being radical enough. Having appealed to our desires to get us to accept non-anthropocentrism, we then find that non-anthropocentrism demands we go beyond our initial desires in terms of how much we protect nature. Indeed, this radicalism is often cited as non-anthropocentrism's greatest virtue.

Community Involvement Eventually

Indians Upset About Ancient Find in Utah

Some of Utah's Indian leaders are upset that state and federal officials said nothing to them about a canyon filled with nearly untouched ancient settlements, even though the inhabitants could be their ancestors.

Officials have known about the remarkable string of hundreds of sites in a remote canyon southeast of Salt Lake City since 2002, but tribal leaders found out about it through news reports beginning last month. Archaeologists showed reporters part of the area in the Book Cliffs region on Wednesday.

... State archaeologist Kevin Jones said American Indians haven't been notified because archaeologists haven't started digging yet for artifacts or human remains. He said he planned to notify tribes when that as-yet-unscheduled work begins.

... "I do support scientific study that leads to better understanding of humanity, but you have to do it in a diplomatic way," said [Utah Division of Indian Affairs director and Ute tribe member Forrest] Cuch, who plans to visit Range Creek in August.

Jones is exhibiting an awfully narrow view of what interest Indians might have in the site. It seems that to him, the only reason they'd care is if graves might be desecrated -- despite his statement that digging hasn't started, the article makes clear that there has been a good deal of survey work and even some radiocarbon dating done at the site. Jones seems inclined to only give the tribe what Native Americans have been typically successful in demanding, i.e., oversight of the excavation of human remains.

What's especially frustrating is that Jones' attitude appears so unwarranted in this case. I could understand his desire to move ahead as if archaeology were the only possible use of the site, and to grant the tribe only what he had to, if there was a reasonable expectation that the Utes would be hostile to any archaeology whatsoever. But if Cuch's statements are any indication, this was a case ripe for productive cooperation between archaeologists and a tribe with an interest in archaeology.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that it's worth being a little skeptical of how archaeology-friendly the Utes would be. It's easy for Cuch to take the high ground now. The real test will be whether he (and other Utes who would concur with him) takes an adversarial stance toward the whole excavation while claiming to be outraged not over the dig but over the principle of not being informed early enough.

It's "John-John" After All

Displaying the sort of media savvy that will propel him to the White House, John Kerry acted quickly to put an end to excuses to use the word "Veepstakes."

I think the importance of picking Edwards is not so much that picking him will bost the Kerry campaign, as that not picking him would have sunk the campaign. The clamor from the masses for a Kerry-Edwards ticket, and against a Kerry-Gephardt ticket, was overwhelming. Insofar as Kerry is trying to feed off of the energetic grassroots he inherited from Howard Dean, picking someone other than Edwards would have represented a remarkable deafness to his supporters.


The Postmodern Bogeyman

I'm not much of a postmodernist. Certainly some postmodern writers have some interesting things to say, and they act as a useful corrective to modernist hubris. On the other hand, they have many things to say that are either wrong or incomprehensible, and often suffer from not a little hubris of their own. What I don't understand, though, is the way many people seem to fear the insidious influence of postmodernism. Or rather, they fear a strawman version of total relativism, making it out to be the greatest threat to our society.

Take Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. The book is basically an argument against the totalitarian tendencies of Plato and Marx. The basic problem with their political theories, Popper says, is their conviction that they have found an essential and eternal truth that must be served and imposed on the world. The "open society," by contrast, is one governed by the scientific commitment to freedom of thought and recognizes only provisional, falsifiable truths. It seems, then, that Popper is the more postmodern thinker here. His critique of Marx is broadly parallel to postmodernists' denunciations of the grand historical narratives in Marxism. Yet Popper feels the need to use his last chapter to point out that the real threat comes from relativism.

Or consider this paragraph from a review of Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality. The book is about the totalitarian tactics used by extreme feminists to silence and punish those they deem guilty. The reviewer says:

Boyd is writing about academics, but he does not write like one. That, combined with a certain acerbity, makes Big Sister a good read. (It also helps that it is short.) The book is free of the usual jargon, and it even includes a well-deserved swipe at postmodernism and its pernicious effects on critical thinking. Postmodernism, we read, "encourages a mushy-headed kind of moral relativism," in which "subjective interpretations of reality are preferable to objective interpretations." From this it follows, "If you think you are a victim, you are." Too true.

The language of "it even includes" suggests that, as seems logical, the "swipe at postmodernism" is not central to the book's thesis. Yet it's in there, and the reviewer saw fit to use up some of her limited space to gleefully point it out.

Why does postmodernism seem so threatening? Part of it is an overestimation of the size of the postmodernist contingent, arising from the "this particular order, or chaos" fallacy. My suspicion is that it's because it seems resistant to argument. We like to think that we can intellectually engage with our interlocutors, and demonstrate to our satisfaction (if not to theirs) which is the better case. But between the opacity of the language and the depth of its disagreement with non-postmodern thinking, it's hard for the non-postmodernist to even grasp the argument he's facing. "God told me to blow up this building" and "the free market will solve everything" are nice clear ideologies, which aid us in deciding what line of attack to take to refute them. Understanding postmodernism, on the other hand, requires so much work and such a feat of stepping outside of our established thought patterns that we're at a loss as to how to respond. Indeed, we're at a loss for whether we should respond -- maybe, once you manage to figure him out, Derrida is right after all. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that many people come to the conclusion that the postmodern emperor has no clothes -- that they're all just faking it, stringing together a bunch of blather and buzzwords that don't have any actual content at all. It's a relief to be able to believe that your opponents don't actully believe what they're arguing.

Fodder For Comedy Hacks

Watching the left side of the blogosphere go through the 5 stages of grief about John Kerry's iminent selection of Dick Gephardt as his running mate (I'm seeing signs of stage 5, acceptance, already), I feel I should point out a corollary to my criticism of the much-desired pick of John Edwards. The two vice-presidential candidates will be Dick Gephardt and Dick Cheney. I'm already tired of the lame jokes about that.


Opinions On Climate

Eight In Ten Support McCain-Lieberman Climate Change Legislation

Eighty-one percent of Americans polled said that they support the targets of the legislation, commonly known as the McCain-Lieberman legislation or the Climate Stewardship Act, which calls for large companies to reduce their emissions to year 2000 levels by 2010 and to 1990 levels by 2020. When told it has been estimated that this would increase costs to the average American household by about $15 a month, 67% still said they would support it. If a candidate would support the legislation, 52% said this would increase their likelihood of voting for him or her, while just 14% said that it would decrease the likelihood (no effect: 32%). These are some of the findings of a new PIPA-Knowledge Networks poll of 753 Americans nationwide conducted June 8-14 (margin of error plus or minus 3.6%).

... Watching the recent blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow did not significantly affect attitudes.

Support for taking steps is high even though only 43% believe there is a consensus among the scientific community about the reality and danger of global warming. Fifty percent assume that scientists are divided on the question, and another 4% assume a scientific consensus that it is not a real problem.

Steven Kull, director of PIPA, comments: "It is interesting that two out of three are willing to accept costs of $15 a month to address the problem of climate change, even though there is not a majority perception that the scientific community has come to consensus that climate change is a real problem. If there was a broader perception of scientific consensus, support for action could be even higher."

-- via Quark Soup

On first glance, the fact that people are willing to support climate action despite a perception that there is a lack of scientific consensus seems strange. The most obvious explanation is that people are employing the precautionary principle. It's not unreasonable to think that $15 a month isn't all that much to spend "just in case." But the survey also found that 76% of people thought climate change was a real problem. Assuming that there aren't a lot of people who think it's a problem but aren't willing to fix it or who don't think it's a problem but like wasting money, support for McCain-Lieberman seems to be based in confidence about the status of global climate. This seems to show that people are unwilling to take a technocratic view, supporting action only when scientists give the green light. They're willing to make a judgement on scientific matters that are relevant to life and policy. We got lucky, since the public's has a true conclusion despite being misinformed about the issue. I wonder, though, if this willingness to hold an opinion is the outcome of conservatives' stress on the scientific uncertainties, rather than their desired outcome of throwing up their hands and saying "if the scientists haven't agreed yet, why should we bother doing anything?" The latter response requires the maintenance of a basically technocratic attitude.

A Cartoon




A disturbing update to this post: "don't elect Bush" gets 71 hits, but "don't elect Kerry" gets 181. The web seems to understand the longshot nature of Ralph Nader's campaign, as nobody has bothered to say "don't elect Nader".

Republicans For Nader's Candidacy

Tacitus has a much-lauded post up criticizing Republicans for supporting Ralph Nader's candidacy. His main argument, which has gotten the most attention, is that while it may be useful in the short term to siphon some votes away from Kerry, they risk helping to build up a viable far-left party that would be really inimical to Republican interests. It's an interesting point, especially given Matt Yglesias's example of how a similar strategy backfired on the Russian Czar when he tried to support the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks, though I'm still a bit skeptical of how likely it is to happen, especially given that Ralph has lost the support of the country's most viable third party, the Greens.

But I was more interested in this passing reference in the post:

Can I fairly assume that no actual Republican had any use for this effort and money you're putting forth? None? Just asking.

Republicans for Nader's Candidacy seem to have been suckered in by the "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush" idea, making them think a dollar spent on either candidate is just as good. But even if we grant that Nader voters are "naturally" Kerry voters -- that Kerry has a presumptive claim on their vote in the absence of Nader -- a vote for Nader is only half of a vote for Bush. It deprives Kerry of a vote, but it doesn't add to Bush's total in the way that a Kerry-to-Bush switch by a center voter would.

Now, it may turn out to be the case that some money is better spent boosting Nader than boosting Bush. It all depends on the price of a voter. If, say, you can get 100 Kerry voters to switch to Bush with a $1000 ad, and you can get an equal number of them to switch to Nader with an ad of the same price, then obviously you (as a Republican) should invest in the "switch to Bush" ad. But voters in the middle are already the main target of both campaigns. The huge amount of spending in this election cycle may mean you've hit a period of decreasing returns. If your $1000 ad now only convinces 40 people to switch from Kerry to Bush, the Nader ad is a better investment. It seems like the kinds of basic things that Republicans are helping Nader with -- like getting his name on the ballot -- are relatively cost-effective as compared to what the Bush campaign could do with their money.

(Moe Lane-esque disclaimer: Seeing as I'm one of those lefties*, I may be putting a positive spin on the cost-effectiveness of supporting Nader, and expressing skepticism about Tacitus's main argument, in order to trick Republicans into wasting their money on Nader and creating a socialist juggernaut. As always, read advice from the other side at your own risk.)

*Moe Lane-esque footnote: Horse-race and tactical stuff aside, I'm not much of a fan of Nader on the substance of his candidacy. Then again, saying that may be another devious trick ...


Precautionary Principle Again

More Sorry Than Safe

... [Sir Colin Berry] cites the controversial issue of SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, aka cot death - about which parents are given lots of often contradictory advice. Berry says that in the 1980s, the favoured precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of your baby falling victim to SIDS was to lay her on her side or front. 'We tended to consider babies and young infants as being rather like the unconscious patient', he says, 'where it is not clear that all the reflexes around the nose and mouth, for breathing and swallowing and so on, are finely tuned. So parents were told to put babies on their side or front, as you would do with an unconscious or stroke-troubled patient. It seemed like a reasonable, precautionary measure to take. Now we know that, in fact, it cost lives.'

Berry says that subsequent observations made in Australia and New Zealand, and a case-controlled study in Britain in the 1990s, showed that reversing this policy and putting babies to sleep on their backs instead reduced the death rate from SIDS. In the UK, it fell from about 1,300 to 1,400 a year to about 300 to 400, he says. 'With the best intentions the precautionary measure of putting babies on their sides or fronts caused misery; a great many precious baby lives were lost because of what seemed like a reasonable precaution. It was one of those things that just happened to be wrong. This shows that we need data - that being precautionary, taking safety measures without testing the evidence, is not enough.'

This is pretty much a standard anti-precautionary principle article. The PP debate is generally fairly unproductive, as you get people like Berry bashing the idea of "take no risks at all without 100% certainty" and PP advocates suggesting that the only alternative is a reckless taking of any risk, and nobody able to offer a clear guide to what middle ground they think is appropriate (pieties about the need for "good science" and "empirical evidence," such as those Berry offers, do not suffice).

But it's still possible to see good and bad arguments made. Let's start with the bad one in the bit of the article quoted above, in which Berry suggests that the PP led to SIDS deaths. To me, it sounds like a good example of prudence. Initially, we had uncertainty -- we didn't know what sleeping position was most likely to prevent SIDS. By analogy with stroke patients, it seemed like sleeping on their side would be good. Since that was the best evidence available at the time, it made sense to tentatively recommend side-sleeping. Then, while most parents took the most promising-seeming course of action, a subset did a controlled test to gain more information, testing the initial hunch about side-sleeping. In this particular case, it turned out that the hunch was wrong. Armed with this stronger evidence, we were able to recommend having babies sleep on their backs. Would Berry have recommended recklessly sleeping any which-way from the start, despite some evidence suggesting side-sleeping was better? Now, if the PP had been used to stymie the experiment -- arguing that it's too risky to ask test subjects to sleep on their backs -- then he would have a case, but that doesn't seem to have happened with SIDS.

Unfortunately, this sort of "play it safe, but do some tests" strategy doesn't work in many cases. We only have one global climate system, for example. If there had only been one SIDS-prone baby in the world, it would have made sense to have it sleep on its side, even though with additional information we know that's a bad idea.

He says that those who opted to travel by road rather than rail following the Hatfield train crash of October 2000, which killed four passengers and injured 30, had in fact exposed themselves to an increased risk of injury or death. 'Road accidents kill more people than railway accidents do', he says. 'Yet because there is a perception that rail travel is unacceptably risky, some people opt to go by car instead. But the death rate on the road per billion person miles travelled is about 12 times that of the railways.'

I know it's always fun to point out that driving in a car is more dangerous than whatever other activity people are afraid of, but this doesn't seem to be a case of the PP at all. The PP here would advise travel by train, as that's less risky. The people avoiding the train are miscalculating their risks. Naturally the PP isn't immune to GIGO. It's also possible that, to these commuters, all deaths are not alike -- perhaps they, for whatever reason, fear death in a train wreck more than they fear death in a car wreck. Given that utility function, they may be perfectly rational in deciding to drive.

Later on he gives a somewhat better example:

It has since been discovered that the [cholera] epidemic was, in part, a result of the Peruvian authorities' decision to stop chlorinating drinking water supplies - and that one reason they stopped doing this was because reports issued by the American Environmental Protection Agency had claimed there was a link between drinking chlorinated water and an increased risk of cancer (a link which the EPA has since admitted is not 'scientifically supportable'). 'Chlorinated water would have prevented the outbreak', says Berry. 'The water production and cleaning system had gone wrong before the outbreak, so it wasn't just that they stopped chlorinating water and then, bang, cholera arrived. But in a deteriorating situation, the failure to chlorinate - based on the principles of precaution and bad science - helped to make things a whole lot worse than they might have been.'

It's possible that this is just another story of a time that things would have worked out better if we had taken a risk. The PP doesn't deny that such instances exist -- it argues that such instances are outweighed by the times that taking a risk makes things worse. No amount of anecdotes can tell us whether the precautionary principle or its reverse systematically leads to worse outcomes (I'm sure PP advocates have a load of stories about new chemicals being introduced that wound up killing more people than they saved due to inadequate pre-release testing). Depending on how assertive the EPA document was, it may have been perfectly reasonable, given the information at hand, for the Peruvian authorities to believe that not chlorinating gave the highest expected outcome -- they certainly didn't have time to go back and double-check the EPA's studies to find out that the original claim about cancer was wrong (which fact is the crux of the anti-PP argument -- if chlorination was carcinogenic, the PP could very well have saved lives).

Nevertheless, the cholera example points to an important assumption underlying many strong applications of the PP. It's often taken as a rule that leads to committing sins of omission in order to avoid sins of commission. The Peruvian authorities seemed more concerned with not actively creating new problems (cancer) than they were about alleviating old problems (cholera). Ceteris paribus, we should weigh the two sins equally.

Optimism At All Costs

My latest post at Open Source Politics.