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The Terrorist Tee-Shirt

In response to the story of a man forced to change his shirt before boarding a plane because the shirt had Arabic writing on it, Bill Poser asks:

What, exactly, did they think they were protecting against? The slogan was certainly not a weapon. If he were a terrorist, wearing the T-shirt would not have assisted him in his task. ... Assuming that they weren't engaged in simple harassment, which is a possibility, the only sense that I can make of this is that the officials concerned attributed to the words some sort of magical power that could be contained by covering them up.

This was my initial reaction too, but I actually think there's a logical explanation. The airport security people did not think Mr. Jarrar was a terrorist. But they wanted to avoid any trouble caused by, or anxiety on the part of, bigoted passengers. The ability of words to upset people is hardly a "magical power." Given that some passengers would see the shirt, assume he was a terrorist, and get worked up, the security people decided to remove the source of the concern. Indeed, the worried passengers need not even have believed that Jarrar was a terrorist -- they may have known rationally that it was unlikely he was going to bring down their plane, but still be unable to suppress the phobia triggered by seeing the shirt.

This is not to say that asking Jarrar to remove his shirt wasn't still bigoted. It demonstrates greater concern with the comfort of non-Arab than Arab passengers. The correct response would be to tell the worried passengers to suck it up. But at least the decision to eliminate the shirt makes sense from that bigoted perspective.


The Problem Of Evil And Informed Consent

Albert Haig proposes an interesting answer to the problem of evil*. Evil exists, he says, so that God can get our informed consent to eliminate it:

This paper introduces the ‘informed consent’ theodicy. God desires that all created persons should not only be free, but should also possess essential perfect goodness, and hence by nature be incapable of evil. However, before causing created free agents to take on a nature rendering them essentially perfectly good, God has a moral obligation to obtain their informed consent. This necessitates that every moral agent which God creates must initially be permitted a temporary probationary period, during which their moral character is unfixed and malleable, in order that they may gain knowledge by acquaintance of both good and evil. This knowledge is a necessary precondition to enable them to make a genuinely informed decision regarding their ultimate moral destiny.

Haig's proposal is intriguing, but I think ultimately untenable. The first objection that occurs to me is that his concern for informed consent ignores all beings other than humans and God. There are a lot of other things in the world -- animals, plants, rocks, etc. While some animals may be elevated to moral status alongside people, anyone trying (as Haig is) to remain within the bounds of traditional Christian theology will have to admit that there are a large number of amoral entities with fixed moral character. God didn't get a tree's consent to make it incapable of good, and the fact that it's also incapable of evil doesn't seem to solve the problem. In any event, if it is permissible for God to create permanently amoral entities, why didn't he make humans similarly amoral? On the other hand, if there's some positive good accomplished by the existence of moral entities, why did God make only one species (or a handful) capable of morality?

Furthermore, why does God need to inform us through actual experience, rather than implanting information in our heads? Haig correctly argues that humans must often give other humans actual experience of things in order to obtain informed consent on momentous issues. But that's due to a limitation of humans' abilities -- telling someone about something can't be as vivid as having them live it. But God is not so limited. He could easily implant memories of good and evil in our heads, memories exactly as vivid as those we'd bring with us from our real experience. Thus God would not have to allow any actual evil to exist in order to get our consent.

Another problem is that our world provides either too much or not enough information about good and evil. Taking the naive view (which Haig seems to) that good and evil are each a single quality and immediately apparent in acts, the world provides too much information. There is simply too much suffering in the world. If a cold-hearted robber baron has suffered enough to be adequately acquainted with evil, the additional suffering of the workers in his factory is superfluous. God could easily have created us with more limited powers, such that even someone dedicated to doing evil could not wreak more than a minimum necessary level of harm.

But that view of good and evil is, as I said, naive. There are many competing theories among people about what constitutes good and evil. But God will make us morally perfect in accordance with just one (presumably the correct one) of those theories. So it seems that we ought to have to consent, not just to being made good, but to being made good as described a certain ethical theory (Haig prefers the Kantian one). That more detailed consent requires correspondingly detailed experience -- we have to experience a much wider variety of acts, so that we can consent to God's classification of them as good or evil. But it's hard to maintain that each person does experience this range of acts, especially if that person died in their youth. So (barring reincarnation), we wouldn't be informed enough to give consent upon our deaths.

*My own preferred solution is to deny that God is omnipotent.


Fewer Women Means More Feminism?

A new paper about the dangers of sex selection leading to too many horny straight men running around contains this bizarre attempt at finding a feminist silver lining:

But as the number of women in a society drops, so their social status should rise and they should benefit from their increased value. This will lead to more balanced sex ratios as more couples choose to have girls.

I don't know much about Chinese culture (the main case study for the paper), but if the Chinese patriarchy is anything like the American one, this conclusion seems unwarranted. A surplus of straight men could certainly lead to an increase in women's value -- but that's value in the way gold is valuable, not value in the way that human beings are valuable. It strikes me as very unlikely that the scarcity of women would mean that women are treated as more fully human, with their desires listened to and respected. Rather, men will put extra effort into controlling the vagina supply. Lesbians and women who are slow to choose a husband will face increased pressure -- after all, do they want to be responsible for turning their erstwhile suitors into terrorists? Resentful myths about women's taste in mates will grow among men who feel deprived of their entitlement to sex. The fear that one's wife or girlfriend has plenty of other options (at least mate-wise) will lead not to men treating their women well, but to increased attempts to control them. The increased value of a girl to her parents -- as a bargaining chip or a way of increasing the family's status -- may well correct the gender balance. But that's unlikely to translate into benefit for the girl herself.


Enough About Pluto

Pluto is a ball of ice and rock. It doesn't have any feelings. It neither knows nor cares that a bunch of Earthlings came up with a category called "planets" to include the larger and more important objects orbiting the sun. Nothing that you know about Pluto has changed except for which side of one arbitrary dividing line it falls on. And if all you know about Pluto is "it's a planet," you may want to think a bit about why you feel qualified to hold an opinion on this issue.

It's true that simply cropping out Pluto leaves the traditional mnemonic as "My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine." However, this is neither an original observation nor an appropriate subject for existential angst. I'm sure that somehow, someday, the collective creativity of the English-speaking world will be able to come up with a new mnemonic device.


"Atheist On One More God," Take 2

Since Alon Levy is unconvinced by my previous post, let me try explaining it from another angle. What I'm arguing is that, contrary to Shermer's claim that he's just an atheist with respect to one more god than a religious person, there is a difference between atheists' disbelief in religion and religious people's disbelief in other religions. A Christian's rejection of Odin is different from an atheist's rejection of Odin.

A Christian disbelieves in Odin because he or she believes in Jesus instead. Insofar as a Christian actually takes the time to consider whether the Eddas might have some truth to them, he or she doesn't consider Odin independently on his own merits. He or she rejects Odin in favor of a presumedly superior view of the divine. And insofar as a Christian never bothers to give any thought to whether Odin exists, it's because he or she already holds a satisfactory view of the divine which rules out the possibility of other gods existing. To a religious person, "faith in a higher power" is a hole in a person's life that must be filled by something. An atheist, on the other hand, obviously has nothing to put in the "instead of" construction. An atheist will simply reject Odin full stop.

This way of understanding one religion's rejection of another explains, I think, why religious people are so often insistent that various beliefs held by atheists (most notably "Darwinism") are actually religions. The religious person understands rejecting a religion as a process tied up in acceptance of a different religion, an "instead of" decision. So they assume that the atheist who rejects all known religions must be doing so in favor of some other belief that is functionally equivalent to a religion. Rejecting all faith in a higher power is alien to a religious person in a way that choosing one higher power over another is not. So there's a temptation to incorrectly read "faith in a higher power" into an atheist's belief system.


Being "Atheist On One More God"

Amanda Marcotte approvingly cites a pro-atheism argument made by Michael Shermer:

So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.

I think atheism is an entirely reasonable and respectable position to take. However, I don't think this particular defense of it makes much sense. It's based on a misunderstanding of how religious belief, or the lack thereof, is arrived at. It's not a matter of individually considering each possible god (or more properly, package of one or more gods) and making a decision as to whether or not you believe it exists. Were that the case, it would indeed be peculiar that so many people happen to find just one out of the many possibilities to be believable.

But finding religion is more of a two-tired question -- does the divine exist, and if so, what is its nature? (it may also be approached from the other direction -- if the divine exists, what would be its nature? And does a being with those characteristics exist?) The dispute between a Christian and a follower of Asatru is a dispute over the characteristics of the divine whose existence they both agree on, not two separate questions of whether the separate beings Yahweh and Odin each exist.

I recently bought a Chevrolet Cavalier. Would it make sense for my car-less friend Jonathan to tell me that we're not really all that different, because there are hundreds of models of cars out there, and we both decided not to buy a Ford or a Honda or a Buick -- he just decided not to buy one more car than I did. Similarly, feminists frequently point out that there are really many different feminisms (socialist, liberal, radical, eco-, etc.), with each feminist adhering to just one of them. But I doubt Marcotte would buy it if an MRA told her that he just disbelieves in one more feminism than she does.


I bet They Think Murder Laws are for the Murderer's Good

Chicago has banned foie gras, and the foodies are up in arms. The ban addresses animal cruelty concerns -- making foie gras involves "force-feeding grain to ducks and geese until their liver enlarges as much as 10 times its normal size." So I would expect opponents to claim that ducks and geese enjoy being force-fed, or that humans' right to be "dazzled" by fancy ingredients trumps the mere suffering of animals. But some of them manage to completely miss the point:

"They might as well make a citywide bedtime ordinance," said bartender David Brown, 29, who feasted on the outlaw ingredients with his wife, Jennifer, at 676. "It's like banning smoking. If I'm a bartender, I don't run a health club. We're adults; we're allowed to have bad habits."

I can sympathize with the libertarian desire to be allowed to knowingly take risks with one's own health. But the foie gras ban is not for the benefit of foodies. It's for the benefit of the ducks and geese, who don't get a choice in the matter.

(The folks who talk about the need to "dazzle" customers are at least trying to address the real issue -- but their word choice makes me wonder whether they're secret plants of the animal rights movement. I'd have trouble coming up with a better word than "dazzle" to make foie gras consumption sound like the frivolous luxury of a self-centered elite with far too much money on their hands.)


Sociobiological Reasons For Fear

Dave Roberts points out that, if you assume that "harm is harm; death is death," then our worry about terrorism is grossly disproportional given how few people are actually killed by terrorism. (Indeed, if this wasn't true, it wouldn't be terrorism -- the whole point of terrorism is to generate huge fear through a few dramatic killings.) The real big killers are things like poor eating habits and smoking.

But it's not enough to just consider the comparative harms -- you also have to take account of the benefits. Smoking and eating junk food have big benefits to smokers and eaters. On the other hand, terrorism has no benefits for its victims. But getting worked up about terrorism does have big benefits for potential victims -- it generates a sense of solidarity, and flatters our machismo when we take "tough" stands against it.

Even with the benefits side of the equation factored in, the numbers still don't seem to add up. The fact is, people don't believe that "harm is harm; death is death." Roberts is right that one of the key differences between terrorism and poor diet is that terrorism is something done to us by someone else, while the harms of poor diet are self-inflicted. To some extent, a fear differential here is rational. fear is a response to uncertainty and lack of control. Things other people do to us are more unpredictable and uncontrollable than those we do to ourselves.

Roberts offers a sociobiological explanation for why we fear external threats more than self-inflicted ones. On the savanna, it was evolutionarily adaptive for primitive tribes to panic over external threats, but that adaptation is out of place in our complex modern world. But is that really true? Whatever the dangers of intertribal warfare (which, so far as we can tell, varied widely in time and space), there were certainly plenty of dangers that could be self-inflicted. Laziness could cause malnutrition, inept hunting could get one trampled by an elephant, inept gathering could result in eating poison mushrooms or drinking impure water, camping in the wrong spot could get you washed away by a flash flood or frozen by a blizzard.

I don't think a single direct explanation, of the type Roberts proposes, is sufficient here. Cultural theory tells us that we fear risks that are immoral. Moral outrage arises from violation of accepted social structures (the generalized building blocks of which are doubtless evolved, but whose specific applications are contingent and cultural). According to Alan Fiske, there are four such building blocks -- ingroup/outgroup boundedness, ranking, equality, and freedom. Thus I would suggest there are at least four key triggers of fear: infiltration/profanity, insubordination, unfairness, and tyranny. Terrorism is able, in our culture, to set off all four triggers (albeit different ones to different extents for different people -- a crucial caveat in all such discussions). Poor diet can perhaps trigger one, but even that is mitigated by our modern liberal (in the sense of the broad historical tradition, not the contemporary political agenda) culture.

Terrorism is infiltration -- unbeknownst to us, outsiders are able to slip into our society, exploiting our institutions in order to destroy them. Terrorism is insubordination -- there's an established pecking order in the world, in which the USA is the alpha male, and organized states with uniformed armies stand above non-state actors. But terrorism is precisely an attempt to overturn this order. Terrorism is thus also unfairness -- terrorists refuse to play by the post-Westphalia rules of political struggle, inserting both themselves and civilians into a form of conflict that is supposed to be reserved for uniformed armies. Finally, the particular form of terrorism we face now is tyranny -- the popularity of the term "Islamofascism" shows how we concieve the terrorists' goal as the establishment of a theocracy repressing legitimate freedoms. (Anarchist terrorism would lack this trigger, but it would get a double hit on the "insubordination" trigger, since it aims at the overthrow of all rankings.)

Poor diet is not tyranny -- indeed, it's defended as an expression of personal freedom to eat what we please. Poor diet is not unfair -- indeed, criticism of poor diet is (inaccurately) derided as elitist and proposing solutions beyond the budgets of normal people. Poor diet is not insubordination -- indeed, eating Big Macs shows you're a regular joe, whereas eating tofu is either elitism or the converse crime of effeminacy. One can potentially see poor diet as a form of infiltration/profanity, in a way similar to how sodomy is seen by some as a crime against (an infiltration or profaning of) one's own body. However, that framing has little traction in a modern liberal culture (even sodomy is more feared due to being seen as insubordination). We insist that one's body is one's property, to be done with as we like. What's more, unhealthy foods are accepted parts of our society, so it's difficult for the average American to conceptualize them as dangerous outsiders.


Link Garden

Today I got a good start on getting my stupid newcomer mistakes out of the way by walking 4 miles in 108 degree weather, with no shade to speak of. So in lieu of writing a real post, here are three interesting links:

1. I haven't written as much as I should about how unjust and inhumane the US's immigration detention system is, but this article gives a good primer.

2. I like this vision for going beyond the same-sex marriage battle. The statement is written with a good dose of lefty jargon, but as David Schraub points out, it basically boils down to the proposition that we should give recognition and support to whatever relationships people have formed to care for each other, whether or not the people involved are having sex.

3. I do a lot of (justified) doom and gloom here, so I should point out good news when I come across it: it looks like we're solving the ozone depletion problem. In fact, I'll go so far as to point out that I think the article I linked is not positive enough. It emphasizes in the headline and second paragraph that progress is slower than hoped -- but that slowness amounts merely to a shift in the projected date of a return to 1980 ozone levels from 2044 to 2049.


Climate Change Incentives

Cass Sunstein writes that an important reason that there's been little progress in addressing climate change is that the US and China, the two largest contributers to the problem, don't stand to lose as much should warming come to pass. I agree that it's important to look at the incentives facing actors with respect to addressing climate change, but I don't think Sunstein's analysis is quite right.

I won't argue about whether Sunstein is right to say that the US and China stand to lose less from climate change than other countries -- it's at least plausible, so let's take it as given for the sake of argument. Sunstein still hasn't shown that the people or leaders of the US and China believe that their countries will face less harm from climate change. He merely assumes -- as economists are wont to do -- that because something is true, it is known to actors and affects their behavior. But his article is only interesting and new because we haven't been hearing the same argument from the mouths of leaders in those two countries. Proponents of inaction will tell you either that climate change isn't occurring, or that there's nothing (or at least nothing cost-effective) that we can do about it, or that it will benefit everyone (especially those famine-stricken third world countries that Sunstein says will be hardest hit).

The relevance of the comparative harms done by climate change is also limited. Whether climate change is costly enough to the US to prompt action has little to do with how costly it is to Bangladesh, especially in Sunstein's rational egoist model. If climate change hurts the US enough, it will take action, regardless of the impacts on other countries. At most, the comparatively greater harms done to other countries increase the injustice of the US's following its own internal cost-benefit analysis. Sunstein's implicit claim that the US and China see climate change as a net gain for themselves is a bit hard to swallow until you add in the time frame factor. A sufficiently strong shortsightedness will weight the immediate costs of action heavily enough that they overtop the later costs of inaction. This comparison between times is more significant in explaining the US's inaction than the comparison between countries in the severity of climate change impacts.

On a more conceptual level, Sunstein seems to have bought in to the environmentalist framing of the issue, and then imposed that framing on the actors he seeks to understand. So in calculating the costs and benefits that face the US, he defines costs and benefits in the same way an environmentalist does, placing high importance on the predicted effects of climate change and seeing action as entailing only a set of technical mitigation costs. But that's not how the powerful actors necessarily frame the issue. They hold a variety of other values and concerns that frame things differently, leading to decisions that may seem irrational within the environmentalist framing. We again need actual information as to how the powerful actors construct and work through the problem, rather than speculation about what would be a rational way to reach the conclusion that they reached.


Fire History In The Klamath

Felice Pace makes a rare argument in favor of the let-burn strategy for handling wildfires. His basic storyline is that local fire management was doing just fine until the 1970s, when centralized military-industrial fire control rose to prominence. This new type of fire control engaged in environmentally destructive and counterproductive suppression activities. What we need now is a return to let-burn policies for fires in wilderness areas, with targeted suppression efforts when fires cross into areas where people live.

There's much that's right about Pace's story -- particularly his emphasis on the need for local control and his warnings about the environmental impacts of suppression and post-suppression activities. But the picture needs to be complicated a bit. First off, a nit to pick: the centralized military-industrial fire suppression system in the US dates back at least to the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was enlisted to eradicate wildfire, and recieved a big boost from military surplus equipment after World War II. The effects of that system weren't as apparent until many decades later, though, because at first the system was successful in preventing big fires. By the 70s and 80s, let-burning was actually on the rise as the "all fire is bad" ideology began to be seriously questioned. One change worthy of further examination -- which Pace only hints at -- is the shifting balance toward involvement of the private/corporate sector in fire control in the later 20th century. (For example, it's the involvement of the private sector, not the central vs local issue, that's at the heart of the salvage logging question.)

Pace's article implies that if the old locally-based fire management system had been left in place, everything would be OK. But the old system was not as great as Pace imagines, and changes in the landscape would have made it outdated. This is not to say that the new centralized system is any better -- what's needed is a new sort of fire management.

This report gives some additional background on Pace's home region of the Klamath. From the time of the first white settlement until the advent of centralized suppression, dangerous fires were common. The strategy of let-burn in the backcountry and focused suppression near homes was not a product of humble wisdom about the environment, but of a lack of resources and ability to carry out wider-scale suppression. The early suppression efforts were successful, giving the region a reprieve while allowing the centralized system to maintain a low profile, perhaps creating an illusion -- especially to those, like Pace, who arrived in the area during this time -- that the traditional system avoided fire danger.

But whatever its success, the traditional system couldn't last forever -- due, in part, to newcomers like Pace. One glaring omission in Pace's account is the growth of the urban-wildland interface. The late-20th-century boom in the number of people living scattered around fire-prone wildlands creates an increase in the fire danger by increasing the number of people at risk. More significantly for Pace's proposal, an expanding UWI means an expanding area where suppression is necessary, and a shrinking area of backcountry where a let-burn policy makes sense.

These newcomers also typically make different demands on the fire protection system. Oldtimers may be content to let a backcountry fire burn (secure in their ability to control it as it draws near, or resigned to uncontrollable acts of god). But newcomers are more likely to demand that at minimum an impressive show of trying to protect them from fire and smoke. Merely localizing control would leave power in the hands of such comfy exurbanites.


I've heard of Pluto, therefore it's a planet

Let me ease back into blogging with a brief comment on the brouhaha over creating an official definition of "planet" to solve the "is Pluto a planet?" debate.

It seems to me that "planet" is as much a value judgment as a statement of objective fact -- it means "an important object orbiting the sun." So trying to give the word a pureply objective definition will just create confusion, especially if it's promoted to the public as the definition (much like the confusion about the difference between the botanical and culinary definitions of "fruit" or the physics vs everyday meanings of "work").

The value judgment inherent in the term "planet" explains why so many people are so worked up about this issue. We've all heard of Pluto, whereas the other objects that would become planets under the expanded definition -- such as UB313 -- are unknown except to astronomy geeks. Our brains operate on the "availability heuristic" -- things that we can easily call to mind are more characteristic or more important than those we don't know about. The availability heuristic is an outgrowth of the mistaken assumption that our minds are basically passive and objective recievers of information from the outside world. We know about Pluto but not about UB313, so therefore it's obvious that Pluto is important enough to be a planet, and there's something fishy about a set of objective criteria that UB313 fits just as easily.

Then there's the circularity of all this. The reason we know about Pluto and consider it important is that it's included on the canonical list of 9 planets. Had astronomers never tagged it with that label, making Pluto a planet would sound just as ridiculous as including UB313. Thirty years from now, when everybody has been working under the 12 planet system for decades, we'll look back at old textbooks with their nine planets and think "how ridiculous! UB313 is obviously a planet, so how can those morons have left it out of the old books?"



Posting will continue to be very light or nonexistent for the next week or so as I am in the process of moving to Arizona.


Wildfire link

Nice article on the importance and problems of dealing with wildfire at the community (rather than individual or government) level.

Water Recycling And Trust

Australia's debate over recycling water provides an interesting additional facet to the phenomenon of "economic" versus "social" paradigms of risk that I discussed with respect to Yucca Mountain. In summary, various places in Australia are considering recycling sewage water and sending it back into the main water supply, where it could be used for drinking water. There's strong resistance to the idea among the public, and a referendum in the town of Toowoomba recently went down in flames.

I was talking to some folks yesterday about this, and I was struck by their strong "economic" perspective. They had complete faith in the science that said the treated water would be clean, and therefore complete faith in the project. They attributed opposition to ignorant knee-jerk "eww, sewage water" reactions, and therefore called into question the propriety of using more democratic decision-making (such as a referendum) on an issue like this.

In this case, I'm happy to basically trust the science that says the sewage water can be cleaned adequately, because water treatment is the sort of narrowly-defined engineering problem that technical risk assessment works best on. (I was surprised, however, when in another context my interlocutors cited as incontrovertible fact a study that pinpointed a one-in-a-thousand-years probability of a certain parrot being killed by a proposed wind farm -- how on earth can you accurately calculate something like that?) The pressing importance of Australia's water crisis further militates toward limiting the amount of extreme precaution we take with respect to water cleanliness.

But even if we trust the science, there remain important social questions that could justify concern about implementing such a recycling project. Just because some engineers in the lab can clean the water adequately when they're motivated to prove that it can be done, doesn't mean that the sewage treatment plant will always work properly in practice. There are many stories of facilities for the use or treatment of hazardous materials which become a danger because -- through laziness, the pressure for profit, or a desire to look good to one's superiors -- protocols were not followed and the real danger greatly exceeded the theoretical danger. The question here is trust -- can we trust the people executing the water recycling plan to do it properly? Scientific risk assessments mean little when you can't trust the social system that the assessed activity is embedded in.

What's needed is a process of building trust. Perhaps a system can be worked out in which water is reused "down the scale" of cleanliness -- for example, in the way that one of my friends pumps her used laundry water into her toilet. This would have the added advantage of requiring more household-scale infrastructure, rather than big water projects that foster ignorance, dependency, and corruption by removing water users from contact with their water provision and treatment system.