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"Less Meat, More Vegetables" And Adaptationism

I have mixed feelings about this Michael Pollan article about food. I think his practical upshot -- eat less meat, and more vegetables -- is exactly on target. "Less meat, more vegetables" is one of the most important things you can do for humans, animals, and ecosystems (and he even gives a nod to approaching it as a social-political project as well as a matter of personal morality).

However, he ventures into questionable territory when he sings the praises of "cuisine" -- the package of menus and eating habits developed by any culture other than the industrialized West. Certainly most such cuisines are better for humans, animals, and ecosystems than the standard American diet. But Pollan's rationale for believing so has a strong adaptationist flavor.

Adaptationism is the idea that whatever has existed for some period of time must be optimal, because if it wasn't it would have caused its carriers to die out. In biology, an extreme adaptationist stance is generally rejected -- selective pressure is simply not strong enough, bad features are often side effects of good ones, and the range of options that selection has to work with is limited by evolution's lack of foresight. A similar case can be made against cultural adaptationism.

First off, the human body is a rather resilient contraption. So people can live on suboptimal diets, mitigating the selection pressure that Pollan relies on to refine cuisine. Just consider the example of the industrial Western diet, which in its modern form has lasted close to a century -- and which shows few signs of being brought down anytime soon by its own unhealthful effects. Pollan claims that modern Americans are evading selection pressure through modern medicine. However, access to modern medicine is far from even in our society, and the uninsured poor show no signs of eating healthier than the rest of us.

Human resilience means that there is room for other factors besides healthiness to affect cuisine. It can be shaped by environmental and technological constraints, as well as other cultural goals (such as kosher laws that served to mark Jews' separateness from other tribes and commitment to their god).

Then there's the question of whose eating habits define a culture's cuisine. Societies are not internally homogeneous, and what the upper class eats will be quite different from what the lower class eats (and even in classless societies like hunter-gatherers, dietary differences were present between genders, ages, or clans). Which is healthier -- the pre-industrial English peasant's bread and water, or his Lord's three meals a day of duck? The poor face obvious constraints of access to food which would seem to compromise their cuisine's optimality, but the rich had more non-health considerations (such as impressing others) that they would base their eating on.

All these theoretical considerations can be borne out by considering the suboptimal actual cuisines eaten by some cultures. Consider, for example, the Selk'nam people of Tierra del Fuego. Their diet -- which was sustained over a far longer time than modern Indian or Italian cuisine has existed -- consisted almost entirely of guanaco meat (so much for "less meat, more vegetables"). Or try the Fort Ancient culture, which inhabited Ohio in the early part of the last millennium. The Fort Ancient were often dead by 30 with all their teeth rotted out, because their diet was 50%-90% pure corn. I wouldn't recommend anyone today eat like a Selk'nam or Fort Ancient person if they can avoid it, but both would meet Pollan's criterion of "cuisine."


What Is And Isn't Politicization of Science

Jonathan Adler says that the left is just as guilty of politicizing science as the right. But some of his examples show some confusion as to what constitutes "politicizing science." Politicizing science means politics-based interference with the operation of the scientific process, resulting in the misrepresentation of certain conclusions as being purely scientific. But using political or normative principles alongside science in decision-making is not politicization of science, and is not objectionable -- indeed, it's unavoidable.

Let's go through the examples he lists. Note that I'm taking them at face value -- I don't have the time to fact-check each one for accuracy.

... the treatment of agricultural biotechnology, and the decision to subject such products to more stringent regulatory review than those developed with other methods. This policy has no scientific basis ...

This example is somewhat ambiguous from the information at hand. Insofar as the different treatment is justified by inaccurately claiming that science shows that biotech presents certain levels of risk, this would be politicization of science (albeit of the lowest-level type: politicians and activists misrepresenting scientists' conclusions). However, no politicization is necessary to justify treating the risks differently, as biotech presents a different risk profile (i.e. raises different sorts of risks than conventional breeding), and the decision as to how to weight those different risk characteristics is an unavoidably, and rightly, political one.

Another example would be claims by environmentalist groups that pesticide residues on foods pose a significant cancer risk, a claim which the NAS has also rejected. ... A fourth would be efforts to claim asthma incidence (as opposed to asthma attacks) are related to outdoor air pollution, when there is no data to support such a claim.

Here are a couple clear politicizations of the "misrepresenting science" type.

A third would be seeking endangered species listings for the purpose of halting development.

This one is ambiguous. If the scientific findings on the species' population and the threats to it are being misrepresented or distorted in some way, then that's politicization. But if it's simply a matter of turning to endangered species law as a strategy for halting otherwise unwanted development, that's unavoidable. Lacking infinite resources, we have to find some way of picking when to initiate a listing process, and politics quite rightly has a role to play here. Science's role is merely to tell us whether a proposed listing should in fact go through, based on the politically-established criteria for when it's right for the government to take certain actions on behalf of a species.

A fifth would be the EPA's second-hand smoke study, which a federal court found was driven to reach a predetermined result.

This is a clear example of a more serious politicization -- a political interference with the scientific process through pre-establishing the conclusion to be reached.

A sixth would be claims that the "precautionary principle" is a "science-based" approach to risk, when it acutally reflects a normative policy judgment about how to weigh and evaluate risks.

The precautionary principle is exactly as science-based as ordinary cost-benefit analysis, or an inverse precautionary principle that would restrict activities only when they are proven to cause harm. Science cannot tell us "how to weigh and evaluate risks" -- there's no experiment that could prove that risk neutrality is moral or immoral -- but we can't make any decisions without weighing and evaluating risks. The main politicization of science occurring in the precautionary principle debate is when precaution opponents draw an opposition between "science-based" and precautionary approaches, improperly applying the mantle of science to their own political-ethical views on risk-taking.

A seventh would be the compounded conservatisms that are embedded into many agency risk assessments, such as those conducted for the federal Superfund program.

This is a politicization of science -- albeit one that has been thoroughly absorbed into ostensibly scientific institutions, rather than being the result of institutional interference (though politicians' demands for a single exact number play a role in maintaining it). In the face of substantial uncertainty, political decisions will have to be made about how to resolve unknowns -- but they should be made explicitly on the basis of scientific information about the parameters, rather than being slipped in during the scientific analysis.

An eighth would be molding "ecosystem management" to satisfy non-scientific normative preferences about how land should be managed.

Ecosystem management is intrinsically political. There's no way to make decisions about how land should be managed without relying on normative preferences. To claim otherwise, asserting that science alone can tell us how to manage an ecosystem, is the quintessential form of politicization of science.

Adler ends his post with a pair of examples taken from Ronald Bailey, which differ quite markedly in their validity.

In 1993, Princeton University physicist William Happer was fired from the Department of Energy because he disagreed with Vice President Al Gore's views on stratospheric ozone depletion.

Here is a good example of real and overt politicization of science.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton rejected the finding from the Embryo Research Panel of the National Institutes of Health which declared that the intentional creation of human embryos for genetic research was ethical.

An expert pronouncement on ethics is not science in the relevant sense. Clinton's decision about embryo creation may have been wrong on the merits, and it may have been a procedural violation for him to reject the advice of the NIH. But there is no scientific finding here to be politicized. As long as Clinton was reasonably well-informed of the relevant details of how embryo creation works, then neither a yea nor a nay is politicization of science, regardless of what scientists' moral codes happen to say.


Creationists Have Not Infiltrated Everything

At the risk of blindly taking one organization at its word that I shouldn't have blindly taken another organization at its word, it sounds like the "park rangers at the Grand Canyon aren't allowed to tell you how old it is" story was basically just made up.

Also, if this bit from the same page can be trusted, it takes all the wind out of the "OMG they're selling a creationist book at the Grand Canyon!" scare:

The reference to the creationism book being sold in the Grand Canyon bookstore — Grand Canyon: A Different View by Tom Vail — is true. It is sold in the "inspiration" section of the bookstore, alongside other books of myth and spirituality.

That sounds like exactly the right thing to do. The Grand Canyon plays a very important role in creationist culture/religion. So the creationist story of it should be treated just like the traditional Hopi or Paiute story about the canyon. The only argument I can think of for treating Christian creationism differently is to say that it's more dangerous -- and therefore its ability to preach must be more restricted -- because the average park visitor is more likely to be converted by Christian creationism than by the traditional Hopi religion.



Posting will be scarce for the next week, as I'm going to Boston to see my favorite band, and then Waukegan for research.

Creating Criminals

It unfortunately doesn't appear to be online, but if you happen to be at a lawyer's house anytime soon, keep an eye out for the January issue of the ABA Journal. There's a nice -- albeit too short -- article ("Run-on Sentences") about "collateral consequences" of being convicted (or sometimes just charged) with a crime.

By and large, people with felony convictions are banned from enlisting in the U.S. military. Fifteen states bar convicted drug offenders from recieving welfare or food stamps. In various states, people with convictions are excluded from public housing, barred from recieving educational loans, and denied driver's licenses. In New York, for instance, a man who had learned to cut hair in prison was denied a barber's license when he got out.

... In New York City ... a person convicted of disorderly conduct -- a noncriminal violation -- may be banned from public housing for up to three years.

Sometimes just an arrest record can be a problem. Most states allow employers to discriminate against people who have been arrested but not convicted ... And this information is readily available to employers, landlords and others.

And they don't even mention felons' loss of the right to vote in many states. There's an obvious facial injustice here -- if food stamps are the government's business at all, then they're a right, not a discretionary favor.

What's more, if you're one of those crazy people who think that the goal of the criminal justice system should be to reduce crime, these "collateral consequences" make no sense. It's absurd to hold a strict "personality trait" theory of crime (that crime is solely the result of the perpetrator's internal dispositions). Yet any theory that allows for situational influences would have to admit that taking away opportunities for a person to become better integrated into, and invested in, society will tend to increase crime. One might offer a "tough love" analysis -- but tough love only produces improvement, rather than further rebellion, when the tough-loved person respects and wants the approval of the tough-lover, and it's exactly the lack of that respect that makes crime possible. Then there's the idea of defensive ostracism (if you don't expect someone to improve, get away from them), which fails because people suffering collateral consequences are not in fact separated from the rest of the population -- they remain living alongside us, with less ability, reason, or incentive to make a law-abiding life for themselves. At best, some collateral consequences (such as barring people from housing or employment) allow each individual agency or employer to engage in a sort of Tragedy of the Commons, exchanging some level of risk to themselves for a larger risk spread out over the whole society.

The ABA Journal article approvingly cites a program in New York that would allow people to earn "certificates of good conduct" that would lift the collateral consequences of their past crimes. Such a program is the Kyoto Protocol of criminal justice. It essentially requires that people rehabilitate themselves in spite of the collateral consequences, then have them lifted. In essence, people must make their obesiance to the legitimacy and rightness of the system before it accords them their rights.


Satellite Funding

Here's a test of the new Congress's scumbaggery:

Cutbacks Impede Climate Studies

The government's ability to understand and predict hurricanes, drought and climate changes of all kinds is in danger because of deep cuts facing many Earth satellite programs and major delays in launching some of its most important new instruments, a panel of experts has concluded.

The two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences, released yesterday, determined that NASA's earth science budget has declined 30 percent since 2000. It stands to fall further as funding shifts to plans for a manned mission to the moon and Mars. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, has experienced enormous cost overruns and schedule delays with its premier weather and climate mission.

Having solid data about what's happening to the atmosphere and biosphere is critical to responsible management of our environment. But funding for Earth-observation satellites is not the kind of high-profile issue that you'll hear much about on the campaign trail or in the media (as opposed, for example, to the Moon and Mars missions). It's one of those technical details for which we rely on the division of labor in a representative democracy. So anyone in the new congress who is not a scumbag will push for full funding of NASA's Earth satellite program.


All Politicians Really Are Scumbags

Hilzoy has a long quote from Edmund Burke exhorting us not to assume all politicians are scumbags, and to "be good at spotting courage, honesty, and virtue" in their actions. My first response is that I don't think "all politicians are scumbags" is an axiom, it's just that in every case I have encountered (with the possible exceptions of Henry Waxman and Deval Patrick) the evidence strongly supports the scumbag hypothesis. My second response is that the more power you have, the less you need my praise. The space of actions that are supererogatory for those in positions of power is comparatively small, and I'm not inclined to give politicians a cookie just for voting records that aren't discriminatory and self-serving.

In that vein, I need to look harder for a few intelligent conservative blogs to read, since the Democrats have some power now and I don't expect the liberal blogs to do a great job of noting the inevitable hypocrisy and malfeasance of the new Congress. (Well, unless it's perpetrated by Joe Lieberman. I can only conclude that Lieberman's life is consumed by a paranoia that I might, somewhere, in some weak moment, think a positive thought about him.)


Saving Lives Isn't Profitable Enough

Vulgar Marxists will tell you that the state is just "the executive committee of the bourgeoisie." Conservative governments seem to have heard that and said "hey, that's a good idea." Take this bit of ridiculousness from Australia:

Australia's first national bushfire research program could be disbanded within two years because it will fail to meet tough new Federal Government rules demanding research deliver marketable commercial benefits.

... The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, which has more than 60 fire research programs operating across the continent, has flagged it may not rebid next year for a second seven-year term of government funding, unless the controversial commercial benefit rules are scrapped.

... Two of Australia's most successful and high-profile national environmental research programs the National Weeds Management and Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centres were refused a second round of federal funding last year because they failed to meet the new commercial criteria.


Public Defenders for Immigrants

The debate over immigration tends to focus on how many people, and what kind of people, we should let in (and how we should keep out the rest). But some of the worst injustice occurs in the process by which the existing laws -- however strict or lax they may be -- are applied. Immigration court is an arbitrary, grossly inefficient system even for those people who ultimately get the green card or the deportation that they deserve.

This article gives a nice overview of one of the main sources of unfairness and inefficiency in the immigration system: the lack of a positive right to counsel. There are no public defenders in immigration court -- only a mix of expensive private lawyers and overworked nonprofits and pro bono programs. Well over half of immigrants have to do their cases pro se (on their own behalf, without counsel).

There are no public defenders because immigration is technically a civil matter, not a criminal one. This is a farcical and invidious bit of hairsplitting, as the consequences of being deported are often harsher than a criminal sentence (for example, some Haitians with lawyers have managed to stay on the grounds that Haiti throws deportees into jails where the conditions violate even the US's anemic interpretation of the Convention Against Torture). And many immigrants are held in detention while the government gets around to thinking about processing their case, subjected to the same punitive conditions as convicted carjackers and drug dealers despite having not yet been sentenced to anything.

It would be wrong to frame this simply as people who have a case getting deported due to the lack of a lawyer -- though that is a serious injustice. Also unjust is the situation of people who should (by the laws on the books) be deported, who end up rotting in detention (wasting the court's time, scarce jail beds, and taxpayer money) while they wait for the inevitable. Partly this is due to the inefficiency and incompetence of ICE, which is magnified when there's no lawyer to complain on the immigrant's behalf. And partly this is due to false hope. When the stakes are so high, it's easy for someone with no legal training (and exposed to jailhouse rumors and the assurances of scam artists) to imagine, or insist, that they have a case when they really don't.

The lack of defense lawyers also compromises the integrity of the system. The American judicial system is built on the adversarial model -- one lawyer makes the strongest possible case for the prosecution, one makes the strongest possible case for the defense, and an impartial judge or jury decides which arguments were better. But when the defendant is pro se, the immigration judge is forced to be both impartial judge and partial defense attorney, attempting -- in the short period of time the defendant is in his or her court, and on the basis of the limited facts at hand -- to ensure that the defendant's rights aren't grossly trampled.

Streamlining immigration law so that it's clearer who must go and who can stay would help. So would decreasing the use of de-facto-punitive detention (in favor of things like tracking bracelets). But the bottom line is that the efforts of immigration prosecutors need to be counterbalanced by expanding the public defender system to give a substantive right to counsel to all immigrants.


The "Moral Argument" for God Fails

Joe Carter has done the service of reducing several versions of the "moral argument for God" (in essence, "morality can't exist without God") to propositional form. Unfortunately for Carter and other apologists, this only makes clear how little weight they carry.

First is a version by Elton Trueblood:

1. There must be an objective moral law; otherwise: (a) There would not be such great agreement on its meaning. (b) No real moral disagreements would ever have occurred, each person being right from his own moral perspective. (c) No moral judgment would ever have been wrong, each being subjectively right. (d) No ethical question could ever be discussed, there being no objective meaning to any ethical terms. (e) Contradictory views would both be right, since opposites could be equally correct.
2. This moral law is beyond individual persons and beyond humanity as a whole: (a) It is beyond individual persons, since they often sense a conflict with it. (b) It is beyond humanity as a whole, for they collectively fall short of it and even measure the progress of the whole race by it.
3. This moral law must come from a moral Legislator because: (a) A law has no meaning unless it comes from a mind; only minds emit meaning. (b) Disloyalty makes no sense unless it is to a person, yet people die in loyalty to what is morally right. (c) Truth is meaningless unless it is a meeting of mind with mind, yet people die for the truth. (d) Hence, discovery of and duty to the moral law make sense only if there is a Mind or Person behind it.
4. Therefore, there must be a moral, personal Mind behind this moral law.

As it happens, I accept point 1. Even so, Trueblood fails to justify it, so his arguments here would have no purchase against a relativist. Argument 1(a) can be easily attributed to evolution and egoism -- the disposition to condemn certain acts ultimately promotes one's survival and reproductive success (and/or is a side effect of mental capacities that do). Sub-points b through e of point 1 are all question-begging -- he gives no evidence that moral disputes actually do have substance behind them. And the history of philosophy is littered with vehement conflicts over non-issues (e.g. the nature of the Platonic Forms).

Point 2 amounts to an assertion that people *believe* the moral law is beyond any person, or beyond humanity as a whole. Belief in a moral law is necessary and sufficient to sense a conflict between it and their own, or humanity's, behavior. But of course the whole question is whether or not people who believe that are *correct.* In any event, even an actual contradiction between a moral law and the conduct of an individual or group does not prove that the law is "beyond" that individual or group. A few months ago I fell short of a rule that said I must write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November -- yet that rule was obviously entirely of my own making, not a command from God.

Point 3 is largely incoherent. Point a is sort of right, at least insofar as I can make sense of it, but with Point 2 collapsed it becomes irrelevant. Points b and c simply return to the confusion noted in the previous paragraph between what people believe to be true and what is actually true. We can all think of people who died in loyalty to falsehoods (Carter, Trueblood, and I could all agree on the 9/11 hijackers as an example). Finally, points 3d and 4 only follow if the preceding points were correct -- which they weren't.

Carter also offers Kant's rather different version of the moral argument, which fails for different reasons:

1. The greatest good of all persons is that they have happiness in harmony with duty.
2. All persons should strive for the greatest good.
3. What persons ought to do, they can do.
4. But persons are not able to realize the greatest good in this life or without God.
5. Therefore, we must postulate a God and a future life in which the greatest good can be achieved.

I'll leave point 1 alone, and I agree with points 2, 3, and 4. However, to claim that point 5 follows from the previous requires going back and editing point 2 such that it is false, and confusing "the greatest good that one is capable of bringing about" with "the greatest good that is capable of existing." Point 2 asserts that everyone should strive for the greatest good -- that is, they should bring about as much good as they are capable of. Point 3 is thus redundant, since point 2 explicitly demands only what people are able to do. Point 4, however, talks not about doing as much as you are capable of doing, but rather of doing as much as there is to be done. So yes, I on my own am not capable of achieving the highest level of good that is capable of existing, but I could achieve that if God were to exist and help me.

Point 5 assumes that the me-and-God level of achievement is the morally obligatory one. Yet that has not been established earlier in the argument. Kant seems to assume that point 2 said that we are obliged to achieve the highest, me-and-God, level of good. But that's not what point 2 said, and if it said that it would be false -- because if God does not exist, then point 2 would trim our level of obligation down to a more achievable level.

In short, an obligation to pursue something does not entail an obligation to achieve it (and therefore does not entail the possibility of achieving it). Kant's version of the ethical argument is thus of no help for apologetics.


Observations On Ashley

Without coming down for or against the decisions made by her parents, I'd like to make two observations about the debate over Ashley, the girl with the mental development of an ordinary 6-month-old who has undergone various medical treatments to prevent her from growing and going through puberty:

1. This case provides the most clear-cut example of one of the basic differences between conservative and radical worldviews. Both see problems arising from a mismatch between a person and their environment. The conservative says "the environment is normative, or at least impossible to change. Therefore the person has the duty to adapt themselves to its demands." The radical says "the person is normative, or at least impossible to change. Therefore the environment must be changed to create a spot that the person fits comfortably into." (Amanda Marcotte has an interesting attempt to make an argument in favor of the parents that follows the form of a radical argument, by redefining the person-environment boundary such that Ashley's body is part of the environment for the "real person" of her mind.)

2. Both supporters and detractors of the parents make use of an opposition between the "normal" and the "grotesque" (an opposition I find consistently unhelpful), but they define them differently. Supporters of the parents see congruity between the mental and physical development of an individual (as measured by the pace of those developments in an average person) as normal, while a mismatch such as a 6-month-old mind in a post-pubescent body seems grotesque. Detractors of the parents see the level of development achieved by either the body or the mind, taken in isolation from each other and from any external normative standard, as normal, while interference with that course of development is grotesque.