Saturday, December 25, 2004

OK, I am scared.

As of writing this, asteroid 2004 MN4 is going to hit earth with probability 2.2%. Impact would be equivalent to an explosion of 1300 megatons of TNT; by contrast the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had explosive strength of 0.013 megatons.

On the upside, if it does hit, it will happen in 2029 so there will be plenty of time left to eat, drink, and be merry.

Update: New estimate as of Dec. 27 - 2.7% chance of impact. The media seems to be ignoring the story (maybe its liberal bias - the media hates America so they are not reporting the substantial chance that the human race, including America, will die out in 25 years!). Seriously, this is huge. This wikipedia article on asteroid deflection may be of some interest; but given that no one has ever tried to deflect the course of an asteroid in real life, there is little ground for overconfidence.

Update: Further observations have ruled out the possibility that the aforemention asteroid, 2004 MN4, will hit the earth. Humanity survives for another day.

On May 22, 2003, the Los Angeles Times printed a front-page story by Scott Gold, its respected Houston bureau chief, about the passage of a law in Texas requiring abortion doctors to warn women that the procedure might cause breast cancer. Virtually no mainstream scientist believes that the so-called ABC link actually exists — only anti-abortion activists do. Accordingly, Gold’s article noted right off the bat that the American Cancer Society discounts the “alleged link” and that anti-abortionists have pushed for “so-called counseling” laws only after failing in their attempts to have abortion banned. Gold also reported that the National Cancer Institute had convened “more than a hundred of the world’s experts” to assess the ABC theory, which they rejected. In comparison to these scientists, Gold noted, the author of the Texas counseling bill — who called the ABC issue “still disputed” — had “a professional background in property management.”

Gold’s piece was hard-hitting but accurate. The scientific consensus is quite firm that abortion does not cause breast cancer. If reporters want to take science and its conclusions seriously, their reporting should reflect this reality — no matter what anti-abortionists say.

But what happened next illustrates one reason journalists have such a hard time calling it like they see it on science issues. In an internal memo exposed by the Web site, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias...
-- from Blinded by Science by Chris Mooney in Columbia Journalism Review, an interesting article on how media reporting often tends to distort science.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Geoff Stone has an extremely interesting series of guest posts over at Lessig's blog on the history of supression of dissent in the United States.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Bloggers tend to dislike deleting comments. This, at least, is the impression I get from various references here and there to how certain bloggers are baaaad because they deleted this or that comment. Everyone acknowledges the necessity of deleting comments once in a while, but whenever the practice is mentioned it tends to be in a negative context.

I think this will change. Think of all the popular blogs with comment sections that you know, and most likely you have blogs with terrible comments. Without naming names, I think we have all seen threads with a few hundred comments degenerate into little more than noise.

In a blog like this where the number of comments is small I can always reply to each comment that I consider unhelpful. This, though, is impossible in large blogs. In that case, either you let the comments degenerate into knee-jerk responses on both sides, petty accusations between the participants, and unhelpful arguments - or you turn off comments. With time, I expect option three - the deletion of comments the author feels does not contribute to the debate - to get much more popular.

I wonder if there are some readable articles online on the historical evolution of modern gender roles. Last night I stumbled onto the following passage in Erec et Enide, written in approximately 1170 AD:
"A knight whom I esteem highly gave [a horse] to me, sire...He is a very courteous knight and the handsomest man I ever saw..." The Count replies: "I suppose and presume he is not more handsome than I am." "Upon my word, sire," the sergeant says, "you are very handsome and a gentle man. There is not a knight in this country, a native of this land whom you do not excel in favour. But I dare maintain concerning this one that he is fairer than you...."

The Becker-Posner blog continues to provide new evidence that a keen mind, logical thinking, and the ability to come up with fresh insights are no more a prerequisite for success in academia than elsewhere.

I am thinking in particular of the latest series of posts on global warming. Posner, while indicating his tepid support for the Kyoto protocol, proceeds to recite the typical criticisms. One of these is that while the costs associated with the implementation of the protocol are substantial, the result will be a relatively small slowdown of global warming.

It is not difficult to see that this objection is beside the point. If global warming is a serious problem that must be stopped to avoid likely disaster - as is the scientific consensus and as Posner accepts without objection - then actions that slow it down should are valuable steps forward. If Posner believes that the Kyoto protocol does not do enough - as many environmentalists do - then the logical step is to support the protocol, and then support additional measures after its passage. Incidentally, this is the very purpose of the Kyoto Protocol - it was conceived not as a solitary move to fight global warming but rather the first in a series of steps. I get the feeling Posner does not know this.

Posner continues, arguing that if we accept that most of the really serious damage due to climate change will occur towards the end of the century, then Kyoto would be too much:
For by that time science, without prodding by governments, is likely to have developed economical “clean” substitutes for fossil fuels (we already have a clean substitute—nuclear power) and even economic technology for either preventing carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels or for removing it from the atmosphere.
One wonders if Posner has some sort of crystal ball which allows him to gaze into the future. Certainly, it would be wonderful if we developed technologies which will allow us to instantly solve the global warming problem, but we obviously don't know that we will. Posner claims that this outcome is "likely." How did he decide this? What analysis did he perform? Rationally, because we have no idea whether the sort of technologies Posner describes will be developed, it makes quite a bit of sense to take prudent action here and now.

Posner then ends his post by mentioning the possibility that global warming will produce abrupt climate changes in the near future. This seems to be the main reason for his support of Kyoto.

But even this proves to be too much for Becker who, while accepting the danger and science of global warming, opposes the Kyoto protocol because it gives the underdeveloped nations too many exemptions for Becker's taste. Becker then goes to propose a different agreement, where underdeveloped nations would be held to the same standard, but allowed to sell their emissions credits resulting in a substantial flow of money from the first world to the third; this flow of money would give incentives for nations in the third world to agree to Becker's proposed treaty.

This is profoundly unhelpful. The idea of emissions trading has been tossed around for a while and plays a part in Kyoto; the point is, whatever the merits of Becker's proposed agreement, we don't have it. We have Kyoto: the agreement reached by the international community. Becker presents the dilemma to us as a choice between Kyoto and some other proposals; but our dilemma is purely a yes/no choice on Kyoto. In this way, Becker avoids the obvious conclusion that, given all we know, the benefits of Kyoto in terms of climate change clearly outweigh the cost.

Becker then proceeds to criticize Posner's concern with abrupt climate change, arguing
...a few naturally induced rapid climate changes in the course of thousands of years does not mean that the man-made risk of such a dramatic change should receive much weight. Given all the risks the world faces, such as terrorist control of nuclear and biological weapons, or runaway nanotechnology, genetically modified crops, and cloning-all very well discussed in Posner’s new book Catastrophe- I believe he is excessively concerned about climatic catastrophes. options.”
This, again, is clearly a non-sequitur. Terrorist control of nuclear weapons is an important problem, but its existence does not mean that global warming has become less dangerous! The world faces many risks, as Becker correctly indicates, but this is not an argument for avoiding this one particular risk.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Is it just me or is "Dear Prudence" the most insipid syndicated column? Today's installment was particularly irritating:

Could you please tell your straight readers that when they meet an attractive gay person of the opposite sex that it is never a compliment to say, "What a waste." What does this comment mean anyway—that because the person is sexually off limits they lead no sort of life of their own? Or is it some offhand attempt to compliment the gay person's looks? I don't get it. I have often been tempted to respond with, "Let me assure you that nothing I have is being wasted; it's all being put to very good use." Thanks, Prudie.

—Out in Atlanta

Dear Out,
Prudie believes you are misinterpreting the remark. Rather than implying that the gay person has "no sort of life of their own," Prudie finds it to mean, "You are GORGEOUS." (And it's the straight person's loss that you bat for the other team.) It is meant both as a compliment and a lighthearted statement. As you may have divined, Prudie has made this comment, herself, and always to a big smile in response.

—Prudie, flatteringly
If I ever meet Prudie, I hope she will put a similar spin on the "nice ass" comments I will allow myself to make. After all, I will only be complimenting her!

From Finding Homosexual Threads in Lincoln's Legend, in today's Times:
Mr. Tripp charts Lincoln's relationships with other men, including Billy Greene, with whom Lincoln supposedly shared a bed in New Salem, Ill. [Lincoln's law partner William] Herndon said Greene told him that Lincoln's thighs "were as perfect as a human being Could be."
Thighs are important.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Are writers from The Onion infiltrating the NY Times?

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Johnathan Chait, writing in the LA Times, makes an argument that I've been trying to make here in bits and pieces:

A few weeks ago, a pair of studies found that Democrats vastly outnumbered Republicans among professors at leading universities. Conservatives gleefully seized upon this to once again flagellate academia for its liberal bias.

Am I the only person who fails to understand why conservatives see this finding as vindication? After all, these studies show that some of the best-educated, most-informed people in the country overwhelmingly reject the GOP. Why is this seen as an indictment of academia, rather than as an indictment of the Republican Party?

Conservatives have a ready answer. The only reason faculties lean so far to the left is that deans, administrators and entire university cultures systematically discriminate against conservatives.

They don't, however, have much evidence to back this up. Mostly, they assume that the leftward tilt is prima facie evidence of anti-conservative discrimination. (Yet, when liberals hold up minority underrepresentation at some institutions as proof of discrimination, conservatives are justifiably skeptical.)

Conservative pundit George Will recently tied the dearth of conservative professors to the quasi-Marxist outlook in African American studies, women's studies and cultural studies... this no doubt makes things hard on prospective conservative academics, not to mention mainstream liberal ones...

...but the rise of fashionable left-wing scholarship can be blamed for only a tiny part of the GOP's problem. The studies showing that academics prefer Democrats to Republicans also show that this preference holds in hard sciences as well as social sciences. Are we to believe that higher education has fallen prey to trendy multiculturalist engineering, or that physics departments everywhere suppress conservative quantum theorists?
Chait then goes on to speculate about possible causes. Most of his column is quite good but I have one small quibble. Chait proposes a possible explanation:

Republicans don't particularly want to be professors. To go into academia — a highly competitive field that does not offer great riches — you have to believe that living the life of the mind is more valuable than making a Wall Street salary. On most issues that offer a choice between having more money in your pocket and having something else — a cleaner environment, universal health insurance, etc. — conservatives tend to prefer the money and liberals tend to prefer the something else. It's not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices.
Generally speaking, tenured jobs at top universities (Caltech, Stanford, MIT) in science/engineering are far better than private sector jobs by any criterion, including money. That these universities show the same leftward tilt disproves the "private sector as a giant vaccum that sucks out all the conservatives" argument.

Also: the high-tech enclaves in the U.S., e.g Silicon Valley, Austin, TX, Route 128 in MA, are the most reliably Democratic areas of the country, giving lie to the notion that private industry engineers and scientists are significantly less likely to be Democrats.

Update: Rich at Beef Always Wins provides a critique. See the comments below for my response.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Conservative Rhetorical Tricks 101: from Scarborough Country this week, a non-political example,
RABBI SHMULEY BOTEACH: ...I‘ve got to tell you, Pat, the fact that Christians around the country be offended if Mel Gibson‘s “The Passion” doesn‘t win best Oscar is shocking to me. First of all, “The Passion of the Christ” was an abomination for Christianity. It really should win the World Wrestling Federation Oscar for best movie. It‘s a guy for two hours being kicked, beaten, his blood gushing everywhere. It‘s just a diabolical, criminal, violent mess.


BOTEACH: It really is like Mohammed al-Zarqawi‘s movies on the Internet where a guy gets his head chopped off. It‘s gory. It‘s ugly and it‘s not inspiring.

PAT BUCHANAN: Well, since about tens of millions of Americans saw it, loved it, appreciated it, and honored it, that tells us, Rabbi, I think, what you think of the intelligence and sensitivity of millions of Americans.
It seems like it has become standard form for conservatives to accuse liberals of condescension towards middle america for expressing strongly-worded opinions. How much sense does it make to accuse someone who disagrees with a belief widely held by particular group of animosity towards that group? It really is a terrible argument.

On a related note: the transcript of this particular Scarborough Country - hosted by Pat Buchanan - is morbidly curious and worth reading in full. It contains such delightful gems as,

WILLIAM DONAHUE, PRESIDENT, CATHOLIC LEAGUE: Who really cares what Hollywood thinks? All these hacks come out there. Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It‘s not a secret, OK? And I‘m not afraid to say it. That‘s why they hate this movie. It‘s about Jesus Christ, and it‘s about truth. It‘s about the messiah.

Hollywood likes anal sex. They like to see the public square without nativity scenes. I like families. I like children. They like abortions. I believe in traditional values and restraint. They believe in libertinism. We have nothing in common. But you know what? The culture war has been ongoing for a long time. Their side has lost.

You have got secular Jews. You have got embittered ex-Catholics, including a lot of ex-Catholic priests who hate the Catholic Church, wacko Protestants in the same group, and these people are in the margins. Frankly, Michael Moore represents a cult movie. Mel Gibson represents the mainstream of America.
Hear that, America? Jews in Hollywood want you to take it up the ass.

The Catholic League, of which this guy is the president of, is a mainstream conservative foundation, with such respectable names as Linda Chavez, Dinesh D'Souza, Robert George, and Kate O'Beirne on its board of advisors.

One of the most puzzling (and irritating) things about modern leftist rhetoric is the ubiquity of contemptuous mentions of people who vote against their economic interests. Examples: an opinion piece in the Washington Dispatch that notes "The right-wing media propagandists, themselves affluent elitists, are perpetrating a gigantic fraud on masses of average American working people by attempting to convince them to vote against their economic interest..."; a column lamenting that "the excruciating part ... is that the conservative backlash has succeeded in convincing people to vote against their economic interests"; more examples are easily forthcoming.

One would have thought that failing to vote for the guy who promises you buckets of cash is prima facie evidence of political sophistication. Apparently not. Its amazing how many otherwise smart people on the left have began tossing this around as something thats fundamentally wrong with America.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Over at Left2Right Kwame Appiah wonders at the treatment supposed liberal condescension receives in conservative circles. There is almost certainly an asymmetry here: Rush Limbaugh regularly refers to liberals as "a bunch of brutes"; Neil Boortz, another very widely syndicated conservative talk show host, calls liberals "pack animals"; conservative pundits publicly accuse Democrats of treason. All of this is a more-or-less daily occurrence one can witness by tuning in to Limbaugh or Boortz while driving to work, or picking up the latest Coulter book at the local bookstore, and it passes without as much as raising an eyebrow on the left. By contrast, condescending speech far less inflammatory than this is remarked on quite often by conservative pundits and bloggers.

Why is this?

Appiah engages in a bit of amateur psychology, wondering if perhaps conservatives tend be less secure in their beliefs and thus more sensitive to perceived contempt by others.

I don't think this is it.

Rather, I think something quite different is in play here: many conservatives seem to define their identity primarily by contrast to liberals. Sneering at liberal condescension is not at all related to the facts of life, or the conviction with which conservatives hold their beliefs: it is a ritual to be engaged in for the sake of constituting identity ( much like public protests are a similar ritual for the far left).

There are some good reasons to think about the conservative fixation on liberal condescension in this way: it seems to be a trait of virtually all conservatives, from libertarian types to evangelicals to pro-business types; it seems to represent a deliberate effort to go out and find objectionable rhetoric from liberals speaking to liberal audiences, while going out of ones way to avoid mentioning similar rhetoric from conservatives speaking to conservative audiences. In short, it is something that is actively engaged in, rather than merely being a response to the rhetoric encountered on a daily basis.

Monday, December 06, 2004

From a Times article today on electoral strategy in the election,
...the Bush team examined voters' television-viewing habits and cross-referenced them with surveys of voters' political and lifestyle preferences...

As the Bush team analyzed the data, stark differences between the viewing habits of Republicans and Democrats quickly emerged. The channels with the highest proportion of Democrats were Court TV and the Game Show Network; for Republicans, Speedvision and the Golf Channel.

During the week, Republicans switch off the tube earlier than Democrats do. (Republicans who stay up are more likely to tune in to Jay Leno, while Democrats flock to David Letterman.) Such revelations persuaded the Bush team to alter its media-buying strategy...

One of the shows most popular with Republicans, especially Republican women ages 18 to 34, turned out to be "Will & Grace," the sitcom about gay life in New York. As a result, while Mr. Bush was shoring up his conservative credentials by supporting a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, his advertising team was buying time on a program that celebrates gay culture.

The Bush team broadcast commercials 473 times on "Will & Grace" in markets across the country from Jan. 1 to Nov. 2, according to the Wisconsin project.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I've gotta say, the first entry over at the new Becker-Posner blog, along with the accompanying citation, is just plain dumb.

In a nutshell: Posner says war is justified if the expected costs are less than the expected gains. He then illustrates this with a nice example: if the costs of inaction are 35 and the cost of war is 5, then war is justified.

No, this is not a joke (as far as I can tell - though Kieran Healy thinks differently).

The accompaning paper has some simple models and calculations of thresholds for when its OK to attack.

Obviously, all of this is silly and useless because in the real world, one can never know any of the parameters involved: the probability of an enemy attack, the costs of an attack, the number of casualties, civilian or military, the duration of the war, the economic effect, and so on. It would be nice if we could say, in any particular instance, that the cost is 35 but we will never be able to do so, not even approximately.

If this is what passes for scholarship in the social sciences, I'm pretty happy with the career choices I made.