Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Spiritual Hypochondria

I don't want to shock you, but fundamentalists are getting increasingly upset about laws that require pharmacists to fill "immoral" prescriptions.

"Every other day, I hear from pharmacists who are being threatened or told they have to sign something that says they are willing to go along with government mandates," said Francis J. Manion of the American Center for Law & Justice, which is fighting an Illinois regulation implemented last year requiring pharmacies to fill all prescriptions, which led to a number of pharmacists being fired. "The right to not be required to do something that violates your core beliefs is fundamental in our society."
Perhaps so, but in this case, the time to exercise that right is when you're filling out job applications. Apart from being vicious, vain, and misogynistic, these acts of "conscience" set an absurd precedent (e.g., vegans could refuse to dispense a drug that uses animal products, or was tested on animals; and Muslim workers could refuse to sell pork rinds). The bottom line is that store owners have a right to decide what legal products they will and won't sell, and employees must decide for themselves whether to abide humbly by those decisions or look for another job.

In an earlier post, I compared these pharmacists to the doctors who once refused to treat victims of venereal diseases, and I took a stab at dissecting the psychology behind both attitudes:
It seems to me that the "religion" of these elaborately squeamish doctors and pharmacists - and their pathetic legislative enablers - amounts to little more than narcissism. These people have a morbid compulsion to trumpet their own spiritual rectitude, and to be recognized for their exquisite moral sensibilities. If that recognition comes in the form of public outrage, so much the better, because theirs is a dead faith that mistakes its merest act of petty intolerance for the imitation of Christ. What American fundamentalism lacks in living, active morality, it makes up for with gratuitous acts of ugly, pietistic snobbery that are calculated to disgust and alienate people of good will. The same transgressive thrill that the secular Right gets from arguing in favor of scientific racism, the Religious Right gets from insisting on the right of "ethical" doctors to cast stones instead of healing wounds. It's soulless, dead-hearted busywork for the terminally childish and vain.
Eighteen states are currently considering laws that would shield these self-obsessed spiritual hypochondriacs from the logical and appropriate consequences of their actions.
"These [proposed laws] represent a major expansion of this notion of right of refusal," said Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies reproductive health issues and is tracking the legislation. "You're seeing it broadening to many types of workers -- even into the world of social workers -- and for any service for which you have a moral or religious belief."
Here, I suspect, Robert M. Jeffers might quote Derrida's remark that "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." This, obviously, means responsibility to others; as Judith Butler puts it in her discussion of Levinas:
Whatever the Other has done, the Other still makes an ethical demand upon me, has a "face" to which I am obligated to respond - which means that I am, as it were, precluded from revenge by virtue of a relation I never chose.
This is precisely what fundamentalists can't accept (which I suspect is why they're focused so obsessively on the potential life of the blastocyst; it says nothing more than what fundie ventriloquists want to hear). They cling to the self-satisfying myths of personal immortality and personal righteousness the way secular vanity clings to the self-satisfying myths of possessions and money. The Other isn't the person to whom one is obligated to respond, and for whose sake sacrifices must be made (these poseurs coddle themselves so devoutly that they can't even sacrifice a job they're too squeamish to do). Instead, the Other is the person who threatens a hoarded, jealously guarded spiritual treasure with theft or defilement.

They're so afraid of Hell - which is to say, of their own cowardice and corruption - that they'll sacrifice anything and anyone to save themselves. Which is why they're George W. Bush's chosen people, rather than God's.

A Complex Creature

David Klinghoffer, whose unctuous faux-spirituality I've had occasion to criticize before, has made an astonishingly lame attempt at spitshining Jack Abramoff. He opens the article with this fascinating bit of historical trivia:

A rule in Jewish law holds that when all the judges on the Jewish high court unanimously condemned an accused criminal, he must be set free. The very unanimity was suspicious and called into question the justice of the proceedings.
Of course, even if the Sanhedrin presided over the American judicial system, this would have very little to do with a man who has confessed to his crimes. So let's move on.

The main thing Klinghoffer wants us to know that Abramoff is a complicated man:
[C]ould Abramoff’s problem be classic compartmentalization: cares about mitzvahs, doesn’t care about mail fraud?

In the end, to ask such a question, thinking you can imagine the mind of another person, is to mislead yourself.
Hold that thought. Here's an earlier Klinghoffer piece on the difference between John Kerry and George Bush:
In the mind of Bush, authentic ideas of right and wrong are by definition grounded in a transcendent source: God. "Values," on the other hand, are grounded in sentiment, personal preference — not truth, which means that in the end they count for little. A "values" culture will in the end find that it can justify anything.
"Anything," indeed. They might even find an excuse for torturing children, or defrauding Indian tribes.

In another column, Klinghoffer expounds on the evils of theft:
Also categorized as theft is political demagoguery. The classical exemplar is King David's son, Absalom, who fomented treasonous rebellion by approaching any citizen who had a legal case before the king. Absalom would tell all such litigants that only he understood their gripe. Yes, he felt their pain. Only he would vindicate their complaints — if only he were king!
Klinghoffer's passage on Bush's "transcendent" values is precisely this sort of theft; he attempts to exploit the sincere moral aspirations of his readers by dangling Bush's ghastly counterfeit of piety before them, as though Bush's values were their own. And he does so by claiming to know another person's mind - the very thing he now condemns as an error of judgment.

To hear Klinghoffer tell it, Kerry's besetting sin was his complexity...his tendency to see "nuance" and to espouse pluralism. Though he conceded that Kerry seemed to be "upstanding" in his private life, he still found reasons to be "terrified" by him. Abramoff, by contrast, is portrayed as one of those tedious lapsed heroes out of Graham Greene who, in their agonies of doubt and self-loathing and sin, remain nearer and dearer to God than the timid, simple souls whom they trample.
“God created us as infinitely complex creatures,” Daniel Lapin said in a public statement released after Abramoff’s plea. “We are capable of both evil actions and good ones — very often on the same day.”

Jack Abramoff is undoubtedly a complex creature. The same man who wrote crudely insulting e-mails about Indian gambling moguls plowed the money he made not into a second home, a yacht or mistresses, but into expensive Jewish enterprises of benefit to others: two idealistic religious schools in the Washington, D.C., suburbs; two money-losing kosher restaurants, intended both as a lobbying venue and as a boon to kosher diners and other Jewish businessmen; and private gifts to needy Jews who came to him with broken hearts and empty wallets.
According to no less an authority on moral excellence than John Podhoretz, Klinghoffer is "a wonderful and very earnest guy, and one of the most moral people I've ever known." Strange, then, that this mensch fails to understand that a criminal who uses his ill-gotten money to buy respect does not mitigate, but compounds his crime. Klinghoffer reels off Abramoff's donations to Jewish charities as though they signify something more than the typical Republican tendency to favor image over reality:
The Jewish newspaper in Abramoff’s area, the Washington Jewish Week, deserves credit for bothering to look beyond the negatives. A Jan. 11 article quoted a range of community members who personally witnessed the effects of Abramoff’s generosity, testifying with comments like: “Hundreds of kids in this area owe their Jewish day school education to Jack,” “We remain indebted to him,” and “How many Jews make millions of dollars in this town and don’t give ... anything” back?
That last line is especially classy, I think: "Hey, most rich Jews are tightwads compared to Abramoff!"

Even Podhoretz, who's as venal, dishonest, and bone-stupid a man as you'll find among the National Review crowd, recognizes that Klinghoffer is full of shit:
Just because Jack Abramoff gave money he now acknoweldges he obtained fraudulently to help some religious Jews does not cleanse the money or him. If anything, it dirties those who received it -- even if they received it in all innocence.
This is the most gruesome burlesque of moral daintiness I've seen in a while. Klinghoffer squirts out Talmudic non sequiturs the way an octopus squirts ink, in order to cover the tracks of a confessed criminal who enriched himself and his cronies at the expense of the American taxpayer and democracy itself. Podhoretz rightly scolds him for this sophistry, but can't resist advancing his own obtuse theory of moral contamination, which coincidentally dovetails with the RNC talking points on "Abramoff Democrats." He has to make it clear that ignorance of Abramoff's schemes is no excuse for Democrats who received less money from Indian tribes than they had before he took over.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, writing in the aforementioned Washington Jewish Week, dissects Klinghoffer, and by extension, the whole grimy galaxy of po-faced conservative pseudo-moralists:
[N]o matter how much you keep kosher and castigate Americans about sexual morality, if you support corrupt power and act unethically to other human beings, you are a failure as a Jew.
And, I'd add, as a human being.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?"

--Thomas Hardy, who probably never laid eyes on Hypselodoris maculosa.

Friday Hope Blogging

No grand theme this week...but lots of pleasing news.

Contra James Fattorini, a new study suggests that sustainable farming improves Third World food production:

Crop yields on farms in developing countries that used sustainable agriculture rose nearly 80 percent in four years, according to a study scheduled for publication in the Feb. 15 issue of the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology. The study, the largest of its kind to date -- 286 farm projects in 57 countries -- concludes that sustainable agriculture protects the environment in these countries while substantially improving the lives of farmers who adopt the resource-conserving practices.

Yields increased by an average of 79 percent during the study, according to corresponding author Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in England. Working with colleagues in Thailand, China, Sri Lanka and Mexico, Pretty found nearly all of the farm projects increased their yields, and harvests of some crops like maize, potatoes and beans increased 100 percent.

Sustainable agriculture practices, such as conservation tillage and integrated pest control, also reduced pesticide use and increased carbon sequestration.
An inexpensive solar-power system is being deployed to excellent effect in Sri Lanka, and is also providing local jobs:
Project manager for LUTW, RenĂ© Scalabrini said, “this lighting systems cost around US$85 per unit, require very little maintenance and are extremely energy efficient, as they generate almost no heat....It has also reduced the reliance of some families on illegally tapping electricity from overhead power cables; a risky practice that has the potential for electrocution and fire.
I enjoyed this interview with the Rocky Mountain Institute's Amory Lovins, especially this quote:
I used to work for Edwin Land, the father of Polaroid photography. Land said that invention was the sudden cessation of stupidity. He also said that people who seem to have had a new idea often have just stopped having an old idea.
I haven't had a chance to read this link from Treehugger carefully, but it looks fascinating:
Eprida offers a revolutionary new sustainable energy technology that will allow us to remove CO2 from the air by putting carbon into the topsoil where it is needed.

The process creates hydrogen rich bio-fuels and a restorative high-carbon fertilizer from biomass alone, or a combination of coal and biomass, while removing net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
For more details, visit Epidra.

There's apparently some progress being made on an avian flu vaccine:
"The results of this animal trial are very promising, not only because our vaccine completely protected animals that otherwise would have died, but also because we found that one form of the vaccine stimulates several lines of immunity against H5N1," said Andrea Gambotto, M.D., assistant professor in the departments of surgery and molecular genetics and biochemistry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and lead author of the study.
Last, check out these remarkable tilt-shift photographs, which have the odd property of making real landscapes look like toy miniatures. In case that doesn't sate you, here's a tilt-shift gallery devoted to ravishing views of Toronto. (Links via BLDGBLOG.)

The Friendly Skies

The New York Sun is devoting four pages to former Saddam henchman Georges Sada's claim that Iraq's WMD were transported to Syria on modified commercial planes. I addressed the issue of intensive pre-war satellite, plane, and radar surveillance here.

For our purposes, the most interesting articles are these:

Spy satellites scanning targets every two hours (The Herald, 11 November 2002): AMERICAN spy satellites are scanning key targets throughout Iraq at least once every two hours in a concentrated surveillance operation which can pick out objects as small as six inches across in daylight and two to three feet wide at night.

The US national reconnaissance office controls three advanced KH-11 "Keyhole" satellites weighing 15 tons apiece and the size of a single-decker bus equipped with optical and infra-red cameras, and three Lacrosse imaging radar satellites with sensors which can detect signs of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons development....

In recent months, high-flying U2 manned spy planes dating back to the 1960s and Predator unmanned drones have been drafted in to plug some of the surveillance gaps.

Secret NRO Recons Eye Iraqi Threats (Aviation Week & Space Technology, 16 September 2002): "[S]ix secret National Reconnaissance Office high-resolution imaging satellites, each costing billion [sic], are maintaining an almost hourly watch on specific Iraqi facilities.
Alright, then. Here's how things transpired according to Mr. Sada:
The pilots told Mr. Sada that two Iraqi Airways Boeings were converted to cargo planes by removing the seats, Mr. Sada said. Then Special Republican Guard brigades loaded materials onto the planes, he said, including "yellow barrels with skull and crossbones on each barrel." The pilots said there was also a ground convoy of trucks.

The flights - 56 in total, Mr. Sada said - attracted little notice because they were thought to be civilian flights providing relief from Iraq to Syria, which had suffered a flood after a dam collapse in June of 2002.
This disaster, which killed 22 people and left a few thousand homeless, is described in great detail by Red Cross Red Crescent. For what it's worth, Iraq was reported to have sent 20 planeloads of supplies around June 9. If it's true that there were actually 56 Iraqi flights to Syria in that general timeframe, and a truck convoy, it should've set off alarm bells regardless of the situation in Syria...especially since Sada claims that at least some of these "humanitarian supplies" were packaged in yellow barrels festively decorated with skulls and crossbones.

What's even more interesting is that according to the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, "imagery intelligence" suggested that something unusual was happening around Iraqi ammunition depots in the previous months:
This imagery showed trucks transshipping materials to and from ammunition depots, including suspect CW-sites, in Iraq. In the late spring of 2002, analysts started to believe that these shipments involved CW munitions. This belief was based on the aforementioned "indicators" seen on the imagery--that is, activity and circumstances surrounding the shipments that were thought to be indicative of CW activity.
So we've established to some extent that by May 2 of 2002 (according to footnote 505 in the Commission report), experts believed Iraq was transshipping CW. A little over a month later, according to Sada, the Iraqis flew their CW stockpiles - at least some of which were undisguised - to Syria in two modified commercial jets that made a total of 56 trips without incident.

It'd be interesting to know what size Boeings the Iraqis used for this stunt, and what their maximum cargo weight was; I'd like to compare this data with the estimates of Saddam's WMD stockpiles. In the meantime, all I can say is that if Sada is right, Saddam got very, very lucky. First, our surveillance spotted unusual truck activity at ammunition depots, apparently without monitoring the destination of those trucks. Then, the Iraqis were able to load (and load, and load) tons of chemical weapons - and who knows what else - into commercial airplanes, and fly them into Syria 56 times. Meanwhile, far below, a convoy loaded with other WMD wended its way blithely across the open desert.

All that is strange enough. But what's strangest of all is that to wingnuts, this narrative somehow vindicates George W. Bush.

More later, probably.

Senselessness and Mud

I've pretty much accepted that whatever my intentions may be, Bouphonia is widely perceived as an environmentalist blog. That's fine, I guess, as long as I'm allowed to be seduced now and then by such examples of the dystopian sublime as Dubai's Palm Islands. You can - nay, must - click here to see a breathtaking aerial time-lapse view of the first island's construction. Conspicuous consumption never looked so good!

Speaking of which, here's a brain-teaser for you: If your country gets virtually no rainfall, and the temperature hovers at or above 100F from March to October, and your population is growing dramatically, and almost all of your water is produced through energy-intensive desalination, what should be one of your top engineering priorities?

Building a year-round ski resort, of course.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Standards Matter

Rem Rieder has written an exceedingly shrill column on the controversy over Deborah Howell. Before addressing his main points, I want to quote an earlier Rieder column on the responsibility of journalists to nail down their stories:

Journalism is journalism. You don't go with the story until you've got it nailed down, and that rule applies regardless of how you plan to disseminate it....Standards matter, particularly in the whirlwind of contemporary journalism. It's a message we can't hear too often.
With that in mind, here's Rieder on Howell:
Now there's no doubt Howell made a mistake. She said both Republicans and Democrats had received "Abramoff campaign money." Technically that isn't correct. Abramoff didn't make any personal donations to Democrats. But he did direct his Indian tribe clients to give money to both parties, albeit far more to the Republicans. It's a distinction without a difference.
No, it isn't. The difference is the change in the amount of donations. After Abramoff got involved, donations to Democrats decreased. Further, Abramoff's Indian clients were the only major tribal donors who gave more money to Republicans than Democrats. That's not a "distinction without a difference" by any stretch of the imagination. Does Rieder think that Abramoff would've wanted to ensure, somehow, that every penny of his clients' money would go to Republicans, even though that would be a radical change in donation patterns? Even though it might've set off alarm bells and invited scrutiny of his criminal activities?

Between 2001 and 2004, the Saginaw Chippewas donated more to the GOP than they donated to Republicans and Democrats combined in the previous four years. In doing so, they more than tripled donations to the GOP, while cutting donations to Democrats. That's a dramatic change, and the reason for it is obvious: Abramoff "directed" his clients to start giving more money to the GOP, and less to the Democrats.
Howell should have been more precise. But the point she was trying to make was correct. And she never suggested that this was a bipartisan scandal.
If you mention that Abramoff's clients donated money to Democrats without mentioning that they donated less to Democrats than usual, and more to the GOP than other tribes, you're missing the point entirely, and inviting serious misunderstandings by design or default. To put it another way, standards matter.

Rieder argues that the Left's anti-media "fury and vitriol" matches that of the Right. For purposes of comparison, here's what Rieder previously had to say about the right-wing blogosphere's takedown of Dan Rather:
While there's no doubt some of the right-wing bloggers' expressions of self-satisfaction would draw penalty flags for excessive celebration from NFL officials, this clearly was an impressive display of might. Of course the blogs didn't bring down these media giants by themselves, but there's no question they played a critical role in both episodes.

(It should be added that the smug satisfaction factor is strictly bipartisan. Equally over-the-top were the bloggers on the left who did in faux journalist/male escort Jeff Gannon, er, James Dale Guckert, of White House press credentials and softball questions fame.)
That's admirably fair language, I'd say. Instead of trying to paint the Right's longstanding hatred for Rather as unhinged (perhaps by dwelling exclusively on the rhetoric of extremists who suggested that Rather should be executed for treason), Rieder simply rebukes their self-satisfaction, without letting it get in the way of his admiration for their can-do spirit. But in Howell's case, left-wing incivility is so "incredibly vicious" that it justifies collective punishment, even if this stifles voices that are neither abusive nor crude:
The onslaught was such that the Post felt compelled to shut down an area of washingtonpost.com earmarked for comments about the ombudsman. The Web site drew fire, not surprisingly, for that decision. But I don't have a problem with it.
So according to Rieder, the media can't hear too often that "standards matter." But if that message is communicated in a way its recipient doesn't like, all bets are off. If you're not confused yet, Rieder praises Howell for coming up with this daring solution to her woes:
"I'll read every e-mail and answer as many legitimate complaints as I can... But I will reject abuse and all that it stands for."
In other words, Howell is now apparently proposing to do her job; she'll address the substance of her readers' complaints, and take invective in stride like an adult. Rieder calls this modest plan "sensible," while intimating that she could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by adhering to it in the first place. So everything's settled: Howell's right even when she's wrong, lefty media critics are wrong even when they're right, and the GOP's talking points on Abramoff stay on life support for another day.

The Wedge Boomerangs

Red State Rabble makes an astute point (i.e., one that comports with my preconceived notions) about the ID discoverist William Dembski's recent appearance in Kansas:

It may be that biblical literalists, who make up the largest potential constituency for Dembski's ideas, found that the first swallow of intelligent design theory went down smoothly enough, but the more they heard from Dembski as the evening wore on, the more conscious they became of an unpleasant aftertaste the theory tends to leave in the mouths of those who are motivated primarily by biblical literalism.

Those doubts about the utility of ID theory for those motivated primarily by a belief in young earth creationism might have been reinforced by Dembski's admission that he accepts scientific evidence indicating the earth is 4.5 billion years old and existed long before the advent of human beings.
That's exactly right, and that's why the Discovery Institute's vaunted wedge strategy has always posed a far bigger threat to Biblical literalism - and thus, to the primary market for anti-evolutionary dogmatics - than to evolution. ID's willingness to make certain tactical concessions to science set it on a collision course with young-earth creationism from the start. And as Michael Behe himself noted in Darwin's Black Box, its definitions are vague enough to leave open such naturalistic "escape clauses" as directed panspermia; thus, it provides no real support for the existence of any god, let alone a specific god like YHWH. For Biblical literalists, even the trace amount of science in ID is deadly poison.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Distributive Justice

An upcoming article describes the difficulties - some might say horrors - of allocating ventilators in a flu pandemic:

Drs. Hick and O'Laughlin developed their proposal after a recent drill showing that an epidemic affecting ten percent of the Minneapolis area would lead to a "rapid and critical shortfall" in the supply of mechanical ventilators. "Despite a surge capacity of between 2,500 and 3,500 beds in the area, there were 16 ventilators available in our regional system," says Dr. Hick....

"The goal would be to promote consistency between hospitals and regions," says Dr Hick. "Across the board, resource allocation would be as equal as possible. The concept is distributive justice—doing the greatest good for the greatest number of patients."
This begs all sorts of questions. There are several possible forms of distributive justice in healthcare; one common form, for instance, argues that everyone has a right to basic healthcare, but that the wealthy can elect to purchase a better quality of care.

But in a situation where you have only 16 ventilators to treat 250 patients, a wealthy person's ability to buy access to a ventilator might cost one or more other people's lives; I think most people can agree that it wouldn't be ethical to auction off ventilators to the highest bidder. But then, how should one allocate ventilators to medical personnel, as opposed to other essential workers, or to private citizens? A strictly egalitarian model of distributive justice, in which the professional or financial status of a person isn't prejudicial, is a noble ideal, but it's not necessarily realistic even at the best of times.

And God knows, these aren't the best of times. If BushCo can be said to have any philosophy of distributive justice - the phrase implies a desire for a fair outcome, after all - it's certainly not egalitarian or utilitarian. Instead, it's based on the sociopathic self-regard endemic among American plutocrats. In BushCo's world, a rich person doesn't just have a superior capacity to get healthcare; he or she has a superior right to it, and that right trumps the more pressing medical need of someone who's less well off.

Obviously, Bush's planning decisions will affect the quality and timeliness of emergency response to a pandemic; that's reason enough for fear and trembling. As Robert Putsch and Linda Pololi note in their paper Distributive Justice in American Healthcare:
The primary source of rationing and inequities in American healthcare is the political system.
As far as rationing and inequities go, the steps taken - and not taken - before and after Hurricane Katrina provide a fairly clear picture of how "distributive justice" works under BushCo. Beyond that, I think the administration's elitist, callous philosophy is likely to intensify the dangers emergency workers and doctors face from citizens in a pandemic.

Certain forms of radical individualism are dangerous in an emergency, as are suspicion, paranoia, and pseudo-religious notions that the poor and sick get what they deserve. Unfortunately, Bush and his creatures are modeling and promoting exactly this sort of immoral, irrational, antisocial behavior to a significant chunk of the country. I don't know whether this'll aggravate a pandemic or not, of course. But it does seem to me that any serious plan for egalitarian or utilitarian distribution of healthcare ought to take into account the Bush administration's absolute contempt for egalitarianism and utilitarianism.

An Important Theory

I usually try to avoid writing polemics against intelligent design, but this letter by Dr. Philip Skell to the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee made my blood boil:

[T]he issue of how to teach evolutionary theory has been dominated by voices at the extremes. On one extreme, many religious activists have advocated for Bible-based ideas about creation to be taught and for evolution to be eliminated from the science curriculum entirely. On the other hand, many committed Darwinian biologists present students with an idealized version of the theory that glosses over real problems and prevents students from learning about genuine scientific criticisms of it.

Both these extremes are mistaken. Evolution is an important theory and students need to know about it. But scientific journals now document many scientific problems and criticisms of evolutionary theory and students need to know about these as well.
If unresolved "problems" and "criticisms" are grounds for discarding an otherwise successful theory, physics is in very grave trouble (cf. intelligent falling), along with the rest of the sciences, and the humanities, and - oddly enough - whatever slender logical crutches support ID.

The reason high school students get a "glossed over" and "idealized" account of evolution is because you have to start somewhere. By the same token, a high-school history class will tell you the basics about Oliver Cromwell, but it won't spend an entire semester exploring scholarly debates over the role of fen drainage in the English Civil War. That sort of specialized study is what college, and graduate work, and post-graduate work are for. If we applied Skell's logic to physics, we'd be confounding kids with esoteric ontological debates over quantum theory before they'd grasped Newton.
Darwinian evolution is an interesting theory about the remote history of life. Nonetheless, it has little practical impact on those branches of science that do not address questions of biological history (largely based on stones, the fossil evidence)....None of the great discoveries in biology and medicine over the past century depended on guidance from Darwinian evolution---it provided no support.
Frances Crick would argue otherwise, I think, as would John D. Watson. And there's certainly evidence that Mendel read Darwin carefully, and was influenced by him.

Putting aside Skell's calculated use of the misnomer "Darwinian evolution," it's hard to conceive of an area of modern life that evolutionary biology doesn't affect (to say nothing of the stark physical fact of descent with modification). Medicine is an obvious example: the evolution of drug resistance, the identification and treatment of genetic diseases, the yearly creation of flu vaccines...hell, most ID theorists admit that drug resistance is a perfectly obvious example of Darwinian selection, before dismissing it as a "mere" example of micro-evolution.

What does Skell make of the link between sickle trait and malaria resistance? And as far as practicality goes, what about agriculture and animal husbandry? And what about ecotoxicology, microbial hazmat remediation, and forensics? Apparently, it's all castles in the air:
For those scientists who take it seriously, Darwinian evolution has functioned more as a philosophical belief system than as a testable scientific hypothesis.
So Skell thinks evolution's important, and should be taught in schools, but he also thinks that "scientists who take it seriously" are quasi-religious fanatics. Fair enough.
Intellectual freedom is fundamental to the scientific method. Learning to think creatively, logically and critically is the most important training that young scientists can receive.
True. But unless you're a solipsist, intellectual freedom doesn't include the freedom to ignore facts that are reasonably well established. I have no intellectual freedom to say that the sun goes around the earth, or that I was born before my parents, or that I can fly if I flap my arms fast enough.

As it stands now, every biologist has the freedom to believe in a creator, but does not have the right to make that belief a methodological or philosophical obligation for other biologists, or for students. That seems like a pretty good set-up to me.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Time Wasted, While-U-Wait!

Sir Oolius has tagged me with a meme that, for once, requires very little work on my part.

1. Go into your archives.
2. Find your 23rd post.
3. Post the fifth sentence (or closest to it).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
5. Tag five other people to do the same thing.
It’s as easy as it is pointless! How can I refuse?

This lapidary sentence originally appeared in a 2004 post entitled More False Economy, which discussed an outbreak of adenovirus among the U.S. military:
For every dollar you save up front, you lose God knows how many down the line...to say nothing of the lives that may be lost.
What I’d like to know is, why did the sentence have to come from the 23rd post? The most logical – and troubling - explanation is that the author of this meme is a fanatical follower of the disgraced German otorhinolaryngologist Wilhelm Fliess. If I’m right, and I get a bunch of e-mails offering to cure me of my reflex nasal neuroses, I intend to hold Sir Oolius personally responsible.

In the meantime, I have to find some other people to bug with this thing. I’ll go with Rorschach, Vestal Vespa, Four Legs Good, Vicki, and the renowned bowling expert GrrlScientist. You can thank me with money or kisses, singly or en masse, as you see fit.

An Invading Army

In Loudoun County, Virginia - a suburb of Washington DC - houses are being built without infrastructure to support them. Apparently, new septic tanks are already overflowing, and a massive influx of population has increased the commute for some residents from 30 to 90 minutes.

At rush hour, rural Loudoun's scenic two-lane byways crawl with traffic that moves more slowly than the new six-lane access road to the east. Air quality has worsened as smog levels have shot up. As thousands of new houses go up each year ahead of water and sewer lines, residents face water shortages and newly polluted streams.
A few days ago, I criticized an article by Joel Kotkin, wherein he fretted over political obstacles to suburban sprawl:
It is time politicians recognized how their constituents actually want to live. If not, they will only hurt their communities, and force aspiring middle-class families to migrate ever further out to the periphery for the privacy, personal space and ownership that constitutes the basis of their common dreams.
In other words, a cabal of "university-trained" urban planners - which is an odd pejorative, coming from an academic like Kotkin - is conspiring with lefty politicians like LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to stop the American Dream dead in its tracks.

In reality, as I pointed out at the time, limits to growth tend to arise from popular demand. The case in Loudoun County is typical. A certain number of people moved there because they liked its rural character. But now that growth is out of control, existing homeowners see the region as losing its attractions (they probably also worry whether their property will lose value as growth continues).

Far from being a surprise, this is the central characteristic of suburban growth. In his fine book Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870 - 1930, Robert M. Fogelson quotes Frederick Law Olmstead on "the problem of unwanted change":
Far more disturbing than the sorry state of what Olmstead called "catch-penny speculations" was the rapid deterioration of once fashionable suburbs. As he wrote in the early 1870s, "Numerous suburbs of New York, which a few years ago were distinguished for their rural beauty and refined society, have thus, through the gradual development of various uncongenial elements, entirely lost their former character....These suburbs were "laid waste almost as by an invading army."
Olmstead, mind you, was in favor of suburbs. But having seen how Staten Island was developed without regard to such niceties as drainage, he favored stern restrictions on growth.
Looking either with reference to enjoyment of it [the suburbs] as a place of residence, or as an investment for my children, I must be cautious not to be too much affected by superficial appearances. What improvements have you here that tend to insure permanent healthfulness and permanent rural beauty?
Olmstead's question resonated with developers, and the answer they gave was "We won't sell to niggers, Jews, or Irish!" As Fogelson shows, restrictive covenants also put onerous constraints on land use, architectural options, and so forth.

I'm sure Kotkin would agree with me that these developers were snobs and bigots, though to my knowledge he's never addressed the roots of suburbia in white exclusionism and xenophobia.

We've since given up some of the more blatantly unconstitutional methods of keeping suburbs in a state of "permanent healthfulness," but the problem Olmstead identified remains; when migration to the suburbs isn't carefully regulated, living conditions tend to deteriorate by one measure or another. Rather than suffer "unwanted change," existing homeowners often "migrate ever further out to the periphery for the privacy, personal space and ownership that constitutes the basis of their common dreams." Those who can't flee often try to limit growth, as is happening in Loudoun County:
The hypergrowth has political ramifications, too. Last fall, traditional Republican strongholds like Loudoun County and other Virginia exurbs voted for Tim Kaine, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who won on a platform of controlled growth and traffic management.

"It is unusual that Kaine won in all of the traditionally Republican exurbs," says Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The obvious lesson for politicians is to pay attention to how much development people can tolerate. It's limited."
I've had disagreements with Sabato before, but in this case, he's absolutely right: development is limited first by what the land can support, and second by what an existing population will tolerate. Cornucopians like Kotkin argue that the ambitions of would-be suburbanities should take precedence over other considerations (wallowing in raw sewage is, after all, a small price to pay for realizing one's dreams). But issues like infrastructure and drainage affect taxpayers, and if taxpayers can veto public goods like healthcare and women's services, they can certainly thwart individual developments that come with steep price tags or public health problems.

Kotkin warns us that we'll see "forced migration to the periphery," unless we acknowledge that such migration is a right with which politicians shouldn't interfere. Loudoun County is an excellent example of what happens when this sort of addlebrained cornucopian rhetoric runs up against reality.

Asleep at the Switch

Mitt Romney (R-MA) is worried that America is losing its competitive edge in science and technology:

Addressing activists in Omaha, Romney said the nation is "asleep at the switch" and needs to focus on improving its technology or risk being overtaken by emerging countries such as China.
There are a couple problems with Romney's stance. For one thing, technology is meaningless in and of itself; in a sane world, critical thinking guides how, where, and when technology is designed and used. But critical thinking is anathema to the GOP, which feeds off the willful ignorance of the cowards, sexual cripples, and know-nothing hypocrites who make up its base. A society in which modern Republicanism can thrive will be hostile by definition to intelligence and to facts. Romney himself makes this point almost as soon as he opens his mouth:
In a nod to the conservative makeup of Iowa and Nebraska, Romney addressed family values in his speech and lamented court rulings that allowed gay marriages in his state.

"We believe in the sanctity of life," he said. "We also believe in family."
A population willing to take lies of this magnitude at face value is doomed to mediocrity. When you discriminate against gays, you're defying science, common sense, and morality. First, you're ignoring the scientific evidence that homosexuality is not a conscious choice. Second, by discriminating against qualified people, you're weakening your company, your industry, and your country. Third, by abusing and oppressing your fellow human beings, you're sneering at the only religious obligation that matters.

So Romney demands higher standards for American education...at a time when his party is promoting the content-free fraud of intelligent design; and trying to criminalize nonconforming teachers; and exploiting the public's poor grasp of statistics and logic; and treating abject fear - of terrorists, of gays, of women, of evolution - as some sort of moral and intellectual duty.

Unlike Romney and his pals, I'd love to live in a country educated enough to reject this sort of cynicism and dishonesty.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

I don't know exactly which nudibranch this is...but I'm pretty certain it's some variety of Flabellina. Like most aeolids, they eat stinging cnidarins (e.g., jellyfish and anemones), and recycle the stinging cells into the cerata on their backs, where they remain functional against predators.

Friday Hope Blogging

Today's subject is the obvious. (Or, as we say over at Eschaton, "the fucking obvious.")

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute recently reported that trees may be a significant source of atmospheric methane. The implications of this finding for global warming were reported widely, and incorrectly. As WorldChanging notes:

[T]his report exploded across the newsosphere, usually with headlines suggesting that plants were responsible for global warming, that planting trees to mitigate atmospheric CO2 just made things worse, and otherwise striking an odd balance of "we're doomed" and "it's not our fault!"
In response to this, the researchers have issued the following unequivocal clarification:
[T]he climatic benefits gained through carbon sequestration by reforestation far exceed the relatively small negative effect, which may reduce the carbon uptake effect by up to 4 per cent. Thus, the potential for reduction of global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive.
Meanwhile, researchers at Penn State have reported the equally obvious finding that mitigating hazards in advance of natural disasters saves lives and money:
"The study found that hazard mitigation grants were cost-effective and reduced future losses from natural hazards," says Rose.

"This type of grant provides a significant net benefit to society and a significant net savings to the U.S. treasury."
Admittedly, everyone - even Congress - already knew this. But these days, affirming the obvious feels like progress.

Often, it is progress. It's always been pikestaff-plain that Michael Fumento is a play-for-pay hack with the ethics of a sewer rat. But last week, we got proof. Better yet, he's been dropped by Scripps Howard News Service, which means I can now refer to him as a disgraced play-for-pay hack with the ethics of a sewer rat.

Producing nuclear bombs requires certain materials, certain equipment, and certain capabilities. Arms Control Wonk details some of them, and explains why hard-right hysteria over Iran's nuclear program is unrealistic and dishonest. (Also, in an especially poignant summation of the obvious, he calls Charles Krauthammer a moron.)

In other news, NASCAR has noticed that leaded gasoline is extremely poisonous, and intends to switch to unleaded. Not to be outdone, dentists have noticed that flushing mercury down the drain is a bad idea, and are taking steps to limit it.

And now, having wallowed sufficiently in the obvious, let's refresh ourselves with a good stiff dose of materia obscura, courtesy of BibliOdyssey.

The Froward Marsh of Freedom

Alicublog reports that a conservative group is offering college students money to keep tabs on "liberal bias" among UCLA professors.

This sort of monitoring has been going on for some time, but the idea of paying students for it is, I believe, relatively new. It strikes me as a risky investment, at best. Through sources I'm not at liberty to name, I was able to get my hands on one student's handwritten report on instances of instructor bias at a nearby university; you can decide for yourself how much reports like this are worth per diem:

UPDATE: This article provides further evidence that the Bruin Alumni Association is wasting its money.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Emptiness and Standstill

Robert M. Jeffers describes the paradox at the heart of BushCo's legal theories:

If Alito's more bizarre notions of Presidential power could be made law by ruling of the Supreme Court, then Alito's aversions during the hearings that the President is "not above the law" would remain true, but be completely pointless. Because, per Judge Alito's writings, the President is the law. Signing statements and extraordinary powers where the court "lacks expertise" (and that is a basis upon which the court declines to intrude on such issues as the declaring of enemy combatants in wartime) would become code-words for: the President cannot violate the law, because the President determines the law.
The German legal theorist Carl Schmitt phrased this a bit differently: "Sovereign is he who determines the state of exception." BushCo's "unitary executive" is sovereign in Schmitt's sense; he decides when – and to whom - the law doesn't apply. The result is a "dual state" in which law and authority co-exist without necessarily coinciding; law is in force without being applied, and authority exercises force without law.

This sounds like dictatorship. But Giorgio Agamben makes a crucial distinction between dictatorship and the state of exception. The latter
is not defined as a fullness of powers, a pleromatic state of law, as in the dictatorial model, but as a kenomatic state, an emptiness and standstill of the law.
One difference is that the state of exception is ostensibly based on a “necessity” that arises from some real or imagined emergency. The problem here, of course, is that a person who has the authority to declare a state of emergency also has the authority to bestow upon himself the freedom to act outside the law, which is an obvious - and dangerous - conflict of interest.

What's even more problematic is that this subjective, potentially self-serving determination is not limited to the sovereign, but is within the reach of each citizen. A president who "defends" the Constitution by breaking the law emboldens citizens to do the same, just as a president who ignores international laws against torture increases the risk that its citizens, or those of its allies, will be tortured. A ruler who places himself outside the legal order virtually obliges himself to increase surveillance and repression, which increases the temptation of citizens to exercise their own sovereignty, and declare their own state of exception. It's easy to see how this situation could spiral out of control, even if one is unaware of situations in which it has.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In Feminism's Name

In a column titled The Cultural Contradictions of Feminism, Maggie Gallagher manages to plumb new depths of misogyny, meanspiritedness, and slack-jawed stupidity.

First, she discusses a new book by Kate Michelman of NARAL, which recounts an important motivating factor for Michelman's pro-choice activism:

In 1969, Michelman, a young Catholic mother facing divorce, had to get the approval of three male experts in order to abort her own child. The experience plunged her into a life of abortion rights activism, including most recently stridently attacking Sam Alito's decision upholding a Pennsylvania law requiring a wife to notify her husband of her intention to abort.
Gallagher doesn't see fit to mention that Michelman sought an abortion after her husband knocked her up and abandoned her with three children. One can see why the notion of needing his consent might rub her the wrong way, and how this would lead her naturally to the conclusion that women should have autonomy over their reproductive organs.

Gallagher goes on to imply, obscurely, that the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court serves as some sort of rebuke to Ms. Michelman:
Sam Alito, with a public record of opposition to abortion, is about to become a Supreme Court justice despite the last-ditch, mean-spirited efforts by Senate Dems to impose a one-week delay.

Who'd have thunk it? Certainly not Kate Michelman in the heady days of her feminist youth as an abortion rights organizer.
I don't pretend to know what Kate Michelman thought in those "heady days." But if I were to guess, I'd say she probably recognized that for the foreseeable future, right-wing politicians - with the aid of opportunistic, amoral rent-a-hacks like Maggie Gallagher - would do their utmost to put women's bodies under the legal guardianship of a man (or failing that, the state), and that fighting them was a moral duty.

Perhaps I'm wrong. But if Michelman ever believed that misogyny and sexual brutality were on the wane in the United States, the last thirty years probably disabused her of the notion. The only real purpose of Gallagher's comments here is to gloat over the fact that Kate O'Beirne's book seems to be outselling Michelman's on Amazon.

Speaking of which, Gallagher - gentle soul that she is - also shows us how real women comport themselves, by pointing out that Michelman is an "aging" feminist. Harsh words, eh? Oddly enough, Kate O'Beirne's Wikipedia entry says that she graduated from high school in 1967, which would put her within spitting distance of Michelman's age. But perhaps Gallagher feels that aging is a process that's particularly humiliating for feminists. If so, that's the closest thing to a "cultural contradiction of feminism" she's managed to identify so far; the fact that it's both inaccurate and unseemly sets the stage for her next observation.
Second sign of the times: the two photos. They are oddly juxtaposed in my head: One is a New York Times photo of Gail Sheehy in a puff piece dedicated to her latest book, "Sex and the Seasoned Woman"....Sheehy is suggestively sprawled in front a fireplace, wearing a black sweater, with peek-a-boo white lace at the cleavage, a black leather skirt, and fishnet stockings. At age 68, Grandma vamps.

The second photo is a picture of a dead girl, Nixzmary Brown, age 7, laid out in bridal white at the R.G. Ortiz Funeral Home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
"Oddly juxtaposed" is right. I'm sure you're on the edge of your seat wondering whether Gallagher's going to pull off this Knievalesque leap, so let's check in without further ado.
Nixzmary never lived to reach the age where sex-as-substitute-religion had any appeal. Her mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, eschewing older standards of bourgeois morality that once confined women's sexual choices, according to the New York Post had six children with four different men. The last one, Cesar Rodriguez, beat Nixzmary to death.

What is the connection?
Good question. Women of all ages and classes frequently get beaten or murdered by men, and always have. Traditionally, a bourgeois women's "sexual choices" might, in some cases, have been confined by moral standards (albeit brutal and one-sided standards, backed up by physical threats of one kind or another). But the sexual choices of less fortunate women are very often confined by poverty, ignorance, and the everlasting threat of violence (which suggests that they're not really choices at all, rationally speaking).

Still, we mustn't let all this hair-splitting get in the way of Ms. Gallagher's stern moral lesson:
[T]he feminist leaders of Kate Michelman's generation, still painfully peddling sexual liberation as a path to empowerment for women, have never accepted responsibility for the carnage that has been unleashed in feminism's name.
This, frankly, is as obscene a proposition as I've ever read. We're actually invited to understand that the death of this seven-year-old girl is an example of the "carnage" unleased by feminism. I suppose that Nixzaliz Santiago read a little too much Gail Sheehy, it went to her head, and the next thing you know, her daughter was getting beaten to death "in feminism's name." By a man, no less!

Let's be perfectly clear about this. According to Gallagher, Nixzmary Santiago
had no say in her mother's sexual choices but...paid the ultimate price.
There's the conservative culture of personal responsibility in a nutshell: if a man beats a woman's child to death, it's the mother's fault for being a slut.

In Sprawl We Trust, Part Three

About a year ago, I wrote a series of long posts critiquing an article by the pro-suburbia pundit Joel Kotkin (here's Part I, here's the intermission, and here's Part II).

Kotkin's got a new piece on suburbia this week. Most of his arguments (and fallacies) will be familiar to anyone who's read him before; many are addressed at length in my earlier posts. For those who want a brief rundown, his basic view is that real Americans want to live in the suburbs, because living in the suburbs is a good thing, no matter what chardonnay-swilling urban elitists might think about it.

His tone has gotten quite a bit more strident, though:

Suburbia, the preferred way of life across the advanced capitalist world, is under an unprecedented attack.
Unprecedented? What a difference a year makes. Here's Kotkin last February:
The battle's over. For half a century, legions of planners, urbanists, environmentalists and big city editorialists have waged war against sprawl. Now it's time to call it a day and declare a victor. The winner is, yes, sprawl.
Glad tidings indeed. And yet, Kotkin's new piece is titled "The War Against Suburbia," and warns of an ongoing yet "unprecedented" attack on sprawl. It's almost as though he's making this stuff up as he goes along.

One of Kotkin's besetting sins is that he doesn't care to distinguish between different types of sprawl. As far as I can tell, acres of tract housing built along a freeway corridor, and new housing built around an existing community center, both qualify as "sprawl" (or as "suburbs"; to Kotkin, the terms are interchangeable). Thus, in a previous article, he described Naperville, Illinois as an example of a "revitalized" suburb, even though its capacity for revitalization had a great deal to do with the fact that it's a 200-year-old community built around a city center, rather than an isolate subdivision with no services and no common areas.

Another problem is that to Kotkin, resources are infinite for all intents and purposes. Depleted or contaminated groundwater, loss of agricultural land, peak energy...none of these things counts for much in Kotkin's world. (In regards to a peak-oil scenario, he simply argues that in some countries, sprawl has continued despite increased energy costs, which is like arguing that one can survive getting run over by a tank because one survived getting run over by a tricycle.)

Having declared the migration from city to suburb to be not merely inexorable, but morally and politically correct, Kotkin has little patience for people who propose to do things backwards:
[A] risible story...ran in last Sunday's New York Times, titled "Goodbye, Suburbia." The piece tracked the hegira back to the city by sophisticated urbanites who left their McMansions to return to Tribeca (rhymes with "Mecca"). Suburbia, one returnee sniffed, is "just a giant echoing space."
Even apart from the not-so-subtle Muslim-baiting, this is a remarkably irrational piece of invective. If, say, 10,000 people leave the city for the suburbs, surely no one can be surprised if a certain percentage of them move back to the city over time. There are any number of legitimate reasons for such a move - from divorce to long commutes - and despite Kotkin's own snobbish assumptions, a sense of monotony is one of them. Other than the fact that this story challenges Kotkin's vision of the natural order, it's not clear what makes it "risible."

Also, Kotkin's central dogma is that the vast majority of Americans want "privacy, personal space and ownership." Surely a large home sitting on acres of semi-rural land meets those needs, if anything does. One can't help feeling that the building Kotkin dismissively calls a "McMansion" in this passage would be praised as a "single-family home" under slightly different circumstances.

The problem with Kotkin is similar to the problems I've noticed with "debunkers" of organic farming. Like them, he avoids or glosses over the central question of resource use and sustainability, and tries to fill the resulting logical hole with ill-tempered faux-populist rhetoric. Thus, he ends his latest manifesto with a demand that politicians should recognize "how their constituents actually want to live," and respect their "common dreams." But this is nonsense. Politicians have to balance demands from competing constituencies; a great deal of opposition to growth comes not from Kotkin's stock cast of tweedy, academic villains, but from settled suburbanites who stand to lose some of their elbow room, or some of the natural attractions that drew them to the area.

And ultimately, how people want to live is beside the point; what matters is how they can live, given an area's resources, infrastructure, and existing population.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Worried Well

Another day, another dishonest article on organic agriculture. Kristen Gerencher starts out with the standard exordium:

A growing number of people are willing to pay a premium for food certified as organic -- produce generally barred from being grown with pesticides, synthetic materials or genetic modification, and livestock raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. But many scientists say it's unlikely organic food gives consumers any extra health benefit....
Gerencher spends the rest of her article questioning the notion that organic foods are healthier for the individual consumer, while completely ignoring the question of whether organic farming is healthier for some segment of society (e.g., agricultural workers), or for society as a whole (e.g., those of us who might be affected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria).

As a simple example of why this is foolish, consider the case of Chile. The U.S. imported roughly $740 million worth of fresh fruit from Chile in 2004. In the same year, Chilean agricultural workers suffered two pesticide-related fatalities and 568 cases of poisoning. And that may be the tip of the iceberg:
The ministry suspects some employers were concealing cases of chemical poisoning prior to the ruling, given the high number of temporary workers, the majority of whom have no employment contract and some of whom may be working illegally.
We have pretty much the same problem in the United States, of course. Cases of poisoning are likely to go unreported because illegal workers are afraid to seek medical treatment, or to file safety complaints. Even so, in 2003 there were over 300 suspected or confirmed agricultural pesticide injuries in California alone.

The recent Ag-Mart scandal is even more troubling, and hints at the cost to taxpayers of pesticide use and misuse. (Also, this was a case in which firms like Wal-Mart pulled a food product from their shelves not because it was dangerous to consumers, but because it was harming the workers who produced it.)

The poisoning of ag workers tends to be portrayed in the media as an aberration. However, a recent study of mortality among pesticide workers found that:
Compared to all other workers, farmers and pesticide applicators were at greater risk of accidental mortality. These pesticide-exposed workers...were at an increased risk of hematopoietic and nervous system cancers.
Studies like these call the moral and financial assumptions of factory farming into question, and provide an excellent reason for consumers to seek alternatives. But Gerencher insists that buying organic foods is an affectation of the "worried well" (whom she describes - interestingly - as "educated"). Apparently, we're supposed to picture a gaggle of drooping neurasthenics out of Edgar Allan Poe or J.K. Huysmans...the sort of effete hysterics who swoon when someone peels an orange in an adjoining room. But is it really likely that the organic boom is driven solely by malingerers with enough disposable income to coddle themselves? Isn't it possible that some organic consumers understand the environmental and human impact of factory farming, and that this - more than narrow self-solicitude - drives their buying decisions?

Gerencher allows one of her expert witnesses to suggest as much, though she doesn't follow up on it:
"Organics started out decades ago as an environmentally sound production system," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "What's emerging lately are scientific studies that show there may be some health benefits to organic products."
Organic farming is indeed a production system, and its costs and benefits should therefore be compared carefully to those of its rivals. While the pesticide residue on a piece of fruit may have no short- or long-term health effects, the same can't necessarily be said for pesticide residues on farm lands. Consumers across the continent are increasingly aware of pesticide runoff and groundwater contamination - fish kills, for instance, are common, well-publicized, and often economically disruptive - and it's reasonable to assume that some consumers look at larger issues like land use and community health when deciding to buy organics.

One can argue that there are no environmental or social benefits to organic farming, or that the benefits aren't worthwhile. But I don't see how one can simply refuse to address the question. Any consideration of the pros and cons of organic farming has to include factors like antibiotic use, which affect all of us. The fact that so many journalists ignore these issues in order to sneer at the alleged hypochondria of organic consumers suggests either a disturbing ignorance, or an even more disturbing agenda.

ADDENDUM: This article by Lisa Stiffler, from the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, is the antithesis of Gerencher's piece. Stiffler raises the same questions Gerencher does, in reference to the same Consumer Reports study, but discusses the issues that Gerencher leaves out, and doesn't descend to classist caricature. It's amazing how informative journalism can be, sometimes.


At the Chittagong shipbreaking yard in Bangladesh, supertankers from all over the world are disassembled by low-income laborers, under amazingly dangerous conditions.

Previously, shipbreaking operations were performed primarily in the United States and Europe (in the 1960s, Scotland had the largest shipbreaking facility in the world). But as costs and regulations increased in wealthy countries, operations gradually shifted to dirt-poor countries without environmental or labor laws. The situation at Chittagong is particularly bad; for one thing, it tends to get more than its fair share of oil tankers, which are generally shunned by other countries. As you might imagine, ship owners often decline to clean toxic liquids and gases from the ships, or to warn workers about these hazards.

Shipbreaking is a good example of the horrific practices that can lurk behind the feel-good term "recycling." The International Maritime Organization has recommended a "maker to breaker" system, in which new ships would be designed to make demolition safer and easier. But with roughly 700 ships reaching the end of their lifespan each year, it'll be quite some time before such policies trickle down to regions like Chittagong.

I bring this topic up because the photographer Brenden Corr has a fascinating series on Chittagong in the current issue of Foreign Policy. That said, it can't compare to this haunting photographic survey by Edward Burtynsky.

UPDATE: I fixed the broken FP link, thanks to a tip from Sharl.


Henry “Hank” Crumpton, our recently installed head of counter-terrorism, has three important qualifications for his job. First, he accepts the dogma that our present state of legal ambiguity – in which a “unitary executive” acts lawlessly to defend the law - will remain in place for the rest of our lives:

Mr Crumpton, who previously spent 20 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency, warned yesterday that the "war on terror" was likely to last for decades.
He also says that a massive terrorist attack is inevitable. If this is true – and I suspect it is – then we should take steps now to limit the amount of damage such an attack will do. One of the best steps in this direction would be to increase, rather than decrease, legal restrictions on executive power. It makes no sense to destroy the legal foundation of American civil society over fear of an attack that'll happen whether we live up to our ideals or not.

Second, Crumpton is an alarmist about biological terrorism:
"As catastrophic as a nuclear attack would be, it would be self-contained. But if you look at a worst-case scenario for a biological attack, it would be difficult to determine whether or not it was a terrorist attack, and it would be far more difficult to contain."
This is dubious logic. The worst-case scenario for a biological attack would involve a contagious agent like smallpox, which is an extremely unlikely pathogen for terrorists to have or to use; it would probably be ID'd very quickly in the event of an outbreak. An anthrax attack, while more likely, wouldn’t be any less “self-contained” than a nuclear explosion, and it’d be a lot less devastating. In my view, a person who believes that any plausible biological attack would be more catastrophic than a nuclear attack shouldn’t be in charge of counter-terrorism. (I realize that people who stand to cash in on the biodefense boom may disagree with me.)

Last, and most important, Crumpton seems to lack any sense of irony or shame:
"If we look at the threat posed by Iran, they have links with Hizbollah [the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim militia], which is a terrorist organisation with global reach, and they are actively pursuing WMD. And the leadership has made a conscious decision to defy international treaties. I am deeply troubled by this."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Here is Hypselodris obscura, and a warning. It may be that your heart pants with envy at the gay equipages and fine dresses of the more fortunate or more guilty sisters who glitter by you. If so, strive to win to your bosoms the sweet and gentle goddess Content.

Friday Hope Blogging

The big news, I suppose, is the passage of the California Solar Initiative. Most news stories seem to be focusing on its creation of subsidies for homeowners (which I believe would cover roughly a third of the cost of installing solar panels, on average). But job creation is important, too. Solar is labor-intensive; a UC Berkeley study claims that solar photovoltaics create 20 manufacturing and 13 installation/maintenance job-years per megawatt generated, as opposed to coal and gas plants, which create 11 job-years for each 100 GWh.

The Initiative also authorizes a solar water heater (SWH) incentive program for customers of San Diego Gas and Electric. If nothing else, this should demonstrate that "progress" is anything but linear. In 1897, 30% of the homes in Pasadena, CA had solar water heating. And by the early 1940s, more than half the population of Florida used solar water heaters. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes us to re-attain these levels.

Walgreens is taking a huge step towards solar power, as well:

Walgreens and ImaginIt Inc., a Denver-based clean energy solutions company, have agreed to install solar electric systems in 96 stores and two distribution centers in California and 16 stores in New Jersey. The new systems will generate more than 13.8 million kilowatt-hours per year, making this the largest solar project ever completed in the United States. The first systems are expected to be operational in early 2006.
Speaking of which, Gristmill mentions the response of certain libertarians to Whole Foods' decision to buy 458 million kilowatt-hours of wind-power credits (a move which the EPA claims is equivalent to taking 60,000 cars off the road for a year). At one point, the term "enviro-luddite" is used, which I think is indicative of a typical confusion between technological progress, and progress as the optimization of a given system. For a great many decades, the meaning of "progress" has been defined to a large extent by industry, and has naturally reflected industry's stake in proprietary technologies. In my experience, libertarians and conservatives are especially prone to this kind of thinking: progress is represented by technology, the value of which is defined by the marketing success of industry, the value of which is defined by a naive and romanticized view of markets (and a refusal to look at external costs). One potential result of this stance is that technology not only internalizes ideological constraints, but turns around and imposes those constraints on society as norms, by means of its alleged "inevitability" (you can't fight progress!).

In an article on a firm that's making paper from banana farm wastes, WorldChanging describes a different sort of progress:
Papyrus’ technology meets those criteria: BTT [Banana Tree Trunk, a waste product from banana farming] is the source of fibre; Production takes place amidst the plantations which reduces transport requirements and resultant pollution; No external water supply is used during the production process; Minimal amounts of energy are needed; There are no introduced chemical additives in the production process; No effluent is discharges or released into the environment: the only by-products are fluid (basically water) from the banana plant and off cuts usable as mulch which will be returned to the plantations from which supply of raw material is sourced.
It's easy enough to argue that banana paper isn't going to become the new industry standard. But to my mind, that's not the point. A process like this one represents progress not because it will put BoiseCascade out of business, but because it involves casting off the ideological constraints I mentioned above. It should be seen in the context of an overall revolution in design, in which unconventional products and processes are increasingly recombining, like genes. To extend that simile a bit further, one might think of conservatarian dogma as a clarion call to inbreeding.

While we're on the subject of paper, I'm very pleased to report that a federal judge has just slapped down BushCo's attempt to destroy forest protection laws:
[A] federal court has declared illegal a Bush administration's decision to eliminate safeguards for old growth forests and the rare plants and animals that inhabit them.

The ruling handed down late Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman vacates the administration¹s decision to eliminate the "Survey and Manage" standard of the Northwest Forest Plan. Her decision reinstates the standard, and requires that all timber sales on federal forests in western Washington, western Oregon, and northwestern California comply with the standard.
The fact that I applaud this decision doesn't mean I don't enjoy a bit of wholesale destruction now and again. In fact, I think I'll end this post right here, and pay a little visit to Implosion World.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Stuff About Things

If I'd known my post on Mark Steyn was going to attract so much traffic, I probably would've spent more than an hour writing it! I'm not inclined to revisit the issue even if I had the time, but I do recommend this discussion of population decline in the Economist. I link to it not so much as a specific contradiction of Steyn's argument - and still less as a "real" picture of demographic transition - but as an example of the sort of factors Steyn simply ignores. (Link via Triple Pundit.)

Over at Arms Control Wonk, guest blogger Jane Vaynman discusses the natural history of peace.

Robert M. Jeffers discusses some implications of Samuel Alito's "open mind":

Alito refuses, as Roberts did (per Durbin), to declare Roe v. Wade "the settled law of the land." There's a reason for that. He has an "open mind."
Cervantes has an important post on the folly of antibacterials:
Consumer products companies market antibacterial bathroom soap, kitchen cleaners, toys, high chairs, car seats, doggie toys, even clothing. Bacteria can evolve resistance to the agents used in these products, which confers cross resistance to some antibiotics. These products are essentially useless -- you can't possibly make your home sterile, nor would you want to. There is no evidence that they protect people against infections, either.
Nonconstitutional partisan law scholar Ann Altmouse on Samuel Alito's observation that being a judge is different from being a lawyer:
This is evidence of a keen mind at work. Few people would ever realize that attorneys and judges play different roles. For instance, judges bang hammers (called "gavels") on things in order to make a loud noise. Attorneys do not. The man is a born storyteller!
Obligatory photo link: David Maisel may be my new favorite photographer. I'm especially taken with his aerial views of Owens Lake. According to BLDGBLOG, which is currently devoting multiple posts to Maisel's work:
Maisel writes of a "fascination with the undoing of the landscape," a kind of geo-industrial unpuzzling of the terrestrial surface and its impermanent forms.
I can't recommend Maisel's site highly enough.

Philosophy of Intelligent Design

The existence of God is a perfectly respectable topic for a philosophy class. In fact, I'd go a step further and say that it's an essential topic, if not the essential topic. No survey of the philosophy of any era or country is conceivable without it.

That being the case, I'll cheerfully concede that Intelligent Design is a valid and even a valuable subject to discuss in a philosophy class, so long as the discussion is put in its historical perspective, and revolves around questions of inference, authority, justification of truth claims, logic, and so forth. Ideally, such a class would acknowledge every individual's right to a personal belief or disbelief in an intelligent creator, while demolishing false arguments for (and inferences from) those beliefs wherever possible. The argument that evolution couldn't have happened because there are still monkeys living on earth, for instance, would be revealed as fallacious, as would the more general belief that the theory of evolution stands or falls depending on whether or not God exists.

In the real world, of course, things aren't that simple. As PZ Myers reports, A "Philosophy of Intelligent Design" course under discussion in California seems poised to fail as theology, philosophy, and science:

This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Topics that wlll be covered are the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speakers, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution.
I've bolded the last sentence because I find it particularly chilling. The person who'll grade these position papers, Sharon Lemberg, is a soccer coach and special-ed teacher with no background in science or philosophy. Even if she had those credentials, I think it's quite safe to say that no student who takes her class is going to "refute" the theory of evolution - assuming that "refutation" is defined as "disproof" or "falsification" - and that any student who thinks he or she has refuted it deserves a failing grade and a kick in the slats. We can put aside, in this discussion, the question of whether evolution is true or false; a more basic issue for a philosophy class is what would comprise a legitimate refutation of it, and what wouldn't. A Creationist video asserting that the earth is 6000 years old isn't a refutation of evolution; it's a product of ignorance, stupidity, or guile.

One of the many things that IDiots don't seem to grasp is that making or accepting a vacuous, illogical, pseudoscientific argument for God doesn't glorify His name; on the contrary, it misrepresents science, degrades religion, and makes believers look ignorant and insecure. People like Ms. Lemberg want to have their cake and eat it too; they want the scientific gravitas that comes from invoking DNA and radioisotopes, but they also want to ignore the norms and standards from which science derives whatever authority it has. As such, they remind me of Renaissance figures like Athanasius Kircher, whose "miraculous" devices surreptitiously exploited scientific principles in order to demonstrate, by analogy, the operation of occult powers. Except that Kircher was a genius, and these people are fools.

Put Alito Love In Your Heart

Whenever some incompetent, extreme, emotionally crippled, pathologically dishonest conservative judge must be spitshined for public consumption, you can count on Nancy Benac to wear out her elbows on the job.

Her latest puff piece celebrates Samuel Alito, and though it’s not quite as maudlin and treacly as her piece on Janice Rogers Brown (who was a sharecropper’s daughter, in case you didn’t know!), it’s just as cynical and twice as sycophantic.

Before I discuss it, let me make one thing clear: I don’t dislike Benac for her partisanship; she has every right to be a soulless shill for BushCo or anyone else she fancies. What I object to is her apparent belief that her brand of tawdry mawkishness will render her readers as pliable as Silly Putty. Every article she writes suggests that she thinks of her readers as hapless rubes who'll gladly gnaw any old bone she tosses them.

The Alito article starts off with an epiphany. Forget everything you thought you knew about Alito, friends, because Benac has coaxed a trivial anecdote out of someone who knew him as a child:

Samuel Alito's ninth-grade Latin teacher still swoons at how beautifully he conjugated verbs. A fellow judge admires him as someone who won't use five words when two will do.
I'm skeptical about that last bit. Today, Alito was asked a simple yes or no question by Russ Feingold: Does a president have the legal authority to conduct warrantless wiretaps of American citizens? Alito talked for a couple of minutes without answering the question. And that was one of his shorter evasive answers.

To be fair, it’s possible that Alito was merely being smart, serious, and cautious, as is his wont.
From the classroom to the courtroom, President Bush's latest nominee for the Supreme Court leaves a distinct impression. Talk to those who know him best and a portrait emerges of a smart, serious, cautious young man who grew up to be a smart, serious, cautious judge.
For comparison, here's a bit of the love song Benac wrote to Harriet Miers, the judicial nominee who previously flew her to the moon:
Among a host of qualities that...Harriet Ellan Miers shares with new Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts is the apparent lack of any personal legal agenda. Known for an exacting, no-nonsense style, Miers — like Roberts — tends to avoid the limelight.
Benac’s judicial profiles are pretty much interchangeable. First, she offers up a bit of humanizing fluff (“Those who know Gilles de Rais best invariably describe him as a humble man who makes a delicious omelette, and still gets choked up over Bambi”). Next, she insists that the nominee is anything but partisan (“Dr. Crippen's colleagues call him smart, fair, and thoughtful”). Then, at some psychologically appropriate juncture, she conjures up an infernal scene of liberal knife-sharpening and axe-grinding.

The actual substance of liberal complaint is of absolutely no consequence to Benac, and she doesn't bother to report it. Instead, she trots out some token "moderate" to explain that no matter what anyone says, the nominee is actually smart, fair, and thoughtful. The articles generally end with a reiteration of the nominee’s charming or inspiring qualities, and leave his or her fate hanging in the balance. Will leftist slander and treachery crush the humble aspirations of an invaluable public servant? Or will virtue and honesty win the day?

I've gotten ahead of myself, I'm afraid. When we left Ms. Benac, she was saying that Alito was very, very smart. But don't let that worry you; he's not some fancy-pants elitist. Why, you could probably even have a beer with him!
[H]e is well-liked as a regular guy who doesn't lord it over others just because he's way smarter than truly regular guys.
Just in case that concept went over your pointy little head, Benac dumbs it down and repeats it almost immediately:
Alito, 55, has long managed to be the smartypants who doesn't act like a smartypants.
Alright then. We've ascertained that Alito's an adorable egghead who hasn't lost the common touch; he's a winning combination of George Bailey and Braniac 5. That being the case, this is the perfect moment for unprincipled liberal fanaticism to rear its shaggy head:
Interest groups on the left portray him as an extremist eager to impose his conservative views on the nation. But among those who have worked closely with Alito, even liberal Democrats tend to characterize him as fair-minded, measured and pleasant.
In other words, bad lefties call Alito an extremist, but good lefties say he’s fair-minded and measured. Sure, the former outnumber the latter by a wide margin...but all that means is that the modern Left is corrupt and out of touch.

And irrational, too. Honestly, now...how could anyone who's good at Latin conjugation be an extremist?
"I remember right where he sat: first row, second seat," says 91-year-old Grace Bolge, who taught him Latin at Reynolds Junior High outside Trenton. Alito easily nailed the nuances of verbs and subtleties of translation, but never held himself out as better than others, she recalls.
With that whimper, believe it or not, Benac’s piece ends. There’s no discussion of Alito's failure to recuse himself from cases in which he had a financial interest…even though he'd promised under oath to do so. There's no discussion of the reversal of some of his more controversial decisions, nor of the bizarre dissents that were sharply criticized by his colleagues (that liberal firebrand Michael Chertoff, for instance). There's no mention of his membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton, and his inconsistent and almost certainly dishonest claims about it. Benac tells us no more than she feels we need to know: Alito is terse and measured and good at Latin conjugation. He's a genius, but he's also a regular guy; everyone likes him because he knows better than to act like a "smartypants." Those who oppose him are mere "interest groups," acting out of dull habit; there's no reason to mention their names, let alone their arguments.

After reading an article like this one, I feel like all I want out of American journalism is a dishonesty that acknowledges the possibility of human intelligence, by laboring to make itself plausible. It's not the lying that bothers me, after a certain point; it's the contempt.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Crabbed Age and Youth

Ted Stevens (R-AK) has figured out what's to blame for his political woes, and you better believe it's not his own corruption and poor judgment.

"Why would I take personal responsibility for that?" he told reporters at a 70-minute news conference Monday....His measures, he said, were "the target for that extreme taxpayer's [sic] union on the one hand and the environmentalists on the other."
Is Stevens attacking the National Taxpayers Union? This conservatarian anti-tax group did indeed oppose Steven's "Bridge to Nowhere." They also called on Stevens to resign his chairmanship of Senate Appropriations Committee following evidence that he was using the post to feather his own nest.

NTU is funded by the Scaife and Olin foundations - and its alumni include Grover Norquist, David Keating, and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell - so it's quite reasonable to call it "extreme." (Unless, of course, you're Ted Stevens, in which case it'd be a slur on your party and its most cherished principles.)

More likely, Stevens is referring to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a moderate and generally nonpartisan group that also objects to Stevens' corruption.

But really, who knows? Stevens lashes out so frequently, and so blindly, that it's hard to keep track of all his emnities. Although it was moderate Republicans who shot down his most recent scheme for drilling in ANWR, Stevens has now decided that Senate Democrats, by their treachery, have forfeited their right to join him in his subaqueous frolics:
"I'm not traveling with them anymore, and I'm not going to play tennis or swim or do various things with them."
It seems to me that not having to run the risk of sharing a swimming pool with Ted Stevens is a privilege most people would pay a great deal to enjoy, but I suppose Stevens knows his colleagues better than I do.

To his credit, Stevens' has tempered his harsh frontier justice with mercy in the case of Robert Byrd. Apparently, the 82-year-old Stevens is too concerned about the sanity and stability of his 88-year-old friend to subject him to the full brunt of his displeasure:
"Sen. Byrd has been a friend for a long time. It's a little tough to take what he said at the last minute, I told him that." Stevens paused, then added, "His age and his situation is a very difficult one."
Isn't that touching? And people say that kids today don't have sufficient respect for their elders.