Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Score a point for Dodd last night

Dodd said at last night's debate that he supports legalizing marijuana, a position opposed by all other candidates. My usual favorite, Edwards, said legalizing "sends the wrong signal" - a variant on the slippery-slope argument technique that I hate.

Dodd was good last night, as was Biden (surprisingly). Obama was okay, Edwards was okay, Clinton her usual evasive and competent self. Richardson, my second favorite, wasn't so good.

Clinton said she wants to keep the estate tax exemption set at $7 million per couple, which is insane. Edwards wants it at $4 million, which is still too high, but better.

I think Dodd might be my third favorite now, although I don't see him as a real contender.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The one Pinocchio given by 'Fact-Checker' is fair, the text isn't fair, and Dobbs forgot to give himself two

The pushback against the "nine errors" meme the press used against Gore has had some effect, as Washington Post's 'Fact Checker' column reluctantly limits itself to giving just a single Pinocchio to the allegation of a few errors in Gore's movie. It seems our side can also work the refs too and almost get some balance.

The 'Fact Checker' rating system awards "One Pinocchio" for "Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods."

Having read some of the discussion of alleged error, this seems fair to me for omitting discussion of timing for a 20-foot sea rise and for overemphasizing climate change's role in Chad and Kilimanjaro. I really don't care that Gore said people "all" had to leave their islands when only "some" of them did, that seems just like a slip of the tongue.

The 'Fact Checker' system awards two Pinocchios for "Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily." The 'Fact Checker', Michael Dobbs, clearly deserves at least this many for his own columns referring to "nine errors" while omitting the 'scare-quotes' that the judge used. In this last column, Dobbs claims the judge didn't always use scare quotes, referring to point 18 (really point 17.iii) and point 19. Point 19 refers to "errors, or departures from the mainstream" which doesn't clearly acknowledge error. Point 17.iii does acknowledge "errors and omissions in the film" though, the only place that appears unambiguous on that point. Fact Checker misses the possibility that not using scare-quotes in only one circumstance could have been a simple oversight. It still doesn't provide support for 'Fact Checker' claiming the judge said "nine errors" unambiguously.

'Fact Checker' fails to understand that the use of scare quotes is intended to convey meaning. I wrote the Washington Post ombudsman about this (and I emailed Dobbs about writing her) so I hope the Post someday figures it out.

UPDATE: I'll add that the one Pinocchio is fair as to the specific allegations, but not for the entire movie as a whole, which deserves no Pinocchios. You can't expect perfection, and these are minor points that amount mainly to bad examples of otherwise true and correct phenomenon.

UPDATE 2: One sentence rephrased for clarity.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My face on radio

Okay, not my face but my voice - Bay Area public radio station KQED released a two-minute commentary by yours truly yesterday on the flawed environmental review process in San Jose, where developers create the initial drafts of environmental documents that are supposed to neutrally evaluate the impacts of the developer proposals. More of a work-related thing for me than a Backseat Driving thing, but I'm posting it anyway. The link's here.

In other shocking news, the Volokhs have two non-wrong environmental posts in sequence. One on geo-engineering being worth a look (true, but worth nothing more than that right now), and another on the many problems of corn-based ethanol.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Watson and Summers and Myers, oh my

Via PZ Myers' blog, I see that DNA discoverer James Watson stated that Africans were less intelligent than other races (and Watson has a history of controverial statements). Myers disagrees with Watson but doesn't think he should be punished.

Two years ago, Larry Summers suggested without stating he believed it that genetic factors might account for why women are under-represented at top levels in academia. His statement was a big reason for his having to leave Harvard, and I remember Myers saying he should be fired (can't find a link for it though).

The idea supporting Summers' statement wasn't that men are smarter than women on average, but that men's fewer X chromosones mean less moderation of unusual genes, so more diversity in genetic expression means a wider distribution of intelligence, with more stupid men and more smart men compared to women.

It's not an impossible idea, but there are so many confounding cultural factors that looking at under-representation in the academia is extremely weak support for it.

The person who should have tried the idea is Watson, though. Summers had to hypothesize about increased genetic diversity for men in intellectual traits, but we already know that there's a significant difference in the level of genetic diversity between Africans and non-Africans. The more diverse group could be expected to have a wider distribution of genetically based intelligence traits, and the fatter tail at the high end of the distribution curve would mean that group would have more high performers.

The kicker to this is that it's the Africans who are more genetically diverse than non-Africans, yet we don't see a wave of academics leaving Africa and overwhelming their slower, non-African counterparts.

I don't consider all this to be a refutation of the idea that ethnicity or gender can have some effect on intellectual performance. It might, and maybe Africans do have some intellectual advantage at the high end for all I know. I do think though that it's a refutation of the idea that genetic differences are at all large at any level, and instead, other factors are far more important.

And I think foolish speculation about this stuff by two academics who, let's face it, have a disadvantageous genetic background, shouldn't get them fired.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Kant and Bentham battle it out over the Armenian Genocide Resolution

For the Kantian argument that the means matter, not the ends, try TAPPED here.

For the Bentham utilitarian argument, try TAPPED here.

As for me, I think I'll have to go with Kant on this one. Voting against the resolution is too close to lying about genocide.

Rossmiller, who argues against the resolution at the second link above, says "I studied Middle East international politics in Istanbul as a college student, and as a result I'm a great fan of Turkey and its people, so perhaps I'm slightly biased." If only he had met some Armenians during his time in Turkey, he might have seen both sides. Oh wait - I think there's a reason why the Armenians were missing. The genocide seems to have accomplished its goals in the sense of making sure Rossmiller only saw one perspective.

Kant is his own biggest problem when he says "let justice be done, though the heavens fall." I'm not going that far. The consequences of this resolution don't go that far either, but they're not good. Still, I don't see an ethical alternative to supporting it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lomborg's actually right about something

When I started writing this, I thought Bjorn Lomborg's claim that total worldwide spending on renewable energy research annually is only $2.5 billion would be about as accurate as his little jibe that climate activists land in Greenland on a glacier that's growing (it's not).

But after poking around on the web, I think it's probably correct or at least within range of being correct. That's such a low figure that I think it needs to be scaled up even faster than budgets that directly address emissions reductions. So score one point for Lomborg (although he could have also used the opportunity to criticize Bush for requesting 16% budget reductions on this research).

Where Lomborg goes wrong is in thinking that his one point means he's won the game. He wants the government spending to increase ten times, which is fair enough. But then he wants developing nations to pay for what I'd guess would be a third of that increase, the opposite of fair when they didn't create the problem.

His biggest mistake though is thinking this will revolutionize everything. It won't increase total spending on research ten times - much of current spending is from private and academic sources that won't be increased and may even diminish. And the primary government incentive for research probably isn't direct funding, it's likely to be tax breaks for renewable energy projects that allows that industry to be competitive and gives them commercial reasons for doing research.

Virtually all the climate solutions - increased renewables, increased nuclear power, carbon sequestration, even increased conservation and energy efficiency - require significant technological advances. Assuming Lomborg's one idea is all that's needed is a mistake.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mind-numbingly stupid, Washington Post Op-Ed - but I'm being redundant

Future Op-Ed writers might hope for greater credibility by submitting pieces to the Washington Times instead. Sunday's blather from the Post has the title, "Hot World? Blame Cities." The authors have the following as their main argument:

1. Cities have stronger urban heat island (UHI) effects than suburbs. UHI is bad.

2. All other things being equal, adding more people to a city will increase its UHI.

3. Therefore, expanding suburbs out into farmlands and forests is better from the UHI-perspective than increasing urban density.

That's it. They never deal with the issue of whether the incremental effect, say of expanding suburbs into farmlands and forests to accommodate 50,000 people causes more UHI than adding 50,000 people to an existing urban area.

UHI happens when trees and vegetation are replaced by buildings and pavement. I can pretty much guarantee that spreading suburbs outwards will take out more vegetation than increasing city densities will. That's true if you just look at living areas, but if you also add the fact that people have to drive more and farther in suburbs, you get additional pavement, and probably more sprawling work and shopping places for those people who don't commute to the urban areas.

The Op-Ed deteriorates onward with the statement "Earth-to-greens message: Instead of demonizing the suburbs, why not build better, greener ones and green the ones we already have?" The green-the-ones-we-already-have message falls into the no-freaking-kidding category, and the authors might want to familiarize themselves with actual environmental organizations on Planet Earth before suggesting this is a new idea.

As far as building better ones, it's clear that development is far better environmentally in the cities. To the extent we can't stop sprawl though, we're back in the no-freaking-kidding category of enviros trying to minimize the damage from sprawl developers, who (mostly) are looking for a fast buck. The sprawlers will be certain to use nonsense like this Op-Ed, though, to try to support their case that they're doing the right thing.

Last note - the authors say suburbs could be made to function better. So can cities - there's a lot that can be done to fight UHI effects. Their rhetorical trick is to hold cities to the "all things being equal" analysis, and then assume changes are possible only for how suburbs operate.

Just enough Deadwood

I recently finished watching Deadwood’s third and last season on Netflix. Best television series I’ve seen, which is especially high praise considering that I often had to go to the Television Without Pity website afterwards to decipher the dialog I just heard.

It’s an extremely violent cowboy Western showing the founding of a new town, much of it written in Shakespearean style, complete with iambic pentameter. That alone is enough to make it interesting. The crowning point is that deals with the physical and moral sacrifices to find a home and develop “civilization,” with costs you weigh for yourself, for people you love, and for people who stand your way.

I had felt there was a serious flaw in the third season, but the finale fixed it in my opinion. I can’t write about the flaw without spoiling the finale, so I’ll just put something in the comments. Still, the first season was the best. I know the show was canceled only because of poor ratings, but I think that might be for the best.

Great story, great dialogue, great acting, and I’m glad it ended. Highly recommended.

(And now I just watched Battle Royale. This high-quality violent stuff is a little disturbing, especially when I seem to appreciate it.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gore got it! (And the IPCC too.)

Nobel Peace Prize goes to Gore and the IPCC. Very well done, and I'll enjoy the smoke coming out of the ears of the denialists.

I suggest those denialists can get their revenge by betting me over how wrong they believe the IPCC to be.

UPDATE: I'll just add that while I agree with many people that Gore would be a great President but is a lousy politician and shouldn't run, there is one exception. If the Democrats end up with no candidate having a majority of votes at the Democratic convention, it would be fine for them to draft him. That late entry could stop the Republican campaign framing of him as nothing more than an ambitious politician, and they wouldn't be ready for it all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sandra Day O'Connor pays for her sins

There's a sad irony in that retired Supreme Court Justice O'Connor is one of the people who's paid a higher-than-average price for having Bush as president, ironic in that it's her fault. This has come out in several interviews by Jeffrey Toobin about his new book on the Supreme Court.

O'Connor is famous/infamous for not having a consistent legal philosophy driving her decisions, instead approaching each case separately. The danger in her style is that it's easy to let extraneous factors decide the case, like her belief in 2000 that Bush should win the election and the Florida debacle revolved around lazy and incompetent voters.

So O'Connor makes Bush president as part of the 5-4 majority vote in Bush v. Gore. Then as Toobin says at the link above, she doesn't take long to regret his presidency.

I can't find a link for this, but I also heard Toobin say in an interview that O'Connor had wanted to outlast the Bush administration so another, better president could appoint her replacement. She decided she couldn't do that though when her husband's Alzheimer condition deteriorated. She wanted to spend what remaining time he had with him, and announced her intention to resign. But O'Connor couldn't leave the court though until both she and Rehnquist had been replaced, and due to the Harriet Miers stupidity, it took months. By the time she could actually retire, her husband no longer recognized her and had to be institutionalized.

Had she done the right thing in 2000 and not stood in Gore's way, I expect she also would have tried to outlast the Democratic president. But when she couldn't, her resignation wouldn't have been caught up in a Harriet Miers spectacle, so she could actually leave when she wanted.

Bush cost O'Connor the last meaningful-relationship months of her long marriage. I agree with Toobin that it's a personal tragedy, although thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of others have paid a higher price. In O'Connor's case, the irony is in her responsibility.

Monday, October 08, 2007

"Cheap, tawdry, and useless" - Tim Ball wins Best Response Award to my climate bet offer

Deltoid notes that Tim Ball and Tom Harris are predicting declining temps for the next 20-plus years and wonders if they're willing to bet. Wonder no more! (For Ball, anyway.)

I emailed Ball and Harris with my usual, tiresome "willing to bet? You're betting with other people's lives, how 'bout some of your money, blah blah blah" and then, hijinks ensued:

Ball Response #1:
I don't bet on anything, it has nothing to do with science.  I
especially don't bet under coercive conditions. Your claim that if
the bet is not taken it is explicit evidence of a lack of belief or
that warming won't happen is ridiculous. You then cheapen it further
by suggesting that somehow I am emotionally responsible for the
deaths from warming. How on earth are peoples lives dependent on this
I suggest you spend your time reading and trying to understand the
science of climate and climate change rather than gambling.

I don't think conclusory statements do much to support
your position. Your best argument is that you don't
bet on anything, although you should qualify that you
don't bet on anything with your own money. It's a
mysteriously common personality trait among climate

Anyway, I'll report a summary of your response on my
blog, or with your permission I'll just post your

Brian Schmidt

P.S. I give you credit for responding though - 90% of
the skeptics can't be bothered.

Ball Response #2:
They were not intended to support my position on climate or climate
change, if that is what you mean. I find your exercise cheap, tawdry
and useless. You can post my response on your blog if you wish. I
suppose it is a way of pretending to be knowledgeable and important
about climate and climate change. I am amazed how many people have
such certain positions yet know virtually nothing and I include many
scientists in that comment.
I try to respond to everyone because unlike so many including Gore,
Suzuki, and many others I am prepared to answer questions.

I love the cheap-tawdry-useless line, especially seeing as the compliment is the only thing I and the world will get from this guy to compensate for all his effort to stop people trying to stop a disaster.

I think I'll adopt it for the blog.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Mostly hilarious Monbiot-Monckton exchange

Via Deltoid, here's a great email exchange between George Monbiot and climate denialist Lord Monckton where Monckton appears to have completely made up a lie about being paid damages by the Guardian for an article that Monbiot wrote about him.

It's only "mostly" hilarious because Monckton's obvious lying seems pathological. I hate the trend of psychoanalyzing one's opponents, but it might be appropriate here.

Anyway, Monckton won't bet, so we know he's not completely delusional.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Denialism Blog can't face a fire in a fertility clinic

Mark Hoofnagle's Denialism Blog is a good blog I agree with 95% of the time (especially about bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment). But - the blogger license requires me to focus on disagreement, where Mark is wrong, wrong, wrong. So let's start.

Mark begins interestingly with a post praising Obama for his willingness to answer hypothetical questions. I agree that politicians should answer most hypos. It fits the rule that one should generally do the opposite of anything Bush does, for one thing. It's not clear that Obama actually follows the rule though, when he says things like this:
AP: Is there any circumstances where you'd be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?

OBAMA: No, I'm not, uh, there has been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss.

Regardless of Obama though, where Mark goes off the rails is in denying there's any reason to treat especially intelligent animals like chimps as having some special moral value that relates to their intelligence. When asked whether a post-human evolved species could abuse us with moral impunity he says it's an impractical question, and therefore the response is "This is stupid. Fail. Try again." Mark should've just said, "I refuse to respond (and he did refuse to respond, we never got an answer) on the grounds that it's a hypothetical question."

Mark soon tries to rescue himself by saying that realistic hypotheticals must be answered, but it's fine for him to refuse to answer the unrealistic ones. This is where he can't face a fire in a fertility clinic.

The "Fire in a Fertility Clinic" hypothetical is a standard argument used against the people arguing that personhood begins at conception:

Probing the assumptions underlying the equal moral status view of the embryo, Sandel asks how a person holding that view would behave if confronted with a fire in a fertility clinic. Given a choice between saving a five-year-old girl or a tray of 10 embryos, which would one choose?

The right blogosphere has been fumbling with this one for years, with several unconvincing responses, but Mark's advice to them would be "Don't answer it! It's vanishingly unlikely! This is stupid. Fail. Try again."

I think the rest of us can see a value to the question that extends beyond its practicality - it helps us understand what we really believe to be ethical, regardless of what we tell people or tell ourselves about our beliefs.

But, if it's helpful to Mark to try something more probable than the specific fire in a fertility clinic scenario, I can come up with something regarding the treatment of intelligent beings. What if computers get smarter than us? Plenty of experts think that's possible in the next 50 years - some don't, but I think at our current state of knowledge, it meets the reasonable percentage probability that Mark demands. So what about it - okay for the smart computers to use us solely for their own ends?

Eli Rabett raised another sci-fi possibility in a comment, the possibility of "genetically modifying other terrestrial species (chimps/dolphins etc) to increase their intelligence to our level. It would make this a much more interesting place. This actually might be within reach." I agree that within 50 years this may be in reach, so what then? Should they be treated differently? What if we "overdo it" and make them superior - can they do what they want with us?

Finally, something I've not seen anywhere is a discussion about the ethical implications of intelligence distribution curves within a species, say for chimps. If they're like humans, a small percentage are likely to be much more intelligent than average. The tiny number of great apes taught sign language probably means we've never encountered individuals in the top 1% of their species for intellectual ability. What are they like? What can they do? If it's ethically disturbing (to me anyway, if not to Mark) to imagine killing Washoe in a medical experiment, what about a chimp that's twice as smart?

I don't think Mark's reason for refusing to answer an improbable hypothetical is right, and I think reasonably possible hypotheticals present themselves too. At some point, Mark says "I'm making a judgment, speciesist as it is, that human life is more valuable than the lives of other animals." I'll disagree with the first clause of that statement too - it's not a judgment, it's a fundamental assumption that he doesn't use logic to justify, and the only way to question such an assumption is to pose contrasting hypotheticals.

For my part, I'm a sapientist - smart creatures have moral value. There's lots of tricky gray areas that I haven't figured out with this, but I have more confidence with this approach for answering the hypotheticals.

(And yes, this is all about a post from months back. My typical quick response time.)

UPDATE: Mark and I have been emailing, and here's one response he sent me:
I still don't understand.  What is the use of a hypothetical if I can
just propose an alternate one that counters it? They are
uninformative. Surely you can see the difference between asking a
politician a question like, "If Roe v. Wade is overturned, would you
support legislation to guarantee or deny abortion rights?" It's a
hypothetical, yes, but it's about a possible event, of relevance to a
political discussion. Now, compare this to, "If space aliens came to
earth and enslaved us based on our moral code of speciesism, how would
you feel?" Yeah I can answer it, but it's not a meaningful response
and has no business being used to justify a moral code. It's based on
assumptions of the morality of non-existent aliens. I could just as
easily propose that we get visited by the Klingons, and in their
contempt for our vegetarian/pacifist existence they making us slaves.
What's the point of such stupid questions?

I'm not composing an argument for why I'm a speciesist based on this,
I'm just relating my contempt for the hypotheticals proposed by ARAs
like Singer, as if they are meaningful. As long as someone can propose
another that is equally improbable and contrary to the first, they have
no value for a moral discussion. If you like publish this reply as a
discussion of that aspect of the conversation.

I also don't feel as if I have to justify the morality of animal
experimentation and using animals for human benefit. I believe the
burden is on the ARAs to justify why we are the one species on the
planet that can not use or kill other animals. Why are we the exception
to the rule?

I think he's missing the distinction between the outcome of a hypothetical versus the lesson we can learn from the hypo. If he can come up with an alternative hypo that teaches a different lesson that backs his moral position, let's hear it, regardless of how outlandish it is. And he hasn't responded to my more probable hypos.

As for why we have to obey morality while animals don't, I would guess that sufficiently intelligent animals may well be capable of right and wrong, something that an intellectually-negligible predator like a shark or crocodile wouldn't. I'll further guess that existing apes are in a gray moral area, whose limited intelligence results in at best, limited moral culpability, but I don't really know. Before Mark jumps on this with the question "Is it then immoral for chimps to attack neighboring chimp groups?" I'd guess the answer is that it's understandable, and the morality is a gray area.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Trying to keep perspective on Hillary

Hillary Clinton is only my third favorite of the top three Democratic candidates, but I have to keep reminding myself that she's countless miles ahead in quality for any realistic Republican nominee.

It's hard for me to keep this perspective in mind though when I see articles about how she and Bill used their power to kill a negative story about her (Bill refused to cooperate with a GQ cover story about him if the criticism went through). This throwing weight around to kill stories, for reasons that are unrelated to whether the stories are accurate, does not speak well to playing by ethical rules.

GQ deserves the lion's share of the blame for selling out whatever journalistic integrity they had, though. And it's not as if Bill Clinton is some un-photographed, un-interviewed mystery guy. They could've done the story about him without his cooperation, but the marginal value of a special cover photograph was greater than their journalistic integrity.