Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Temporary hiatus.

I had suspected this might happen. Given that I'm holding a TAship and RAship at one university, a second TAship at another, taking a course and working on my dissertation proposal this semester, I'm going to have to put the blog on temporary hiatus until January. I may sporadically post something if I get really irritated, but, on the whole, expect to hear nothing until then.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The irrelevance of a ''need'' for religion.

This is one of the stupidest articles I've read lately. The "argument" is made by a psychologist, to the effect that there's a deep psychological need for religion and belief in the supernatural.
The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.
This is then conflated with a need to believe in the irrational.
"But almost everyone entertains some form of irrational beliefs even if they are not religious."
Which is then conflated with a need to believe in the valuable.
"For example, many people would be reluctant to part with a wedding ring for an identical ring because of the personal significance it holds. Conversely, many people are disgusted by an object if it has associations with 'evil'."
And this is all lumped together into a big mass of crap to conclude that, I think, we should just tolerate creationism rather than laughing hysterically at it.
The battle by scientists against "irrational" beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile, a leading experimental psychologist said today.
Basically, it's all bullshit. None of it holds together. (The psychologist in question has the nerve to call Richard Dawkins' and Daniel Dennett's views "simplistic". One wonders how much of The Selfish Gene or The Intentional Stance he actually understood.) There's a difference between believing in the supernatural and believing in something irrational. There's a difference between believing in the irrational and believing in value. And nothing about the supernatural, the irrational, or value will undercut evolutionary biology's explanatory prowess when it comes to biology. (I should note that it's a lousy theory of why people value their wedding rings because it's not a theory about why people value their wedding rings.)

Food crisis?

I don't have anything like the expertise necessary to assess this article, but it sounds disturbing. How much food can we produce, as compared to how much we need in order to feed everyone? In developed countries, we'll probably be all right. But, as always, the poorest will be screwed.

No authority in tragedy.

Here we find the father of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan attacking Jack Layton's recent call for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Putting aside whether Layton was right or not, I find it really bizarre the way the media tries to capitalize on victims of tragedy in this way, and accord them some sort of instant authority. The mere fact that someone has had one experience of something vaguely relevant to the issue being discussed does not confer authority. At the very least, there's a real problem of unconsciously exaggerating one's own experiences -- inflating their significance in order to over-generalize towards a desired conclusion. (Yes, this applies to Sheehan as well. Any authority she has must stem from reasons she offers for her views, not from the mere fact that her son was killed in Iraq.)

What's worse, the gentleman in this case has apparently been getting his marching orders from the right (emphases added):

[Jim] Davis said yesterday that Layton has not only insulted the memory of the dead and injured, but endangered the lives of those still fighting. "I mean, that's ridiculous and I can't believe he would do that, endanger the lives of our soldiers by saying such a thing," Davis told CTV News. ... Davis said statements like that encourage the Taliban to keep fighting. "Playing politics with the lives of our soldiers is despicable," he said. "We made a decision to go after the Taliban, trying to get Afghanistan back on its feet, so it doesn't make sense for us to call it quits."
Does it need to be said? I suppose it does:
  1. It is no insult to the dead to say that their actions were futile, for bravery is a matter of one's response to (physical) danger, not a matter of the sense of one's goal. Furthermore, if the action truly is futile, then the insult may be deserved. That something is an insult doesn't necessarily make it wrong.
  2. It is beyond implausible to suppose that the Taliban are sitting around, waiting for what Jack Layton has to say, in order to gain inspiration for their ongoing fight. It is clearly ludicrous. The idea that there is any causal connection between what Jack Layton says and what the Taliban does is viciously (as in "vice", of the intellectual and moral kind) stupid.
The only potentially cogent argument is at the end, that Canada is trying to "get Afghanistan back on its feet". I have yet to see any evidence, though, that this could ever happen. If the country wasn't stable before Canada (and everyone else) arrived, how stable can it be when Canada is there? (And when Canada ultimately leaves?)

Why I will never be a conservative redux.

Because I can't look at a horrific failure of government protection like Katrina and draw the conclusion that everyone should just get workin' and things will magically improve. Hard work doesn't create opportunity; hard work can only exploit opportunity. If the opportunities ain't there, then all the work in the world is simply wasted effort.


Nice little article here about the problems facing the US labour market. I'd disagree with the characterization of "both ends" of the labour spectrum. It seems more accurate to claim that the low end and the middle end are experiencing problems -- the actual upper end, as always, are doing just fine.

Pharmaceuticals follow-up.

Here I argued that there's really no good argument against allowing generic drug manufacturers to manufacture low-cost versions of prescribed medications. However, here we find that a US judge has nonetheless ruled against the generic manufacturer. Unfortunately, there's very little detail about the grounds for the ruling, so I'm a little at a loss as to how to understand this decision. It's entirely possible that it was purely procedural -- someone didn't dot an "i" or cross a "t", and hence certain mechanically-derived penalties in legal procedures kick in. However, if that's not the case, then I'd be very curious as to the reasoning used to reach this conclusion, given the utter bankruptcy of the "innovation" claims.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Softwood lumber. Again.

I've been watching the development of PM Stevie's latest gambit, this time over the ongoing softwood lumber finagle. I have no idea if the deal's any good or not. What interests me is the political maneuvering going on. The basic plot is that Stevie is wagering his government on this deal: if the deal is defeated in the House, then we go to an election. So, where do the players stand on the deal? Well, according to this, Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois are hoping to get some traction against the Cons in Quebec. It's not clear from that whether or not they will oppose. According to this, the Liberals and the NDP will oppose the deal. Also according to this same article, however, the BQ will probably be supporting the deal, as Quebec industry is basically in favour of it. Let's suppose that's all true: Liberals and NDP will oppose, Cons will vote in favour, BQ will also vote in favour. This means the deal passes, 175 to 131 or 132 (depending on which way the sole independent MP votes). My questions are two. First, what the hell is Duceppe thinking? And, second, did Stevie knew this all along?

If Duceppe doesn't start distinguishing his party from the Cons, he's going to start bleeding support. After all, why support a party on the way down, fracturing at the seams, when you could support the next governing party? On the other hand, though, Duceppe and the BQ have to been as standing up for Quebec's interests in order to shore up their flagging support. Opposing a deal that Quebec industry leaders like would be pretty clearly exploited by the Cons in the next election (whenever it ends up happening).

This then leads into my second question. Initially, I thought Stevie was being an idiot on this -- finally overplaying his hand. The Liberals would get it together to oppose a bad softwood lumber deal, if only so that they can negotiate a "better" one when they resume their role as natural governing party. The NDP would never support a deal that the Cons like. And the BQ would try to distance themselves from the Cons and throw a bone to their base. As said, that was my initial thinking; however, now it looks like Stevie had an ace up his sleeve. Duceppe has been really backed into a corner here: on the one hand, he has to do something to keep his left-wing, union and artistic bases happy; but, on the other hand, he has to defend Quebec's economic interests. It seems he may impale himself on the second horn, and hope for an opportunity to show his left-wing credentials on a different issue. It's disappointing to see -- personally, I'd like to see Stevie go to the polls, only to find out that Canadians, on the whole, still don't want to give him a majority -- but it's understandable.

On an interesting note, though, according to this, the money the US government basically stole from Canadian lumber producers is, at least in part, going to be spent without any oversight from Congress. One wonders if Stevie agreed to the deal in order to help Dubya shore up the Republicans before mid-term elections. (Admittedly, this is a bit conspiracy theory. Given how far to the right the Democrats actually are, I'm not convinced that Stevie really cares if the Republicans lose control of Congress.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The rule of law.

Anyone remember my good friend, Rick Salutin? I took apart his understanding of morality a couple of months ago, right here. Now, it's time to take apart his (lack of) understanding of law.
There's no real connection, for instance, between law and justice. Law is law and justice is justice.
If you're a hard positivist. If you're a soft positivist, or a natural lawyer, or a Dworkinian, then there is an essential connection between law and justice. (Jurisprudence should be mandatory as part of a good liberal education.) See this essay by York U prof, Leslie Green. Section 3 in particular is relevant, but the whole is excellent.
But there are other options, mostly in what's known as the oral tradition. Elders, sages, councils, healing circles. Some of these rely on handed-down legal traditions, but those are more transparently human and challengeable under that tradition.
This is stupid. Salutin is drawing a distinction with no difference. Oral traditions are legal traditions (at least under Hartian theories of law) if there is a system of primary rules of right and wrong conduct over which range a system of secondary rules. Basically, Salutin has confused statute with law.
The Talmud, Judaism's oral law, recounts a dispute between two schools of legal thought when a voice from heaven intervened to declare: "These and those are the words of the Living God!" It settled nothing, but it sounds more honest and, in its way, more democratic than our Procrustean system. Taught (meaning written) law is tough law, Harold Innis said, just as taught philosophy (like Aristotle) is tough philosophy compared to Plato's dialogic approach. We forget there are alternatives.
Confirms my suspicion that Salutin is running together statute and law. There is a rigorous common-law tradition in the UK, Canada, and the US -- and many other countries -- and this tradition is not written law. It is interpreted from the bulk of cases -- this is what distinguishes common law from statute. Moreover, there is at least some vestige of customary law in all three of those countries -- law that is not made by judges and is not written in statutes. One of my favourite examples (from Les Green) is the law that says the leader of the most numerous party in Canada's federal Parliament gets to be Prime Minister. There's no statute and there's no precedent that says this is so -- it's a matter of custom. But, nonetheless, the law. So, all this nonsense about "written law" ignores that a significant proportion of our law -- not law in some other society, but in ours -- is unwritten.
The one thing inherently just in the rule of law is that it applies equally to all (in theory), which is just, or would be, except that, as everyone knows, it doesn't happen in practice. If you doubt me, spend a day in criminal court. (I think making everyone do so would do more democratic good than compulsory voting.) This season, charges against Conrad Black and others are being flaunted as examples to prove the law does so apply equally, which merely proves they are exceptions meant to obscure the norm.
This is just bizarre. In the beginning, Salutin distinguished justice and law. He ran the distinction a bit too hard, but the distinction is fair. Here, however, he criticizes the claim that law applies to everyone on the grounds that, frequently, the law's conclusions are unjust (i.e., the rich get off and the poor don't). It makes no sense at all. I wonder if he thinks these things through before sending them off to the editor?
Since equal treatment is the soul of whatever is worthy in rule of law, it's an embarrassment to hear the term used to justify the Bush war on terror. Under it, people are held secretly without charge, shunted around the world, relabelled creatively as unlawful combatants and "rendered" to countries for torture. Whatever you call this, it doesn't resemble rule of law.
Here, at least, he's right. The "rule of law", at base, claims that everyone is equal before the law. What the Bush admin is claiming is that some are entitled to less legal protection than others -- and some entitled to more.
But I think Borys Wrzesnewskyj got confused trying to apply the core principle of rule of law: equal treatment. Under it, Israel, too, would qualify for using terror tactics, as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all more or less said. Its acts include kidnapping legislators, bulldozing homes as collective punishment, destroying power plants, roads and bridges, dropping cluster bombs etc. In general, this conforms to the definition of terror as violence against civilians for political ends. ... Israel is far from alone among states. The U.S. was convicted by the World Court of terror against Nicaragua, and ignored the ruling. Most Arab states have terrorized their own populations. But states are routinely and irrationally excluded from the charge. I'd say that, confused by this hypocrisy, Borys Wrzesnewskyj called for the exclusion of Hezbollah from the category, rather than the inclusion of many worthy governmental candidates. On that basis, I think he deserves another shot at the mire of Canadian politics.
I sincerely doubt that Wrzesnewskyj was motivated by a concern for equal application of the law. Moreover, if he was, he was wrong. Hezbollah is not a state; Israel is. Being a state is a relevant property in normative (moral, political, legal, etc.), and can serve to ground real differences in conclusions. That is, since Israel is a state, and Hezbollah is not, we could justify differential treatment. On the other hand, if Wrzesnewskyj was thinking that treating Hezbollah as a terrorist group is ineffective in securing peace in the region, then his claim really wasn't legal at all -- it was strategic policy (the best means) aimed towards a principled outcome (peace in the region). I really have no idea where Salutin got the idea that "rule of law" was even at stake here. Not to mention that Israel has refused to sign onto the International Criminal Court, and so, strictly, can't be prosecuted even if it does violate international law. (And, Hezbollah, as a non-state group, also couldn't be prosecuted under those laws. Hezbollah would have to be prosecuted under Lebanese laws, as it acts in Lebanon.)

Stupidity on Canadian Status of Women agency.

This article takes the prize for the stupidest feminist-bashing I've seen in a long while. Apparently, a conservative astroturf group calling itself "REAL Women of Canada" has decided that Canadian women are now, magically, doing just fine and don't need even a few measly million dollars of support from the federal government. (Aside: why are they an astroturf organization? Why else do they not list their executive members on their very own website? Why would an advocacy organization hide the names of its leadership -- unless it had something to hide.)

Here's what the Status of Women agency does:

The governmental branch, with a budget of about $23-million and some 130 staff, not only funds a variety of women's groups across Canada, but also co-ordinates pro-equality measures across government departments. ... Its stated objectives include addressing violence against women and promoting women's human rights. Its latest focus is on women's poverty and improving economic security.
Kind of hard to figure out why anyone would object to this, right? Particularly given that (compared to the size of the government's overall budget) only a small amount of money is at stake. Well, here's the gist of the objections:
"Like typical radical feminists, they have decided that they speak for all women, and they only consult those groups and women that agree with their agenda," says an entry on the Big Blue Wave blog from Suzanne, who does not give her last name. "So it's a bunch of radical feminist bureaucrats consulting radical feminists to hear what they want to hear to promote more radical feminism on my dime." ... Gwendolyn Landoldt, executive director of REAL Women of Canada, says Status of Women's time has passed and is no longer relevant. "It's based on the premise that women are allegedly victims of a patriarchal society and need support and special recognition," said Ms. Landoldt. "Our view is that the vast majority of women are not victims, and quite capable of making decisions in their lives."
Note the use of the vacuous buzzword "radical feminist". Frankly, I doubt most conservatives could tell you what the difference between a radical feminist and a non-radical feminist is. Also note the laughable "critique" that government shouldn't use tax money to fund programs that some taxpayers disagree with. As Canadian Cynic has pointed out recently, federal and provincial governments support organized religion, which I'm certainly no fan of. Using the same logic, I should be advocating for a revocation of their tax-emept status. (A conclusion I doubt "REAL Women" would favour.)

Finally, note Ms. Landoldt's amusing -- and unsupported -- claim that women are "allegedly" victims of a patriarchal society. (The aside about "making decisions in their own lives" is a blatant non sequitur.) I'm not a big fan of the "patriarchy" buzzword, as it implies a social tyranny that doesn't actually exist. However, anyone who claims that there are no social conditions which systematically disadvantage women is an idiot.

Why I will never be a conservative...

...because I can't look at this information, which suggests that welfare recepients are earning well less than a poverty-level income, and fathom the conneciton to this conclusion:
Mike Cardinal, Alberta's Minister of Human Resources and Employment, said in the current economy punctuated by a massive labour shortage, there's no reason for able-bodied people to be on welfare.
So, his government's paying below the poverty line, but it's okay, because all those people on welfare should be working anyway. Ad hoc circular reasoning par excellence.

Follow-up on the CMA election.

Further to my previous post here, I note this article, particularly this paragraph:
Family physician Danielle Martin, the head of Canadian Doctors for Medicare and a non-delegate, was shouted down when she asked for permission to address the meeting on double-dipping.
I can't think of a better example of a dysfunctional organization fracturing at the seams than shouting down a member who wanted to speak on an unpopular topic.

Stem cells and the futility of pandering to dogma.

I've yet to see a good argument as to why one can't harvest embryos for stem cells. On a related note, though, this shows why it's not worth trying to reason one's way around the inherently unreasonable. The article describes the process by which a group of scientists recently managed to create embryonic stem cells by taking a biopsy from an embryo, rather than harvesting an embryo outright. Note this:
Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "We still don't know the dangers of taking a biopsy from an early stage embryo, whether it has any effect on the baby's future development. On paper it looks like an ethical solution, but that requires the biopsy to be completely harmless."
In other words, we have no evidence whatsoever that the biopsy is harmful, but because it might be, this is still not a good solution. A second example, same article (emphasis added):
Prof [Peter] Braude [of ob/gyn in King's College London] said he doubted whether the controversy could be avoided by the American breakthrough. "We don't undertake embryo biopsy willy-nilly, as it is better not to remove a cell from a developing embryo unless one really has to," he said. "I certainly cannot see why one would wish to try and remove a cell from a healthy embryo with such low odds of developing a stem line from it when many thousands of useful cells are harvested from a baby's placenta at birth, if one needed to do it. Equally, I'm not persuaded by arguments that this is a more ethical way of getting stem cell lines, as it is not impossible that biopsy compromises the developing embryo from which one removes the cell."
Again, since there's a non-zero probability of harming the embryo, this is still a poor solution. (As an ethical principle, this is crap, incidentally. If a zero probability of harm is required before one acts, then one will never act.)

There's no pleasing the dogmatic; I really wonder how long rational people will continue to try.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

For tomorrow....

Got busy with some real-life stuff, and will be pushing back the transit and softwood lumber posts till tomorrow, as well as some more timely issues.


The promised healthcare post.

There's a ridiculous amount of newsprint been consumed recently regarding the election by the CMA (Canadian Medical Association) of a president who owns a private clinic, in contravention of the Canada Health Act, in Vancouver, BC. Samples: here, here, here, and here. There's also been a fair amount of comment, from both the left and the right.

Here's the gist of what I have to say: everyone's wrong. No, seriously, everyone. The CMA will fall apart before the public system. And, two-tier healthcare is not fair.

Dealing with the first. No one seems to understand that these sorts of professional organizations aren't monolithic and uniform entities. They're cobbled together groupings of smaller, more cohesive groups, that will hold together only so long as the interests served by the larger group are not undermining the interests of the smaller groups. (For example, as we see here, the Professional Associations of Interns and Residents of Ontario (PAIRO) -- future physicians -- is clearly against private healthcare.) Unfortunately, I don't see any information on the demographics of the election, so this is going to get a little speculative. There's usually a split in physicians' groups, in my experience, between the hospital physicians and physicians in private practice. The former, oddly enough, tend to be more money-obsessed than the latter. My explanation for this is that the latter have to see more patients. Physicians who work in hospitals can be more selective in who they see, and usually make their decisions on the basis of who they can bill the most for. By contrast, physicians in private practice will, on the whole, get a better sense of the needs of the general patient population, because they have to see a large number of patients in order to make their overhead. Physicians in private practice will usually favour public healthcare for just that reason -- they know what the general patient population needs, and they know that private insurance would tend to exclude a significant portion of that population. (More on that later.)

I'd also suggest that there may be a split between older and younger physicians. The Canada Health Act was only adopted in 1984. An individual born in 1984 is currently younger than I am -- about 22 years old -- and thus probably not a physician. Which means that most physicians will have grown up in a Canada that did not have public healthcare. To what extent, I wonder, do older physicians tend to favour private healthcare, because it's what they grew up with? Possibly confounding this is the fact that there are foreign-trained and -born physicians practicing in Canada who may have grown up under public systems. Not to mention that, sometimes, people will hate what they are familiar with, rather than being drawn to it. On the whole, though, I would suspect that there is a certain amount of yearning for the "good ol' days" going on.

Furthermore, the formation of Canadian Doctors for Medicare suggests that there are significant numbers of physicians who want an organization that will openly endorse public healthcare. So, far from tolling the end of public healthcare, I'd think that the CMA president endorsing private healthcare would signal the end of the CMA as an organization that represents all Canadian physicians -- if their new president actually uses his position to endorse private healthcare.

And that is a very salient point that, so far, has been completely overlooked. Just because the elected president believes in private healthcare doesn't mean that he's going to use his position to espouse it. Particularly if I'm right on the first point, and there are sufficient splits within the CMA that the organization itself might splinter over the issue of privatizing healthcare.

So, on the whole, there's some important issues that we simply don't know enough about, at this point, to go off half-cocked proclaiming the end of public healthcare -- either as a good thing or a bad thing.

But, that aside, let's consider the issue of public vs. private healthcare. There are really three possible systems: public alone, private alone, and a combination of public and private. Private alone I will reject out of hand. I don't know anyone sane who suggests that there should be entirely private healthcare, leaving even the very poorest and neediest without public support for their medical bills. That leaves either a purely public system or a two-tier system.

There's a couple of defenses of two-tier systems that get trotted out, and they don't really work. The first is that the injection of private money might alleviate the problems facing the public system. This is false. The public system lacks money, that much is true. However, the public system also lacks other resources, particularly healthcare providers. A two-tier system will take healthcare providers out of the public system and put them in the private system. This is a basic logical point -- there's a limited supply of providers, so anyone practicing in one system is therefore not able to practice in the other (at least while they're practicing in the one). Private money might be able to help create more resources; but, then again, public money could do so just as easily. In this respect, publicly- and privately-funded healthcare are on all fours with each other; so, it's no mark in favour of a two-tier system that private money could solve this problem.

(Aside: some practitioners in the public system do not practice year-round, because they hit their provincially-mandated billing caps. That is, there is a limit on how much any physician can bill during a calendar year, and some physicians do hit it. They are thus left with the choice of either not practicing or practicing for free, as they are not legally entitled to charge for covered services. Does two-tier healthcare have a lever here? Simply, no: any physician whose services are genuinely in demand can apply to the provincial government to have the cap removed, thus allowing for unlimited billing. Physicians can also perform non-insured services, such as medico-legal examinations for private auto insurance (in provinces that have them) or worker's compensation systems, for which they can thus bill privately. Therefore, most physicians who do not practice the full year seem to be doing so out of choice, not out of need.)

The second argument that often gets trotted out is that people have a "right" to pay for healthcare if they are able. However, it is, first, utterly bizarre to claim that there is a "right" to buy what one is able to buy. I'm sure there are sufficiently poor people who would sell themselves into slavery to sufficiently rich people, but nonetheless it is obviously wrong to buy a slave. So, really, the "right" being invoked is, as with most rights, a limited one: one can buy whatever there is no good reason to prevent one from buying. In the case of slavery, the autonomy of the individual is sufficiently valuable that it cannot be violated, even if an individual would voluntarily choose to give up his autonomy. That's at least a reason not to allow buying slaves. Similarly, there is a reason not to allow people to buy private healthcare: the competition is necessarily unequal, and thus unfair. The inequality comes from two sources. First, the problem of the uninsurable. As anyone who's tried to buy, say, private auto insurance with a bad driving record can tell you, insurers are risk-averse. That is, they don't like to take on clients that they believe will make large claims and cost them lots of money. This extends to health, as well. Insurers will charge higher premiums to people with expensive chronic conditions (such as AIDS) or with a high likelihood of sustaining serious acute injury (such as the severely mentally ill). In many cases, insurers will either price their premiums sufficiently high to in effect render people uninsurable, or will simply refuse to insure them outright. How can the competition for private insurance be fair if some people are blocked from entering the market? Second, the middle class will continually lose out on access to treatment. The lower classes will be treated publicly, on the basis of need. The upper classes will have quick access to the private system. How can the middle class compete with the lower classes on the basis of need -- particularly if they pass whatever threshold of income is necessary to be excluded from the public system. Similarly, how can the middle class compete with the upper class for access on the basis of income? Thus, when it comes to either the public or the private system, the middle class will tend to be systematically discriminated against. How can this be fair?

So, for all its (reparable) flaws, the public system is still better than a two-tier public/private one.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Preview of tomorrow (and special bonus spleen!)

I have three more posts on the boil, on the CMA election of a private healthcare advocate (which is being misanalyzed on all sides of the political spectrum), the possibility that the Cons might revoke funding for expanding public transit in Toronto (an underreported story), and the threat from PM Stevie to make the upcoming softwood lumber deal a confidence vote (which is pure posturing). They will have to wait until tomorrow, however. For now, though, enjoy this tour de force rant from UK MP George Galloway. 'Bout time somebody said it. (All of it.)

One law for high school football players, another for the rest of us.

This is horrifying. Apparently, a few high school football players nearly killed someone with a stupid practical joke. One would expect a severe sentence in order to teach them a lesson, correct? One would be wrong: sixty days in juvie, to be served after the football season is over, and then write an essay. Seriously.

Police brutality.

I'm sure most have heard of this incident, wherein Florida police shot a female protestor in the face with a rubber bullet, then laughed about it (on camera, no less). The rather cavalier attitude of officials involved -- excusing the officers of all wrongdoing, offering a half-hearted apology -- simply compounds the egregious immorality. However. It is always worth remembering (though this does nothing to excuse the behaviour nor reduce its wrongness) that the only reason this is news is because, in the United States, it is news. There are parts of the world -- Mexico City, for example, where my father lives -- where the police are little more than gang of paramilitary thugs, and incidents like this would go completely unnoticed.

First Napster, now guitar tab. (When will this end?)

I can't believe the music industry sometimes. I don't even have words to describe how stupid this is. Music industry trade groups are trying to shut down sites that offer fan-written guitar tablature. That is, when fans take the trouble to transcribe the music they listen to, and put up a website offering downloads of those transcriptions, in the music industry's eyes, these fans are committing a hideous felony and infringing on their copyright (and, of course, profit). As I said, I don't have words to express how stupid this is.

Potayto, potahto.

Offered as further proof that Liberals and Conservatives aren't really that far apart, the Ontario Liberal government has cancelled a public television program (Studio 2) as it provided a forum for opposing views. Classy.

Pharmaceutical companies and the "innovation" myth.

Why is it that whenever a pharmaceutical manufacturer's patent is threatened, they have to go for the "but this will stifle innovation!" defense? See here for my inspiration. There's a couple of problems with this whole line of defense. First, pharmaceutical companies aren't terribly innovative. They keep churning out drugs for the same, relatively narrow scope of problems -- largely ones which affect Westerners, because those are the people they can sell to. One of my favourite examples of this is the anti-allergy medication, Claritin, manufactured by Schering-Plough. Claritin has been over the counter (OTC) in Canada for years, but was only approved OTC by the FDA in 2002 ( Moving from prescription to OTC generally drops the price of a drug significantly. So, what does Schering-Plough do? They start to manufacture Clarinex -- which is, as far as I can tell, basically the same chemical -- which requires a prescription.

Second problem is the presumption that private pharmaceutical funding is the only, or even the primary, source of money for drug development. I've seen no data, ever, to suggest that public funding is not at least equal to private funding. And, certainly, if private funding drops below a reasonable level, the public funding could be stepped up to cover it.

Third problem, and really most severe, is the conceit that a thriving industry needs to be sheltered from market forces, else simply die. That is, are we really supposed to believe that the pharmaceutical industry is so tenuous, so close to bankruptcy, that forcing it to compete with generic drug manufacturers would lead to the end of pharmaceuticals as we know it? Granted the generics profit largely because they have little or no R&D costs, while the prescription drug manufacturers do have an R&D overhead. But, on the other hand, I have a hard time believing that the difference in price between name and generic branded versions of a drug is solely due to the associated R&D costs of the name brand manufacturers. I find it more plausible that the name brand manufacturers are exploiting the protection of their patents to, not to put too fine a point on it, screw over sick people. Really, then, if name brand manufacturers want these iron-clad patents to recover their R&D costs, why shouldn't they be price-controlled -- to ensure that they are only recovering their R&D costs?

Profiling Arabs.

On a similar note to the previous post, note that anti-Arab hysteria is spreading outside the political arena. According to this, an Arabic physician from Winnipeg was escorted off a plane from Denver -- because he was praying (presumably, in Arabic). There's no justification for this sort of obvious racial profiling. I have yet to hear, though, of any official complaint being made by our stalwart Conservative government.

According to this article, the British are being sensibly cynical about the whole exercise. Good points made throughout. However, according to this, the trend is not universal, as two Arabic men were hounded off a plane by racist fellow passengers. (Original article here.)

Thomas Nadelhoffer has an amusing post here, arguing that if we should profile the dangerous kinds of people, we should first be profiling politicians and their kowtowing pundits.

On a serious note, though, am I the only one who remembers Jean Charles de Menezes? How long until the next shooting -- by reason of not being white?

Should Hezbollah be marginalized as terrorists and Nazis?

What a week it has been on the "War on Terror!" front. First, we have three Canadians MPs calling for Hezbollah to be removed from the official list of terrorist groups. About bloody time. Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day refuses, and is, really, a bit of a baby about it. But, then, we get this bit of insanity. In more ways than I can conveniently count. Mr. Jason Kenney, Conservative MP, has compared Hezbollah to the Nazis. Of course,comparing any current group to the Nazis requires a vast misunderstanding of (or deliberately ignoring) the depth of unquestionable evil and suffering inflicted by the Nazi regime. No one and no group currently active is that bad. Now, as far as I can tell, what Kenney is trying to say is that the Nazis ran in elections and provided social services, but were dedicated to eradicating Jews, and Hezbollah is no different in those respects: runs in elections, provides services, wants to eradicate Jews. Well... wants to eradicate Israel, or, at the very least, run Israel out of Lebanon. But let's overlook this conflation of Jews with Israelis. I'm also not sure if Kenney's aware that the Nazis actually succeeded, at least partially, in their goal of eradicating Jews, while Hezbollah has been pretty much a colossal failure. And the Nazis won control of the country, hence were not really terrorists, but a stupefyingly evil state.

All those points aside, here's the real problem: the Nazi comparison is being invoked in order to dodge the suggestion made by opposition members that visiting Lebanon and trying to negotiate with Hezbollah members might help defuse future violence. (I'm sure someone else has a Neville Chamberlain example all ready to go as well.) Which means it's really a massive ad hominem attack: anyone who claims that negotiating with a power in the region (and Hezbollah are a power) might help to undercut the anti-Israeli agenda and marginalize the violent extremists is an appeaser, no better than a Nazi-sympathizer, and not worthy of any further attention. Which ignores, of course, that the neocon solution -- bomb the crap out of people we don't like -- has created a civil war in Iraq. What I don't understand is what's wrong with trying it. Certainly, we shouldn't go so far as to allow the equivalent of Poland to fall before getting worried. The lead-up to WWII can teach us at least that much. But, Hezbollah are not the Nazis. (Neither is Hamas.) Their goals are pro-Arab, pro-Muslim and anti-Israeli. They have extremist, violent wings, but also political ambitions. They command thousands if not millions of loyal supporters, spread across many countries. They are, as with all mass movements, rife with internal divisions, which could be exploited to marginalize the violent and support/encourage the diplomatic and political. Note that there's really nothing wrong with a political party in an Arabic country that doesn't want to deal with Israel. The problem is with actively trying to destroy Israel.

When all's said and done, it should be obviously stupid to wade in swinging without trying the diplomatic option first. At the very least because wading into the Middle East swinging is an easy rationalization to support the September 11 attacks (and the allegedly planned Toronto attacks, and the London bombings, etc.). In short, while we need to accept that we are dealing with sub-groups of violent extremists within groups who hold some odious views, we also need to stop pretending that the Israelis parallel the innocent Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. We also need to stop pretending that calling people "terrorists" justifies sending off our military to bomb them into oblivion -- and that this will stop violent retribution coming back against us when the members of the next generation are old enough to handle guns.

Worth noting, incidentally, that Amnesty International has called Israel onto the carpet for war crimes in Lebanon. One wonders what it would take for a Western government to do the same.

(Extra-special bonus for Conservatives or conservatives who object to these views: you've been wrong so many times, you're just not worth listening to any more.)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nothing today.

For reasons I won't get into, no posting today. Will continue as per usual tomorrow.

Friday, August 18, 2006

More on academic freedom.

Read this. Then, read this. Plus ce change, eh?

Freedom of speech and the workplace.

This raises an interesting question. Is your workplace wrong to discipline you for views you express outside of work? (I'm ignoring, out of sheer weariness, the "oppressed conservative" subtext.) On the whole, I'd say it depends on the views. However, at the end of the day, in a capitalist system, the employer can fire an employee for a host of reasons, many of which are extremely dubious: "bad attitude", for example, or "not being a team player". So, there's certainly enough wiggle-room to allow an employer to fire an employee for holding views the employer condemns (whether or not they are justified in condemning them). Moreover, employers have no obligation to give employees freedom of speech. As freedom of speech has been interpreted, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, there is no obligation on the state to protect the speaker from reprisals, only from being prevented from speaking in the first place. (There is also no obligation to provide a forum in which to speak.) So, if I speak my mind on a certain issue, and my employer takes exception to it, then my employer could, with some legitimacy, fire me; what the employer could not do is try to stop me from speaking my mind.

I don't think these are morally defensible distinctions. I've long had problems with the idea that you can have a "freedom of speech" which does not provide protection against retaliation, and does not provide a corresponding obligation to hear. However, I do think that an employer could reasonably fire someone for holding views the employer doesn't care for. After all, the employment relationship is a relationship -- if one individual cannot maintain the relationship due to some feature of one of the people in the relationship, then there seems to be good reason to end the relationship. This is not to say one should only enter relationships with entirely like-minded people, but that everyone has a limit on the divergence from their own views that they are willing to tolerate in people they relate to. That is, for every individual person, there are some views that the person finds "beyond the pale" and intolerable in a spouse, a friend, a co-worker, an employee -- or, for that matter, an employer. (Would it be wrong for an employee to quit a job because his employer espoused racist views?) This looks like a pretty basic feature of human relationships.

So, really: where's the oppression if an employer decides that an employee is no longer a "good fit"?

Warrantless wiretapping.

Glenn Greenwald has the goods here.

Cons attack the poor. Again.

Y'know, it's getting a bit tiring having to note when the federal Conservatives try to asault the poor. Here the NDP catches the Cons in a blatant lie. On the one hand, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Diane Finley, said that funding for affordable housing wouldn't be touched. On the other hand, Toronto's funding will be cut by $5.8 million, London's by $513,000, Ottawa's by $1 million and Yellowknife's by $416,000. (That would be $7,729,000 in known cuts.) Nice.


This editorial raises, again, the question of whether pornography is a "dangerous influence" that "causes crime". Let's look at the argument in a little more detail.
Those who profit from the production and sale of pornographic and violent material in magazines and books, on videos and television, argue that there is no evidence to prove that what they create can foster violence, child molestation, and sex crimes in those exposed to it. The ugly case of Craig Roger Gregerson, and what happened to 5-year-old Destiny Norton, is at least one convincing piece of evidence that it can and does.
So, first point: given one case of a self-proclaimed "porn addict" who commits a violent crime, we can conclude that pornography causes violent crime. Over-generalization is a formal fallacy, and unfortunately seems common, particularly when the case(s) generalized over are somehow shocking or emotionally significant. Generalization is an instance of inductive reasoning and is held to be (inductively) valid when the particulars generalized over are representative of the whole. One shocking case is hardly representative, for two reasons: first, it's only one case; and, second, the fact that it's shocking makes it unusual (i.e., non-representative).
It should not require a doctorate in psychology to understand that what we see and hear can influence our behavior.
But how it does so requires careful research, not trite homilies.
But if evidence is needed, there is serious research that proves this to be the case. For instance, the Rand Corp. in Pittsburgh has just published in the current issue of Pediatrics the results of a survey indicating that teens who listen to music full of raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs.
I debunked this study here. The study lacked any measure of "degrading" that was worth taking seriously.
This is a familiar echo of the plaint by some Hollywood movie and TV producers who argue that when they splatter their movies and TV productions with violence, profanity, and lurid sexuality, they are merely reflecting society as it is. To be asked to clean up their acts is an infringement upon their artistic freedom.
Oddly, this argument is never actually engaged with in the article. There certainly could be reasons to infringe on artistic freedom, particularly if there's demonstrable harm in allowing freedom to reign unchecked.
But as Corydon Hammond, codirector of the Sex and Marital Therapy Clinic at the University of Utah, says: "I don't think I've ever yet seen an adult sex offender who was not involved with pornography."
More over-generalization, combined, in this case, with cherry-picking the data. Unless Hammond has made a systematic study of all cases at her clinic, and has compared these cases to those who didn't self-select by coming to the Clinic, then there's good reason to suspect the sample is non-representative.
Judith Reisman, author of "The Psychopharmacology of Pictorial Pornography," sees a direct causal link between pornography and sex crimes. "In many cases I don't think we have any problem saying pornography caused [the sex offense]. We have tons of data," she writes.
That would be this Judith Reisman, who has tried to link homosexuality and pedophilia, who has attempted to critique Kinsey, and who has apparently perpetrated some blatantly-flawed scholarship. What a wonderful authority to appeal to. Moreover, although Reisman does hold a PhD, it is apparently in Communications, not Psychology.
Congress has attempted legislation seeking to control pornography but found it vetoed by courts claiming the legislation hobbled free speech. The courts, on copyright grounds, have outlawed the sale of videos in which distributors have edited out profanity or questionable scenes.
That is a violation of copyright, though. Except for quotes for review or critical purposes, an original work cannot legally be exhibited in altered form without the author's consent. Honestly, I'm not sure what point is being made here.
A new legislative attempt may require cable TV channels, where most questionable material appears, to carry a label warning of the offensiveness, but without deleting it, thus circumventing the free speech issue.
This is the only sensible comment made in the editorial. The more information viewers have at their disposal, the better able they are to make informed judgements about what they want to consume.
The Kaiser Foundation has undertaken extensive research on the amount of sex-oriented and violent programming on TV, and its impact on young viewers.
The point here is also obscure. It's not even clear which Kaiser Foundation is in question -- Googling the name gives two or three different organizations with similar names.
The watchdog Parents Television Council has campaigned vigorously against sex, violence, and profanity on television and in other media. It has lobbied against the cable industry's mandatory inclusion of questionable channels in omnibus packages offered to subscribers, arguing that subscribers should have the right to pick and choose individual channels.
The PTC was founded by L. Brent Bozell III and is well-known to wrestling fans for its bizarre attacks on WWE and its founder, the (thankfully) inimitable Vince McMahon. Bozell himself is best described here by SourceWatch, as a right-wing zealot with close connections to Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Pat Bucahanan. In other words, we can explain the PTC's judgements equally well on the basis of puritanism as on the basis of fact. Lacking a corroborating source with less (or at least differing) ideological committments, their judgements cannot be taken as authoritative.

So, on the whole, we have an appalling bad argument, consisting of over-generalization, random comments with no clear argumentative merit, and appeals to highly-questionable "experts". There are good arguments against pornography; it's unfortunate that the Christian Science Monitor didn't bother to consult them.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Should 10 year-olds appear in court?

I'm of two minds regarding this proposal by Canada's Justice Minister to allow the courts to intervene in cases of criminal behaviour by children as young as 10. On the one hand, he does have something of a point: young children can be under criminal influences, and require intervention in order to prevent temporary tendencies from becoming permanent dispositions. On the other hand, the courts are a pretty blunt instrument, and I'm not sure what empowering them is supposed to do that couldn't be just as easily (if not better) accomplished by expanding the interventionist powers of child welfare organizations. Or, for that matter, providing parents and communities with more resources to help prevent criminal influences from taking hold in the first place. (But that would require funding childcare, and no Con will ever do anything so reasonable.) On the whole, then, although it's good to see the Justice Minister at least doing something to try to prevent criminals from becoming professional criminals, the methodology seems to suffer from the typical Conservative myopia. The notion of rehabilitative or community-based initiatives doesn't appear to occur to Mr. Toews, and it may end up being children who suffer.

"White privilege".

Here we have a truly bizarre editorial on explaining "white privilege" to a child. Personally, I think this is a horrible thing to do to a young white child -- try to instill some sort of racial guilt for things he has no control over, as opposed to encouraging positive development and a sense of social responsibility.

Moreover, the notion of "white privilege" always sets my teeth on edge. Firstly because of the invocation of race as a source of benefit; secondly because of the invocation of "privilege" as a way of measuring the benefit. The former drives me nuts because race is really incidental: it's social class that really determines benefit. That many whites tend to be higher-class, and non-whites tend to be lower, is a contingent feature of our society. Focussing on the coincident racial feature ignores the underlying systematic problems, namely, the inequitable distribution of goods and the (subsequent) extreme difficulties involved in trying to move upwards in social class. The latter drives me nuts because "privilege" implies that benefit is undeserved. But the particular benefits cited -- for example, ability to access particular educational or employment opportunities -- don't look undeserved. Indeed, they look like basic benefits that everyone should have in society. So, rather than worry about "white privilege", shouldn't the discourse instead be focused on improving the deficits suffered by those in lower classes?

A real moral equivalency: freedom of speech vs. concern and respect.

This is why you have to be very careful when you start defending someone's "right" to say whatever the hell they like. Remember the whole Danish Muslim cartoons mess? And how many people piled on about "freedom of speech" -- ignoring entirely the basic moral responsibility to treat people with dignity and respect (even if their beliefs are weird)? And then how Iran started a contest on Holocaust cartoons? Well, a museum exhibit has just opened in Tehran of Holocaust cartoons. I'm sure they are all deeply offensive. However, the original set of cartoons were deeply offensive to Muslims. If cartoonists have a right to draw what they like, regardless of how offensive it might be, then this extends to offenses to non-Muslims and Muslims alike. On the other hand, if there's some sort of obligation to not offend others (on the basis that it tells against treating them with respect), then the original cartoons were equally wrong.

Canadian university rankings.

Hm. According to this, a dozen or so leading Canadian universities have opted out of the annual Maclean's ranking of university programs. Something smells, though. Even though the rankings surely have technical problems -- two are identified in the article linked -- I'm highly suspicious of the move to withdraw, rather than improve the rankings. Or, for that matter, substitute a different set of rankings for Maclean's. It looks more like the big kids on the playground taking their ball and going home, leaving the smaller kids to fend for themselves. Losing some of Canada's biggest universities from the rankings will seriously reduce their impact on student decision-making, and, I would suspect, encourage students to stick with the "known" universities, and avoid the lesser-known (but still possibly good) institutions.

Furthermore, there's really nothing other than Maclean's providing ranking of undergraduate programs across Canada. Depriving students of even a flawed ranking tool leaves students faced with no way of deciding between programs. At the very least, there needs to be more information given to students in order to make an informed decision between various university programs. Dumping university hopefuls on the (at best) barely-competent high school guidance department is no solution.

More comments here at Leiter's Law School Reports.

Grad student unions.

An editorial here discusses graduate student unionization. There's always a back and forth in higher ed about this issue. The heart of the problem is that the contemporary graduate student serves two roles: student and part-time instructor. And this is because the student is being trained for two completely different jobs: researcher and full-time instructor. They're not necessarily incompatible, but they can exert opposing pulls on the person who's trying to fill both. Here's where unions come in: unions purport to be able to make the instruction role as hassle-free as possible, leaving people more time to be students. (The parallel case can be made for full-time instructors being allowed more opportunities for research.)

To be sure, there are bad unions -- or, more strictly, bad union executives. A weak executive is easily exploited by canny university negotiators, leaving grad students with a choice between a bad contract and a contentious strike. This suggests that unionized grad students, as with unionized workers of any stripe, need to keep an eye on what their executive is actually doing. And, when the executive goes wrong, it is up to the membership to yank them back into line. On the whole, though, unionization is really the best option for protecting grad student workers at universities. The alternatives, after all, are a toothless collective group (only a union has the legal right to strike) or individual departmental negotiation (which would leave grad students in more cash-poor departments vulnerable to loss of funding, and grads in more student-heavy departments trying to bear impossible teaching loads). So, what's the problem?

As I see it, there are two serious objections made against grad student unions. The first is that it allows the administration to treat grads as instructors first and students second, giving grads even less time and ability to fulfill the student role. While this is probably somewhat true, in my experience, a union limits the time that one can be compelled to work, thus forcing the university to either hire more instructors or pay the instructors it has more in order to cover the shortfall. Moreover, it's simply naive to think that contemporary universities wouldn't use grads as cheap labour anyway. Thus,

The second is that grad students are not employees, but apprentices, and hence should not be represented by unions. This is a distinction without a difference. An apprentice is a form of employee, who performs simple tasks in a field (and with supervision) while being trained for performing more advanced ones (and without supervision). Put simply, as long as grad students are actually providing instruction, then grad students are being employed as instructors, and deserve protection in order to prevent exploitation by university administration.

Landlords and smoking.

This notes a rather odd side effect of banning smoking, at least in Quebec. Apparently, Quebec has followed many jurisdictions in banning smoking in public areas (bars, restaurants, etc.). But, some landlords are taking this as opportunity to keep smokers from renting their properties.

On the face of it, it's surprising that landlords wouldn't do this already. The ban is on public smoking, after all, and rented property is private. Landlords already try to ban (or at least severely restrict) pets and children using their properties. (Incidentally, I've recently been house-hunting, and was surprised to find that even condos have no pets and adults-only policies. And you own a condo.) The grounds given, reasonably enough, is that pets and children are more likely to damage the landlord's property. The same could be extended to smokers (ever smelled carpet that's been in a smoker's house for over a decade?).

However, trying to ban smokers seems like a strategy that could only work in a tight rental market. If there's more than enough spaces for renters, then any given landlord can't afford to be terribly choosey. (But could insist on a damage deposit to cover the expected costs of removing any smoking damage, as well as charge rent to include at least part of the property's fire insurance.)

What's truly bizarre are the comments in the article about how it's a violation of "human rights" for landlords to refuse to rent to smokers. I might go along with the claim that it's a violation of something for smokers who can't afford to buy a place to have nowhere to live. But, at the end of the day, the landlord owns the property. Why can't they rent to whomever they want?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Is compromise always a good?

I have to take exception to this editorial, which tries to argue that (1) the mid-term US elections may make Congress more "polarized" and (2) "polarization" is bad. (1) is probably true. (2) is the one I have a problem with.

There's a tendency to think that compromise is always good, that there are always two sides to a story and the truth lies somewhere in between. I've blogged already on whether we have to listen to both sides before forming an opinion (see here). The short of it is that we don't. However, this doesn't imply that compromising between two extreme views isn't often better, only that we are not obligated to compromise.

So, the remaining possibility is that compromise may not be obligatory, but it is nonetheless better than alternatives. But why should that be so? There are certainly many obvious cases where compromise is highly irrational. 2+2=4, regardless of how "extreme" this position might seem. That is, we have a class of what might be called self-evident truths or axiomatic truths which should be adhered to regardless of considerations of compromise.

To these we can add a class of inter alia (or all things considered) claims which are carefully-articulated and -reasoned sets of judgements. Compromising on claims that one has already devoted a great deal of consideration to would require giving up something that one is convinced of, and has good reason for being convinced of. That is, if one has taken the time to articulate and defend a comprehensive universal healthcare policy, then one has an inter alia claim in hand: something that one can and should refuse to compromise on. (At least, without extremely good reason to change.)

In other words, it's not just the odd axiomatic cases where we can know with perfect confidence that we are right, but also the much more commonplace cases wherein a great weight of evidence has been marshalled in support of one's views. Which implies that it is only in the much-rarer cases where one is not sure what to believe that compromise is really a rational strategy.

Therefore, very often moderation and compromise are a result of lack of insight or depth of understanding. They are thus not good ends in themselves, but waypoints at which one can rest before gaining the ground necessary to support one's inter alia claims.

Should inmates be used for medical testing?

I admit to being of two minds about this article. On the one hand, there's something inherently odious about taking a captive population and treating them literally like lab rats. On the other hand, if the prisoners freely consent, why shouldn't they be allowed to participate?

There are different principles motivating each intuition, I think. The first intuition is motivated by the principle that no one should be compelled to do something that they would not freely will. Though this is clearly not an exceptionless principle, it's a generally good one. You can't force someone to do something they don't want to, unless you have good reason. Problematically, of course, prisoners are such that we already have good reason to force them to things they don't want to do: as they have violated our laws (or, at least, been convicted of violating the laws), then they are forced to lose certain freedoms and have their behaviour monitored closely. This reason is not, however, a carte blanche: inmates can't be forced to do anything, just because they are inmates.

The second intuition is motivated by the principle that one should be able to act on one's freely-willed decisions. Again, this is not exceptionless, but generally good. We can't prevent people from acting on whatever decisions that have freely arrived at unless we have some good reason to do so. Again, problematically, prisoners are already being interfered with, but only to a certain extent.

So, really, it looks like the conflict I'm having here can be resolved if there's some good reason to allow extending the interference inherent to the life of a prisoner such that they can be compelled to participate in medical trials, or if there's some good reason to refrain from extending that interference such that they cannot be prevented from participating in medical trials. Generally, I would think that there is no good reason to force someone to participate in a medical trial. That is literally gambling with their life, and I can't think of a single reason for compelling someone to risk their life against their will. So, there could only be good reason to stop inmates from participating. One, which is raised in the article, is a concern for the inmate's future health. Another may be the possibility of coercion. But, as long as coercion can be ruled out, and as long as inmates are informed about the risks of the trial, then there seems to be no reason to prevent them from engaging in medical trials.

The appropriate attitude towards terrorism...

... is mockery (and getting on with your life).

Religious insanity: Kenyan edition.

At least insane religious people aren't a peculiarly American problem. According to this, Kenyan Christians want early hominid bones removed from museums because (1) keeping them around would support evolution as a fact rather than a theory, and (2) evolution can't be true because it's inconsistent with a literal interpretation of the Bible. These are both obviously nonsense.

I have serious issues with the "he said, she said" tone of the article, which seems to imply that both sides of the issue have equal rational weight. (For those who may be new to the party: religion = irrational, science = rational. Approximately.) I have more serious issues with the same tone being adopted by staff at the museum in question:

"We have a responsibility to present all our artefacts in the best way that we can so that everyone who sees them can gain a full understanding of their significance," said Ali Chege, public relations manager for the National Museums of Kenya. "But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists or researchers on the other, saying the opposite."
I don't really see how things are tricky. Religious people can have control over what goes in museums when scientists can have control over what's presented in churches. Since no priest (or equivalent) would (probably) let a scientist stand up and deliver a lecture on evolution, no museum should be allowing Christian leaders to proselytize their views through museum displays.

I said I wouldn't blog on Lamont. BUT...

I knew as soon as I'd hit "publish" that I'd probably revisit the Lamont primary victory, sooner or later. I just didn't expect the right-wing noise machine to kick into as high a gear so soon. Don't they realize that mid-term elections are still about three months away? They may run out of faux outrage.

Anyway, here we have a reprint of an Economist editorial on Lamont. It starts out reasonably enough, but degenerates into the mostly badly-argued bullshit about 8 paragraphs in. Here's the 8th:

Lieberman lost because his opponent was rich, because his own campaign lacked sparkle and because, by promising in advance to run as an independent if Connecticut's Democrats rejected him, he seemed to put personal ambition above party loyalty.
Note that Lamont is being tarred as rich, but Lieberman's own wealth is being overlooked. At last count, US Senators are paid $165,200 a year. Lieberman's been a Senator since 1988, so that's about 18 years (give or take, depending on when he drew his first cheque), or a notch or two under $3 million. I'm sure there's been some salary increases over the years, and I can't be bothered to try to adjust for inflation. Suffice to say, Lieberman's earned more as a US Senator than most people will see in a lifetime of work. (If one earns an average of $60,000 a year for a working life from 20 until 65, one would earn $2.7 million. $60,000 a year is, however, extremely high in the US. About $40,000 is average, which would work out to less than $2 million.) In short, yes, Lamont's rich. But Lieberman is probably rich, too. Most people in control of the government are rich. I'm not sure why it's supposed to be a reason for Lamont's victory.

It's also noteworthy that there's nothing positive about Lamont's positions being cited here (such as, for example, that his views on the Iraq war align more closely with those of the majority of the American public). Instead, we have his money compared to Lieberman's poor campaign and Lieberman's own (at least perceived) arrogance. Which suggests that Lamont could've been a broomstick and people would've still voted for him over Lieberman -- terribly insulting towards Lieberman, but also a backhand at Lamont.

The remainder of the article becomes increasingly unhinged. I honestly can't follow much of what's being marshalled in the remainder of the piece. I think the point is something like:

  1. Leftists generally don't like wars.
  2. Leftists really didn't like the Iraq war.
  3. Anyone opposed to the Iraq war must be a die-hard leftist.
  4. Diehard leftists can't win elections.
(1) is drive-by smearing of the worst order. There's leftists of all stripes, from pacifists to militants, as with conservatives. (2) is probably true, but is misleading; (3) is simply false. Anyone sane thought this war was a particularly bad idea, whether leftist or not. (4) is possibly true in the current US political climate, but it's really hard to say. When more than 50% of the population stays home rather than voting in a presidential election, you have to wonder whether a radical candidate from the other side of the spectrum might mobilize some interest.

The ultimate conclusion seems to be that Lamont can't win a senatorial election because he's attracting support from left-leaning people, and this will require that he adopt increasingly more left-leaning positions. I'm not sure why it's supposed to be automatically bad to be on the political left (see previous point about voter turnout). I'm also not sure why leftists are supposed to only vote for radically leftist candidates -- rather than candidates who are more to the left than the alternatives. Leftists are as capable of voting strategically -- or, better term, pragmatically -- as anyone, and I suspect that the reasoning actually deployed will be that Lamont is better than Lieberman, even if he isn't exactly perfect. (Much the same as the reasoning that led to many leftists endorsing Howard Dean, whose record as Vermont's governor was hardly a paen to socialism. Dean's support for universal healthcare tends to overwhelm his support for balanced budgets and cutting taxes in many people's eyes.)

In short, what we see here is a truly bizarre set of attempted rationalizations of the Lieberman loss, in terms that always privilege the rightist political view over the leftist. Should I know not to expect better from The Economist? I had rather hoped that this sort of flagrant nonsense was largely confined to this side of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Airport hysteria.

This details the tremendous waste generated by the airports' panicked decision to ban all liquids, gels, etc. A few paragraphs are striking, though.
In Pennsylvania, state officials were considering pulling some discarded items for a state program that resells on eBay any items of value relinquished at airport security checkpoints, said Edward Myslewicz, spokesman for the General Services Department. However, officials at the state's main airports in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh said they were discarding all the liquids and gels.
So, in short, the items are too dangerous to allow onto passenger planes, but just fine to sell and put in with the mail freight -- which is often transported by plane. Anyone else smell a bit of a cash-grab?
Tisha Presley, bound for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, hurriedly sipped from her bottled water before going through security at the Atlanta airport. "I assume before too long we'll be naked on the plane -- and that's fine with me," she said.
I seriously hope she was joking. I'm not convinced that there's the market -- or the stomach -- for naked flying.

Universal childcare.

A few days back, the C.D. Howe Institute (a conservative thinktank) came out with a report, discussed here, to the effect that universal childcare is unnecessary, given that it only provides measureable academic benefit to children from the lower classes and single-parent families. I'm not sure they entirely get the idea, though, given that the article talks exclusively about preschool preparation -- nothing about childcare persisting into the grade school years. (While I have no doubt, having done it, that a 9 or 10 year old child can take care of him or herself after school, I have doubts about whether the average kindergarten child -- about 4 or 5 years old -- could manage.) But, let's just look at the preschool argument.

The C.D. Howe Institute (hereafter CDHI) presumes that it can measure academic benefit. I have no idea how they did, not having the study at hand, but let's grant this presumption. CDHI also presumes it can non-controversially delineate a lower-class (or lower-income) family -- again, let's grant it. Finally, let's grant the result: that lower-class and single-parent children benefit more academically.

This brings us to the heart of the problem I have with the conclusion: that there's no negative side-effect of isolating lower-income and single-parented children from their more well-off peers.

Here's one negative side-effect: it screws the middle class over. Part of the childcare problem in Canada, insofar as I understand the issue, is that there aren't enough spaces to go around. Thus, if the lower classes are being subsidized, and the upper classes can win in a head-to-head market-based competition, the middle classes get frozen out.

Here's another negative side-effect: if we're trying to create a diverse, but integrated, society (and surely that's the aim?), we shouldn't be imposing more artificial barriers between people of different backgrounds. Hence, we should allow for children from different backgrounds to interact with each other, at least in the limited amount of time they will spend in childcare, in order to, as much as is reasonably possible, break down any inherited prejudices and bigoted attitudes. (This will also, incidentally, probably help the families of the children interact with each other as well.) Of course, unless there's actually a ban on privately-provided childcare, like there is on physicians accepting private money for providing OHIP- (or equivalent-) covered services, the upper classes will still probably opt out. At least, though, we could get a little lower class/middle class solidarity going, which is no bad thing.

If I'd voted for this guy, I'd be a little peeved.

Remember Wajid Khan, the guy who here decided to cozy up to PM Stevie's office, by acting as an "advisor" on the Middle East? (One wonders how much of this is sincere, and how much is PR damage control.) Apparently, according to this, he won't be serving as assistant defence critic any more (not really a big deal), and won't be part of caucus meetings (a much bigger deal). What Khan has said is that he's going to help out the PM and skip out of participating in the party that he's actually a member of. That is, he was elected as a Liberal, but he's going to be helping the Conservatives. Which means he's basically left the party.

In addition to my earlier concerns about how secretive Khan's "advice" is going to be, this contributes to my growing suspicion that the Liberals really have no interest in playing the role of Opposition: to the point that they'll prop up the Conservative government in order to get just a little taste of governance themselves.

New Orleans prisoners.

As if the Hurricane Katrina debacle couldn't get any worse, according to the ACLU, New Orleans prisoners were treated as little more than animals. Read the whole report: it's here.

US demanding passports from Canadians. (It's like we're different countries.)

According to this article, the US will start demanding Canadians display passports when crossing the US/Canada border. I've heard a little about this for a while now, and I still don't totally see what the problem is. Granted, this will make those oh-so-entertaining waits at the border a tish bit longer. However, the economic arguments I'm seeing (viz., that commercial traffic will be slowed down) make no sense to me, for I'm more than confident that industry on both sides of the border will put significant pressure on both governments to work out some sort of "pre-screening" protocol, whereby truckers need only flash a card in order to expedite clearing customs. (Indeed, there's no in principle reason why this couldn't be extended to non-commercial traffic.)

Overall, though, I'm sympathetic to the view that's sometimes expressed that Canada, the US and Mexico (and possibly even through Central and South America) should seriously think about reducing the internal barriers and strengthening the external ones. That is, share responsibility for securing non-North American traffic, but make it easier to cross between Canada, the US and Mexico. Problematically, of course, it'd never happen, at least without some serious shifts in US foreign policy. The current climate is (a) too paranoid and (b) too anti-Mexican for the US government to cede any control over security of international traffic to another government and for the US government to make it easier for, say, workers to traverse from country to country. (However, I have blogged on that issue here.)

I suppose that my point, at the end of the day, is that it's not surprising that passports are now going to be required to cross the international border between the US and Canada, because the security protocols for entry into both countries are different, hence each government has a responsibility to ensure that traffic coming from the other is safe.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Weekend Big Ideas: Should we always hear both sides?

This was inspired by a very old post at Fake Barn Country (which now appears, unfortunately, to have gone moribund). Do we have to hear "both sides" to a story before we make a judgement about what's true? First, we should put aside an extremely bad reading of the "both sides" claim, namely that there is always two and only two sides to any story. That's clearly nonsense. The spirit of the claim seems to be, though, that one is obligated to undertake a fair and complete understanding of all views on a subject before one forms a settled or considered opinion.

On its own, though, that reading won't quite work, either. Some subjects are just obvious. The Sun is hot. Water is wet. 2+2=4. And so on. I don't need to consider opposing views -- the Sun is cold, water is only wettish, 2+2=5 -- in order to believe that these are true. The reasons I don't need to consider opposing views are not all the same. That the Sun is hot I know because I know the surface temperature, in at least an approximate sense, and I know it vastly exceeds what I could tolerate. I call temperatures I have a hard time tolerating "hot", so the Sun is very certainly hot. I consider water to be wet because all instances of water I have encountered produce in me the experience which I associate with wetness. 2+2=4 because that is a definitional truth of arithmetic, which can be grounded in various more fundamental mathematical views. Or, in summary, I know these by inference from other beliefs, by inference from prior experience, or by inference from rules of a system. To really simplify even further, if the issue is one which can be settled by inferences from what I've already got at hand, then it seems I don't need to consider opposing views before settling on an opinion and calling it true.

Of course, I could always be wrong. This is not an infalliblist doctrine, by any means. The question is at what point my obligation to only believe things I have good reason to believe is discharged, and it seems that it usually gets discharged when I can make good inferences from what I already know.

This method won't settle all issues. Sometimes, I'm exposed to things I know nothing about, or sufficiently little about that I cannot make any good inferences from what I already know. Sometimes I exceed my past experience and experience something novel. I had no idea what bulgar would taste like until I tried it (answer: kind of like a combination of wheat and sesame seeds). I know nothing about neurophysiology, and claims about how brains operate tend to confuse me on that basis. And so on.

So, when the "good inferences" method fails, am I then obligated to consider all possibilities before making a considered judgement? The answer, simply, is "no". The reason the answer is "no" is that my epistemic obligation discharges when I can make a good inference from what I already know. The failure to pass that hurdle is what sends me off with another method -- I have insufficient information already at hand to support a good inference, so I try to get more information. Once I pass the threshold, though, once I gain enough information to leap over the hurdle of being able to make a good inference, then my usual strategy can kick in again and my obligation can be discharged.

The objection that could be raised here is that I'm justifying dogma and closed-mindedness. I'm doing no such thing: what I'm suggesting is that I only have good reason to ensure that everything I believe is supported by good inferences. When my inferences are challenged, either by attacking the chain of reasoning or by attacking the beliefs on which the reasoning is founded, then I no longer can claim to believe things based on good reasoning. I would then have two options: show that the attack fails (that is, that my reasoning actually is good or its founding beliefs well-grounded), or redeploy my reasoning (and thus potentially refine my beliefs, possibly radically).

The claim is not that, once one has passed the obligation of good inferences, then one never has to think again -- if I were saying that, then the charge of dogmatism and closed-mindedness would be apt. Instead, the claim is that there is a threshold beliefs must pass in order to be taken seriously: they must be founded on good inferences from past information. Once their passing that threshold is called into question, then the obligation cannot be said to be fulfilled, and one is therefore obligated to re-found one's beliefs on good inferences.

That, I think, is really the best sense that can be made of the "two sides" claim: that one shouldn't believe things dogmatically or instinctively, but because one has good reasons for them. However, in many cases, this doesn't require one do anything more than inspect what one already believes. Which is why it is important to engage in open and fair debate with different-minded people, for only through that mechanism will one be able to ensure that one's inferences are genuinely good.

Weekend Big Ideas: Purposes in a world of causes.

I want to talk about propensities a bit here, and their relation to action. A propensity is a technical concept, but the fundamental idea is that a propensity is whatever an object has that makes it able to increase the causal probability of a certain effect. (At least, that's how I'm going to use the term.) So, for example, take a standard probabilistic causal claim: smoking causes cancer. By this we mean that if one smokes, then one is more likely to develop cancer than if one did not smoke. Which means that, by smoking, one develops a propensity for having cancer.

My question is whether propensities are one of the building blocks of purposes. Purposes are pretty foundational in action -- we do things because there's something we're trying to achieve or make happen. Whatever it is that we're trying to achieve is the purpose. Clearly, though, our actions are at least somewhat caused: we're biological creatures, we have physical bodies, there's all kinds of complicated electrochemical activity going on all the time. That's all causal material -- there's no purposes involved in neurons firing in particular orders. There can, however, be propensities: a certain disjunctive set of electrochemical structures (for simplicity, I'll presume in the brain) can be held to constitute a propensity, something that increases the causal likelihood that certain events (movements) will occur.

So, we have propensities operating at some minor abstraction from a physical level, and purposes operating at much higher, much more abstract level. What's the connection between them? They're clearly not the same thing: propensities are what propels one into certain movements, purposes are what one achieve through certain actions. Even if we equate action with movement (usually a bad move), the former are still backward-looking while the latter are forward-looking. This characteristic difference in perspectives demonstrates that the two are not actually the same. Presuming that we don't want to eliminate one in favour of the other, there needs to be a way to link the two together.

My sense is that the connection has to be agency. It is only agents who can get purposes out of physical propensities. And agents do this because of the power they have, namely agency itself. Agency itself I have already argued is a form of causal influence: agents, through exerting their will (the power characteristic of agency), can change the course their causal histories are in the process of determining. Propensities are the causal history of the agent: they capture what it is the agent is likely to do, assuming no interference by the will. Purposes are what the agent's will is directed towards: the agent is attempting to turn the tide of causation, so to speak, towards a particular goal. So, to get from propensities to purposes, we need an agent's will (agency itself) that encourages certain propensities to be actualized, and inhibits certain others.

This implies that there is a non-natural element involved in action: namely, the will. I know of no way to analyze the will naturally that doesn't collapse it into some complex set of propensities, which is one of the eliminativist moves I was trying to avoid a few paragraphs ago. However, this is not non-naturalism or supernaturalism all the way down: propensities are still analyzed naturally.

From this, it also follows that we can offer a teleological model of action-explanation -- that is, explain actions by citing purposes -- that is non-mysterious (constituted by natural purposes and the non-natural will) and yet still has the full explanatory potential characteristic of teleology.

So, in short, we don't have to give up anything in order to fully understand actions: we don't have to give up our sense of ourselves as largely non-natural beings in a world of purposes, nor do we have to give up our sense of ourselves as largely natural beings in a world of causes (propensities). Furthermore, assuming that the teleological model is a better model of action-explanation than competitors, we have as much predictive and explanatory power as we could ask for. And, finally, actions end up being a special case of events. Events occur when the propensities are not interfered with. Actions occur when the will exerts itself (possibly only successfully) upon the propensities.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Slow news day again.

Not a lot going on lately that's really worth commenting on. A few items in here, though.

First, I'm going to ignore the Lieberman-Lamont thing. Basically because it's happening as everyone was pretty confident it would -- Lamont got the nomination, but Lieberman is an entitled crybaby and won't back out with dignity. Until we see some polling data about who's likely to win in a three-way race, it's not worth much commentary.

Second, according to this, PM Stevie has tapped a Liberal MP to help advise him on Middle East issues. I actually have no particular objection to this per se -- after all, that's how minority governments are supposed to work, by tapping the resources of multiple parties. What's disturbing about this particular instance, though, is it signals the continuing willingness of the federal Liberals to prop up this government rather than serve as an effective Opposition. If the Liberals want to advise the Prime Minister, they could just as easily do it in public and in Parliament. Instead, it's happening in a back-channel, covert way -- the MP in question, Mr. Wajid Khan, will be reporting directly to the PMO. So, instead of openness and accountability, we get collusion between the two major federal parties. Nice.

Third, the whole London terror plot thing. I'm very suspicious about this. There's been too many terror arrests that are hopelessly overblown: the Canadian terror plot recently, for example, or the Brazilian shot entering the London Underground. It's not that terrorists don't exist -- they do, and they have for years. It's also not that terrorists wouldn't attack Canada -- if an attack on Canada might further their political agenda, they would plan and attempt to execute one (of this I have no doubt). But, whenever someone is arrested or suspected of planning a terrorist attack, there's a huge wave of fear-mongering that is entirely disproportionate to the reality of the situation. This is a case in point.

There was allegedly a plot to bring liquid explosives onto planes. Let's take it as given that this is, in fact, true (although it still has to be proven in court -- another point that tends to get overlooked). But, the people planning this attack were arrested. In other words, the current system seems to be working. And yet, now anyone flying is barred from bringing liquids on board, with a handful of exceptions. (It's worth noting how easy it would be to exploit these exceptions. Get a bottle of prescription medication, empty the medication, and replace it with explosive. While security officials could insist that the contents of a juice container or baby bottle be sampled in front of them, I fail to see how they could insist that prescription medication -- or even insulin -- be subject to the same restriction.) Why this additional restriction is supposed to help prevent further attacks, when the current restrictions successfully did just that, is completely opaque. Perhaps the thought is that not all the conspirators have been arrested? If that's the case, though, then isn't holding a big press conference announcing that some, but not all, of the suspected terrorists have been arrested a stupendously bad idea? If the idea is to actually catch the terrorists, that is.

But, by all means, let's all hide under the bed from the big scary terrorists that hate our freedoms. It's easier than thinking, I suppose. Yes, Bush is making that claim:

In the US, President George Bush said the plot was "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom".
The man's never met a talking point he couldn't recite.