Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Random the Second.

Hey, look: California is going to have universal health insurance. Well... sort of. Although details are thin on the ground at this point (without my trying to find the text of the bill itself, which may not even be available yet), it seems that the law will simply require employers to either have insurance plans or pay into a public fund. I'm not sure what happens if you're self-employed or on contract. I'm also not sure what's supposed to stop the private insurers from declaring people with expensive medical conditions to be "uninsurable" and dumping them on the public plan. But, hey: I suppose it's a start.

Over at Respectful Ignorance, Orac has a nice post about the problem of applying medicine's macro-level analyses to the micro-level, i.e., the individual patient. It's probably a knottier problem than he thinks. Even granting that we can take some macro-level analysis -- say, 25% of all smokers will get lung cancer -- and bring it down to the micro-level by introducing probabilities -- smoking makes one 25% more likely to get lung cancer -- there's still a problem of how we interpret that "25% more likely" business. One way is as an epistemological hedge. That is, we realize that our ability to predict health outcomes on an individual basis is severely limited, so probability is just the best we can do. Another, quite different way, though, is to say that prediction of outcomes just is an exercise in probabilities. The latter is stronger than the former; under the former, there can be a right prediction which is fully deterministic, but under the latter, there is no right prediction but the probabilistic one. (Indeed, it could be made worse if causation itself is really just causal. Then the issue is no longer restricted to medicine.)

In short, while epidemiology is limited, it's not clear that it's even possible to improve it.

It's astonishing, in some ways, to watch how much Canada's federal Conservative Party has borrowed from the US Republican playbook. Case in point is discussed at My Blahg here: Stevie claims he believes in global warming, even though, five years past, he said he didn't. Now, of course he's allowed to change his mind. But it's flagrantly dishonest to pretend that he hasn't done so. (Assuming, to be charitable, that his currently expressed views are indeed sincere rather than rank electioneering.)

Media Matters has a couple of interesting things today. First here is a discussion of some clearly violent rhetoric being deployed by radio hosts on an ABC-owned station. This tendency to appeal to violence and the baser segment of the listening public was documented by a blogger called "Spocko", who has now had his blog shut down by his ISP at the behest of ABC. Something is deeply wrong with that picture. An ABC Radio-supported broadcast calls for, just as an example, killing millions of Indonesians; a blogger reports this; and the blogger gets punished? Am I missing something here? Whatever happened to the basic dignity and respect owed to all persons? Whatever happened to punishing people who are doing clear wrong?

Second, here, Cokie Roberts (who?), apparently an ABC correspondent of some kind, was on National Public Radio (NPR) and claimed that Democrats who supported fair trade rather than free trade are on the "wrong side of history". I almost don't know where to start with that errors in that statement. The first, of course, is that fair trade is a kind of free trade. However, if you like, it's free trade with standards. The only way one can fail to see that is if one believes that the only kind of freedom is negative freedom. As Isaiah Berlin famously (although, what else was he famous for? AFAIK, just an insultingly poor letter of reference for legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart) pointed out, there's two kinds of freedom or liberty. Negative freedom is freedom from, usually from constraint. Positive freedom is freedom to, usually to exercise some power or capacity. Fair trade is free trade in the second sense; it provides, at least in principle, those involved in the market the opportunity to develop greater power and improve themselves. In the first sense, of course, it isn't really free trade; but, if that's the sense of free trade that matters, then it becomes entirely unclear why free trade is supposed to be so great. Trade without any constraints?

The second major error is this "wrong side of history" business. I've seen this before, when Dubya talked about Iraq being a "comma" in history. It's sheer rhetorical bullshit. There are no "sides" to history, so it's impossible to be on the wrong one. Sometimes ideas don't pan out, but to call this "being on the wrong side of history" is obtuse, at the very least. Furthermore, there's an implicit invocation here of the idea that history has a direction. To put it mildly, that's a controversial claim. To make it even worse, though, the claim is being made that one can, here and now, clearly discern the direction of history and decide who is going along with it and who (to extend the metaphor into total nonsense) will be crushed beneath it. And, finally, there's the implict hand-washing involved: the idea that it's not governments and leaders and corporations and CEOs, etc., who are driving these policy changes, but impersonal and implacable "history".

Given that grading students on phys ed has done so much to encourage a lifelong habit of activity -- much as, for that matter, grading them on their enjoyment of canonical texts and lifelong habits of reading (ability to interpret texts, I get. But criticizing a student who doesn't like part of the canon? Yes, I'm bitter; why?) -- legislators in some US school districts have decided to start grading kids on their BMI. Ignoring the fact that it's not up to schools to decide who is and is not unhealthy, the social implications of this are staggering. It's not bad enough to be the dumb kid or the nerdy kid or what have you -- or, for that matter, the obviously fat kid -- now there'll be the kids who don't look fat, but nonetheless have higher BMIs. A whole 'nother reason for kids to bully and abuse each other! Did they really need more reasons?

It also looks like a band-aid solution. As the article discusses, the schools aren't providing nutritional counselling or better food options in order to actually, y'know, do something possibly constructive, but are instead tossing off a number so that parents are "informed". Once again, that's surely not the school's role (there are such animals as "paediatricians", after all); even if it were, though, isn't it the height of irresponsibility to tell someone about a problem and then run away?

Basically the same points made by Lindsay at Majikthise here.

According to the Christian Science Monitor here, MIT and other universities in the US are putting course materials online for free. I don't have a particular problem with it. I'm just curious as to what the point is. I read something last year in the York student paper about a group of instructors getting together to produce podcasts of their lectures. Again, I really didn't see the point. If it's just "hey, cool, a new toy, I wanna play!", then I understand. But what pedagogical purpose is being pursued here? At best, it seems that putting course content online is a rather crude marketing ploy. Wouldn't a really slick set of bus ads be a better use of time and money?

The New York Times says that being president of a university is pretty tough these days (here). I'm paid about $12,000 a year, all told, to TA at York, and York yanks back about $5K each year for tuition. The current president of York, Lorna Marsden, makes more than $300K a year. Her job's tough? Boo fucking hoo. If I were paid that kind of money, I'd expect to be given a tough job.

This is a farce. Or it's macabre. Probably both. Apparently, in one of the remaining trials of Saddam Hussein, a tape of his voice was played by the prosecution. Wouldn't it have made sense to, y'know, not kill the guy so he could've actually been there?

The best President the US never had, Josiah Bartlett, spells out the utter hypocrisy and quote-mining of the US Christian Right: here. A good note to close this one on, methinks.

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