Friday, November 27, 2009

Sarah Palin Going Rogue

I won't be reading it, but then I don't read much contemporary autobiography. Lately I've read biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (and am just finishing one of Rudyard Kipling - see sidebar). The youngest of these died fifty years ago; that's about the right degree of marination to put historical figures into proper perspective. Palin's significance at that remove is likely to merit her at most a paragraph in the lives of the truly influential people of our age.

That said, I'm not a harsh critic of hers. She's a populist with solid conservative underpinnings. She primarily appeals to a different demographic than mine, but her appeal can still be a valuable part of the conservative movement.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Health Care

So the Senate will get their Spendorama debated. It really says something about the political climate that this monstrosity wasn't just laughed out of committee. Imagine if the Republicans tried to pass off as fiscally responsible a bill in which the revenue kicks in five years ahead of the spending, justifying it by looking at a 10-year budget number that (a) depends on factors that everyone pretty much knows are not true, (b) includes ten years of revenue but only five years of spending and, to top it off, (c) still costs over $800 billion? Not to mention that, beyond that budget-busting figure, another quarter-trillion dollars of spending was pushed into a separate bill to make this one look smaller. And not to mention that the $800 billion is a net figure: gross spending is, of course, much higher. Gross spending is what we should really care about: we're paying for it eventually regardless.

The good news is that Democrats are worried. Just getting the bill to floor debate cost them several Senatorial arms twisted and $100 million of largesse to Louisiana. How much harder will it be to vote for cloture? Those Democrats whose arms are in slings this week are going to need more of that treatment, especially those, like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who are up for re-election in 2010. I don't think it's a stretch to say that a vote for this bill ends her Senate career. Is she willing to take that hit? Daily Kos seems to think she can plausibly vote for cloture and then against the bill. I'm not so sure that being the 60th vote for cloture gives her the coverage she needs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

KSM Trial

It's a terrible decision to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed like a common criminal. We will be handing intelligence over to our enemies. During the trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, intelligence that we were interested in Osama bin Laden was communicated from "secret" discovery documents to OBL's ears within two weeks. We will be handing KSM a public forum from which to put U.S. foreign policy on trial - a factor that some believe may actually underlie the reason for the transfer, as it gives the Obama Administration the ability to try Bush Administration officials without actually bringing them to court. On the plus side, if KSM behaves true to form, it will be for anyone to continue to deny the explicit destroy-America message his brand of radical Islam preaches (but does anyone seriously deny this now? who that still needs convincing will be convinced?).

One reason for disapproving of the trial that I've heard but disagree with is that it sets perverse incentives, i.e. if you kill our soldiers abroad, you are tried in a military tribunal, but if you kill our civilians at home, you get the enhanced protections of a civilian criminal trial. I highly doubt terrorists respond much to such incentives. Consider the already severe disincentive of committing suicide to carry out your attack, for example. If you're willing to do that, I don't think the moderate difference between the civilian and military courts is likely to change your behavior.

But worst of all, it's effectively a show trial. Attorney General Eric Holder has already guaranteed a conviction, and President Obama has essentially guaranteed an execution. These guarantees are not possible under the rule of law. If KSM is not convicted, will he be released? Of course not: that would be political suicide. I wonder if Obama is playing a subtle game here: suppose KSM were found innocent on the technicalities of his not being Mirandized, the waterboarding, the interrogations, the "illegal" (they will say) detainment at Guantanamo, etc. Then of course he would be re-arrested on some other charge, but now Obama could blame the Bush Administration indefinitely. "Well, we tried to legimitize his arrest, but because of all the mistakes they made, we can't. Don't blame us!" Considering that Obama is still blaming Bush for everything he can ten months after his inauguration, the strategy seems possible.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Mammogram Guidelines

Last night, NPR interviewed Dr. Bruce Calonge, chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which recently issued new recommendations for mammography this week. The previous guideline was that women should have them every 1-2 years starting at age 40. The new guideline is that women should have them biannually starting at age 50. This has caused huge controversy, of course.

The interview was singularly unhelpful, however, in helping to explain whether the new guideline is sensible or not. Dr. Calonge pointed out early on that the new guideline by no means restrict mammograms to women over 50; it merely recommends that women not automatically start getting them at age 40. Other considerations, such as lifestyle, family history, and other risk factors, may certainly lead a doctor and patient to opt for a mammogram earlier.

Fair enough, asked NPR's Tom Ashbrook, but what about women under 50 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and lived because of the early detection provided by a mammogram? Dr. Calonge responded in three parts: first, that some of those women have risk factors that would have led them to have a mammogram anyway; second, that some of those women would have lived anyway because their treatments were unnecessary (apparently some breast cancers are treated aggressively even when they are not malignant); and third, that there are actual harms associated with mammograms, and that these harms must be weighed against the benefit of early detection.

I was hoping to hear more about these harms, because they is absolutely central to the cost/benefit analysis. We know the benefit of mammograms: it's fairly small in women under 50 (for whom the breast cancer rate is quite low), but is a positive number. If expense is not considered (and it was not by the USPSTF), then the only other costs would be health-related. Unfortunately, Mr. Ashbrook continued to focus on the fact that some women under 50 have had their lives saved by mammograms. Asked and answered, I kept thinking! Dr. Calonge continued to give the same answers, of course. What else could he say?

Looking it up on other sources, I find that the harms include: overdiagnosis (many studies show that as many as 10 breast cancers diagnoses are unnecessarily treated per life saved); exposure to radiation (a relatively small factor; apparently such exposure leads to approximately 1 life lost per 50 lives saved); and "stress" (mammography, unfortunately, yields a high rate of false positives - at least 10% - and a patient receiving such a result will naturally be upset by it). But is that it? These harms rate (in my mind) as: very common, but not at all severe (stress); somewhat common, and severe but not life-threatening (overdiagnosis); rare, but life-threatening (radiation).

When this combination of harms is placed on the scale against the life-saving benefits, which is weightier? It's pretty tempting to say "the benefits", without knowing more. (How can we say that ten overdiagnoses per life lost is a net negative? A life is pretty valuable.) And that's why Mr. Ashbrook's interview was so dissatisfying; had he probed the question of harms, Dr. Calonge might well have pointed out others that I missed in five minutes of Googling. Or perhaps the harms would have been as relatively minor as the ones I located. NPR did not do its job last night.

All of this has implications for the health care debate, of course. The GOP is making the point that this is the sort of rationing that you get under government-run health care. True, although of course it would get even worse if they were actually running the show, since then expense would inevitably be a factor. Still, it would be a mistake for the GOP to push this point too hard: having a government body change its recommendation is not the same thing as the government rationing care, and may be the right move for all we know: patients and doctors should make their decision individually, and the USPSTF has said no different.

Whether the USPSTF guideline has been improved or not, though, it smells like the government trying to prevent women from unnecessary, expensive treatments (that, by the way, might save your life), which is exactly the sort of thing that will come up more frequently the more government controls health care. The controversy over this one treatment shows that Americans do not want this. Let's hope their Senators are listening.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Movie Review: Pirate Goats Who Stare at the Radio

The theme of this movie (known in the U.K. as "Radiomen Who Pirate Goats") is subversion against a tyrannical government, and that's something I can definitely get behind. Ultimately, though, it fails to deliver anything beyond an ungainly display of Sixties counterculture nostalgia.

The premise is that Puritanical British government-controlled radio refuses to play more than a few nanoseconds of rock-and-roll per day, and so the stimulation-starved populace listens to so-called "pirate" radio broadcast from ships anchored in international waters. Unable to prevent the broadcasts by legal means, the British government eventually enlists the help of a secret U.S. Army program in which common soldiers have been trained in psychic combat.

The pirate radio ship is populated by central casting Sixties-ites, who are interested in nothing other than sex, drugs and, obviously, rock and roll. The psychic warriors turn out to be warriors for peace, specializing not in fighting the enemy but in finding lost people or objects, gathering information, and spiking their regular-Army counterparts' breakfast with LSD. Taken together, these characters prove more adept at spouting slogans like "rock and roll will never die" and "give peace a chance" than at generating any audience sympathy.

That sympathy would never be tested anyway, though, given the lack of any real tension in the film. There are a few scattered tense bits, to be sure, such as when a rogue violent psychic threatens his commander with a gun, or when the pirate ship is involved in an accident and sinks. But you know nothing actually bad will happen, because anything bad happening as a result of the characters' irresponsibility and moral failures might puncture the film's Utopian vision. Technically, "Pirate Goats" should be styled a "comedy." The only problem with that designation is its dearth of laugh-inducing moments.

Rumor has it that this movie was once two separate films, one focusing on the "Pirate Radio" aspects and an entirely separate one in which goats play a central role (in the final version, the goats only enter the picture when the psychics, switching sides, help the pirates escape the authorities by mentally cloaking them as the little cloven-hoofed beasts). The fractured plot lines of the resulting movie expose its dual roots, but thematically the admixture is seamless.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mad Men Moment: Duck and the Dog

My wife and I are watching the AMC series Mad Men on DVDs from Netflix, so we're behind the actual run of the show: we've reached about the middle of season 2. It's a tribute to the excellent writing and plotting that little moments can lodge in one's thoughts for long after each episode.

One tidbit that struck me of late was Duck Phillips' abandoning his dog, Chauncey. His act spoke volumes. The moment of abandonment resulted in audible shock from both my wife and me. Why did he do it? There is the practical reason: he had learned that his ex-wife was marrying a man who was allergic to dogs, so Duck would have to keep Chauncey (who had previously stayed with the ex and the kids). Perhaps as a single man in Manhattan he could not have kept a dog.

But this does not explain why he would not have given Chauncey away, instead of just abandoning him to his fate. Duck earlier had treated the dog like a valued member of the family - more so, in fact, than his own children. My wife and I had actually agreed about that earlier in the episode.

A clear turning point in Duck's mind appeared to have been reached when he - a recovering alcoholic - nearly took a drink after a stressful day. With Chauncey at his side, he was unable to do it, haunted, evidently, by guilt sparked by the dog's trusting gaze. After abandoning Chauncey outside the building, did Duck return to the office to have his drink unburdened? We don't know.

Another clue comes from the exchange between Duck and Pete Campbell just prior to Duck's near drink. Pete shows affection for Chauncey and indicates an interest in having a dog, but only around the office. Duck rebukes him. If he had wanted to escape the responsibility of keeping a dog, that was his opportunity. But clearly he wants no part of Chauncey.

Chauncey represents the last vestige of Duck's past. His kids are teenagers and live with their mother, who is remarrying. He wants to forget his alcoholic, failed life in a London ad agency. He is trying to start a new life with Sterling Cooper in New York. He feels obvious love for the dog, but he is able to harden his heart and cruelly abandon him for the sake of "moving on."

In this way Duck is not unlike Don Draper, who is also capable of taking extraordinary measures to escape his past. It remains to be seen how the already strained relationship between these two similar men will develop.

An Inverted Sense of Urgency

Imagine the following scenario. It's a lazy Sunday morning at home. You are having breakfast and reading the newspaper. In the Local section is an article about how the water table has been rising and could lead problems in your area if trends persist for the next few decades. You have a basement, so this could be a problem for you. Meanwhile, you're eating am omelette, and it occurs to you that your doctor told you to cut down on the cholesterol - oops! Otherwise, it could be a problem in a few years. Just then, this tranquil scene is shattered by a cry from your spouse: a grease fire in the kitchen! Quick, what do you do?

If you were the current administration of the United States, you would, first, call up your neighbors to talk about this water problem and see what they're doing about it; second, throw out the rest of that omelette, collect and discard any other eggs in the house, and start researching other ways to cut down on fats. But what about that grease fire? It's spread to the kitchen counter and threatens to burn down the house. Oh, well: a final decision on that can wait a little longer, right?

The issues taking up most of the President's time these days are analogous: global climate change, health care, and Afghanistan strategy. The first of these, climate change, might become important to the U.S. in 50-100 years. The second, health care, is important now, but even the administration, in its hurry to get a bill passed, has no intention of having its provisions take effect before 2013. So it can't be that urgent. Finally, Afghanistan strategy has been left dangling, undecided, for months. Remember when Afghanistan was the good war being neglected because of our attention to Iraq? That seems to have changed around January 20.

My analogy is far from perfect, of course: Presidents can and must deal with multiple issues at the same time (as then-candidate Obama chided McCain when the financial crisis struck last October). And the fire in Afghanistan threatens to engulf that country, not ours. The fact remains, though, that while the President and his Democrat allies rush to ram through one- or two-thousand page bills to deal with problems that have timescales of years or decades, they just can't find the time to make a decision that really needed to be made yesterday - or preferably, half a year ago.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hasan Allowed to Keep Job Because of His Religion

On NPR this morning, it was reported that Hasan nearly lost his job for a pattern of misconduct, including not answering the phone when on call and trying to convert a patient (!). A committee actually met to discuss Hasan's future, and it decided not to proceed with termination because the process was so difficult and convoluted. That's bad enough, and merits review of the system we have for terminating army doctors (is it really that hard to get kicked out of our armed forces? really?).

But the really bad part was this: the committee also decided that it would "look bad to terminate one of the few Muslims on staff." It's hard to blame this committee, which is only reflecting the larger culture in which it exists. But how much worse does it look now?

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Ft. Hood Shooting

This commentary on the shooting by Arsalan Iftikhar epitomizes the sort of muddle-headed, milquetoast arguments that we have heard and can expect to continue to hear from "diversity" advocates.

Most of the world's 1.57 billion Muslims know that the Holy Quran states quite clearly that, "Anyone who kills a human being ... it shall be as though he has killed all of mankind. ... If anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he has saved the lives of all of mankind."

It is not worth getting into a scriptural debate here, and there is plenty of nasty stuff in the Bible as well, but... the relevant quote from the Koran is actually this:

5.32: For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men; and certainly Our apostles came to them with clear arguments, but even after that many of them certainly act extravagantly in the land.

5.33: The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His apostle and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement,

5.34: Except those who repent before you have them in your power; so know that Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

A bit different in context, no? Mr. Iftikhar is not being entirely honest with us.

First of all, someone simply saying "Allahu Akbar" while committing an act of mass murder no more makes their criminal act "Islamic" than a Christian uttering the "Hail Mary" while murdering an abortion medical provider, or someone chanting "Onward, Christian Soldiers" while bombing a gay nightclub, would make their act "Christian" in nature.

Really? This is his argument? I certainly would presume that a murderer who screamed Christian sayings while committing his crimes was committing them in the name of Christianity. That would not stain all of Christianity as a matter of course, but it would if other Christians did not make the strongest possible denunciations of him. Furthermore, if he had been discovered talking to other Christians who were preaching murder, I would certainly expect those others to be expelled and denounced (if not criminally prosecuted) to the greatest extent possible.

Thus, with thousands of patriotic American Muslim women and men proudly serving in our United States Army in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps it would behoove our army leaders to consider sending a strong message of American unity by appointing an American Muslim to be a part of the prosecution team against Hasan.

This would help show that the mass murders allegedly committed by Hasan have nothing to do with the teachings of our religion.

I have an alternate suggestion, Mr. Iftikhar. Perhaps you and your coreligionists could root out and expel elements that nurture people like Hasan. Perhaps you could denounce people like the imam Anwar al-Aulaqi. Considering that Hasan had a history of anti-Americanism, perhaps you could encourage the U.S. Army to get its act together, find any other soldiers engaging in this sort of thing (if there are any), and dishonorably discharge them before they commit similar crimes.

Think of what a powerful statement that would make.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Health-Care Debate Economic Confusion

It strikes me that one reason Democratic plans to "reform" health care cannot be made to work financially is that they make the common progresssive mistake of confusing economics inputs with economic outputs.

In the standard micro-economic model, we have three properties: supply, demand, and price. The first two are properly thought of not as single values, but as curves. Their intersection point determines the prevailing price (and the amount of goods sold at that price). Thus, supply and demand are inputs; price is the output.

Progressives imagine that they can fiddle with these three properties independently. In health care, they want, simultaneously, to increase the quantity of goods sold while reducing price. Fine: this can be done by increasing supply. But they also want to restrict supply. And that's just not possible, any more than it's possible to repeal the laws of thermodynamics.

Although given Democrat energy policies, maybe there is a parallel here...

Honduras Update

The latest deal has broken down. I'm interpreting this to mean that Zelaya did not think he could win a vote in Congress, and so is trying to stall. Delays only help Zelaya, since the interim government of Honduras is diplomatically isolated, and elections held while it is in power may not be recognized by other nations.

What a stinking mess. And the U.S. was central in creating it. Had we strongly supported Micheletti from the outset, or at the very least made it clear that other nations should butt out of Honduran internal affairs, this crisis might have been over months ago.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Evolution of Morality

Dinesh D'Souza proposes to demonstrate (in a 3-part essay: Part I, Part II, Part III) the existence of the afterlife using the fact that humans are possessed with moral sensibility. I find the argument interesting, but highly flawed.

D'Souza outlines his argument in this way (from Part I):

Unlike material objects and all other living creatures, we humans inhabit two domains: the way things are, and the way things ought to be. In other words, we are moral animals who recognize that just as there are natural laws that govern every object in the universe, there are also moral laws that govern the behavior of one special set of objects in the universe, namely us. While the universe is externally moved by "facts," we are internally moved also by "values." Yet these values defy natural and scientific explanation, because the laws of nature, as discovered by science, concern only the way things are and not the way they ought to be. Moreover, the essence of morality is to curtail and contradict the powerful engine of human self-interest, giving morality an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust. So how do we explain the existence of moral values that stand athwart our animal nature? The presupposition of cosmic justice, achieved not in this life but in another life beyond the grave, is by far the best and in some respects the only explanation. This presupposition fully explains why humans continue to espouse goodness and justice even when the world is evil and unjust.

One sentence in the middle is the most contentious, and unsurprisingly is the part D'Souza spends the most effort on: the idea that "morality [has] an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust." Let us see if this idea has any merit.

The first argument raised in its defense is this (from Part II):

So if we are mere evolutionary primates, how to account for morality as a central and universal feature of our nature? Why would morality develop among creatures obsessively bent on survival and reproduction?... Darwin argued that "although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet . . . an advancement in the standard of morality will rtainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another." Darwin’s point is that a tribe of virtuous patriots, with each of its members willing to make sacrifices for the group, would prove more successful and thus be favored by natural selection over a tribe of self-serving individuals.

But as biologists now recognize, the argument has a fatal flaw. The question we have to ask is how a tribe of individuals would become self-sacrificing in the first place. Imagine a tribe where, for instance, many people shared their food with others or volunteered to defend the tribe from external attack. Now what would be the fate of individual cheaters who benefited from this arrangement but hoarded their own food and themselves refused to volunteer to fight? Clearly these scoundrels would have the best deal of all. In other words, cheaters could easily become free riders, benefiting from the sacrifices of others but making no sacrifices themselves, and they would be more likely to survive than their more altruistic fellow tribesmen.

D'Souza says this is a "fatal flaw" and dismisses it without further consideration. I think he should not be so quick on the draw, though. The most obvious rejoinder is that altruistic tribes do not suffer cheaters lightly: they punish them severely, by exile or death. The development of altruism need not have the same genetic basis as the development of punishment, but clearly the combination of the two is powerful. Once this combination, which we might dub "enforced altruism", develops, it would quickly outperform selfish tribes.

Note that this does not say that all members of the tribe are forced to act altruistically (which is not really altruism). What it says is that some individuals express the altruistic trait, and that those who do not either fake it or get punished. (A few probably cheat and manage to escape punishment, of course. But now we are down to arguments over numbers: the conditions under which enforced altruism proves genetically successful depend on the ratio of altruists to cheaters, and of undetected to detected cheaters.)

Another argument for the evolution of altruism is based on the idea that individuals can be thought of as "survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes," in the words of Richard Dawkins. In D'Souza's words:

This idea helps us understand why certain insects, birds, and animals endanger their own welfare to promote that of their fellow creatures. Vervet monkeys and prairie dogs, for instance, give warning calls that signal approaching predators, sometimes at the cost of becoming the target of those predators. Why would they risk their lives in this way? Kin selection holds that it is because they are genetically related to those they are helping. So there is an evolutionary payoff: The risk-takers are maximizing not their individual chance for survival but the chance for their genes to make it into future generations. From the gene’s point of view, helping one’s kin is simply a form of helping oneself.

But of course kin selection is a very limited explanation, in that it only accounts for why animals and people behave altruistically toward relatives. In life, however, humans and even some animals behave that way toward innumerable others who don’t share their genes.

It's worth pausing at this point to mention that this last bit is a major stolen base. All of us share the vast majority of our genes; only a tiny residue of genetic difference separates Swedes from Australian aborigines. So the selfish gene hypothesis could easily explain all altruism among humans.

But of course kin selection is a very limited explanation, in that it only accounts for why animals and people behave altruistically toward relatives. In life, however, humans and even some animals behave that way toward innumerable others who don’t share their genes. Robert Trivers argued that this is because of "reciprocal altruism." A better term would be reciprocal bargaining: What Trivers means is that creatures behave generously toward others in the expectation that they will get something in return....

Even reciprocal altruism, however, cannot explain the good things that we do that offer no actual return. A fellow gets up to give his seat on the bus to an 80-year-old woman. No, she isn’t grandma, nor is it reasonable to say that he’s doing it so that next week she will give him her seat. So neither kin selection nor reciprocal altruism provides any solution in this case....

Some biologists concede that evolution is at a loss here. "Altruism toward strangers," writes biologist Ernst Mayr, "is a behavior not supported by natural selection." Still, some diehard champions of evolution do try to accommodate such behavior within their evolutionary framework. Their best attempt is to argue that seemingly disinterested altruism toward strangers has a well-hidden personal motive. Essentially it is performed in order to enhance one’s social reputation.

Again, though, there are easy responses to what D'Souza characterizes as intractable problems. First, as already mentioned, all humans are kin. Given a random gene in a random human being, the odds are extremely good that that gene also exists in any other human. Second, the description of reciprocal altruism is too limited. While we may not expect that particular individual to reciprocate, we are members of a social species. A fellow who gives up his seat on the bus may expect that someone else will give him a seat when he is 80. The best way to perpetuate the social behavior of "giving up bus seats to the elderly" is to practice them. This is a different and more subtle argument than the simplistic one of enhancing one's personal reputation.

But all these responses are not really necessary, because D'Souza's arguments are weakened by his insistance that every instance of altruism have a genetic basis. Nowhere in evolutionary theory is it required that genes evolve unerring behavior. Many insects are fooled by flowers into "mating" with them; D'Souza would presumably argue that this behavior could not have evolved because insects that were not fooled would outcompete the others. But in reality, it's just not worth it not to be fooled: the cost of being fooled is low. Similarly, the survival cost of giving up one's seat on a bus is low. Some of his other examples (e.g., "assisting AID victims in Africa") are better, but note how few people engage in these forms of altruism.

He also ignores the fact that humans have brains. Once a capacity for altruism (even just kin altruism) and a capacity for abstract thought have both evolved, it is not a stretch to infer that those capacities might start to be connected. Human evolution is not only a genetic story, but also a social one. This is obvious to anyone who has raised children: in their state of nature, they are not particular moral. A young child will lie, steal and cheat if he can get away with it. It is only through normative socialization that these tendencies are curbed; clearly they are learned, not genetic. (This is not to say that genetic tendencies toward moral behavior are stronger in some than others. But no one is born a saint any more than they are born an NBA All-Star.)

One other point D'Souza makes about morality (in Part III) is this:

All evolutionary attempts to explain morality ultimately miss the point. They seek to explain morality, but even at their best what they explain is not morality at all. Imagine a shopkeeper who routinely increases his profits by cheating his customers. So smoothly does he do this that he is never exposed and his reputation remains unimpeached. Even though the man is successful in the game of survival, if he has a conscience it will be nagging at him from the inside. It may not be strong enough to make him change his ways, but it will at least make him feel bad and perhaps ultimately despise himself. Now where have our evolutionary explanations accounted for morality in this sense?

The argument here is that evolutionary explanations for morality reduce it to just a greater form of self-interest, and that this cannot be explaining by a "nagging conscience." But this is far from clear. Why couldn't the mechanism for inducing altruistic behavior be a mental tug that we call a "conscience"? D'Souza seems to imagine that evolution must express self-interest by a little red devil in our minds encouraging us to act deviously. But consider hunger, a sense that we can hopefully agree developed via evolution. When we are hungry, we are not induced to merely ape the motions of others who are eating. Rather, we feel sensations akin to pain, which we have learned we can assuage by actually eating. Similarly, our conscience is our mental conduit for feeling our moral sense, and it is expressed by a sort of pain when we do not act appropriately. Our conscience is designed to be triggered by things which even D'Souza would recognize as being in our gene's self-interest but, being an imperfect mechanism, is sometimes triggered by things which are not. This should not be any more surprising than the discovery that we sometimes eat unhealthy things.

Having made his various points about evolution, D'Souza hits us with his conclusion:

Now let’s make the supposition that there is cosmic justice after death and ask, Does this help to explain the great mystery of human morality? It seems clear that it does. Humans recognize that there is no ultimate goodness and justice in this world, but they continue to uphold those ideals.

By now it should be obvious why I think this is flawed: the premise - that human morality is mysterious and has no otherwise good explanation - is not reasonable. Human morality can be explained perfectly well by evolutionary means; D'Souza does them a disservice by his overly-simplistic explication of them.

Full disclosure: even if I did not think evolution provided a good explanation for human morality, it would take more than D'Souza's argument to convince me of the existence of an afterlife in which we are judged for our actions in this life. His argument makes the common error of confusing metaphysics with science. What evolution can predict is a scientific question: it can be tested, verified or found wanting, modified and tested again, etc. Such is the scientific method. His hypothesis, however, is untestable, and his argument, metaphysical. It requires us to assume at a minimum that there is no physical explanation for morality. As a somewhat silly example: suppose humans did not evolve from primates at all, but - as in 2001: A Space Odyssey - were created by aliens, who inserted some moral sense in our genetic code. That is certainly an alternative explanation for the origin of morality, and it does not require us to posit an alternative universe to which we are connected (by no means detectable to science). It would require us to posit alien genetically engineers with an interest in humanity, but it strikes me at least as an open question which hypothesis is the more unlikely. In the meantime, the evolutionary explanation seems to work better than most.

On Gay Marriage

On the Leonard Lopate show on NPR today, guest Alan Van Capelle, Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda, discussed strategies for bringing "marriage equality" to the entire nation. I'm not particularly opposed to gay marriage as an idea. But I do find that many of the arguments of its supporters, including Van Capelle, range from the weak to the absurd.

One argument is that gays do not have "equal rights" because they are not allowed to marry. That's not true, of course. They are allowed to marry in exactly the same way that anyone else is allowed to marry, i.e. one man is allowed to marry one woman. What they seek is not an "equal right" but a new right. The only way an equality argument could be made is if rights inhered, not to individuals, but to couples. If that were the case, then an entity composed of two men or two women would in fact be denied a right granted to an entity composed of one man and one woman. But, in fact, rights inhere to individuals, so that argument is not sound.

On the other hand, some corporate entities are granted rights similar to those of individuals. But the rights so granted are granted to the entity as an individual; that is, if marriage were a right granted to a corporate entity, then that entity would have a right to "marry" some other entity. This is not what gay marriage supporters seek, obviously. It is quite clear that they seek a new right, not "equality."

An argument that Van Capelle trots out - one that I had not heard before - is that "human rights should not be subject to vote." One can understand, in the wake of California's, Maine's, and other state's rejections by referendum of gay marriage laws, why a supporter would say such a thing. Philosophically, such a statement is as incoherent as is the line between human rights issues and other issues (for example: are income taxes, which are the legalized taking of your property to fund state-directed projects, a human rights issue? if not, why not?). But even ignoring that problem, the statement is simply incorrect in our Constitutional democracy. The Bill of Rights is certainly subject to vote, for example: any item in it could be overturned or modified by Constitutional amendment.

The best argument for gay marriage is that the government really should not be in the business of granting benefits or preferential treatment to persons based on marital status. But that has less to do with gay marriage per se than it does with actual marriage, and its differences with non-marriage. Van Capelle today mentioned that a New York State marriage license grants 1,324 (I think it was) rights and responsibilities. One quick way to bring unmarried gay couples closer to equal status with any other person, couple, or group of people would be to reduce this number, ideally to zero. That's an unlikely outcome politically, though, so gay marriage might be the lesser of two evils.

The problem with all arguments for gay marriage, though, is that they have trouble with this question: What principle would prevent marriage between three or more persons? Or between brother and sister? If it is a human rights issue, which presumably trumps other considerations (and should not even be subject to vote!) then such marriages should be allowed. The objection I generally hear is that these types of marriages are not being called for and would not be required - which is true, at least for now - but if no principle would prevent them, then how would we as a society object if such a right ever is demanded?

Getting back to the realm of everyday politics: the most distasteful part of the pro-gay-marriage movement is its disdain for popular opinion. If a clear majority wants gay marriage, let them approve it in law. That is how democracy works. Ramming it down our throats via the courts is not the way to resolve the question any more than Roe v. Wade resolved the question of abortion rights. Comparing gay marriage as a "human right" to the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century is both disrespectful and inaccurate, and unnecessarily raises the temperature of the debate. Gay marriage advocates should concentrate on convincing voters, not bypassing them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Honduras May Not Yet Be Lost (but it probably is)

I may have overestimated Zelaya's chances. Looks like his reinstatement is far from automatic, but would have to be approved by the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court, both of which ousted him just a few months ago. More here.

Even if the final result is right, forcing this deal down their throats doesn't accomplish much to further democracy. Democracy hit the green in one, and we're requiring a mulligan. Also, it still looks like Zelaya gets back in: countries are already calling the special election, which is over three weeks hence. What a triumph of democracy, when the heads of other nations can just decide not to accept a result they don't like!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Christie Wins?

Hard to believe, but Christie still up 50-44 with 71% reporting, and has been called the winner by AP. That's a much bigger margin than I ever would have expected. Democrats must be reeling.

Quick Election Night Notes

  • In the end, I held my nose and voted for Christie. Why? Well, I figure the state of New Jersey is doomed either way. But a vote for Christie sends a message to Democrats in purple states that they can be voted out in 2010.

  • CNN's coverage on Larry King is starring: James Carville, Ben Stein, and... Jesse Ventura. Seriously?

  • As of 9:30, Christie leads Corzine by a 50-44 margin. But over half of precincts still to report, so too close to call at this point.

  • Clean sweep in Virginia by incredible margins. We all knew McDonnell would win, but by nearly 20%! Wow. Good sign for Republicans.

New Criterion

I've been reading The New Criterion for a few months, and I'm greatly enjoying it. Where else would you get an opening paragraph like this one (from the latest issue):

Until quite recently, whenever I read D. H. Lawrence I felt as if I had been immersed in a tepid bath of bodily fluids taken in the booth of a fairground soothsayer. I found his paganism ridiculous, his prose frequently overwrought and hysterical, and some of his ideas distinctly fascist, if not outright Nazi. As for his eroticism, I found it about as compelling as a gourmet would find appetizing a detailed description of the workings of the digestive system, right up to the inevitable denouement thereof. I thought some of Lawrence's poetry was goood, even very good, but (curious idea) I thought it good despite its provenance.