The Carnival of the Liberals, and Other Links

January 31, 2007

COTL number 31 is up on Pollyticks.

In related links, Kevin Hayden has a tribute to Molly Ivins, who’s just succumbed to breast cancer; Edward at A Fistful of Euros writes about the divergence between the healthy economic growth of Spain with the sluggish one of Germany; and Shelley links to an Ask an Expert feature that explains why people can’t tickle themselves.

Carnival of Mathematics

January 31, 2007

Mark Friday, February the 9th on your calendar, folks. That’s when the Carnival of Mathematics goes up on Abstract Nonsense. If you have any submission, or want to host the carnival at a later date, email me, and preferably include the words “Carnival of Mathematics” somewhere in the subject line, in case I have to rescue your email from the spam filter.

Tentatively, the carnival is supposed to be fortnightly, but if I get too many hosting requests, or there are too many posts per two weeks, it’ll become weekly. Similarly, if there are too few posts or hosting requests, it can become monthly.

Obviously, pure math posts, like my algebraic number theory proofs, are welcome. But so are many other things, including but not limited to the following:

– Debunking bad math and its uses in bad science and bad politics, as in many of Mark Chu-Carroll’s posts (see e.g. illegal immigrants and crime on Good Math, Bad Math).

– Math and computer science.

– Math puzzles, with or without explanations of deeper underlying concepts (see e.g. the Monty Hall problem on EvolutionBlog).

– Math and statistics in social science.

– Math in popular culture: Fermat’s Enigma, Pi, Proof, Numb3rs.

– How to write math, e.g. Polymath’s elementary proof of Morley’s Theorem.

– How to teach math, and general posts about math and education.

Of course, other topics related to math – including theoretical computer science, statistics, and mathematical physics – are still welcome. The above list is just a set of suggestions.

Since this is a first edition, I’m only limiting each blogger to three posts. Hopefully in the future there will be enough participants to enable limiting each blogger to the standard one post.

There Exist Anti-Abortion Terrorists; Therefore, All Christians are Murderers

January 31, 2007

On Winds of Change, Joe Katzman is trying to show that he’s even more extreme than Sam Harris by writing about a bunch of Jihadists in Britain who plotted to behead a Muslim serving in the British Army. Personally I would give kudos to the British security services and rant about British cultural policy, but Katzman has another comment:

Such nice people. Maybe if we treated them better and offed the Jews as a show of good faith, they’d be kind to us….

Katzman’s post’s title is “Religion of Submission Watch,” which takes me back to when I read about Harris’s positively kooky views on torture and the War on Terror.

There exist anti-abortion terrorists, but the only people who conclude that all Christians are murderers are the sort of extremists who complain that PZ Myers is too soft on religion. There exist settlers in the West Bank who abuse and kill Palestinian civilians, but the only people who generalize from them to Jews are recognizably anti-Semitic. And there exist mobs of Hindu extremists who burn Muslim slums in India, but the only people who call Hinduism the religion of live burning are Muslim terrorists in South Asia.


January 31, 2007

Lindsay said that despite Edwards’ warmongering, she still thinks he’s the best candidate in the race. I countered by talking about priorities and how on my most important issues there are hardly any differences among the American Presidential candidates. Quoting myself,

I have a fairly good idea which political issues I care about the most in American elections. For instance, keeping abortion legal is a top priority as long as Stevens lives, universal health care is a high priority, gay marriage is a mid-level priority, the capital gains tax is a low priority, and gun control is off my register.

As it happens, the Democrats are disappointing on the top priority issues, and in some cases are indistinguishable from Republicans. All three Democrats are pro-choice, but I don’t trust any of them to spend a cent of political capital on protecting abortion rights; Giuliani is in the same category as the Democrats, while McCain and Romney are noticeably worse. On Iran, my other top priority, I can’t detect any difference between any of the candidates, regardless of party. The differences only start to materialize on universal health care, on which I trust Edwards somewhat more than I do the others, but that’s only issue number four or five for me.

A good issue breakdown for me in federal American elections is,

Top priorities: abortion (pro-); Iran (don’t attack, don’t sanction); warrantless spying (anti-).

High priorities: Iraq (withdraw); universal health care (pro-); immigration (legalize and increase); free trade (pro-, but anti-CAFTA) and farm subsidies (eliminate).

Medium priorities: gay rights in general and marriage in particular (legalize); the deficit (eliminate); stem cell research (fund); welfare payments (increase); education funding (equalize); global warming (pro-Kyoto and beyond).

Low priorities: progressive taxation including the estate and capital gains taxes (pro-); alternative energy (fund research); scientific research spending (increase); affirmative action (make class-based), military spending (slash), minimum wage (increase).

Off the radar: guns, hate crime laws, small business tax breaks…

Within each category, the issues are listed in roughly descending order of importance. But not all breaks are equal. The three top priorities are nearly equal, while the difference between warrantless spying and Iraq is large; at the same time, the difference between free trade and gay rights is small, and probably smaller than the one between Iraq and health care.

Nor does the list mean my ranking of candidates is lexicographic. A big difference on gay rights can outweigh a small one on health care.

As a corollary to this, issues on which the gamut of normal American political views is narrow play a smaller role in my decisions than you would infer from the list. This most strongly affects spying, immigration, welfare, and education. I can get agitated over medium priorities with ease, when the difference is clear; however, slight increases in Pell grants or food stamp benefits barely register if at all.

In addition, the issue of abortion is almost entirely one of judicial nominations, especially when it comes to Presidents rather than Representatives or even Senators. I only care about a member of Congress’s record on such things as abortions on military bases insofar as they clue me into his judicial nominations.

Addendum: some issues, like the draft and separation of church and state, are in an entirely different category. These are issues that I care deeply about, but that are not ordinarily hot in American elections, or have even narrower political gamuts than domestic spying. But in certain cases they come into play, most prominently with Charlie Rangel.

And finally, there’s an inherent issue of trust involved. It’s not enough for me for a candidate to be pro-choice, anti-Iran war, and pro-civil liberties; I need to see evidence he will not sacrifice these issues to support lower ranked ones. Conversely, evidence that a candidate cares about the issue counts against him when his position is opposed to mine. On abortion, I’d rate McCain a 3 and Brownback a 0 because of that.

If you want, feel free to steal the idea of priorities. I’m going to turn it into a full-blown meme sometime soon. I’m certainly interested to know what people care about the most.

Why I Oppose Conscience Clauses

January 31, 2007

Via Just Dreadful: a rape victim in Florida complained to the police about the rape. The police found out she owed money in restitution for an old theft case, and promptly threw her in jail, where a jail worker refused to give her emergency contraception because he’s morally opposed to it.

Meanwhile, the spin doctors are already trying to control the story.

Tampa attorney Jennifer D’Angelo, who represents the jail worker, said Tuesday that her client is prohibited from giving inmates any medication without specific orders. The worker insists she never discussed religion with the woman who reported being raped.

The victim had already gotten her first pill; the jail worker refused to give her the second dose. The specific orders in question are likely bunk, since all rape victims in the US immediately get EC, unless they go to Catholic hospitals.

Just so you don’t think all Democrats are hawks:

January 31, 2007

Senate Democrats, joined by Arlen Specter, are exploring ways to block Bush’s surge. Feingold went further and introduced a bill to cut off funding to the entire Iraq occupation within six months, except for a few limited counterterrorism and training operations.

Mr. Specter read the results of a survey of service members conducted by The Military Times, which found that only 35 percent of respondents approved of Mr. Bush’s handling of the war. The senator suggested that in that light, the military might be “appreciative of questions being raised by Congress.”

Mr. Feingold insisted that his resolution would “not hurt our troops in any way” because they would all continue to be paid, supplied, equipped and trained as usual — just not in Iraq.

Of course, the New York Times tries to be a balanced newspaper regardless of the facts, so it quotes someone who says that,

Congress had made itself responsible for the deaths of the 1.7 million Cambodians estimated to have been slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, by denying funds for President Nixon to wage war inside Cambodia.

What actually happened is that the US helped Prince Lon Nol overthrow the government in 1970 and establish an American puppet regime. The regime was unpopular enough that many people thought the Khmer Rouge would be a positive change; of course it wasn’t, but Pol Pot would’ve never come to power had the US left Norodom Sihanouk in power.

Then, in 1978, the communist government of Vietnam invaded Cambodia, deposed the Khmer Rouge, and installed a non-genocidal regime in its stead. Meanwhile, the US kept recognizing the Khmer Rouge, which was still terrorizing the country, as the legitimate government of Cambodia.

So blaming Congress for that is positively weird. It’s like blaming Congress for the ills of the Iraq War because it voted to approve it. Those members who voted for the war bear some responsibility, but the people who actually instigated the war and then butchered the occupation are primarily Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, rather than anyone in Congress.

It’s entirely possible that if the US withdraws, the Shi’as will commit genocide against the Sunnis. On the other hand, it’s equally likely that they will if the US doesn’t withdraw. A conclaved group of 150,000 or even 200,000 troops can’t do much in Iraq. At this stage even the 300,000 that the military recommended will probably be unable to stop the inevitable.

Oh Well

January 30, 2007

Amanda has just joined the Edwards bandwagon in the most blatant way possible: by running his campaign blog. I noted in the comments that Edwards supported a military strike against Iran. As Lindsay notes, he’s just rehashing the conventional wisdom about Iraq that was proven so devastatingly wrong after the American invasion.

On Pandagon, I made a comment about Obama’s being possibly the only anti-war candidate in the race. It wasn’t long before Drew set me straight: Obama is in fact only against the Iraq war, like the rest of the field. Back in 2004, he came out in support of attacking Iran:

Obama said the United States must first address Iran’s attempt to gain nuclear capabilities by going before the United Nations Security Council and lobbying the international community to apply more pressure on Iran to cease nuclear activities. That pressure should come in the form of economic sanctions, he said.

But if those measures fall short, the United States should not rule out military strikes to destroy nuclear production sites in Iran, Obama said.

In the comments to my post about Edwards’ pro-war statements, SLC snarked, “There can be no doubt that Edwards is a conscious Zionist conspirator, and a tool of the international Zionist conspiracy.” Actually, what Obama did is worse than what Edwards did. Edwards spoke to a pro-Israeli group, which makes it possible that in fact he’s just lying to it to get its people’s money and votes. Obama has no such excuse.

This, of course, leaves Hillary Clinton as the one serious Democratic contender who hasn’t explicitly backed an attack on Iran that I know of. However, it’s extremely unlikely she’ll be anything but a war hawk; given her vote for the Iraq war and her record on American-Israeli relations, she is to be assumed pro-war until proven otherwise.

Oh well. In a comment on her own top-notch post about Edwards and Iran, Lindsay laments,

It’s the conventional wisdom factor that I’m scared of. In the run-up to the Iraq war, I began to wonder whether I was crazy because no one was asking really basic questions like “Is war the best solution to this problem?” and “Are we sure that there’s a problem?” and “You know there’s a difference between a potential threat and an imminent threat, right?” and “How is deposing Saddam Hussein supposed to reduce terrorism?”

At the time, I didn’t speak out. I mean, I went to anti-war protests and wrote to my elected officials and signed a lot of petitions. But I didn’t publicly voice the basic questions that were reverberating in my head because even so called liberals were playing along with the Saddam Threat script, even if they didn’t want to authorize the president to use force just yet.

The right wing managed to marginalize anyone who spoke out too strongly against the war. “Serious” liberals couldn’t say “This war is just a crazy idea, I don’t understand what this is supposed to accomplish.”

I keep joking with myself that liberal bloggers would do a far better job at governing than the current crop of politicians. It’s really too bad Lindsay’s too young to run (not that she could win if she did – atheists don’t generally win elections in the US – but still). Drafting a more established politician of the same nominal religion as Lindsay and was a possible candidate at one point would have a better chance, but I honestly don’t see such a politician pull an upset victory at this stage.

Amanda says,

Why John Edwards?  Well, look again at that list of political obsessions and you have your answer.  John Edwards is the only Democrat in the field of potential nominees who is interested in pursuing the right policies in all these areas.  Especially important to me is that he is interested in fighting poverty in America and putting that middle class dream in the hands of all Americans.

I don’t want to snark too much at someone who opposes wars of aggression, but Amanda’s focusing on the wrong people. Yes, if you want two or three million Americans to be lifted out of poverty, you should support Edwards. But if you want two or three hundred thousand Iranians not to be bombed to death, and Iranian women to have a decent chance at achieving legal equality, you should do whatever you can to derail his candidacy, as well as these of all other war hawks.

Venezuelan Democracy, RIP

January 30, 2007

If I didn’t know better, I’d say Hugo Chavez is trying to prove Hayek right. For years he managed to ram through economic reforms while maintaining the integrity of Venezuelan democracy. But democracy appears to be too inconvenient for him now.

Venezuela’s congress approved a request by President Hugo Chavez for the power to make law by decree for 18 months, opening the way for an overhaul of the country’s economic and political life.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the request in a televised vote.

Chavez has pledged to use his new power to nationalize “strategic” companies in the telephone, electricity and oil industries, establish new taxes on second houses, boats and luxury goods, and eliminate more than 100 municipalities.

The more time passes, the more Chavez looks like a mongrel hybrid of John Birch, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. He has Birch’s paranoia, Giuliani’s autocratic personality, and Bush’s respect for democratic institutions. A long time ago, I was disturbed enough by his rhetoric alone to compare him to Argentina’s Juan Perón. At the time, the people I was talking to told me it was nonsense because Perón was never a democrat, while Chavez was. My record of being right on Iraq in 2003, Lebanon in 2006, and now Venezuela in 2007 makes me scared that I’m also right about the entire world in 2020-21.

Cynical Observations and Other Short Tidbits

January 30, 2007

1. The main reason I don’t saturate Abstract Nonsense with more memes, cynical observations, and primers for the languages I invent is that I’m afraid too many readers will lose interest.

2. When I criticize anti-Muslim bigots on 3QD, I draw tens of comments, ranging from mildly positive to scathingly negative. When I go after an established scientist the editors of 3QD agree with and even know personally, I only get one.

3. Last afternoon, a classmate of mine told me I should consider going to a class because it might be interesting to me. I asked her what it is about. She said, “The geometry of 3-manifolds.”

I smirked and pressed, “What applications does that have to algebraic number theory?”

She said, “Oh, I know why you like algebraic number theory – you want to work for the NSA.” In her defense, she’s a communist and I make fun of communism all the time, but I’m a) not a US citizen, b) on the other side as the privacy invaders, and c) more interested in pure mathematics than in theoretical computer science.

4. My microwave loves rice. It loves rice so much that when I just put a bowlful of rice in it, it made something like 30-40 grams jump out of the bowl so that the microwave could have a share of the food.

5. This semester, my help room sessions all take place on the Barnard campus rather than the main Columbia campus’s Mathematics building. Unfortunately, the Barnard building where I have to be, Milbank, is a large maze complex. Even the help room itself requires some skill to circumnavigate its central desk.

6. A nonstop roundtrip flight from New York to Chicago for early August cost $143 on Expedia as of yesterday. At the same time, the hotel for Yearly Kos costs $149 per night, after the discount for convention participants.

7. Wealth is relative. I discovered my annual income was going to be $21,650 after taxes rather than $20,000 a few days ago and started feeling wealthy. A friend of mine who makes $110,000 per year and has two dependents has problems paying bills.

8. I’m giving a lecture in my algebraic number theory class in eight and a half hours, about cyclotomic fields. I’d post it here, but I’m handwaving a few elementary results I can’t prove. I can get away with it in class because it’s assumed everyone knows what the ring of integers of a cyclotomic field is, but here I can’t.

9. The list of things I’ve procrastinated or am procrastinating, besides reading more books, is getting unmanageable. First, there’s my book, which I still need to edit to make publishable. On the blogosphere, I need to write my next radical pathology post (which is about extremism), an introductory post about modular arithmetic, and a meme about political priorities; in addition, I need to send Jason Rosenhouse and Mark CC an email about a Carnival of Mathematics.

Edwards Supports War on Iran

January 30, 2007

Hat-tip to Lindsay: speaking to the Herzliya Conference yesterday, Edwards backed aggressive action against Iran. While he did not condone war explicitly, he used the exact same phrase Bush used when asked about the possibility of a nuclear strike against Iran: “All the options are on the table.”

[Link] All the options are on the table to ensure that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon,” said Edwards, who is running for president for the second time. He also ran in the 2004 election both as a presidential and then as a vice presidential candidate.

In speaking via satellite to the conference from the US, he said Iran’s nuclear ambition represents the single greatest security threat not only to Israel but to the United States as well.

He added that his country had abdicated its responsibility and had not done enough to stop Iran.

Although my description of people who commit a crime, apologize, and then commit another crime was meant to apply to Clinton, Edwards fits the bill perfectly. He voted for the war on Iraq. Then he turned against the war, just as its approval rate sank below the bottom of the Mariana Trench. And now he’s already backing an even more destructive war.

At best, Edwards is just telling the Israel lobby what it wants to hear. But even in that case, it’s impossible to tell what he really thinks, save that he voted for the War on Iraq. I like world leaders who are not wildcards. Wildcards tend to do unpredictable things, like attack random defenseless countries.

At worst, Edwards either supports every war with a higher level of political support than revoking American independence or is a real hawk. In these cases, he’s not a wildcard, but someone who will predictably engage in destructive foreign policy.

I hate to break it to everyone, but labor is a low priority. Whatever Edwards could get Congress to pass would make the lives of about seven low-income Americans better. Any kind of movement that puts throwing Americans a few more dollars above not bombing hundreds of thousands of Iranian civilians deserves to be shown the door to the Republican Party, where that parochial xenophobia is considered a positive.

I might end up grudgingly supporting Obama. In the short run, he’s no more untrustworthy on abortion than Edwards and Clinton. In the long run he wants to build a bridge from the Dominionist movement to the Democratic Party, but that’s easier to reverse than a military strike against Iran.

Educational Links

January 29, 2007

Mark CC has a post explaining the basics of formal logic as well as the difference between syntax and semantics.

Logic, in the sense that we generally talk about it, isn’t really one thing. Logic is a name for the general family of formal proof systems with inference rules. There are many logics, and a statement that is a valid inference (is logical) in one system may not be valid in another. To give you a very simple example, most people are familiar with the fact that in logic, if you have a statement “A”, then either the statement “A or not A” must be true. In the most common simple logic, called propositional logic, that’s a tautology – that is, a statement which is always true by definition. But in another common and useful logic – intuitionistic logic – “A or not A” is not necessarily true. You cannot infer anything about whether it’s true or false without proving whether A is true or false.

In line with the theme of studies about racial or gender bias, here‘s a study that shows that legal immigrants to the US make more money when they have lighter skin or bigger height, even after controlling for other possible variables (via Retrospectacle).

Whether and how quickly immigrants assimilate into the U.S. labor market is an issue of great policy importance and controversy. Using newly-available data from the New Immigrant Survey 2003, this paper shows that new lawful immigrants to the U.S. who have lighter skin color and are taller have higher earnings, controlling for extensive labor market and immigration status information, as well as for education, English language proficiency, outdoor work, occupation, ethnicity, race, and country of birth. Immigrants with the lightest skin color earn on average 8 to 15 percent more than comparable immigrants with the darkest skin tone. Each extra inch of height is associated with a 1 percent increase in wages.

Ruchira Paul of Accidental Blogger writes about Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim Indian who volunteered to engage in espionage for the British in World War Two.

After a hurried (and rather incomplete) training in England, she was posted in Paris as the first woman radio operator for the SOE, entrusted with intercepting Nazi wireless transmissions. This gentle, shy and talented young woman became a thorn in the side of the German military – an unlikely, intrepid, wily spy, expertly eluding capture. Noor was later betrayed by one of her own colleagues. Captured, questioned and beaten by the Nazis, she was deported to Dachau for her non-cooperation, where after further beatings and torture, she was shot. At the time of her death Noor was thirty years old. According to her biography (and the testimony of her captors), she died without divulging any secrets and the last word she uttered was liberté.

Via Pharyngula: in honor of Charles Darwin’s upcoming 200th birthday, the Beagle Project is planning to rebuild the Beagle and sail along the same path Darwin traveled along.

Imagine: 2009, and a replica Beagle sailed around Capre Horn and through the Pacific by an international crew of young scientists sails into The Galapagos as part of a recreation of the Voyage of the Beagle. That, surely will be the TV picture of the Darwin 2009 celebrations. How can Darwin’s 200th anniversary pass without that happening? Donate, and help us give a new generation of young people the chance to see a replica Beagle built and launched, and the opportunity to head for horizons of their own.

Israel’s Pelosi

January 29, 2007

Israel needs a Nancy Pelosi. The one serving in the US House of Representatives could be pretty good, but anyone who has the power to turn off the aid pipeline and is willing to use it will do. Israel’s violation of an agreement with the US not to use American cluster bombs against civilians would provide a suitable reason to stop sending aid, on top of Israel’s overt threat to authorize a nuclear first strike against Iran.

The U.S. State Department says Israel’s use of U.S.-made cluster bombs in civilian areas of Lebanon during last summer’s war with Hezbollah may have violated an agreement with Washington over the use of the weapons.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said “there were likely violations” of the agreement under the Arms Export Control Act, which governs the use of arms sold by the United States.

Under the Act, whose provisions remain confidential, the U.S. must draft a report and send its findings to Congress, if it believes that a foreign country violated the terms of agreement over how U.S.-made weapons are used.

Israel is like a 20-year-old thug who thinks he’s all independent because he lives on his own, and then goes beating people up and gets away with it because his parents always bail him out. Harsh as it is, that thug’s parents need to tell him, “Ehud, you’re on your own. Do whatever you like, but we’re not paying a dime, and we don’t care if you can’t make rent.”

I should start writing letters to my Senators about it (my Congressman probably already agrees with me). The name Alon Levy is very valuable on a letter that tells New York Senators to stop sending Israel, which is already the most developed country outside the OECD, billions of dollars every year that have no strings attached.

The Blank Slate and Other Phantom Theories

January 29, 2007

I keep posting my 3QD columns increasingly late. My most recent one, about Pinker’s The Blank Slate and the inconsistencies between how it portrays the world and how the world actually is, was up only at 8:42 pm even though we’re supposed to have them up and running by midnight between Sunday and Monday.

The most important one liner from the entire post is in my opinion, “The truth is never oppressive” – or, in its fuller version, “the truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive.” I then show that on the contrary, the views Pinker holds about gender and apologizes for about race fail any scientific reasonable-person standard.

The spine of the article is four paragraphs about a third of the way through, including that one liner.

The relationship between Pinker and Lewontin is an interesting one. Pinker notes that although Lewontin claims that he thinks the dominant force in evolution is the interaction between gene, organism, and environment, in terms of social implications he ignores everything but environment. On that Pinker is certainly right: Biology as Ideology is an anti-science polemic that distorts facts to fit Lewontin’s agenda (my take on Lewontin was subsequently debated in length here). However, Pinker commits the same transgression: he says he believes in the sensible moderate view that human behavior is determined by both inborn and environmental factors, and goes on to not only ignore the implications of the environmental part but also defend racists and sexists who have used pseudoscience as cover.

For instance, he starts by ridiculing people who called Richard Herrnstein a racist for a 1970 paper about intelligence and heredity. Although the paper as Pinker describes it is not racist per se, Herrnstein was indeed a racist. The screed he published with Charles Murray in 1994, The Bell Curve, is not only wrong, but also obviously wrong. Even in 1994, there were metastudies about race and intelligence that showed that the IQ gap disappears once one properly controls for environmental factors, for example by considering the IQ scores of children born to single mothers in Germany by American fathers in World War Two.

The truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive. If there is indeed an innate component to the racial IQ gap, or to the gender math score gap, then it’s not racist or sexist to write about it. It remains so even if the innate component does not exist, but the researcher has solid grounds to believe it does.

However, Murray and Herrnstein had no such solid grounds. They could quote a few studies proving their point, but when researchers publish many studies about the same phenomenon, some studies are bound to detect statistically significant effects that do not exist. By selectively choosing one’s references, one can show that liberals are morally superior or morally inferior to conservatives, or that socialism is more successful or less successful than capitalism. At times there are seminal studies, which do not require any further metastudy. There weren’t any in 1994, while existing metastudies suggested that the racial IQ gap was entirely environmental. As I will describe below, the one seminal study [link added] done in 2003 moots not only Murray and Herrnstein’s entire argument but also much of Pinker’s.

As in my other scathing book reviews, there are some parts I would’ve liked to rebut but couldn’t without breaking the article’s flow. Things that would’ve made it into the post if I’d written it in bullet point format include,

1. Pinker’s scare campaign around Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Hardly anyone cares for them anymore, especially for Dworkin. Even Brownmiller felt the need to compare Dworkin’s speeches to revival tents in a paragraph praising Dworkin’s passion.

2. The general use of abstract moral principles against social movements. Proponents of torture advise opponents of torture to speak only in moral terms and ignore the fact that torture is ineffective; sexists advise feminists to only attack obvious discrimination and ignore the fact that men and women are cognitively nearly identical.

3. The reemergence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely due to the discovery of the Pirahã’s inability to master basic counting. Chomsky’s transformtional grammar is the only serious challenge to Lockean empiricism, which Pinker tars by associating it with the phantom theory that is the blank slate.

4. Relational models. Pinker quotes Alan Fiske’s theory of four relational models – market pricing, communal sharing, equality matching, and authority ranking – and claims that equality matching is the most common to support his claims. In fact there’s no criterion that can determine which is more common; for what it’s worth, equality matching is the weirdest of the four in some precise ways.

5. The Larry Summers controversy, in which Pinker defended the assertion that women are innately worse at math than men. There’s no obvious EP-derived hypothesis why it should be so, and even if there were, it would fail to conform to reality, since women can and often are as good at math as men. Feminist activism has changed a lot; Columbia’s progressed from having its first female Ph.D. student in math 20 years ago to having a 50-50 incoming class this year.

6. Education. I have no idea where Kim Gandy’s getting her numbers from when she says boys and girls are 99% identical in learning, but the basic point that the differences in cognition are small is right. Stentor has a link to the relevant research somewhere in his archives. I allude to this point in the post, but don’t explicitly mention this research.

Weird Habits

January 29, 2007

Skatje tagged everyone reading her post with a meme that asks the blogger to list ten weird things or habits about him/herself.

1. I’m a major language/linguistics geek. I’m not really a polyglot, but I invent languages prolifically. The easiest way to my heart is with a knife, but the second easiest is by telling me about the languages you invent or the linguistics you study.

2. My third place is the grocery store across the street, where I write posts in my head while looking in vain for unsalted meat (there are too many Jews in the neighborhood…) at 3 am.

3. I’m addicted to bread. Wheat is better than white, but even white is good as long as it’s freshly baked rather than sliced and packaged. Unfortunately the said grocery store has no good bread past 10 or 11 pm, and other stores aren’t even open that late, which is turning me off my favorite food.

4. When people say stupid things to me online, I usually respond fairly mildly. But in my head I think of snark that tends to begin with “Do you know why I’m always right? It’s because…”

5. My views of sexuality are almost the diametric opposite of the mainstream’s, in the sense that I don’t think domination equals putting one’s penis in every hole where it can fit. It seems to be standard in BDSM for a dominant to make the submissive give him/her a blowjob. In my conception of sexuality, it’s the other way around: the dominant is the party that gives the blowjob, making him/her the party that can control the submissive’s sensations.

6. I only identify with feminism because of Avedon Carol. I started regularly calling myself a feminist after a bunch of bored Stepford wives called me a feminist pejoratively, but I wouldn’t have if I’d thought feminism was pro-censorship.

7. I’m very heterosocial, and have been so for most of my life. It’s not that I hate men or anything; it just happens that my social circle is majority female.

8. I have crushes of varying degrees of intensity on most under-30 women on my blogroll. It’s evidently not serious enough that I can’t have the same crush on 10 different women, but still.

9. I waver between extreme shyness and inability to shut up. Usually I start out by not saying anything, but if I know something about the subject or have some acquaintance with you, the only surefire way to get me to stop talking is with duct tape.

10. I’m very uncomfortable with crowds, politically speaking. Even a small dose of groupthink or similar displays of solidarity can make disillusion me even with movements I strongly identify with the politics of.

Like Skatje, I tag everyone.

Why Science is Important

January 29, 2007

A thread on Feministing that degenerated into a series of dumb arguments against Ashley’s growth stunting reminded me just how important it is to argue from science, or facts in general, rather than personal experience.

It’s very attractive to argue from personal experience. It’s your own safe space, which no hierarchist can deny. When you’re sure you’re right, it immunizes you against having to defend yourself to people who just don’t get it. Unfortunately, it also immunizes you against being able to make any headway with people who don’t already agree with you.

Everyone has personal experiences. But the experiences that make it to the mainstream are those of people who are connected in some way. The personal experience of a President or Prime Minister matters more than this of a member of Congress or Parliament, which matters more than this of someone who is merely connected to a politician, which matters more than this of a plebian.

Unsurprisingly, social movements that are based on members’ personal experience fail. Feminism that’s based on personal experience is doomed, because when a woman’s personal experience conflicts with a man’s, absent any evidence the man’s experience will be favored.

In contrast, science is by and large objective. For all the stories of systematic bias, the scientific community has only had two or three cases of lingering bias: early anthropology, eugenics, and maybe psychanalysis. It’s been wrong a few more times, but given that the only methodology with a better batting average than the scientific one is the mathematical one, which isn’t generalizable to most real world questions, attacking science for having been wrong has no merit.

The center and the right successfully characterized the left as all about good feeling for decades. Heart-wrenching moral arguments rarely work in politics. The last time they did in the US was when MLK was fighting segregation. Even MLK couldn’t apply the same organizing strategy that had worked in the South to poverty in Chicago.

In the last forty years, the social movements that have done any good were those based on empirical data. Even within the same movement, battles that were based on empirical data succeeded, whereas those that were based on personal experience failed. Feminists could get extensive anti-discrimination laws on the books, but personal stories of sexual harassment never went anywhere. They could pass laws against domestic violence and strengthen laws against rape, but they could never get criminologists or police departments to apply feminist theories to rape reduction.

As I’m fond of saying, a safe space is a powerless space. Serious political activism requires getting into the mainstream space and working from there. And that requires showing that you have strong enough a case to be allowed in. If it weren’t an excruciating process with fewer successes than you think you deserve, Bismarck wouldn’t analogize it to making sausages.

The Republicans are Bad at Politics

January 28, 2007

Hat-tip to Amanda: Ted Kennedy is berating the Republicans in the Senate for threatening to filibuster the minimum wage increase. Kennedy went as far as calling the Republicans greedy and unloading years of emotions about the minimum wage.

“Do you have such disdain for hard-working Americans that you want to pile all your amendments on this? Why don’t you just hold your amendments until other pieces of legislation? Why this volume of amendments on just the issue to try and raise the minimum wage? What is it about it that drives you Republicans crazy? What is it? Something. Something! What is the price that the workers have to pay to get an increase? What is it about working men and women that you find so offensive?”

The Republicans were supposed to be the party that knows all about politics, and is only weak when it comes to governing. For years, Democrats lamented how Karl Rove was a marketing genius and how for decades the Republicans had run brilliant branding campaigns.

Somehow, these marketing geniuses decided it would be a good idea to filibuster a bill that 83% of Americans support and 68% consider a top priority. The Senate election campaign ads for 2008 practically write themselves. “68% of Americans say they consider raising the minimum wage a top priority. In 2006, the American people elected Democrats to Congress to raise the minimum wage to $7.25. So why did Senator ____ filibuster the bill?”

The minimum wage isn’t an especially important issue. Most low-income workers make more than $7.25/hour. What keeps them in poverty is chronic unemployment and underemployment. Unemployment insurance and retraining programs are far more useful and far more costly, even if you consider the minimum wage an unfunded mandate whose true cost is this of a government supplement of everyone’s wage to $7.25/hour.

If you’re a Democrat, the above calculus is irrelevant. The minimum wage does more good than harm. That 83% of the people want that only means that a raise does not cost any political capital. But if you’re a Republican, yielding on the minimum wage is nothing compared to what you can block if you take back the Senate in 2008 or at least don’t let the Democrats increase their margin.

The above map is the incumbents heading into the 2008 Senate elections. The Republicans are defending 21 seats to the Democrats’ 12. Colorado is pink because its Senator, Wayne Allard, is retiring. In many states, such as Minnesota and New Hampshire, the Republican Party collapsed in 2006 amidst opposition to Bush.

If the Democrats can remind everyone that Senate Republicans are killing bills virtually everyone in the US supports, they can trigger a few more collapses, and flip several more seats. This is especially true if the Republican Presidential candidate is a Senator who supports the filibuster. Giuliani or Romney could probably make the minimum wage less important by coming out in favor of it, but McCain would be the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since Barry Goldwater.

Abortion Rhetoric

January 28, 2007

Nobody who writes about abortion rhetoric ever produces evidence. And by “Nobody,” I include myself. I’d say pro-choicers need to talk more about fetal development and mention anecdotes of my convincing people using neurology. Amanda says pro-choicers need to talk more in general health care terms and brings up an anecdote of a woman who would’ve remained pro-life if pro-choicers had talked to her in terms of choice or science.

The plural of anecdotes isn’t data; it’s a focus group. Different people have different tastes in political rhetoric. That there exists a single conservative who I could convince by talking about fetal pain doesn’t mean that there are many others.

I probably wouldn’t have been able to use general arguments about health or choice, since that particular conservative was familiar with them and considered them false, while my own argument was novel. But there are other conservatives who are familiar with the arguments from science and for whom something else is new.

American pro-choice organizations have the misfortune of having to counter a trend of increasing opposition to abortion without having a clue about what tactics work the best. The only thing they have on their side is the fact that Independents are more pro-choice than Democrats, but as long as the Democratic Party doesn’t prioritize the issue accordingly, it doesn’t help anything.

I know that talking about the rights of unmarried couples in general is good rhetoric because it was used in Arizona, which voted against an anti-SSM proposition, while the traditional equal rights argument failed to stop a similar proposition in Wisconsin. But gay marriage is relatively easy to find good rhetoric about, because there have been numerous state battles about it. About abortion there have barely been any; referenda about dilation and extraction or parental consent are fundamentally different from referenda about total abortion bans.

Clinton has no Shame

January 28, 2007

Clinton has just reminded me why I hate her: because she’s a panderer who tells people what they want to hear and takes no responsibility for her actions.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed President Bush on Saturday for misusing authority given him by Congress to act in Iraq, but conceded “I take responsibility” for her role in allowing that to happen.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Clinton also said she would not cede black votes to Barack Obama and that she had proven as a U.S. senator that gender is irrelevant.

Her “I take responsibility” concession looks like a way of wooing Catholics. The Catholic Church has a long tradition of committing transgressions, apologizing for them, and then committing more transgressions. Clinton is essentially saying, “Now that the occupation of Iraq is unpopular, I’m against it. But if I’m under pressure from Republicans, the Israel lobby, and Saudi Arabia to attack Iran, I’ll do it.”

Her point about gender is even more shameless. She believes gender is irrelevant, and then turns around and stresses her gender when she can use it to attract female voters. She can’t even properly craft a persona based on polling data; she has to scramble for support from different groups by being a different person to different people.

The most idiotic thing in her sales pitch is that she tries pitting herself as Ms. Experience.

“I have a lifetime of experiences as well as qualifications from all the work that I’ve done that make me particularly well prepared to take office in January 2009,” she said.

If I were Edwards or Obama and trying to attack Clinton from the left, I’d point out that her lifetime of experience began with doing activist work for Barry Goldwater. The first time she did anything related to policy was when she pushed through her ill considered health care plan in 1993. That’s still more experience than Obama or Edwards has, but Clinton has still only served six years in elected office.

Science Versus Non-Science

January 27, 2007

Olvlzl joins many pundits in falling flat on his face when trying to attack Dawkins’ book. He invokes the usual equivocation of scientific knowledge with theology, failing to note that the two are entirely inequivalent. He also proves my point about religion in the media, which his post partly inspired, in factlessly suggesting memetics could lead to restrictions on free speech.

Not making any apologies here: non-scientific knowledge doesn’t have and shouldn’t have the same respectability as scientific knowledge. Why should it? The most advanced social sciences, psychology and economics, are at about the same point physics was in 1650. Less advanced ones have barely, or not even, gotten to the acceptance of Copernican astronomy. Theology and critical theory aren’t even up to Roger Bacon’s standards, and probably never will be.

In 2007, I say that the rational layperson must accept scientific authority on issues such as physics, climatology, evolutionary biology, medicine, and chemistry. In 1707 or even 1807, I wouldn’t; I’d instead say that a rational person must educate himself in natural philosophy and form his own opinions.

Likewise, disciplines that are as intricate as the natural sciences were in the 18th century aren’t subject to the same tyranny of peer review. There’s a wide body of knowledge about economics today, just as there was a wide body of knowledge about biology in 1820. Many people recognized the fact of evolution, though they couldn’t adequately explain it. Linnean taxonomy had been standard for decades. Malthus had already published his essays on population, although they still hadn’t gained wide acceptance.

Paul Krugman wrote, “Economics is harder than physics; luckily it is not quite as hard as sociology.” I’d put biology somewhere between physics and economics, since its first serious overarching theory was developed in the 1830s (economics has never had anything so rigorous as Darwinism; at best, it’s where biology was just before Darwin).

Not coincidentally, a reasonably educated layperson can be completely up to date about the main ideas of economics and the evidence for and against them. It wouldn’t be enough knowledge for setting interest rates, but it would be enough for evaluating major proposals in fiscal policy or development economics.

And that’s one of the two most advanced social sciences. Economists and psychologists keep looking up to physicists, but they already sit fairly close to the academic tower’s top. In contrast, theologians, who have yet to produce even one non-trivial truth, sit in its basement.

What the people who attack Dawkins for not knowing about theology miss is that theology isn’t even non-science; it’s non-knowledge. It’s so detached from reality and so useless that it’s as relevant even to a debate about religion as is Pokémon mythology. Dismissing it out of hand is one of the few things Dawkins gets right.

Ironically, the best criticism of the book is the one that goes the other way: why does Dawkins spend so much time attacking intellectual gnats, instead of writing something intelligent about the politics of religion? The most annoying thing about people like Dawkins and Harris is their inability to get beyond totalizing religion. Dismissing theology is good, but the entire point of such a dismissal is to avoid having to spend time on unproductive discussions about religion.

I Love New York

January 27, 2007

Eliot Spitzer has just graduated from fighting corporate crooks on Wall Street to fighting the entire New York health insurance industry. He’s just unveiled his new health care plan, which centers on expanding Medicare coverage while at the same time slashing funding to hospitals that waste money.

Spitzer promised reforms aimed at cutting spending while improving care and insuring hundreds of thousands more New Yorkers. He said he would freeze Medicaid funding to hospitals and nursing homes where it is wasted, but won’t cut benefits to individuals. He also promised to use some of the billions of dollars in savings he targeted as waste and fraud to cover more uninsured New Yorkers and to improve all health care.

Needless to say, health care providers are incensed.

“These are many of the same budget cuts that Governor Pataki proposed, and they were rejected because, frankly, they aren’t reforms,” said Daniel Sisto, the president of the Healthcare Association of New York State.

“By his tone today, he intends to make it a serious fight,” he said. “The Legislature knows that these cuts, now two decades old, do not constitute reform. I’m working on the assumption we can persuade them to reject them.”

You can get the details of Spitzer’s proposal straight from the horse’s mouth. His proposal’s immediate goal isn’t universal insurance, but only universal insurance of children and cutting New York’s rate of uninsured people by half.

However, many of the planks he supports to reduce wasteful spending are the same ones that cause countries with single payer systems to spend so much less than the US. New York’s state spending on Medicaid, $2,200, is on a par with the cost of universal public insurance systems such as those of Japan, Britain, Canada, and France.

Spitzer’s eight point proposal is,

1. Stopping funding phantom medical residents, who don’t exist but still receive state money;

2. Subsidizing private insurers less, by calculating need based on the state’s calculations rather than what the providers say they need;

3. Extending Medicare Part D to Medicaid, and shifting coverage to cheaper drugs when several equivalent alternatives are available;

4. Coordinating care for patients who suffer from multiple diseases;

5. Expanding managed care;

6. Computerizing health records;

7. Cracking down on Medicaid fraud;

8. Focusing on primary and preventive care.

Points 4, 5, 6, and 8 are important reasons public systems cost so much less than what the US has. American administrative costs are sky-high partly because absent state regulations, hospitals can’t computerize health records or coordinate care, leading to more bureaucratic red tape than is necessary. The lack of universality of insurance, which requires hospitals to ensure that patients have insurance, is only part of the problem.

In addition, the lack of universal insurance has caused American health care to underemphasize preventive care. Points 5 and 8 are intended to work around the problem given the fact that there’s a private insurance industry that’s running public health into the ground.

In the interest of fairness, I should note that some of Spitzer’s goals are too ambitious. He mentions obesity as one reason to focus on primary care; but Canada and Britain, which have universal insurance, have almost the same obesity rate as the US. Obesity rates track poverty and eating culture more than they do the strength of the public health system.

Still, given that the total level of health spending on an American is higher than this on a Canadian and a Brit combined, despite the almost equally unhealthy personal habits, it’s likely reforms of the type Spitzer is proposing will help.

A full reform of American health care will likely have two components – one focusing on insurance, as in Wyden’s proposal, and one focusing on administration and costs, as in Spitzer’s. Combining the two into one is good for some rhetorical tricks, like “Our public health care spending is the third highest in the world, and we still can’t cover everyone,” but not necessarily for making the reform easier to pass.

On a completely different note, Spitzer’s speech is a joy to read if only because it gives more specifics than anything else by a politician that I can remember. If Obama or Edwards or Clinton were this frank, I’d be a lot more supportive.

Unfortunately, none of the three has much to gain from having Spitzer as a running mate. Clinton is from the same state, and Edwards and Obama have similar domestic focuses. It’s too bad; Spitzer’s just joined the club of people I’d be really enthusiastic about if they ran in the Democratic primary, instead of the three lullaby singers who have a shot at winning.