Friday, March 31, 2006

"Increased wetlands"; also, Felicity Barringer shows bravery uncharacteristic of NYT

I seem to complain a lot in this space, so it is with a rare sense of pleasure that I point to Felicity Barringer's report today on the U.S. Dept. of the Interior's recent report on "increased wetlands":

WASHINGTON, March 30 - In the bog of the federal regulatory code, a wetland is defined as a marshy area of saturated soils and plants whose roots spend part of their lives immersed in water. In the Interior Department's periodic national surveys, a wetland is defined, more or less, as wet.

Traditional tidal, coastal and upland marshes count, but so do golf course water hazards and other man-made ponds whose surface is less than 20 acres.

And so, even at a time of continued marsh depletion, pond inflation permitted Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to announce proudly on Thursday the first net increase in wetlands since the Fish and Wildlife Service started measuring them in 1954. Wetlands acreage, measured largely by aerial surveys, totaled 107.7 million acres at the end of 2004, up by 191,800 acres from 1998.

Holy shit, a reporter from the New York Times Washington bureau who has the courage to state plain facts, without giving credence to misleading spin for the sake of balance. She does report the administration's spin, but she gives the reader enough crucial context, both political and scientific, to ascertain its hollowness. She also writes with force, concision, and clarity. Bravo, Ms. Barringer.

Of course, the substance of the article is deeply upsetting, but hardly surprising. See, e.g., the Sierra Club on Gale Norton.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Richard Cohen = fucking(moron3)*2

Rising Hegemon notices as Richard Cohen finally admits that Bush is a liar, after years as an eager Bush apologist/stooge. I already knew that Cohen's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but against my better judgment, I clicked through the link to see whether this long-overdue admission contained some faint glimmering of insight. Alas, the first sentence nearly made me burst out laughing, making it impossible for me to continue to the actual "substantive content" of the column:

It is my firm belief that if, say, a few dozen people simultaneously did an Internet search for the words "Bush lied," computers all over the country would crash and the energy grid would buckle, producing a rolling blackout that would begin somewhere around Terre Haute, Ind., and end in Barnstable, Mass.

Hilarious! Richard Cohen apparently believes that Google web search somehow puts load on the sites containing the search results, for each search that users perform. It's one thing to be incapable of understanding algebra and the rudiments of logic. It's another thing to lack even the barest shred of quantitative common sense. Web pages take on the order of seconds to load; Google returns its results in about a tenth of a second. Web sites are frequently down; Google continues to serve them in search results. How could Google do these things if it were hitting all the websites in real time? Not to mention: people search for common terms on the Internet all the time (want to guess how often "sex" appears on the Internet, and how often people search for it?), and the power grid appears to be holding up just fine.

(If you're curious as to how web search engines actually work, here's the deal. The search engine keeps a copy of the entire web on its own servers. These copies are augmented with a data structure called an index. In spirit, the index is not unlike the index you'll find at the back of a regular textbook, except that instead of listing page numbers for each word, it lists URLs and pointers to the search engine's own copies of the URLs' referents. When you search for a word, the search engine looks up the word in the index, looks up its copy of all matching web pages, extracts snippets from those copies, and then returns a list of snippets and URLs to the user.)

Cohen also apparently believes that most web site hosts are geographically close to the people who write their content, which is a lesser-order misunderstanding, but still a silly one. Is Blogger hosted anywhere near where I'm presently typing this? It's probably somewhere in the States --- my bet would be California --- but I don't know or care, and all the right-wing blogs on Blogger are probably hosted on the same cluster.

Now, I know Cohen intends his sentence as joking hyperbole, but hyperbole only works if its underlying premise makes some minimal amount of sense. You can joke, for example, that if ten SUV drivers were to fill up at your corner gas station simultaneously, the pumps would be sucked so dry that they'd crumple inwards due to the negative pressure and spontaneously form a singularity that would swallow the Earth. But you cannot joke that if Americans bought millions of SUVs, then the oil industry would collapse to its knees. The latter just doesn't work as hyperbole. It's worse than a non sequitur; it is (and I'll probably mangle the Latin here) an ad sequitur: it states the exact opposite of what logically follows.

Cohen's lede is further evidence that he's not merely a bad writer [0], nor somebody who's mistaken but basically sane. His writing could only be produced by a fundamentally malfunctioning brain, incapable of critically examining any thought and following it to its logical conclusion. Brad DeLong advocates firing Cohen for being deeply out of touch with reality. However, I think WaPo should have fired Cohen long ago simply because he's objectively stupid. Of course, that's never been much of a hindrance to Op-Ed columnists' careers, so I'm unsurprised at Cohen's continued presence in print.


[0] And Cohen is assuredly a bad writer, not merely a bad thinker. Like many Op-Ed columnists, his writing's bloated and narcissistic. One tiny example: in the first sentence above, the first six words could be trimmed with no loss of force. Aren't journalists supposed to be good at, you know, being concise and stuff?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Barbara Bogaev's weak interview with Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona

On Weekend America's show today, the hostess Barbara Bogaev completely dropped the ball in an interview to U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona. At one point in the interview, after several long minutes of giggly fawning over Carmona's time as a police officer and Army special forces member, the following subject came up:

Bogaev: Well, I was thinking, from your background, that you would be a pretty flamboyant Surgeon General, you know, that you would follow along the lines of Dr. C. Everett Koop or Dr. Jocelyn Elders, who spoke out, either about sex or smoking or educating the public about AIDS, that you would take that tack, but you haven't, really. You've been much less in the public eye. Why do you think that is?

Carmona: Well, I do speak out, and I guess if you, for instance, if you Google me, you'll find a few hundred thousand hits there, and, it's---.

Bogaev: Oh, believe me, I did. But you don't seem to be going for controversy. Which I might have expected, from a former SWAT guy.

Carmona: I think you have to know when to fight your battles. You have to live to fight every day and another day. And I find I am able to be very effective behind the scenes. Going out and making a big stand on something may be the right thing to do sometimes, but at this point I haven't been challenged with anything like that. My predecessor, and good friend, Chick Koop, dealt with the AIDS thing, and I've spoken to him many times. I said Chick, what drove you at that time? He said, "When I saw people, elected officials, using their bully pulpit and distorting the science for political ideology," he said, "I was forced to stand up." And that was extremely controversial at the time. Now, I'm not looking for that, but if something crossed my threshold that I felt I needed to stand up and be that vocal and outspoken, you bet I would.

Bogaev: So that hasn't happened yet, you're saying.

Carmona: It hasn't.

Bogaev: Your sense of moral outrage hasn't been provoked yet.

Carmona: Well, my sense of moral outrage has been, on some occasions, but I back off and I look, and I say what's the best path. Is a big press conference and a lot of fanfare gonna do anything, or is that gonna die out in a couple of days?

Bogaev: You know, you're serving in an administration, though, that has been accused of being hostile to science, on issues like stem cell research and global warming, and the teaching of evolution. On a whole range of issues.

Carmona: [pause] I've heard the accusations.

Bogaev: Yeah, what do you think of that?

Carmona: I'm not gonna use the word hostile. I've spoken to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as it relates to a number of scientific, uh, issues. Certainly, as I move through life as Surgeon General, I look at the scientific merit, and that's where I have to stay focused. I do the best I can to stay out of the political fray, which often is less about science and more about political ideology or theology. That's not my job.

Now, if you're a journalist, what's the natural followup question? If you're not even trying very hard, and you're even vaguely aware of the medical controversies facing this nation, perhaps you'd come up with one of the following:

  • Most of the medical research community believes that the current supply of stem cell lines in the United States is insufficient for research purposes. The Bush administration disagrees. Do you feel that it is scientifically supportable to claim that the current supply of stem cell lines is sufficient?
  • Merck has an HPV vaccine with astounding, slam-dunk clinical trial results. Addition of this vaccine to the standard vaccination regime in schools would eventually save thousands of women from cervical cancer every year. Republicans in Congress are blocking adoption of the vaccine. Could you speak to the merits of the vaccine, as a public health policy matter?

Guess what Bogaev asked Surgeon General Carmona?

Bogaev: Well, Dr. Carmona, I know you have to get going. I understand you have to go pick up your kids. So just one last question. Do you ever let your children eat fast foods?

A hearty golf clap for you, Ms. Bogaev.

Monday, March 20, 2006

On the draft

Jo-Ann Mort at TPMCafe revisits the notion of conscripted national service, using the standard argument that universal service will make it politically harder to send people to war. This issue keeps cropping up from time to time in liberal intellectual circles. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about a draft, but I have three comments.

First, I find the spectacle of middle-aged pundits advocating a draft for young people rather suspicious. It reeks of the same somebody-else-pays mentality that the draft supposedly eliminates. If we're going to have universal national service, then let's make it really universal: make everybody eligible for the draft, except for retirees and people who have previously served. The military's so-called "tooth-to-tail" ratio --- i.e., the proportion between the number of "tooth" soldiers serving on the front lines, and the logistical "tail" that supports them --- is something like one to seven. There are plenty of support occupations, both stateside and overseas, that don't require great physical exertion. Anybody of reasonably sound mind and body could fill those roles, not just the young. This becomes even more true if we adopt the proposal, favored by many liberal draft proponents especially, that national service could encompass civilian service.

I don't really buy the usual arguments for drafting the young only. Do older people have careers that might be interrupted? So do young people, who often have once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that they'd be forced to pass up; consider what would have happened to Sergey and Larry if they'd been drafted in 1997, when they were in their mid-twenties. Do older people have families to support? So do many of the younger people who'd be drafted (a point that may be lost on pundits because children of the mandarin class tend wait till they're approaching thirty). And is it better for a parent to be absent when the child's learning to speak than when the child's in high school? Six of one, half-dozen of the other, it seems to me.

Furthermore, all the arguments for universal service for the young become even stronger when you expand the draft to all ages. It will be even harder to go to war, because an even larger fraction of society will be affected. Society will benefit even more, because there will be even greater mixing, not only among social classes but between generations.

Now, I've elided some distinctions here, and I should un-elide them. One can envision two forms of universal service. First, one could have a deterministic universal service requirement, akin to what Israel currently has --- i.e., mandatory national service, at a certain age, for everybody in society. Second, one could have probabilistic universal service, which is what happened to people 18-25 during the Vietnam draft --- i.e., you live your life as usual, and someday your number might come up. My proposal above, for universal service for all ages, could be interpreted in several ways:

  1. Adopt deterministic service, but use probabilistic service as a transitional proposal to "grandfather in" all the people who never had to serve.
  2. Adopt probabilistic service for all time; this proposal comes with two variations:
    1. Permit everyone to avoid the draft by volunteering anytime before their number comes up.
    2. Disallow some fraction of people born in each year from volunteering before their number comes up.

Proposals (1) and (2a) are relatively self-explanatory, and would probably work out fairly similarly in practice. Most people would take their service early in life, and at a time chosen so that they could control the disruption involved, in order to avoid being hit by an unpredictable draft.

The final sub-option --- disallowing some people from volunteering --- is, I think, the most interesting. The reasoning goes like this. When only the young serve, the burden of war falls disproportionately on the young. (Yes, people have families, but still, going to war personally is an even greater life disruption than sending someone in your family to war.) This disadvantage still holds when service is universal: although everyone serves, the current cohort of older people at any given time knows that it will not have to serve in any war that society undertakes. Therefore, one should always "hold back" some people from every cohort, preventing them from taking their service when they're young, so that every age group contains some people who might be drafted in any given war.

Next, my second point. Some people will always be able to avoid dangerous combat, one way or another: witness G. W. Bush and the National Guard. The point of a draft isn't to institute perfect universal service, but to drive a wedge between the extraordinarily well-connected and the merely well-to-do, or in other words between the top 0.1% and the top 2%, a split that (sadly enough) would have huge consequences for American politics. I confess I'm not entirely comfortable with using human life and death as a political instrument, but I also suspect that my analogues speaking for the top 0.1% don't feel the same squeamishness.

Finally, my third point: instituting a draft doesn't mean being forced to fight in unjust wars. Even if a draft were instituted, you would always have a principled way to avoid fighting in a war that you oppose: go to jail. That may not sound like much of a choice, but as a protest of last resort, it is always available.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

On choosing to refuse parenthood

M. Yglesias comments on a Slate article (the latter, being by Will Saletan, is a thoroughly ignorable piece of piffle, so don't bother clicking his link):

Ah, yes, the time-honored dorm room debate if women can get abortions, why do men need to pay child support? has reached the big time in recent days. This doesn't strike me as an especially difficult question to answer. Insofar as a child is going to be born, that child is going to need to be supported. The resources for doing so need to come from somewhere. Obviously, many of those resources are going to wind up coming from his mother. But given the realities of the world, those resources are often going to be inadequate to the task. There are basically two additional sources of resources -- the child's father and the state. Current policy relies on a mix of the two.

Maybe a respectable case could be made for shifting the mix somewhat in the direction of the state, though one would want to see the details before signing on to this. I don't at all think a respectable case can be made for reducing the quantity of resources getting directed to children.

I had trouble sleeping last night, so I wrote a great deal about the subject, but then I woke up this morning and decided not to inflict the fullness of my ramblings on you all. So here's the executive summary of my response.

First, government's pretty good at collecting general tax revenue, and then mailing checks drawn on that fund to people who need them. On the other hand, it's pretty bad at micromanaging point-to-point transfer payments. Social Security supports widows and orphans via the former model, and it works pretty well, with very low overhead and broad public support. The current child support system uses the latter model, and it works terribly. As a purely utilitarian matter, this argues for making child support work more like Social Security, where society at large picks up the burden rather than non-custodial fathers.

Second, under present legal and social norms (outside of South Dakota, anyway), women possess an unconditional right to refuse parenthood after conception. There are roughly two justifications for this right: first, biological realities (the fetus is inside a woman's body, and does not constitute an independent human life); and second, the value of personal autonomy (a woman should not be forced to become a parent against her will). If you don't believe in the second justification, examine this NOW press release on empirical studies of why women choose to have abortions. The stated justifications are based largely not on the biological burden of pregnancy per se, but on the social, financial, legal, and moral burdens of parenthood. That burden's severe enough that it should not be imposed involuntarily. Therefore, it seems to me that people (both men and women) should ideally possess an unconditional right to refuse parenthood after conception. The means of exercising this right may be technological (abortion, for women) or legal (disavowal, for both men and women), but the option should exist.

Notice that I say "unconditional right". A woman's right to an abortion should not be conditional on whether she used contraception, or whether she talked to her partner about children before sex, or whether some judge thinks she's a slut. Women possess that right unconditionally, for good and obvious reasons. All the same reasons apply to men who wish to refuse parenthood. Advising men to talk to their partners and work out a sensible contraception policy, or live with the consequences, ignores the possibilities of carelessness, disagreement, miscommunication, confusion, accident, deceit, and all the manifold complexities that emerge in actual human affairs.

Of course, until society provides the hypothetical social safety net for all children, it's folly to destroy the current child support system. In some sense, therefore, there's not much point in talking about all this. But still, I think it's incredibly callous to dismiss the concern of men who don't want their only choices to be abstinence or potential fatherhood (Yglesias's post doesn't do this, but this attitude does appear in other things I've read).

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Peer review for your personality

A while ago, one of my friends (given how pissy and obnoxious I've been lately, I won't shame my friends by linking them here) linked to an online Johari Window app.

This meme's been making the rounds for a while, but most such apps have been limited by a lack of anonymity and excessive segregation of negative and positive traits. Recently, another acquaintance of mine whipped out his mad web hacking skills and threw together realpersonality.com, which seems clearly superior to the standard Johari apps if you're into that sort of thing.

Now, at this point I am put in a slightly awkward position, because truthfully I'm not all that curious what people think about me --- on the one hand, I think I have a pretty good handle on it, and on the other hand, I'm self-directed enough that I don't care that much. But, it's odd for me to recommend this to people if I don't use it myself. So, go to town if you like.

Incidentally, it's illuminating to consider the relationship between these apps and the likes of Hot or Not. The comparison suggests a couple of followup directions:

  • Add ratings of physical characteristics. (Duh.)

  • Bootstrap a dating service on top of the personality evaluator. Possibly mix in some kind of social networking/reputation system to reduce the risk of collusion attacks. This seems challenging, because there's an inherent tension between reputation systems and anonymity.

  • Conversely, add anonymous peer review to an existing matchmaking service. This would help solve an obvious problem with online socialization sites: you can put a profile on Friendster or Match.com or whatever, but the only feedback occurs when somebody's interested enough to send you a message, which is pretty coarse-grained and opaque. You have no idea what impression you're making on readers who don't contact you. You can ask friends to review your profile, but their reactions may differ radically from the reactions of people who don't already know you.

    Imagine a site where users could anonymously mark a profile with key adjectives, without actually contacting the person. One suspects that people would learn what works and doesn't work much more rapidly.

    It's interesting to speculate about the effects this would have. Would all profiles recede rapidly towards a mean of inoffensive blandness? Would people stay with the service longer, because they'd be getting better dates? Would they get alienated by the negative feedback and leave sooner? Or would they more rapidly meet the partner of their dreams, and leave sooner for that reason? In any case, while they're using the service, it seems likely that people would visit the site more frequently, because they'd be getting more frequent feedback --- which would be good for an ad-supported site, but bad for one supported only by user fees.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Two intellectually bankrupt argumentative tactics

As follows:

1. "You're getting angry. Thererefore, there must be some merits to the argument you are attacking."

Ridiculous for transparently obvious reasons. The emotional tenor of a debater has no bearing on the correctness or incorrectness of his or her argument. Yet, this tactic is frequently employed in all seriousness, usually by people who have no better counterargument to put forward.

Now, for any particular person, there may be some statistical correlation between one's emotional tenor and one's beliefs about the merits of the argument under discussion. For example, when a position with which I disagree has some merits or subtlety, then I can take some intellectual pleasure in figuring out why it's still wrong. In such cases, my prose tends to remain fairly neutral in tone --- see, for example, my discussion of the death penalty versus war.

However, when an argument strikes me as having no redeeming features whatsoever, then I transmogrify into a volcanic fountain of vitriol and contempt. See, for example, my post about Jonah Goldberg.

In such situations, there are several possibilities. Either the person making the argument knows that it's ridiculous, or he does not. In the former case, he's trying to deceive his audience by making the argument. In the latter case, either he hasn't thought very hard about the argument he's making, which means he's consciously wasting his audience's time, or he's too stupid to see how flimsy his argument is. Now, if he's deceiving his audience, or wasting his audience's time, then I claim that anger (or at least contempt) is, in fact, the proper response to his behavior. He's inflicting harm on his audience, and some altruistic punishment is in order. Only in the last case --- i.e., he's too stupid to see the flaws in his argument --- does he deserve any sympathy. And frankly, when that stupidity is paired with arrogance, as it so frequently is, it's really hard to muster sympathy even in that case.

Now, once again, none of this really demonstrates anything about the merits of the argument under discussion. I could be furious, but mistaken. I just thought it might be worth explaining when and why I, personally, tend to display anger in my own writing when an argument's absolute nonsense.

2. "You just claimed that I possess [bad trait X]. Therefore, you are engaging in ad hominem and your argument is wrong."

Also ridiculous for transparently obvious reasons. People who use this argument unadorned do not understand what ad hominem means --- it denotes an argument wherein one makes the following (invalid) chain of inference:

  • Person P has the property X.
  • X is bad.
  • Therefore, the argument A advanced by P is invalid.

Notice that ad hominem is not a synonym for "insult". If you make a charge of ad hominem, then it does not suffice to show that someone has been insulted. It is necessary to show that the insult was used as evidence that the argument is unsound.

However, I often see the above argument confused with the following one:

  • Person P advanced argument A.
  • Argument A is so ridiculous that it could only be advanced by someone having property X.
  • Therefore, P has the property X.

Now, this chain of argument is perfectly valid. In most cases, it does not take a terribly discerning eye to distinguish this argument from the prior one. If you attack the person first, and use that attack to back up a conclusion about the argument, you probably have argumentum ad hominem. If you attack the argument first, and use it to back up a conclusion about the person's character, then you probably have the latter argument. Nevertheless, many people fail to distinguish the two, and thereby reveal themselves to be idiots.

Exercise for the reader: Which one is the last sentence of the previous paragraph?

A final note: Use of either of the above argumentative tactics demonstrates mere intellectual bankruptcy. To use both of them at once requires a special, additional helping of argumentative incompetence --- because, of course, the first argument is actually a form of genuine ad hominem.


p.s. In case you're curious as to what prompted this, all of the above has been a way of mining some usefulness from this random babbling (which came up on Technorati links here) by extracting general rules from a specific instance of intellectual bankruptcy. You can, perhaps, amuse yourself by counting how many times this writer (who claims to have some training in philosophy) makes the above errors, but you're probably better off not clicking the link.