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Humean Inconsistency

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I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.

Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?

But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.

But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.

The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.

But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.

He does have a reason why he treats these two areas differently. He says that he has witnessed regularities in nature himself, and he relies on other people's testimony that coheres with his own observations but extends them. He has not witnessed miracles. He has witnessed people being dishonest or gullible, and so he has higher than zero probability of even honest people lying or even intellectually careful people being deceived, yet zero probability of miracles occurring. The higher probability, even if it's very low, is still higher, and so he should believe any possible explanation that's above zero even if low over the zero probability of miracles.

Will this work, though? I'm not convinced. Why does he give miracles a zero probability? Purely because he hasn't witnessed any himself. That's his criterion for belief. But he hasn't witnessed any of the scientific research that he relies on to accept scientific laws. He hasn't witnessed any of the events history tells of that he's willing to believe in. He relies on the testimony of other people about all manner of things, except miracles. He says the difference is between a kind of events he hasn't personally witnessed and a kind of events he has. But many of the events he hasn't witnessed are of a sort he hasn't witnessed and rely on expertise and specialist knowledge that he would have no access to. He's willing to be a pragmatist in accepting those beliefs even though he knows none of it. He rules out even the possibility of pragmatically accepting the testimony of other people whose specialized experience would support miracles. I'm not sure his pragmatism about many other sorts of beliefs would hold up if he refused to extend his pragmatism to those areas the way he does with miracles. I think his whole pragmatist belief system would fall apart. He's willing to relax his tighter, skeptical approach and go pragmatist with a number of other areas, and doing so with miracles would leave him not insisting on believing in them only if he's ever experienced a miracle himself. The same standards he applies to history, science, and many other areas of belief would leave him without his insistence on zero probability if he hasn't experienced something, and that would end his argument for ruling out miracles from the outset. He would then have to consider testimony about miracles as having at least some positive value in his pragmatic belief system.

None of this is to say that he would end up believing in miracles. He might not. But he wouldn't be ruling them out without consideration. He would be giving miracle reports some level of credence, even if he might ultimately not decide they are credible enough for his pragmatist acceptance to kick in. As his argument actually goes, however, he does seem to me to be treating miracle reports and other kind of specialized experiences differently, and that leads me to conclude that perhaps I was initially right that he is inconsistent, even if my original diagnosis of that inconsistency didn't locate it properly.

Genesis and Camels

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Earlier this week the NYT published a critique of Genesis based on, of all things, the appearance of camels within its narratives, and I'm starting to see more and more discussion of this, virtually all of it simply repeating the claims of that article, without much at all in the way of careful reflection on the problems in the broader thesis that it puts forward, which I don't think the evidence actually supports.

This isn't actually a very new objection. Scholars have long objected that there isn't a lot of evidence of domesticated animals within the Canaanite region during that time. But there is evidence of domesticated animals in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the period Genesis describes, and the NYT article even mentions that, and it says they were more commonly used more by those nomadic peoples living in the more desert regions. The only thing new here is some carbon dating of the bones of camels, along with techniques for measuring properties of the bone, which can allow them to determine whether they were wild or domesticated and had to carry greater weight for much of the time.

I think there are several reasons to be very skeptical of the conclusions the NYT article draws. Here are a few:

1. Genesis doesn't report lots of camels being used during the time of the patriarchs, as the article claims. They are sometimes listed among the animals they owned, but usually it's in smaller numbers, and the only reports of their being used for riding are to cross the desert regions or when referring to nomadic peoples like the Midianites who lived within such regions.

2. Abraham and Lot had to cross that desert to get to Canaan, and the only animals they could have used would have been camels. The NYT article even says that no other animals would be able to make that journey so easily, and even their skepticism doesn't apply to that sort of trip. So if Abraham did come from a region where camels were used regularly at this time (as the article admits), and he had to use them to cross the desert (as the article admits), it stands to reason that he wouldn't have killed them all when he got there and would have had at least a small enough number remaining when he had to send his servant to find a wife for Isaac and so on, and we know they kept their own cultural identity and may have been hesitant to trade their camels because of their relatively small number and inability or procure more while there. They might  have increased in number during the time he was living in Canaan, as long as there were only a relatively small number of them in this period, belonging precisely to his family, but that doesn't mean we should think there would be evidence of the larger number of them that the NYT article seems to expect there would be if they had them.

3. Abraham is portrayed as being rich, and the existence of a small number of camels in the lists of animals he owned is presented in the book as evidence of his wealth. If they were common around him, the small number of camels would seem insignificant compared with the huge number of other animals he had. But even a smaller number is presented as evidence of his great wealth. So the portrayal of his camels in the book fits nicely with the claim that the locals didn't have them.

4. If his family only used them when traveling across the desert or on long journeys (as the narrative itself indicates) but just maintained them as domesticated by not pack animals or riding animals, then even the ones that they did have might not have appeared to be domesticated by the methods of measuring the bone density and such that these scientists have been using.

5. So I think at best the conclusion being put forward here goes way beyond the evidence. If someone were to conclude from the Genesis narrative that camels were being used throughout the Canaanite region the way the article assumes the book presents things, then it would create a problem. It's still an argument from silence, but it would be odd for there to be no preserved camels from this period if they were that commonly used. But the Genesis narrative doesn't present such a picture, and there's no reason to think the picture it does present is unlikely to have produced the (lack of) evidence this new research provides.

California has outlawed so-called ex-gay conversion therapy. Social conservatives who might want to express outrage at this law need to make sure they're going to be consistent with their own views on other matters. Also, surprising as it may be to some, there are reasons for those with more liberal views on these matters to worry about a law like this.

I'll start with the second point. Those who recognize homosexuality as a social construction should at least be open to a worry about this law. Most experts nowadays consider our notion of being gay as socially constructed. There have been different ways of conceiving of people with same-sex desires over history. In ancient Greece, for example, it was relatively accepted for older men to favor a sexual relationship with boys over that of their wives, not because they had some notion of people who have an orientation toward people of the same sex but because they didn't think they could have as deep an intellectual relationship with women, and they thought relationships that we would now count as pedophilia were a deeper form of love because they could involve intellectual conversations.

We now have a notion that there's a phenomenon called homosexuality, where a small minority among the population has sexual desires for people of their own sex rather than for people of the opposite sex. But most people recognize now, whether they approve of such desires or not, that it's more complicated than that. There are people who have both kinds of desires, relatively in equal proportion. There are people who have more one than the other. There are people who have one predominant at one time in their life but move to a point at another time where it's the other way around. There are people who move toward same-sex sexual interaction primarily for political purposes rather than because of some already-existing inner state of being primarily attracted along same-sex lines. But our social narrative primarily divides human beings into the binary of gay and straight, with some allowance for bisexual when we're feeling a desire for more precision. The variety isn't remotely captured by that, never mind the phenomenon of trans-sexuality, and the idea that being in one of the two categories of the binary is simply a matter of how someone was born isn't exactly borne out by science, even if there is some evidence that the underlying state of how one's desires are directly can be partially influenced by genetic factors.

Many on the left on these issues push for alternative conceptions of homosexuality, including allowing those who see their same-sex attraction in a way that resists being considered gay in the usual sense, and if same-sex attraction is much more complex than just being straight or gay, as many who might be inclined to favor a law like this might think, then shouldn't we be interested in allowing therapists to encourage moving away from the homo/hetero binary? But it seems to me that this law might ban therapists from doing that, because it would be helping move someone with same-sex attraction away from thinking of themselves as gay. Many on the left on these issues should see that as highly problematic.

It's less surprising to many to see social conservatives resisting a law like this, but such resistance isn't as easy to formulate as it sounds, because the grounds for it might conflict with other conservative views. For example, if we don't have a right to health insurance covering exactly the things we think are medically necessary, then we don't have a right to health insurance covering a particular therapy that we happen to want covered. If we don't have a right to doctors performing a particular procedure that we happen to want performed, then we don't have a right to this therapy if we want it.

That being said, conservatives can consistently hold that the government shouldn't interfere with what private counselors can do, even if what they want to do is disapproved of by the main professional organization. But most people do think medical services can be licensed, and certain things done by doctors can make them lose their license. So this is, at least in principle, something that is within the government's traditional range of control. But I'd have to see the law, because if the guy NPR had on opposing it is correct then it sounds like they outlawed a good deal more than what careful study has shown to be both ineffective and psychologically harmful (i.e. the conversion therapy itself) and will not even allow a therapist to help someone who has unwanted same-sex desires to live a life that avoids what they see as sinful and unwanted (which is not remotely the same as converting them away from a sexual orientation). I'm not sure there's any scientific ground for taking it to be harmful to choose a celibate life over fulfilling one's sexual desires, and therefore the normal licensing standards shouldn't require it to be banned.

There may also be a religious issue. They did apparently include a religious exemption. But not exactly. They included an exemption for counselors who are practicing religious officials of some sort but who are not licensed counselors. A pastor, priest, or other religious leader who happens to counsel is exempt. But a nun working as a licensed counselor in a more medically-oriented psychological practice is not exempt. And a licensed counselor operating a business not being run as a religious non-profit is not exempt. Is this a violation of free exercise? I suspect it is, at least in terms of the aspects that are banned that aren't demonstrated as harmful (such as helping someone to find a counselor who can help them live a celibate life or referring them to a therapist who will encourage them to think outside the gay/straight binary or allow them to think of themselves in a way that is more about having same-sex desires than about belonging to some supposedly-scientific category of being gay, which really involves more politically than many think, and someone who opposes those politics but does have same-sex desires may well not be gay in every sense). Again, this is assuming the opponent of the law on NPR represented it accurately, but the state senator who supported the bill on that show didn't offer any correction on the matter.

There's also the issue of viewpoint-neutral endorsement. This is another place where conservatives will have a harder time making their case. They tend to think there's no problem with the government or government employees endorsing statements of religious content, because the establishment clause only prohibits the setting up of an official government-run religion, and many conservatives don't even think this applies to states. After all, several states had official religions when they entered the union. So it's going to be hard to press this argument if you hold that sort of view on the establishment clause. You might, however, make an argument involving inconsistency among those who do think it's unconstitutional for the state to endorse religious content (or rule out religious content). And you might easily make the argument on policy grounds, rather than as a constitutional problem that courts can then deal with.

On the consistency issue, I think there's some case to be made, but it's because there's already serious inconsistency. If we take seriously the prohibition of even mentioning classic philosophical arguments like design arguments in a science classroom, on the ground that it's somehow endorsement of religion, then we already are banning lots of stuff that isn't remotely religion. Because the design argument need depend in no way on any controversial religious premise, it's not as if someone who endorses such an argument has to be following any religion at all. It could be a purely secular theist who endorses a design argument. And merely teaching the argument, rather than endorsing it, is certainly not endorsement of religion. So those who claim that that's importing religion into the science classroom have such a broad view of what counts as religion that it might well be very hard to see this law as not endorsing a claim that speaks to a religious issue. It's on such grounds that a federal court has ruled that it's unconstitutional to present the arguments against intelligent design in a state-run science classroom, because it took that to violate the establishment clause.

But a much more reasonable position would be that intelligent design is not necessarily religion, even if it's also not strictly speaking science (although I would argue, and have argued, that it's not any less science than the metaphysics that commonly gets done by physicists working on cosmology, quantum-theory, and space-time). Someone who holds this more reasonable position might nonetheless not hold the conservative view on the establishment clause and therefore think that President Obama shouldn't be invoking God the way he does or that it's unconstitutional to endorse actual religious content in a public school science classroom, such as endorsing six-day creationism because the Bible teaches it. On that sort of view, it's still easy to present an unconstitutionality argument for this law. After all, the legal issues are the same as the above cases, but without the ridiculous claim that philosophical arguments are somehow automatically religious just because a lot of religious people accept them (which would make most of our beliefs religious). Then all you need to do is recognize that the value of at least some of the therapy falling under this broad ban is both (1) not as clearly harmful as some of the therapy it bans and (2) something religious people can endorse because of their religion. In that case, the government is not remaining viewpoint-neutral on a religious matter without the strong argument that the therapy is harmful.

And even someone who does hold the conservative view on the establishment clause (or who isn't willing to argue a case base on existing but wrongly-decided precedent) can give a policy argument against this at the legislative level. It's not unconstitutional, on this view, but it's compatible with that to think that as a policy matter the government should remain viewpoint-neutral on controversial matters of religious disagreement that aren't demonstrably harmful the way medical professionals do take ex-gay therapy proper to be demonstrably harmful. The result is that this is just poor policy and should be opposed as bad law. And that's something that someone pretty far on the left on same-sex issues should be all right with. The government shouldn't tell us what to think about such matters, and it shouldn't stop us from getting counseling that fits with what sort of life we want for ourselves, and if a minor happens to want this sort of therapy it shouldn't be illegal for a counselor who is willing to do it or to refer someone to someone who will out of respect for the client's wishes as long as it isn't one of those demonstrably-harmful methods that the ban doesn't limit itself to.

So I think a lot of the conservative arguments against this ban need to be very carefully done to succeed, but I think there are arguments, and some of them might appeal to those more toward the left. But those are more against the law as it stands, rather than against a different ban that could have been enacted. I do think there are real tensions on the left in how these issues are thought of, and I'm not sure it's as easy to justify this broad a ban as I assume many on the left would think.

Perception

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I just saw the pilot for Perception. I like the idea that they're trying to portray a schizophrenic crime-solver sympathetically, in the mold of Monk for OCD but without the comedic elements. It's intriguing enough to want to see the other episodes that have aired. I like the main character and several supporting cast members. There was a nice moment during his neuroscience class when he presented an argument for skepticism pretty much the way a philosopher would, a reminder schizophrenic author Philip K. Dick had skeptical philosophical themes in his writing, partly from his neurological condition and the impossibility to detect from within a hallucinatory experience that it is not reality, since it appears just as real as anything else. This is what schizophrenia really is like for many who experience it. I liked that he has to have a handler who lives with him and follows him around on campus to tell him when someone he's interacting with is real or not. (But they don't raise the question, at least yet, of what happens if he hallucinates the handler's response to his questions.)

But two things bothered me. One is that they're trying to portray a schizophrenic's hallucinations as his subconscious mind trying to make sense of things his conscious mind can't make sense of. I know it's popular to emphasize the increased abilities that sometimes come with a disability, and these increased abilities are genuinely present in some cases with some disabilities (sometimes often present, sometimes very rarely). This is true with diminished senses and increased other senses, and it's true of some increased cognitive abilities for some with autism, But this looks like a wholly-concocted special ability for schizophrenia, which as far as I've been able to discern is not a "different" neurological condition with some pros and many cons but is in fact simply a mental illness, with no pros. I may be wrong about that, and experts can feel free to correct me if I am, but I've never even heard of something like this, and it does an injustice to what is good in the neurodiversity movement to pretend there are good elements to a condition where there aren't any, while bolstering what's insidious about that movement by acting like every neurological condition has to have positive features, when that's hardly the truth.

But there was one scene that struck me as being even more ridiculous, and I very nearly stopped the episode and refused to give the show another chance. I stuck it out, and I do intend to watch more episodes, but if they keep this sort of thing up I may not continue. They had a character who was aphasic, which is a varied condition involving brain damage and various linguistic inabilities. Sometimes it's extreme enough to involve a total inability to recognize others' attempts to communicate with language, and this character had that kind of aphasia. But apparently in the Perception universe people with extreme aphasia can tell when someone is lying, even though they have no idea what they're saying, and they find it extremely humorous. So this character was basically a human lie detector who never knew what the lies being spoken were (and may not have even known they were lies, just the the non-verbals involved, or something about the pattern of sounds maybe, was very, very funny.

Not only is this totally absurd, but they even had to bring out the tired example of Bush's 16-words State of the Union moment, where the political left successfully recast his accurate reporting of the conclusions of British intelligence about Saddam Hussein's attempt to get uranium from the West African nation of Niger as an outright lie by Bush. Factcheck.org argued that Bush had indeed not lied, even if something he had said was wrong, and that there was even evidence (which I consider much stronger than they seem to take it to be) to suggest that Saddam Hussein had made such an attempt (from the very reports of Joe Wilson, who was one of most prominent accusers of Bush as a liar). Putting this example next to Bill Clinton's moments of denying his affair with Monica Lewinski is pretty low, especially at a time when there's no political gain to be had by continuing this false narrative about Bush as a liar.

I was hoping that a show intending to portray a schizophrenic genius crime solver would provide a nice guide to what schizophrenia is really like, without the fantasy elements they seem to want to add. It doesn't help that they're immune to critical evaluation of what their political group-think partners tell them. That doesn't give me as high hopes as I'd had when I first heard of the show, but I will continue to give it

There's a relatively new movement in the communities of people who deal regularly with autism and related conditions that's assigned themselves the term "neurodiversity" as a shorthand reference to their commitment to affirming atypical neurological conditions as equally legitimate. This movement shuns the terms 'normal' and 'abnormal' and instead prefers to speak of those who are neurotypical and those who are not. The neurodiversity movement seeks to identify various traits common with autism as neither better nor worse but simply different.

This movement should be praised for its recognition that respecting people with autism requires taking into account how differently they take in information, process it, use it, and produce various responses. They rightly emphasize that an atypical neurological state need not be thought of as a disease that needs a medical cure or treatment or a disability that requires taking the person to be deficient. They recommend supporting a person for who they are rather than trying to "fix" them to conform to the standards everyone else has. Some autism advocates on the autistic spectrum insist that they wouldn't want to be made "normal" if a "cure" were ever found. They like being the way they are.

There's something obviously right about most of that. The more I read stuff from this movement, however, the more disturbed I get that there's something they're just not seeing, and the good in what I just wrote is blinding a lot of well-meaning people to a serious philosophical error lying behind much of what the neurodiversity movement produces. Consider this story by Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times. She is right to point out that, just because autistic people do badly on certain standardized tests, it doesn't mean they're cognitively deficient. It may well be that the reason a certain person scores low on a certain test is because the test is relying on typical patterns of language use, and someone with autism may be using a different pattern of language use. The underlying cognitive ability being tested for may be stronger than the test shows. That's all correct. But in her rush to make this point, Kaplan completely ignores the fact that the reason someone is scoring low on the test is because of a genuine deficiency in the kind of language use that most people are much better able to engage in. That means there is a lack of ability that comes with autism, even if its manifestation will be different from person to person.

Again, Kaplan speaks of those who emphasize "training kids with autism to behave like typical kids instead of allowing them to make the most of their differently wired brains." That's especially helpful, because allowing autistic people to make the most of their differently-operating brain is certainly the right goal. But that's perfectly compatible with taking their differently-wired brain to be operating at a deficient level with respect to certain cognitive skills, even if it's also operating at a higher level with regard to other cognitive skills. Some in the neurodiversity movement are willing to recognize that differences between neurotypicals and autistic people involve autism conveying certain strengths and weaknesses. But the language of "not better or worse but just different" disallows any such recognition and smacks of crude relativism, whereby we cannot recognize any difference as being better or worse. When taken to its logical implication, we'd have to say that someone who is not intelligent enough to read is not less smart in any respect than the norm, just different. I submit that such a statement is nonsense. There's a particular cognitive ability that allows for reading that most people have, and someone who doesn't have that ability (assuming they genuinely don't) is lacking a cognitive skill. Why can't we just accept that?

Similarly, there is a seeming refusal to recognize any medical condition that can be spoken of in terms of being made worse off. In some respects this strikes me as a general problem among disability communities that stems from crudely relativistic thinking. The deaf community is largely unsupportive of cochlear implants, because it gives children the ability to hear, and they take their lack of hearing not to be a genuine disability. There's nothing wrong with not hearing, so why should they support giving deaf children the ability to hear the way most people can?

If we really took this line of reasoning seriously, we'd have to apply it to other conditions that virtually no one wants to see as perfectly normal. For example, one could argue that pedophilia is just a different way of being, and we should respect it. After all, it's caused by a brain condition, and all brain conditions are equally good. In terms of the arguments I see from the neurodiversity movement, I see no way to say the things they say while avoiding such a conclusion. There are plenty of ways to distinguish between the two cases, but I don't see how those are available given the extreme sorts of statements that I regularly see among neurodiversity advocates.

People who have serious cognitive deficiencies often have serious problems seeing their own intrinsic worth. It's important to affirm that. It's important to help them see that their very existence is not wrong in the sense that we should blame them for being the way they are. It's important to help them see that their preferences may seem weird to others but that in many cases perfectly all right for them to have them. But some voices advocating for neurodiversity want us to say that someone with autism is not messed up in any sense. The fact is that we're all messed up. We're all distorted. We're all flawed. No one is the way we ought to be. Autism is one way to have various deficiencies, one that also happens in many cases to have plenty of strengths above the level typical of most people. To say that we can never evaluate being less good at something or more good at something with such value-laden language would be to overreact to a genuine problem in how many people look at people with disabilities.

But on one level, I can't blame the neurodiversity movement (and the more general relativistic outlook among other disability communities). After all, their view follows fairly easily from a particular version of secularized naturalistic thinking. Different neurological conditions stem from natural variation, and there's no other level of explanation but natural variation. There's no God who designed human beings to have certain capabilities. There are no natural purposes according to which organisms have a nature, and certain capacities are part of what a well-functioning member of their species will be able to do. There's no notion of well-functioning if your worldview doesn't allow for higher-level explanations about purposes and design, other than perhaps simply asking whether a particular organism fits into the way most members of its species are or whether it fits the patterns members of its species typically desire for themselves. There's nothing objective about what a healthy member of that species or a well-functioning member of that species would be like. There is no way we can have a notion of the way we ought to be if there's no ground for what it would be to be the way we ought to be. But such a conclusion seems to me to be so obviously false that perhaps we should just question the metaphysical underpinning of the neurodiversity movement, rather than giving in to that metaphysical picture's logical implications.

[cross-posted at Evangel and the Neurodiversity Consulting blog]

Car seats, originally designed to protect your child from danger, are now actually very, very dangerous, you should now be informed. It turns out over half of car seats have toxic chemicals in them (ht: InstaPundit). Really? Last I knew most car seats were made out of plastic, so I suspect it's close to 100% (allowing for the odd exception made out of some edible material). People who want to panic will find something disastrously worrying about anything, but don't understimate the danger involved if your child accidentally ingests their car seat while you're not looking. It could really cause problems. Thinking it's only true of half of car seats might give you the wrong impression. Toddlers should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to have a car seat in their digestive system.

The Other Race Effect

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I came across this article about a recent study done exploring the difficulty of recognizing differences among people of other racial groups. According to the author, Kate Shaw, this new study helps explain why it is that we have an easier time distinguishing people's faces when the people are from our own racial group. But from what she goes on to say about it, it does nothing of the sort.

What this study shows, if the research is accurate, is (1) the effect occurs and (2) there's a biological mechanism involved. They've identified, from having subjects look at faces, a tendency to have a harder time distinguishing differences among faces that belong to people who are members of a different race from the person doing the looking. They've also identified an electrical effect in the brain that, according to this article, is triggered by the sight of a human face. The effect decreases in subsequent viewings of the same face, and this is called repetition suppression. The repetition suppression effect occurred with faces of the same race but not with faces of another race.

But is this an explanation? Hardly. All it does is show that there is a neurological explanation. It shows that this effect occurs with same-race faces but not with other-race faces. It doesn't explain why that's true. It doesn't explain why the repetition suppression effect occurs with same-race faces but not with other-race faces. So it doesn't really explain why this biological response occurs, and therefore it doesn't explain, as this article was claiming, why we have an easier time distinguishing faces of people in our own race than with people of other races. For that we'd need an explanation of why this particular neurological effect, with certain repeated faces, decreases or why, with other faces, it doesn't. This study, at least from what I see in this article, hasn't even attempted to explain that, and that's the interesting question.

When the one store in our area that sold Lactaid Cheese stopped carrying it, I asked a dairy section worker there about it, and he told me Cabot cheeses are lactose-free. This was a big surprise to me, because it seems like normal cheese. The only lactose-free stuff I was familiar with seemed modified in significant ways (e.g. Lactaid cheese is that individually-wrapped stuff, but it's better than most of those cheeses, and Lactaid milk tastes sweeter than most milks, too sweet for me to tolerate and for my blood sugar issues to be able to handle). But Cabot markets their cheeses as naturally lactose-free.

So I did some Googling, and it turns out many cheeses are naturally-lactose-free but just aren't advertised that way. Sharper cheeses (which Isaiah won't eat, because he rightly thinks they taste funny) tend to have less lactose, because bacteria from the aging process eats up the sugar, which is what lactose is. Harder, more-aged cheeses are thus more safe for the kid who won't touch them. But then some of these sites also including Colby cheese, which seems to me to be less sharp than the average cheddar, and mozzarella, which seems to me to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. They also said cottage cheese should be lactose-free for the same reason yogurt with active cultures should be. The bacteria, if left in long enough, will eat all the sugar. With active cultures, the bacteria get into your stomach and aid in digestion even if the sugar remains. Isaiah has definitely gotten sick from cheese, though, but it seems every cheese he might eat is supposed to be naturally lactose-free, according to some of these sources.

But then people who are lactose-intolerant still get sick from some of the above, and there seems to be no way to know if it's really lactose-free. Even if it lists the sugar contents as zero, Sam says that just means it's below the legal threshold in each serving to count it. Kraft cheeses are like that, for instance. That means I probably still shouldn't be sure of any given cheese that it's ok unless it says it's lactose-free, but many cheeses might have low enough lactose levels to be fine in moderation. if that's right, then is any of this of any help?

Race Thought Experiment #6

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In C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, Aslan modifies a normal horse to make him a talking horse and then later gives him wings and makes him a flying, talking horse. What if he transformed him further so that he looked and acted just like a human? Would he be a horse still? Would he be human?

Fabricating DNA

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There's now a method of modifying the DNA in a blood or hair sample to make it appear to be someone else's DNA.

I saw this on an SVU episode from earlier this season that was on last night while I was finishing up grading an exam. I was hoping they'd just made it up, but I guess not. This is the kind of discovery that it might be immoral to publish if there weren't any way to distinguish the modified DNA from original DNA, but it seems they have concocted a method to detect the subterfuge.

I've found the same gross misrepresentation of the pro-life position on stem cell research in several different places over the last few weeks. The most surprising place to find it is in a philosophical work in a chapter on the moral status of the fetus. Referring to the position that moral status begins at conception, Anne Fagot-Largeault says:

Since the 1980s, however, there have been extraordinary advances in scientific technology, and these have brought into sharp relief some of the drawbacks of the preceding position. In fact, the position leads to some unconscionable outcomes. On the one hand, it implies that an embryo that is, for example, the carrier of the genetic defect that results in Down syndrome has the same right to live as a non-carrier. On the other, the view entails that we must not use embryonic research in order to strive to eliminate such maladies as Thalassemia -- to do so, according to this view, would entail choosing between the lesser of two evils. In general, this implies a very tragic conception of the moral life, namely that whenever humans substitute their choices for those of God, they can only make matters worse.

Nowadays, this position has lost much of its force. With the explosion of stem cell research, there are so very many cells that have embryonic potential that the supposed natural organic distinction that was once relied upon has crumbled under its own weight. The claim that stem cells have an enigmatic ontological status itself now seems enigmatic. [Fagot-Largeault, "The Fetus in Perspective: The Moral and the Legal" in Laurence Thomas, ed., Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy, p.117.]

What seems enigmatic to me is why anyone would think the pro-life view on stem cells is that stem cells themselves have any moral status. If you stuck a stem cell in a woman's uterus, I wouldn't be holding my breath waiting for it to implant itself and begin developing. You have to alter a stem cell to make it an embryo for that capability to develop, just as you have to alter an egg by fertilizing it or turning it into a clone to give it that potential. No one thinks stem cells themselves have any special status. The only opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that acquiring the stem cells involves killing an embryo. It's not that there's anything special about the stem cells that should lead us to protect them. It's that the embryos should have protection as human beings. Stem cells can be acquired in other ways, and no one objects to those ways. It's hard to exaggerate how unfair it is to the pro-life view on stem cells to claim that anyone assigns some enigmatic status to stem cells themselves or that the embryonic potential of stem cells somehow undermines the distinction between what counts as an organism and what doesn't. There's no scientific reason to support the confusion of (a) stem cells that have potential to become embryos and (b) embryos themselves.

This isn't the first time I've seen this ridiculous portrayal of the pro-life position. I've seen it several times now, but it's pretty disturbing to find it in an academic paper in a philosophy textbook. The author isn't actually a trained philosopher. She's a biologist. But that's no excuse. biologists should be aware of the positions they're writing in response to if they're going to publish essays in philosophy textbooks arguing philosophically against those positions. That I've seen the very same argument in unrelated places suggests to me that perhaps there's a more widespread misconception going around among those who favor killing embryos for the greater good of people who weren't killed at the embryonic stage.

It's hard for me to resist commenting, while I've got the above quote in front of me, on her line about an embryo with the genetic defect leading to Down syndrome and an embryo without such a defect. It's hard to see how it's unconscionable to think those two embryos have the same moral status. It's hard even to see how it's conscionable to think the two embryos have a different moral status. Even those who immorally think it's perfectly all right to abort a fetus purely because it has Down syndrome (a view that a lot of pro-choicers think is horrific, I should add) do not justify such an argument on the view that such a fetus has less moral status than any other fetus. They justify it based on compassion for the fetus that, if they abort it, will never have the supposedly-awful life that they project Down syndrome people to have. There's never any suggestion of the fetus itself having less right to life. It's that view that I find unconscionable, and my reasons for finding it unconscionable make as much sense even on pro-choice premises.

There's one other argument in the quoted passage that makes no sense to me. A lot of people think there are some things that are wrong enough that it requires a huge amount of good being at stake to overcome the moral resistance to doing it so that it would be potentially all right. Killing a human being is one of these. On pro-life principles, it's not going to be easy to get around this problem for policies that lead to killing a lot of human beings whose existence only occurred in order to kill then, in order generate lines of stem cells that have some undefined possibility of leading to some good medical treatments if they can get around the tumor problem and if the more promising stem cell methods without the moral problems doesn't get there soon. That's a pretty clear moral argument, one that I admit involves controversial premises, but none of those premises involves a distinction between (a) making choices and (b) refraining from making choices so that God's can occur instead. The important distinction in the pro-life argument about embryos is that the moral prohibition on killing human life doesn't get easily overcome even if there's a great potential for good that comes from it, as anyone outraged at Joseph Mengele's research could attest to. It's not that making any old choice between two evils should lead to inaction, as if inaction means we don't interfere with God but action means we do. It's that doing some things would be so bad that even good consequences wouldn't be enough to overcome the moral wrongness of the action. You can only conclude that it's opposed to what God wants once you establish its moral wrongness. That's not part of the argument at all. It's the implication of the conclusion of the argument.

A U.S. District Court in California has ruled that it's unconstitutional for a public school teacher to say that creationism is superstitious nonsense. According to Supreme Court precedent going back to 1984, the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution doesn't mean merely what it says (which is just that the government can't set up a state religion) but extends even to government employees saying something that a reasonable person might take to count as endorsement of a particular perspective endorsing or disapproving religion. Add to that the conviction that creationism is religion, and you get this result. This does seem to me to be a direct application of current Supreme Court precedent and the standard view of creationism as religion (which the Supreme Court has endorsed, at least in one instance of the use of the term and a U.S. appeals court has declared to be applicable to intelligent design as well, although that judgment is only legally binding in one of the three federal court districts of Pennsylvania, just as this current decision is only legally binding on one of four federal court districts in California). [For the record, my detailed evaluation of the last case is here.]

Now I don't happen to think this is the right result, for several reasons. For one, the term 'creationism' can mean a lot of different things. It could mean the view that the the Earth is 6,000 years old, more precisely known as young-earth creationism. Some hold this view because they believe scripture teaches it, in which case it counts as a religious belief. Others claim to find it taught by science, in which case their support for it is of the kind that should count as science, even if it's bad science. The Supreme Court has declared that since it is taught in scripture, and science the scientific reasoning being presented is not good science, it can't be of the kind that should count as science. That claim has always seemed wrong to me, and I think this result is exactly what follows when you take such a view. If it's not of a scientific kind, then deriding it as bad science is also not of a scientific nature but of a religious nature (even if it's against a religious view).

But the term 'creationism' can also mean simply that there's a divine being who created. That's often a religious belief. It can also be a philosophical conclusion of arguments that have been present throughout the entire history of Western philosophy and have been held alongside religious beliefs by some but independently of religious beliefs by others. Thomas Aquinas, for example, presented arguments for God's existence that did not rely one bit on any religious beliefs. Lots of thinkers have believed in a creator without thinking they have any religious obligations to that creator. So even that kind of creationism isn't clearly religious, although it often is. Intelligent design arguments fall into this category if they conclude with the belief in a divine creator (rather than a more open conclusion, e.g. merely that there is some designer, which could be aliens if we're talking about biological ID arguments rather than cosmological fine-tuning ID arguments).

When a teacher says that creationism is superstitious nonsense, absent a context, it's not clear what that teacher means. It's certainly not obvious to me that it's a derision of particularly religious elements in any particular one of these things creationism can mean. But I do suspect that most people saying something like this aren't going to be sensitive to any of the distinctions I've just outlined, and they probably do intend to think of creationism as a religious teaching. Given some of the other statements this particular teacher made, I think this is especially likely in this case.

President Obama announced today that he's lifting the ban on government funding for the destruction of living, complete human organisms in the embryonic stage. In his speech announcing this change, the President declared the choice between faith and science to be a false dichotomy, thus insinuating that the objections from the pro-life side (which are, in the popular mind, associated with faith rather than the philosophical backing that they tend to have among most pro-lifers) are anti-science. He speaks of pro-life objections as coming from thoughtful and decent people, which might suggest that he doesn't think such views are anti-intellectual, as many of my philosophical colleagues typically assume them to be. But in presenting his view as the middle road between the anti-science and pro-faith view on one side and the pro-science and anti-faith view on the other, it's hard to avoid the suggestion that pro-life objections are anti-science.

This becomes clearer later in his speech. He sees this order as part of a larger move to restore the promotion of good science. He sees it as a recovery from Bush Administration resistance to good science. Aside from the fact that those who make such claims have a pretty distorted view of what the Bush Administration actually did and what policies it actually supported in general, the claim is particularly ludicrous in this case. The pro-life objection to destroying human embryos has nothing to do with science or anti-science. It's based on a philosophical conclusion, that human life at any stage has the moral status that human life at any other stage has. The most science can show is that what empirical features are true of human life at any stage, not what moral status something with certain empirical features must have. That's a philosophical question, not a scientific question, and it's one the current President claimed to be beyond his pay grade, so he can't consistently now claim that science does give the answer in as clear a way as this speech insists.

The argument for full moral status does not deny the empirically-observable facts about human development. Consciousness, complexity of thought, fully-formed organs, and other features sometimes thought to be necessary for full moral status are simply irrelevant, according to the standard pro-life picture, and nothing science observes will tell us otherwise. It takes a philosophical presupposition to resist that conclusion, a presupposition not shared by the pro-lifer. So labeling the pro-life view anti-science is grossly unfair and unbecoming for the President of the United States, particularly when he's just called such people thoughtful and decent. Ironically, Obama's own position is also based on an ideological assumption that there's nothing wrong with killing an embryonic human being, and yet he says in this speech that "scientific decisions" should be "based on facts, not ideology". I won't call this hypocrisy, since he may simply not know what he's doing, but his words and actions are certainly inconsistent.

There's a further insult to pro-lifers hidden in this speech. He says, "with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided". What perils does he mean? It sounds as if he's saying that the ethical objections can be handled by applying proper guidelines and oversight, but it's hard to see how that would be unless the proper guidelines and oversight would prevent the killing of any embryos for the purpose of deriving stem cells, and that's exactly the policy he's trying to remove with this executive order. So it's as if he wants people to get the impression that proper oversight and guidelines will avoid all the objections being raised against this research, when in reality the only way to have guidelines and oversight of that nature would have been to retain the Bush policy, which was already the ingenious middle way between the two extremes, one that recognized the value of the research while not allowing further human organisms to be destroyed. Now President Obama wants to claim that spot by abandoning Bush's middle-ground view and going for the more extreme view that refuses to recognize any of the moral objections of a sizable minority of the American populace (something like 41% according to one poll).

On the News

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Sam was interviewed for the local news broadcast tonight for a parent reaction to today's decision that there's still absolutely no reason to believe that autism is caused by vaccines. They included some brief family footage without the boys (with me in full mountain man mode) and a still shot of the boys' latest pictures. She's got a link to the video in her post.

Does anyone know if there's a way to download video in that kind of streaming format? I know there used to be a way to do it by changing the filename extension, but I don't remember how to do that, and I'm guessing it no longer works the same way. Update: Got it. Thanks, Jonathan I!

I've been wanting to post some thoughts on a recent piece by Richard Gray in The Telegraph on a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore that details Charles Darwin's anti-slavery motivations. I've been putting it off, but I decided it would be fitting to write it up on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. Gray points to some journals from Darwin's voyages on the Beagle and letters of family members that reveal his disgust at the practice of enslaving fellow humans and involvement in the abolitionist movement. This is so contrary to the false portrayal of him in some circles that applies later Social-Darwinist ideas to Darwin himself, something he never endorsed and would not have tolerated.

This wasn't all that surprising to me, even though I didn't know of his outright abolitionist views. After all, Darwin was such a strong supporter of the common descent of all humans in explicit opposition to views that had different ancestries of different races without a single common ancestor population for humans. Such views were around in his day and had been put to use in support of slavery. In this way Darwin was closer than some of his contemporaries to the view found among many Christians that three races had arisen from Noah's three sons, with further divergence later on at the tower of Babel.

There were alternative Christian (or, I would argue, sub-Christian) views at the time as well, most notably the outright racist idea borrowed from Islam that the curse on Ham's son Canaan was really a curse on all of Ham's descendants (or more precisely the darker-skinned ones, in contrast to Canaan's middle-eastern descendants in what became Israel, who were the actual group referred to in the Genesis curse). This view involved a number of curse elements not in the Genesis text that mentions Noah's curse on Canaan, including intellectual and moral inferiority to other races among the darker-skinned Hamites from Africa and the moral justification of slavery (rather than the text's simple report that Canaan would serve Shem and Japheth without saying whether it would be morally ok for those who enslaved them). So not all support for slavery came from the view that humans arose in different and unrelated races in different parts of the world completely independently. But it's easy to see how Darwin's opposition to that view was part of his motivation for providing an account of human origins that resisted such a view.

Two things have occurred to me while reflecting on this and reading some people's responses to it. One is that it's a clear case of being motivated to adopt a thesis based on ideology. It's true that Darwin's support for the view ultimately is supported by his actual reasons presented in his work. He does in fact give arguments for his view, and he expects people to accept his view based on those arguments rather than because of his ideological motivation. It's probably true that he accepted it at least in part based on those arguments and not because it happened to fit with his preferred social view. At least he believed the arguments supported the view. But he did have an ideological motivation.

The irony is that his intellectual descendants refuse to allow an exactly parallel situation with supporters of intelligent design, who present arguments for their view that don't rely on ideological assumptions, expect people to accept the view based on such arguments, and probably believe the view at least in part because of those arguments. At least they see those arguments supporting the view. Yet opponents of intelligent design regularly deride intelligent design proponents for having ideological motivations to want to find arguments for their theistic view. I haven't yet seen anyone of that ilk deriding Darwin for his parallel motivation. Perhaps that's merely because they happen to agree with Darwin's motivation but don't agree with theism. If so, then it's an unfair double-standard, because it can't be in principle intellectually dishonest to believe something you have arguments for but also have ideological reason to want to be true unless that's true of every case of believing something you have arguments for and ideological reason to want to be true. But it's common among those who are anti-ID to confuse the motivation for an argument with its theoretical basis, as I've pointed out before.


Spock2.jpg

I was really looking forward to the eleventh Star Trek film, due out in a few months now. Casting Zachary Quinto as young Spock was brilliant, and I'll have to see the movie for that even if for no other reason, although I think loyalty to the franchise would be sufficient grounds to see it anyway. But I'm no longer holding my breath about whether it will be a good movie. If it is, I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I'm not expecting as much as I had. I was already a bit skeptical about a script written by the writers responsible for the recent Transformers movie, which was fun but was certainly not interesting script-wise. It was fun mostly because of the visuals. The main human character was painful to watch, and the storyline wasn't all that interesting given the richness of the Transformers material available in the comic books.

It was this interview with script writer Robert Orci that put a full stop to my optimism, though, for two reasons. The most important is that the assurances of producers that I've been seeing that it will be faithful to Trek canon for the fans while still doing something new for newcomers turn out to be a mere facade, given Orci's explanation of why he says it's faithful to canon. But I think the theory of time travel he endorses will also make the movie painful for me to watch, even if it won't be as painful as most Trek time travel stories are.

First, this is how Orci understands the time travel in this movie to work. He recognizes that there's a problem with any time travel theory that allows changing the past, although I don't think he makes it clear exactly why it's a problem. The real reason it's a problem is because if the past happened, then it follows that it didn't get changed, so when you go back you can't change it. If you can change it, then it's not the past. He gets into grandfather paradox issues, but I think those are derivative problems. The main reason is that it just makes no sense to think of changing the past. You can't make something that already was one way no longer be that way but be another way.

There's only one plausible way to interpret time travel stories that seem to change the past (other than the people didn't know what really happened and thus thought they changed something but actually only did what had already happened). If I travel back in time and do something that didn't happen, I must have traveled somewhere other than my past. If I ended up in an alternative time line somehow, then it makes sense to do what seems like changing the past. But the past of my time line doesn't change, and that time line continues on without me. The time line I entered always had me entering at that point and thinking I'd changed the past. This is the only way to make changing-the-past stories internally consistent, but it's still not a genuine change of the past, which the authors of those stories would usually not want.

So I applaud Orci for preferring this to the usual time travel approach. It's an improvement. There are still big problems with it, though. It would seem odd if time travel that doesn't change the past goes to our past and time travel when you do seem to change things ends up at other time lines. So a plausible version of this view must have every instance of time travel involve going to a similar time line, where it can generate a change that makes it diverge from the original one. The unwelcome consequence is that there isn't really anything that we can just flat-out call time travel. It's all Sliders-like world-jumping but with time travel too. You can never just time travel. That's an odd result.

Also, it does disastrous things to the fabric of a narrative in a fictional work that takes years and even decades to weave. Little did we know that the Star Trek canon time line isn't a constant world at all. Every time there's been time travel the characters have moved to a different world. We have no idea what happened after the events of City on the Edge of Forever in the time line that our characters began in. With such a view, it's not surprising that Orci wouldn't mind completely revising Star Trek history, because Spock of the TNG period going back to pre-TOS times and changing things would result in a different time line. That it violates canon is perfectly ok, even if the changes are drastic and far-reaching. It's a way to destroy the canon of Trek history while insisting that the original time line is untouched. It's crazy to think this won't anger fans who see Trek canon as something to build on, not to alter with impunity. It seems Orci wants to go by the letter of his time travel theory in good Pharisaical fashion to ignore the spirit of observing Star Trek canon while technically allowing it to remain in a time line that the movie doesn't follow (except to show that Spock and Nero will presumably never be in that time line again).

Worse still, Orci acts as if this theory of time travel is based on hard science, which just isn't true. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is certainly held by a handful of scientists working in the philosophical end of theoretical physics. It's a far cry from being the majority view, as far as I've been able to tell, though, and it's certainly nothing in the area of being demonstrable by experimentation. I think, in fact, that it's in principle completely impossible to verify or falsify it. There are several other interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the only reason I know of for preferring the many-worlds interpretation is that it avoids the most plausible fine-tuning arguments for an intelligent designer, not a very compelling scientific reason. If Orci is willing to reinterpret all of Trek canon because of misinformation about what science teaches, that's unfortunate. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm hardly confident with the future of the franchise resting partly in his hands, judging by what this interview reveals. I thought maybe they would finally have an odd movie better than some of the even movies. I'm not so sure now.

Barack Obama should not appoint Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to head the Environmental Protection Agency, as has been reported that he might do. This is for totally non-partisan reasons. I don't expect Obama to appoint a moderate on the environment. I would hope he doesn't choose someone who regularly presents inaccurate factual information and gives credence to discredited studies that feed panic.

He makes radical statements and then stands by them while under public criticism. For example, he claimed in 2002 that factory farming is more of a threat to American democracy than Osama bin Laden and refused to moderate his comment under pressure from those who called him on it. He has published criticisms of the Bush administration riddled with lies, distortions, and ad hominem attacks. He accepts conspiracy theories about Republicans stealing the 2004 election.

But the most important reason for me is alarmism about autism and vaccines, which is downright anti-scientific. The most that's been shown about autism and vaccines is that the symptoms of autism tend to be noticeable around an age when several vaccines tend to be scheduled. Correlation isn't causation, and in this case there's an obvious explanation for the correlation. The symptoms begin appearing at an age when, for completely independent reasons, certain vaccines are given. So Kennedy does nothing more than feed anti-scientific panic. Parents of autistic kids hear this stuff, accept it without looking into it, and end up treating their kids as having been stolen from them. Instead of accepting their kids for who they are, they spend all their time pretending they don't have any anymore and trying to make other parents feel guilty for causing their children's autism by taking steps to protect them and other kids from dangerous and life-threatening microbes. They seek to divert funds into wild goose chases instead of recognizing that autism has at least a significant genetic component (which is now very well established) and that the only thing that will likely be available to help their kids is to give them intensive help, something very hard to do if you spend all your time chasing windmills in the political blame game. Never mind the fact that they're risking their kids' lives by not vaccinating them, which has already led to a resurgence in diseases that had been nearly eradicated.

Anyone who has any sympathy for the many complaints, more from the left but also from the right, about the Bush Administration's attitude toward science should oppose Kennedy as an appointment for any important government position but especially to head the EPA. [And I note that some prominent anti-ID bloggers are avoiding hypocrisy on this issue by opposing Kennedy.] If he goes forward with this appointment, it's a huge political mistake. It will mean people can call him anti-science in more ways than just on abortion (see #3). But it's even worse as a policy mistake, given how much damage someone like Kennedy could do.

Avery Tooley has posted a response to an argument that the high incidence of low birth weight among black Americans is a sign that slavery's legacy still has a biological impact. There are places the argument isn't careful enough. Avery points out one. It would be more helpful to figure out what's different between cases of blacks with low birth weight and blacks with more normal birth weight than simply to notice a difference on average between blacks and whites. The details of the particular cases might make all the difference.

But there are other problems with the argument also. [What follows comes from a comment I left on Avery's post.] They notice that blacks in the U.S. have lower birth weight than blacks born in Africa living in the U.S. But that's the same comparison used in the IQ debate, and it's still a debated comparison. Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, and others cite it to show that black kids in the U.S. don't have as high a cultural expectation to develop their natural potential in certain kinds of intelligence. But those on the other side of the issue point out that the immigrants to the U.S. are self-selecting. They're more inclined to be smarter and harder-working to begin with. Perhaps they're more inclined to be healthier too, since healthier people are more likely to be positive and looking to improve their lot in life. Perhaps.

Where that response fails with IQ is that second-generation studies show that the drive to do well falls rapidly among immigrants' children and especially grandchildren if the children weren't themselves born here). That means it's cultural in some way, but that cultural impact could be because racism gets them down, from cultural opposition to acting white, or some combination of those and maybe other things too. But it's clearly not entirely a biological thing, even one resulting from the effects of slavery. So the question is whether birth weight falls rapidly in the second generation of black immigrants. Then we'd have some sense of whether it's a biological effect that continues to the next generation or a cultural effect, which could again have several explanations, perhaps many of which contribute to a larger story. I'd have to say that I'm skeptical of this proposed biological effect myself.

Commenter Mafarmerga couldn't understand why I think the decision in the Dover, PA trial in Pennsylvania was grossly incompetent, so I thought I'd catalogue my reasons in a separate post.

I should note for the record that I'm not questioning whether the result of the decision was right, and I'm not commenting at all on some matters in the case (such as the ridiculous disclaimer they wanted to put on the textbooks). I'm merely pointing out that many of the arguments the opinion presents are not just bad but complete howlers. They're not the sort of thing that reasonable people can disagree about, and there are plenty of arguments that I do put in that category, including some on issues I have a very firm view on (such as abortion). To be in that category, you have to begin from different moral premises or different views of rights or justice. Many of the views defended in this opinion are simply unreasonable. Only an irrational or ignorant person could defend them. They involve misstatements, misrepresentations, ignorance of the history of philosophy, and simply fallacious inferences. I wouldn't give them a passing grade on a philosophy exam. I'll number my points to keep them separate in my mind as I go.

1. Jones says a reasonable student would see teaching ID as an endorsement of religion because religious people have said similar things. But this argument is pretty insufficient. It's true that so-called scientific creationists have talked about gaps in evolution, and one version of ID can be thought of as explaining things unexplained by evolution. But that doesn't mean ID is the same thing as scientific creationism, and it doesn't mean ID is religion. That's just a non sequitur.Saying there are unexplained things in a scientific theory isn't endorsement of religion just because one religion-derived view with scientific language uses a similar argument. You could never arrive at creation science unless you started with the assumptions of certain way of reading Genesis, a particular religion. ID requires neither a particular way of reading a particular religious text or any particular religious views at all. There's a huge difference.

2. Jones accepts John Haught's claim that design arguments are religious, citing Thomas Aquinas as someone who held the view. Yet Aquinas would be the first to insist that his design argument is not remotely based on religious revelation. He distinguishes between general revelation and special revelation, and he says you can't know special revelation is true apart from faith. You can know general revelation is true just by using reason. His design argument is the Fifth Way, and the Five Ways are five of his arguments for the existence of God starting from general revelation, using reason as available to anyone without the use of faith. The argument is much older than Aquinas anyway. It goes back to Plato at least, who does not use it to support any religious beliefs, and Xenophon puts it in the mouth of Socrates, who was put on trial for rejecting the religion of his time. Whatever Socrates was up to was more properly philosophical.

3. He makes much of the fact that Aquinas notes that the designer is the same being most people call God. Aquinas doesn't say that step of the argument can be known by reason, at least if that means concluding that this being has all the characteristics of God as revealed in scripture. Each argument he gives offers one or a few divine attributes as demonstrable, and then he concludes that you can know by reason that a being with many of the divine attributes exists. He doesn't think you can show that God is a Trinity or that God is of one essence with the human being we call Jesus. He does think you can show a necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being who explains all the contingent things found within the universe, who designed things at some level in order to explain the purposed appearance of things. That happens to be true of the being he believes in by faith, and he thinks they're the same being, but he doesn't argue for this based on religion. His arguments aren't religious arguments. It's simple historical ignorance on Haught's part to claim that they're religious, assuming Jones represents Haught fairly to begin with.

I know this is one of my pet peeves, but it's a good pet peeve to have, since far too many people misrepresent the abortion debate as being about when life begins. When life begins is a scientific matter, and anyone who recognizes that should have a hard time seeing the plain meaning of Joe Biden's statement as follows as outright endorsement of relativism about science:

MR. BROKAW: If Senator Obama comes to you and says, "When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe," as a Roman Catholic, what would you say to him

SEN. BIDEN: I'd say, "Look, I know when it begins for me." It's a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths--Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others--who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They're intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life--I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, "Well, what about fascism?" Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism's all right? Fascism isn't a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.

I'm very sure that Biden didn't mean what he said. He surely doesn't think scientific truth is all a matter of what you happen to believe any more than Nancy Pelosi thinks life doesn't really begin at conception when she quotes church fathers against the current Roman Catholic view (thus in effect quoting religion against science, ironic as that is from the highest-ranked (in one measure, anyway) Democrat in the United States. Both of them mean to be talking about moral status and perhaps personhood. But it's not at all clear what exactly he intended to say about it. He obviously couldn't have meant some kind of thoroughgoing moral relativism because of his last statement. What generates the relativist-sounding move is not that it's about moral views, where a moral relativism of some sort then kicks in once you enter moral territory. He both has some notion of what a decent religious person is (which sounds objective, even though it uses a value-laden term 'decent') and some notion that a view has to be held by a decent religious person to count as appropriate in a pluralistic society, which he takes to rule out Hitler's fascism.

What I'm least sure of is what he really thinks about all those religiously held beliefs. When he says he knows when it begins for him, does he want to say that any deeply-held religious belief is true for the person who holds it, in which case there's really no religious truth, just religious feelings? Or does "I know when it begins for me" function as an equivalent expression to "I know when I think it begins". It's a bit awkward to take it that way, but it would be something like "As for me, I know when it begins, but I'm not going to expect others to understand that because it involves faith, and I respect their conflicting religious traditions.

Is that overly charitable? Keep in mind that this is Joe Biden.

Palin and Evolution

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In the media feeding frenzy on Sarah Palin in the last six days, some completely inappropriate and ridiculous questions have dominated the coverage I've paid attention to (which has consisted mostly of NPR, as it happens). Many of the questions getting major play would never be asked of a man, and some are actually illegal to ask at job interviews. But there have been a few genuine issues in the mix. I want to look at one that almost everyone reporting on it has gotten wrong, both in the mainstream media and on blogs (and it's taken me a lot of work to keep inaccuracies and misrepresentations out of her Wikipedia article).

It stems from a brief answer in a political debate when she was running for governor, which she was able to follow up on in an interview the next day. I have found exactly one source that details her response, although it doesn't actually include the exact wording of the question, exact wording that might actually be very important. Here is the exchange during the gubernatorial debate:

The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor's race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state's public classrooms. Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night's televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, "Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."

I'd love to know what the question was, because I don't know what her answer means otherwise. Debate between both is a good thing. Both of what? The author of the article says creation science and evolution, but I don't trust a newspaper writer to be careful with important distinctions. Some people call intelligent design arguments creation science, despite there being a world of difference between the two categories. One is science done very badly. The other is a long-standing philosophical argument form that goes back to Plato and Xenophon whose current versions include a premise based on scientific fact but whose conclusion might be questioned, because it's an inference to the best explanation, and that sort of argument is by its very nature only probabilistic, and these particular arguments (depending on the version) can admit of alternative explanations that others will argue are the actual best explanation. So I'd like to know what they were discussing before I can interpret even her first sentence.

There's also an issue of what she means by teaching it. Does she mean (a) requiring it in the curriculum, (b) allowing teachers to include it in the curriculum, or (c) allowing teachers to discuss it if students happen to bring up the issue in class? The same article, which as I said is the only one a serious search could turn up from the time, goes on to describe her interview the next day, giving some much-needed clarification on the second issue. In short, she holds (c). (Unfortunately, it doesn't help very much on the first issue.)

In an interview Thursday, Palin said she meant only to say that discussion of alternative views should be allowed to arise in Alaska classrooms: "I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum." She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum. Members of the state school board, which sets minimum requirements, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. "I won't have religion as a litmus test, or anybody's personal opinion on evolution or creationism," Palin said. Palin has occasionally discussed her lifelong Christian faith during the governor's race but said teaching creationism is nothing she has campaigned about or even given much thought to.

X-Gene

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My mutants and race piece is in its second draft now, which I'll be sending off tomorrow. I do have some questions that I hope some familiar with recent X-Men occurrences might be able to help with. One of the comments I got back from the editors is that I was taking mutants to be literal mutants, which would mean genes mutated and led to their powers, and these genes would be different genes, genes having something to do with the abilities they end up getting. Nightcrawler's fur would be related to the kinds of genes that produce body hair. Cyclops' force beams would have some connection to genes that affect the eyes. Wolverine's healing factor would come from mutated genes that ordinarily relate to the immune system.

Well, the problem with this, according to my editor, is that the third X-Men movie has a completely different explanation of mutants. They're aren't literal mutants in the sense the term is usually used in biology. Instead, they have this one gene in common. In the movie, they call it the Mutant-X gene. At least that's how it sounds. I later found out this actually does appear in the comic books after I stopped reading them in the mid-90s, and they call it the X-Gene. So maybe it's not the Mutant-X gene in the movie but the mutant X-Gene.

This explanation is just downright stupid. How is it that this one gene explains the variety of powers across all mutants? Also, how did one gene just suddenly appear in all these unrelated people? Whoever came up with this idea knows pretty much nothing about genetics. I did some looking around in Wikipedia, and I found some blog posts about the mutant gene (including this one, which was somewhat helpful). Apparently the Beast, in House of M #2, says the X-Gene is technically a cluster of genes. That's a little better, I suppose, because it allows for different genes to be part of the cluster. Also, the X-Gene was supposed to be scattered throughout humanity but only activated in certain people, and those are the mutants. That's how humans can produce mutant children.

Given that mutants sometimes produce children with the same powers and sometimes end up with children with different or no powers, it seems to me that the X-Gene must not guarantee any particular powers but simply means there's a potential for powers. Without the X-Gene, there will be no powers. When the Scarlet Witch removes the X-Gene from the majority of mutants and the entirety of non-mutants, all the mutants without the gene end up becoming normal humans. So my suspicion is that this would have to be an activator gene (or cluster of genes), and what determines the specific powers is something else. The X-Gene itself is simply an activator, one that probably just isn't turned on in normal humans but is turned on in mutants.

If this is the official explanation in the comic books and the movies, then it changes significantly how my argument in this chapter will work. I think my conclusion still holds, but the argument for it is completely different from what it was in the first draft. So what I'm wondering is if this seems to fit with the recent comic books, since I haven't read any of them. I may have some of them, since I continued to buy them for a little while after I stopped reading them, and I did inherit some more even later from my brother that I haven't read. I don't think I have any House of M, though. I just looked and didn't see any, even though I thought I had some. So what I'd love is if someone could direct me to specific issues where this stuff is discussed, and then I can see if I might have them or if someone could confirm that this is pretty much the official explanation of mutants at this point. If it is, I need to focus on this. If it's not, and it's still sort of up in the air with the more traditional explanation still possible, then I can keep most of what I've written and just add some more on the new explanation.

Update: Someone else has arrived at a similar view, but it assumes one X-gene. If we trust the Beast's analysis, you could make it much more complex, with several genes contributing to activation of the powers, and perhaps all or a certain number of them need to be present. Also, the Celestials, in seeding the human populace with the necessary genetic material for mutations of this sort, might not have included anything like the latent genes to be activated or the activation genes but might simply have placed the necessary genetic materials, with the necessary factors for those eventually to reach a point where they do what happens later on. This would explain a few isolated mutants throughout history and a much more concentrated appearance of mutants in the late 20th century. I like the suggestion that mutates (who get powers later in life due to some stimulus like radiation) have something else activate their latent powers in the way that the X-Gene does with mutants.

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