Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Someone to Watch Over Us

When the big snowstorm that had been forecast to put the mid-Atlantic and New England states into a state resembling the North Pole failed to materialize, conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh were quick to hit the airwaves with warnings about how the liberal nanny state was strangling the life out of American freedom.

Yawn. Rush Limbaugh would blame liberal big government for people growing old if he could get away with it. There's no appeasing motivated skeptics, and the money that Limbaugh rakes in from people who want to advertise to his audience is plenty motivational. And it's likely that many of the other conservative commentators that mimic him are hoping for some of the same motivation themselves.

But this isn't to say that the United States hasn't taken on the role of public nanny. It's just that it's not big-government liberalism (despite its somewhat paternalistic outlook) that's the cause of it. Instead, I suspect, it's the never ending hunt for a good shepherd. Big snowstorms can be nasty - even deadly. And although the number of people who die in blizzards in the United States every year is fairly small - on the order of a couple of dozen, in a society that always looks for someone to blame for things that go wrong, you can bet that someone examined many, if not all of them carefully, looking for a way that someone with deep pockets could be sued into providing a payday. And while I know it reads like one, this really isn't a knock on lawyers - this is, after all, their job.

And so what we end up with is not just a government apparatus that seeks to protect the citizenry from bad things - it also seeks to protect itself from liability claims. Consider the landslide the decimated a chunk of Oso, Washington about 10 months ago - the state and county are now facing lawsuits claiming that government didn't do enough to protect people from the possibility of a slide. (But note that the state and county aren't being charged with concealing information. The complaint is that they should have done more to warn people.)

As long as a significant number of people believe that one of the primary purposes of government is to protect us from the vagaries of life, there will be a part of our government that devotes itself to that task - either because they believe it too, or to protect themselves from the consequences of failing to meet that expectation.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Just A Little Prick

The Measles, it seems, have come to Disneyland. A turn of events that's shining a light on people who don't believe in, and/or don't trust, vaccines.

"Anti-vaxxers," as they are called, are quickly on their way to becoming Public Enemy Number 1 - at least in the court of public opinion. Charged with threatening herd immunity, jeopardizing vulnerable people and ignoring science, they are seen as dangerously self-centered. For, it appears, actually acting on their distrust of an industry that's seen less positively than the Telecommunications sector, which people love to gripe about.

For all that the supposed links between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders have been discredited in the broader public eye (despite the celebrity of some of the theory's adherents), it takes more than that to actively build trust. Accordingly, you can't force people into it. In my own experience, it's fairly common for people to have faith that the people and institutions they want to do things will actually be able to accomplish them. People who, for instance, want the government to adopt a national single-payer health-care system, tend to have faith that the government can manage it. By the same token, people who want to see vaccination rates rise tend to trust that vaccine makers have created a safe and effective disease countermeasure. Whether or not this squares with or flies in the face of the facts, however, is a different issue.

I guess one heartening thing is that over the past couple of years, the vast majority of parents who do support vaccination and who do want their children and the people around them to be protected have realized that they really need to stand up and make their voices heard.
Seth Mnookin "Measles Outbreak Linked To Disneyland Hits Over 70 Cases"
People who opt-out of vaccinations for their children, also want those children to be protected - so the question becomes: "Protected from what?"

Two groups of people arguing over their competing self-interests is unlikely to resolve anything. Especially because the pro-vaccine group will effectively (whether they see it that way or not) be telling the anti-vaccine parents to place their children at risk for what those parents see as little or no benefit. What's really at stake is the perceived trustworthiness of the pharmaceutical industry - something that even industry insiders and boosters have admitted is shaky. Perhaps this means that the pro-vaccine parents should make sure that it's pharmaceutical makers, rather than anti-vaccine parents, who hear their voices.

People in the United States are quick to suspect that bug corporations are willing to cheat or injure them in the name of enhancing profitability. Those who understand their interests are best served by changing that are going to be the people with the best leverage to make it happen.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Threat Context

The Volokh Conspiracy blog has the news that in an Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics survey, 80% of respondents would support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” Now, for a lot of people, this is the time to cue the laugh track, but “Conspiracy” author Ilya Somin is more charitable, noting that both political and scientific ignorance are not primarily the result of stupidity, but rather rational reactions to the sheer amount of information available.

But given this, I’m not sure that I agree with his statement that: “The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realize that it is contained in almost all food.” I suspect that what’s really going on is that people who answered the survey didn’t, for the most part, make the connection between deoxyribonucleic acid as they’d encountered the term in the past, and as they were encountering it right at that moment. The term “deoxyribonucleic acid” is not part of my daily lexicon - I suspect that this blog post honestly represents the first time that I’ve used it in a sentence since the mid-1980s. And I’m pretty sure that if you stopped me on the street in the middle of searching Downtown Seattle for something photogenic, I couldn’t repeat it back to you, if you asked me what the initialism “DNA” stood for in biology. I’m not a chemist or a geneticist, and it’s not a term that comes up all that much in youth care, social work or software. And so it doesn’t surprise me that a large number of people, when encountering the term outside of it’s usual context, assumed that it was “some dangerous chemical inserted by greedy corporations for their own nefarious purposes.”

Because that context, of corporations being willing to use opaque processes and procedures to boost profitability at the direct expense of public health and safety, is very usual. Professor Somin leaves out a third area of public rational ignorance, and that’s what goes on behind the doors of corporate boardrooms (or, more likely, legal departments). While that body of knowledge may be just as vast and complicated as government or science, for most of us, the real problem is that it’s hidden. Somin’s warning against “excessive and unnecessary warning labels on food products could confuse consumers, and divert their limited attention from real dangers,” is well-taken. But for many people, what agricultural and food businesses may by using as ingredients in foods (and the nefarious purposes of those same businesses) are the real, and hidden, dangers that they are attempting to turning their finite attention to.

It can be misleading to presume that everyone understand as term, even one that spends a lot of time in the public eye, in the same way that we do. When encountered outside of their usual context, the correct understanding of terms that most of us use only rarely likely falls outside of the realm of the instrumentally useful. Given vast body of knowledge that is the human experience, I think that we underestimate the ease with which we can catch people out with gotchas that they’re unprepared for in the moment. Public ignorance may be both pervasive and dangerous, but seeing it under every rock will not help us combat it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015


In the end, the years are like sand. They have mass, they have weight, they have heft - but you cannot hold onto them. They pour through your fingers. And they extinguish. The fire that burned more brightly than a thousand suns and with a wrathful, intolerable heat - the years extinguished it. Sure, I can be annoyed, I can be irritated. But the anger has been buried, and it does not rekindle as it once did.

Of course, I wanted this. Anger is a sign that the world has trespassed against you, and I understand that the world owes me nothing - after all, it was here first - so what call do I have to be angry at its vagaries? And I know that anger changes nothing - that I can rage and storm with all the fury that I can muster and it will make no difference. And people have their own lives to lead and the way they lead those lives is not for me to say. They, too, owe me nothing. So of what use is anger?

But when I dig my fingers through the sand, and find cold soot and ashes there, I miss it. I miss the passion and the life and the energy - despite the burns and the scars that are all it has ever left me to show for its existence. When you take the fire into yourself it is a light that blinds and a heat that sears, but still I wish that I could gather it in and see and feel nothing else. Because things are always better in memory than they are in life, I remember the light and the heat as if they were friends rather than tormenters. It is wishful thinking, born of the idea that THIS time, I will master anger, rather than it mastering me. But in reality I know that it is nothing more than a wistful nostalgia for the clarity of being mastered. Because for all its faults, it somehow felt alive. It felt free and unburdened. And there was no sand.

But now it is all sand. And the sand has extinguished the flames that I never learned to master. And it feels gray and pallid and dead, but that is because I haven't yet given up trying to have it both ways. I haven't quite given up on wanting to have the fire rage around me, yet not be burned. Experience has yet to extinguish the last vestiges of wistfulness and a longing for youth and of the illusion that I was more alive then than I am now. Anger in youth is not better than calm in age. It is simply different. Fire is not better than sand. Only more familiar when misremembered. If sand is what I have then sand is what I will use. I may mourn the anger, but I know why I smothered it. The world is only as chill and dark as I make it out to be. I can warm and light it without recourse to the easy way out of emotional incandescence. I need only choose. We must all chose, and with that comes the specter or making the wrong choice. Stepping up and taking ownership, rather than letting the fire burn where and what it would, means not having anyone else to blame. Which means learning not to blame.

In the end, ownership is like the years. It has mass, it has weight, it has heft - but you cannot hold on to it. And taking ownership of oneself extinguishes the fire of anger and the other things that we allow to master us. But because it has mass, weight and heft, one can build with it. Like sand, however, ownership requires work to make it strong.