Friday, November 30, 2007

An Easy Way Out?

The flap over the "Created Equal" series of columns on Slate (which ended with something of an apology from the author), for some reason, reminded me of an earlier stand alone Human Nature column. Back in March, William Saletan wrote "Mind Makes Right," about a study published in the journal Nature. I found this study interesting enough to mention it on Nobody In Particular, and I suppose that it's lingered in the back of my mind ever since. But thinking about the challenges of egalitarianism in the face of arguments over inequality, it came back to the forefront.

Scenario 12: Lifeboat 2
Mean emotion rating: 5.1
You are on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. The lifeboat you’re in is sitting dangerously low in the water—a few inches lower and it will sink.
The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. If nothing is done it will sink before the rescue boats arrive and everyone on board will die. However, there is an injured person who will not survive in any case. If you throw that person overboard the boat will stay afloat and the remaining passengers will be saved.
Would you throw this person overboard in order to save the lives of the remaining passengers?
"Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements" - Nature
What makes this scenario interesting is that fact that the injured passenger is going to die, no matter what you do. If you push them overboard, they drown. If you leave them in the boat, it sinks, and everyone, including the injured passenger, drowns. And depending on how you read the scenario, even if the rescue boats were to show up right at that moment, the injured passenger is going to die from their injuries.

According to the Nature study, certain damage to the prefrontal cortex increases the chance that a person would state a preference for pushing the injured passenger overboard, saving themselves certainly, but also saving each and every other person in the lifeboat with them. Nature's researchers concluded that absent this damage, people are more likely to chose a "moral" solution (in this case, everyone drowns) to a "utilitarian" solution (the fatally injured passenger drowns, but everyone else survives). Put another way, "normal" people are commonly unwilling to make a determination that the fatally injured passenger's life is worth little enough that it is appropriate to sacrifice them to save everyone else, even if the alternative is effectively mass suicide.
"What really interests me [... are] the things at which we as a society will grasp in order to justify pushing people off the boat."
Dawn Coyote
Whatever the reason, Malthusian scenarios and people's sense of justice do not mix, and conflicts between the two often conspire to make people cowards of a sort. People either flee difficult decisions or look for ways to make them easier. The injured passenger on Nature's sinking lifeboat is guilty of nothing outside of bad luck, and it feels unfair to push them overboard, even when everyone else's life depends on it. And so people have difficulty in persuading themselves to do so.

Perhaps this is the root of the recurring attempts by this tribe or that nation to establish an "objective" hierarchy of relative human worth, sometimes based on laughably shallow and/or imprecise criteria. It may be a dirty business, but if it's based on "facts," then it can be argued that there is no self-serving bias involved. The results may violate one's sense of propriety, the argument goes, but they represent the "truth," and perhaps even reflect the order of the universe, or, at an extreme, the will of the divine. People may not put themselves in the very first spot, to avoid the appearance of outright bias, but you can be sure that hardcore hierarchicists are going to ensure that they make the cutoff when the hard choices have to be made. In this degree, bigotry allows for scarcity and justice to go hand-in-hand, by placing the difficult decisions in the hands of facts.

Maybe the reason why we grasp at reasons as a society, is that it frees us from having to make these judgment calls as individuals.
"No, we are not created equal. But we are endowed by our Creator with the ideal of equality, and the intelligence to finish the job."
William Saletan "human nature: Created Equal - All God's Children"

It's understood that the ideal of equality doesn't mean that we all die together. We would hope that it aspires to a state where people don't make decisions based on narrow parochial and emotional interests; acting to advance preserve themselves, people they identify with, and people they like at the expense of others (whom they conveniently label as undesirables). That level of enlightenment is a laudable goal, but given history up to this point, it's clear that we need at least one backup plan.

I would postulate that short of universal enlightenment, the greatest tool that equality has at its disposal is plenty. While there are assholes who just can't stand to see other people happy, most of us, when our own bellies are full, have no issues with other people also eating their fill. Debates over whether it's the gifted students or the developmentally disabled who should get the lion's share of resources fade when neither group has to go begging. True, there are people for whom everything just isn't enough. There's always another multi-millionaire who feels that they need to steal what others have to feel complete. Quietly lock them away, and make sure they get their medications, while the rest of us go on with taking care of things. So rather than be allow ourselves to be locked into a hyper-competitive Malthusian disaster scenario, perhaps we're better off working to see if we can make the pie large enough to go around.

Just as useful, if a somewhat more difficult tool to cultivate, is a simple acceptance that sometimes, life isn't fair. Justice may be the bread and butter of legal scholars and activists, but its not something taught in physics and biology classes. Inequity aversion may be hardwired into our brains, but inequity avoidance isn't always possible. Sometimes, there really is no choice except for someone to go overboard, and there's no just way to decide who it is. Not dealing with it doesn't change that, so the best thing to do is to be as prepared as possible, so that such dire straits are few and far between.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Ted Koppel is upset with himself over not walking away from a dinner with a Chinese official who said that it was a pity that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 didn't target the White House. He decided that this was an unpardonable breach of good manners, and shouldn't have been tolerated. But when you listen to his entire piece, you have to wonder about the manners of Americans, when they talk to, or about, foreigners. China-bashing and high-handed preaching seem to be the new sport of the American press, punditry and political classes, even when it's not quite accurate. The idea that Chinese should always respond to this with bland pleasantries seems to be too much to ask for.

As an aside; when I was first listening to this piece, and Mr. Koppel was relating that he had asked his Chinese host about possible cooperation around counter-terrorism, I was reminded of an old joke:

Lone Ranger: Tonto, there are hostile Indians everywhere! We'll have to fight our way out!
Tonto: What's this "we" business, white man?

Again? But That Trick Never Works

The Bush Administration has invited a number of parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict (while making a point to not invite Iran) to Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss Middle East Peace.

This seems like a complete waste of time. Neither side seems to really trust the other, and both sides seem to have staked out positions that the other finds completely unacceptable. In addition, the United States is not seen as a neutral party by the Arab "street." But the biggest issue seems to be that these are going to be "talks about talks." Rather than really getting down to negotiations over a settlement, this is about creating statement that will serve as a "work plan" for more serious talks. It strikes me that if the parties were serious, they could do that sort of thing on their own.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Difficulties of the Theory

For starters - yes, I know I'm behind, as it's been a while since the last installment. There are always, it seems, more engaging things to write about. But I did like this chapter, and I'm glad that I finally got around to it.

Natural Selection is a very useful theory for explaining how many sorts of plants and animals came about, but it is not ironclad, and in Chapter VI, Mr. Darwin takes it upon himself to bring up some of the difficulties with the theory, and answer them, at least to his own satisfaction. It should be said that Darwin does not appear to be attempting to change the minds of potential critics, so much as he is making the point that he understands that there are possible rebuttals, and that he has thought about them, and reached some conclusions that prevent the objections raised from being fatal ones. Of course, in modern times we have the science of genetics to show us the potential links between different species. I, for my part, find the idea that genetic similarities between creatures to be tests of our faith, or the result of divine hoaxing, to be unconvincing. But the Creationist (and by extension, pseudo-creationist segment of the Intelligent Design crowd) are always going to have one big thing in their favor - the lack of an absolutely complete fossil record that shows each and every transitional and intermediate form that a given animal may have evolved through. But for those who say that such is needed for Natural Selection to be the least bit credible, I have a simple response - show me the clay. And I leave things at that.

Darwin does point out a number of items, that, if considered true, would put an end to the Theory of Natural Selection. One such idea is that certain plants and animals are beautiful for the enjoyment of either their Creator, or mankind. This was advanced as an explanation of why certain plants and animals have features that cannot be directly seen as contributing to the organism's survival. Darwin cheerfully admits that if you assume that plants and animals were deliberately designed to an exterior standard of beauty, then you can pretty much forget Natural Selection. But Darwin's willingness to predicate Natural Selection on certain assumptions has become somewhat twisted in the intervening century and a half; to the degree that people now claim that Darwin sowed the seeds for the destruction of Natural Selection by making assumptions that modern science has clearly disproved, such as a complete absence of non-cellular life (like bacteria and viruses). This I find particularly interesting - if antibiotic resistance in bacteria isn't a clear and convincing example of Natural Selection in action, I don't know what is.

One of the things that struck me as interesting is that Darwin attempts to answer the question of eyes, which stars in one of the common modern arguments against Natural Selection. How could any series of uncontrolled mutations, over any amount of time, the question goes, produce an eye? For Darwin, the idea that the eye evolved through several stages on its way to the modern forms we see today is perfectly plausible. Obviously, to the other side, it is less believable. And I'm not going to go into all of the details here. But I'm struck by the fact that both Darwin and his modern detractors settled upon the same example. And it does explain one problem of Natural Selection - even a complete fossil record wouldn't show us the exact construction of a dinosaur's eye, any more than it illuminates the structure of the brain.

"It is admitted that the rattlesnake has a poison-fang for its own defence, and for the destruction of its prey; but some authors suppose that at the same time it is furnished with a rattle for its own injury, namely, to warn its prey. I would almost as soon believe that the cat curls the end of its tail when preparing to spring, in order to warn the doomed mouse. It is a much more probable view that the rattlesnake uses its rattle, the cobra expands its frill, and the puff-adder swells whilst hissing so loudly and harshly, in order to alarm the many birds and beasts which are known to attack even the most venomous species."
Charles Darwin
Mr. Darwin caught me off-guard with his prescience in this respect. One can only presume that he would be intensely gratified to learn that modern rattlesnakes are becoming less and less likely to rattle. Birds and beasts, it turns out are less dangerous to rattlers than humans, who are likely to kill snakes that give themselves away by making noise. One wonders if there will come a time when the term "rattlesnake" is a quaint misnomer, wondered about by people who have never heard an actual rattle?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ya Think?

The latest entry in the "You needed a study to tell you THAT?" category: "Study: Sense of moral superiority might lead to rationalizing bad behavior."

I felt cheated myself when I realized that I'd just spent several minutes reading about a study in which researchers found that people who feel that they can cheat without compromising their overall ethical framework will do so. I understand the idea of using the scientific method to test conventional wisdom, but it's getting to the point where I'm waiting for a study to tell me that water is wet.

A more interesting study might be into the nature of ethical exceptions, and how we determine them. Understanding where and when our concepts of morality and ethics transcend the "rules" of morality and ethics seems to be a more useful scientific endeavor than simply telling us that this is the case. We all understand that the people who hid the Frank family from the Nazis most likely lied to the Germans on several occasions. We don't feel a need to rationalize this behavior, even though we normally understand lying to be unethical.

On the other hand, when a number of American airmen were shot down in Borneo during the Second World War, they needed to hide among the non-Christian Dayak tribesmen. The Christian tribesmen had been converted by Evangelicals, and had been taught that lying, even to save the lives of others from a common enemy, was a mortal sin. Despite our normal disdain for lying, I expect that most everyday people would consider this to be an unreasonably rigid interpretation of Christianity, rather than laudable ethical stance.

The degree to which we understand an outcome to be either ethically acceptable, or tainted by the actions that are taken to arrive at it differs from person to person (duh). And is governed by a wide array of factors, including who benefits most from the outcome, the acceptability of the status quo, the level of risk undertaken, the subjective feeling that a loophole is being exploited, et cetera. An understanding of the personal and social factors that influence the way we weight those factors strikes me as a very valuable tool, much more useful than a reinforcement of simple truisms.


It's a commonly understood stereotype that the average white American can't tell one black person from another to save their lives. Sometimes, that's funny. Other times, it's almost tragic.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shoot First

There's an Associated Press article in the Seattle Times that deals with some of the many police shootings over the past decade or so, when officers thought that someone had a weapon, and it turned out they were unarmed. A recent incident "[... H]as revived debate over the use of force, perceptions of threats and police training."

I recall reading an interesting analysis of the Amadou Diallo shooting that came to a very interesting conclusion - when the officers opened fire on Diallo, they were acting in accordance with their training, because if he'd drawn a gun on them, they'd have been screwed. But, it went on to say, if the police had followed their training from the outset of the encounter, they wouldn't have been in so vulnerable a position in the first place, and therefore would have had the time to verify whether or not he had a weapon before needing to decide whether or not to fire.

According to the article: "NYPD instructors say recruits are repeatedly cautioned to be aware of their surroundings and to try to take cover and assess a situation before opening fire." The officers in the Diallo incident didn't follow this rule - even though cover was available, they confronted Diallo in the open. Inquests seem to have a very narrow focus - limited to the exact moment when the officer needs to make the snap decision. One wonders if more questions about why so many snap decisions have to be made would lead to changes.


Great. Now, on top of everything else, it appears that the Bush Administration is contagious, and have infected the Japanese. That's all we need.

But I found this to be interesting - Wallace starts out with this sentence - "The kind of greeting a foreigner receives at immigration upon arrival at an international airport can be a good, if imperfect, indication of the country that waits on the other side of the barrier." He then goes on to make critical remarks about Heathrow, Indira Gandhi International, and "Some Middle Eastern airports" before starting telling us that "critics" are saying that Japan's new rules say bad things about that nation. Conspicuously absent is any mention of the United States.

So here's a question. A foreign national has landed at Reagan International for their first visit to the United States. What sort of indication of the character of the United States are they going to get while passing through Immigration? Have we done anything to leave them with the impression that they've arrived in a friendly, welcoming place? Personally, when I last went to London, there were no long lines - and I had no complaints with the service, either. Returning to Seatac - now that was another story entirely.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Every four years (those preceding American presidential elections), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has adopts a statement on "faithful citizenship." This year's is "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." These appear to be something of a theological voter's guide, designed to inform the faithful of which issues that church feels are important. This is not, it seems, a trivial thing. Backing candidates that are at odds with the Vatican on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and torture is construed as "formal cooperation in grave evil." The choices people make, both as the electorate and the elected "also may affect individual salvation." This is serious stuff.

One of the points raised that I found to be interesting was the rejection of what is called "autonomy of conscience," which is referred to as a "mistaken notion." As I understand it, autonomy of conscience is the concept that we are each capable of forming a workable understanding of right and wrong as individuals, relying on our individual consciences to construct a moral framework. As each of us has our own conscience, two people could then follow their consciences to vastly different conclusions from the same starting point. And while each might disagree with the other's final decision, each should accept the validity of the other's conscientiousness. Church doctrine rejects this understanding of things, in effect saying that there is a single, objective standard of right and wrong, and if one's conscience differs from the accepted standard (in this case, as defined by church teaching) then it is malformed, and following it will lead them into error (a.k.a. sin). In the face of this, one wonders what use anyone has for a conscience - a comprehensive guide to church doctrine would be more useful - if less portable. In all, this strikes me as the official Roman Catholic version of the Socratic idea that while people do not intentionally do evil, ignorance of the true nature of good and evil may lead them to do the wrong thing, even while thinking that they're on the right path. This simply takes that a step further, in offering an authority (their own, natch) to turn to.

But it seems that's going to be hard row for the bishops to hoe these days. The church has admitted to a few errors of its own over the past several years, not the least of which being the never-ending clergy sexual abuse scandal. Convincing the notoriously willful American Catholic laity that it should always surrender its judgment of moral issues to a priesthood that seems to have gone out of its way to damage people's faith in it will be something that really qualifies as a miracle.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On The Road Again

Okay. This poor sod needs a way to come in from the cold.

I understand that people don't want someone who openly expresses a sexual attraction to young girls to be hanging around in their neighborhoods. But at this point, the only other option is for him to somehow dodge the notoriety that he's generated for himself, and go back into the closet. This is unlikely to happen. But more importantly, this is pretty much a guarantee that other people in McClellan's situation aren't going to come forward - there's no profit in it. It doesn't do a thing to increase their access to services and/or therapy, while at the same time making them targets for skittish parents who chose to ignore the fact that most child sexual exploitation is perpetrated by acquaintances and relatives and focus on "stranger danger."

I don't claim to be able to see the future or anything, but if I had to bet, I'd say that eventually, the stress of being run out of one town and state after another is going to take its toll, and McClellan is going to hurt someone. If he doesn't wind up committing suicide, he's going to end up seeking out sex with a child.

"[... T]he child molester is the recipient of the strongest societal anger and disapproval, which ironically only confirms his perception of adults as hostile and punitive and reinforces his attraction to children."
The Child Molesters: Clinical Observations - Part I
Either way, at this rate, this is going to end badly. And that's a shame, because it doesn't have to. Understanding that we have someone who is willing to be open about his sexual desires, he provides a window onto what goes on, and perhaps what can be done to redirect those who feel that they're losing control. Putting him into a therapeutic situation, which would allow for the mental-health and law-enforcement communities to add to their knowledge base. Right now, many people have been studied are sex offenders, people who have been caught and convicted. Learning more about people who have yet to offend offers an opportunity to develop programs to prevent them from offending.

The Predatory Lending Association

This is one of the great things about the modern World Wide Web. You can create satire that is easily accessible to anyone with a computer connection. The PLA website might not teach you anything that you don't already know, but it's still an amusing read.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Scary Stories

While checking the few weblogs that I read on a regular basis, I came across this on Bruce Schneier's security weblog. Bruce links back to here; it appears that the original piece resides here.

There are a number of people who are skeptical of this tale, and I have to admit that I'm one of them. I doubt that Mr. Merchant's tale unfolded exactly as he relates it to us. But I also agree with a point made by a number of other posters - the story shouldn't BE believable. To anyone in the United States. On either side of the political spectrum. Everyday Diplomacy shouldn't even be remotely plausible. We shouldn't have to concern ourselves with Amtrak conductors who style themselves as tin-plated dictators, or police officers who have decided that innocent or not, someone is going to be detained. Back in the day, you would have needed to set such a tale, especially a story this one-sided and clear-cut, in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or Communist China. And even then, perhaps you'd have been better off penning a science-fiction tale of some imaginary police state or some futuristic dystopia. The fact that you can set a story like this in the modern United States, and have American citizens nod their heads in agreement is symptomatic of a greater malady that desperately needs treatment. The idea that the United States has become a police state is clearly a minority position. But the fact that it's migrating out of the lunatic fringe means that we've let things go too far.

Party Brand

The position of King County prosecutor was voted on Tuesday - it had become open when the previous officeholder, Norm Maleng, died this past March. Both the major-party candidates for the office - Bill Sherman, Democrat, and Dan Satterburg, Republican, work in the King Country prosecutor's office. Sherman is a deputy prosecutor in the office's domestic-violence unit, and Satterburg had been Maleng's chief of staff, becoming interim prosecutor when Maleng died. But Satterburg has been in the prosecutor's office much longer than Sherman, and campaigned heavily on that experience. So Sherman took an interesting campaign tack, and challenged the public to consider each candidate's party affiliation. King County (which includes Seattle), like most urban centers, is highly Democratic, so the winner needs a pretty good number of Democratic voters to vote for him.

The last tally had Satterburg winning comfortably, with just under 54% of the vote. David Postman, the Seattle Times' political correspondent, asked the chairman of the Washington State Democratic party, Dwight Pelz, if there were any second thoughts about making party affiliation into a campaign issue. According to Pelz, "The 46 percent demonstrates that partisanship matters."

I, for my part, found that statement to be insulting towards those people who'd voted for Sherman. I'd certainly be ticked off if someone had chalked up my voting patterns to partisan loyalty, rather than trying to chose the best man for the job. But I guess that this is why I don't readily identify myself with either party - I don't see affiliation with one party or another as being, in and of itself, a significant qualification to hold office. Which, I suppose, puts me outside of the typical demographic that political types like to market themselves towards. The political parties are in the business of branding - and of trying to make their brands stand for something that people will vote for. But people aren't widgets, and they don't mass produce well. I can't tell you much about Senator John Kerry's approach to policy by describing Mayor Richard Daley or Representative Al O'Brien, despite the fact that they're all Democrats. So the Democratic brand doesn't really have much meaning, and I'm not at all certain that it should. I'm the same way about the Republican brand.

But like I said, in this, I think, I'm out of step. I might have trouble translating a certain party affiliation into an indication of how well someone is going to do the job, but for most people, that's the norm. I might feel that Dwight Pelz insulted Democratic voters, but it's doubtful that they feel insulted themselves.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Feel the Power of the Wind

It's rarely very windy here in Western Washington. You can't go kite flying very often, and if you go down for a sailboat ride on the Sound, you'll usually wind up tooling around with the motor. But, on occasion, it does get really windy around here. And that can make riding the ferry an adventure. I don't know who took this; my sister forwarded it to me in e-mail, along with some other shots.

The photographer's original e-mail ended as follows:

"Someone either PM'd me or posted that I should send these to the W[ashington] S[tate] Ferry System. I tried to sell them a much tamer, but similar shot and they told me these kind of shots don't promote rider ship. I couldn't argue that one."
I don't know. Seems to me like it would be a blast.