Archive for March, 2010


File Under “Completely Ridiculous”

March 31, 2010

NPR has an interesting, if largely naive, story out about morality and MRI research. Check this out:

Scientists have found a surprising link between magnets and morality. A person’s moral judgments can be changed almost instantly by delivering a magnetic pulse to an area of the brain near the right ear, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Okay, I see. One can observe, and maybe even manipulate, the brain function of some people such that they get confused and flustered and offer different evaluations about the same scenario. Interesting. So mind control is possible. Awesome, we can make people do all manner of crazy and Manchurian things. Apparently, this is also reason to throw the entire basis of morality (and, ultimately, law) into the dustbin:

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says.

“Moral judgment is just a brain process,” he says. “That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain.”

Is it standard for psychologists to just flip between “morality” and “moral judgment” without a care that the two might be distinct? I would expect more from Josh Greene.


If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.

It’s hard to argue that people have or need a soul even if morality [sic] doesn’t have a mechanical explanation. What the hell?


Data Valid

March 30, 2010

The AP reports that the UK panel charged with investigating the use of CRU data has found that the representations were valid.

LONDON (AP) — A parliamentary panel investigating allegations that scientists at one of the world’s leading climate research centers misrepresented data related to global warming found no evidence to support that charge, a panel announced Wednesday.

But the Science and Technology Committee of the British House of Commons did fault scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit and its director, Phil Jones, for the way they handled freedom of information requests from skeptics challenging the evidence for climate change.

The panel said that Professor Jones and his colleagues could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble by aggressively publishing all their data instead of worrying about how to stonewall their critics.



March 30, 2010

While I often say that graduate school cured me of my fiction affliction, and my wife will attest that it did — I read a fiction novel now about once every several years, in contrast to my several books a month during and immediately after undergraduate college — this new novel from Ian McEwan looks mighty interesting. Here’s a write-up. Might well pick this up as soon as the semester draws to a close.


Say Something Philosophical

March 30, 2010

I was once out to dinner with some friends when an acquaintance, whom I had just met, paused and asked me to “say something philosophical.” Occurrences like that happen more often than I care to recount, but here’s a nice overview of a recent poll distributed to philosophers (including me) that tells much the same story.

The PhilPapers study, by David Chalmers of the Australian National University and David Bourget of London University, surveyed academics at 99 leading philosophy departments around the globe, over 90% of them in the English-speaking world and nearly two-thirds in America. Some 91% of the respondents thought they belonged to the analytic tradition and 4% the “Continental” one. When asked which dead philosopher they most identified with, a clear winner emerged, with 21% of the votes: David Hume, the 18th-century thinker, historian, sceptic and agnostic who was a close friend of the economist Adam Smith. Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein took second, third and fourth places. The next six spots went to philosophers from the 20th century, most recently Donald Davidson, an American who died in 2003. Plato made 13th place and Socrates limped in at 21st.

Read the article for more… and if you’re really brave, you’ll check out the actual poll results.


Mann on E-mails

March 30, 2010

Climatewire offers a quick peek into Michael Mann’s regrets about the CRU e-mails.

“I wish in retrospect I had told him, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t even be thinking about this,'” Mann, a prominent climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said in an interview with The Morning Call. “I didn’t think it was an appropriate request.”


“There are a lot of things we could look back at and say, ‘Gee, I wish I had done this or that,'” Mann said. “The important thing is, I didn’t delete any e-mails. And I don’t think [Jones] did, either.”

The article opens with “Michael Mann has a regret.”

No doubt about it. The question is: what’s the nature of this regret? Is it a regret stemming from the political hysteria that has ensued following the release of the much-ballyhooed e-mails? Or is it a regret about the mistake of not trying nip Phil Jones’ actions in the bud?

Frankly, I think there’s good reason to believe that it’s the former, and I can certainly understand that why it would be the former, the question for me as an ethicist, at least, is how to impress upon other scientists — not just in climate science, but in all branches of the sciences — that it is mighty important to self- police on matters such as this for reasons that extend beyond the potential political repercussions.


A Little Tweak

March 29, 2010

…and lo, people change their behavior. Check out the startling behavioral changes that a teensy-weensy bag tax has inspired in Washington D.C.

In its first assessment of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimates that city food and grocery establishments issued about 3.3 million bags in January, which suggests a remarkable decrease. Prior to the bag tax taking effect Jan 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had estimated that about 22.5 million bags were being issued per month in 2009.

Five cents per bag buys you a reduction from 22.5 million bags/month to 3.3 million bags/month.


James Lovelost on Stupidity

March 29, 2010

This proclamation from environmental sage James Lovelock is sure to help matters.

“I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change,” said Lovelock in his first in-depth interview since the theft of the UEA emails last November. “The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.”

I’m not even sure what it means to say that we (humans) are “too stupid.” Is it that I am too stupid? That my neighbor is too stupid? Or that as a collective (?), we’re too stupid? He must be speaking metaphorically. But then it gets creepy:

One of the main obstructions to meaningful action is “modern democracy”, he added. “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

Oh boy. Abandoning the checks and balances of a (well-run, appropriately structured) democracy seems like a surefire way to destroy the earth. We’d only be rolling the dice on a non-stupid world government. Maybe — only maybe — would such a government be better at resolving the world’s problems.

Tell ya what: let’s not put democracy on hold for a while and instead work to establish structures and procedures that make us accountable for our decisions.


For My Students

March 28, 2010

Tips on outlining for an exam. Also of interest is this nice overview of San Francisco’s proposed “sit-lie” ordinance.


A Black Tea Affair

March 28, 2010

Here’s a nice analysis from Frank Rich. I’m not usually a fan of Rich, but I think this is pretty thorough.

When Social Security was passed by Congress in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, there was indeed heated opposition. As Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post, Alf Landon built his catastrophic 1936 presidential campaign on a call for repealing Social Security. (Democrats can only pray that the G.O.P. will “go for it” again in 2010, as Obama goaded them on Thursday, and keep demanding repeal of a bill that by September will shower benefits on the elderly and children alike.) When L.B.J. scored his Medicare coup, there were the inevitable cries of “socialism” along with ultimately empty rumblings of a boycottfrom the American Medical Association.

But there was nothing like this. To find a prototype for the overheated reaction to the health care bill, you have to look a year before Medicare, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both laws passed by similar majorities in Congress; the Civil Rights Act received even more votes in the Senate (73) than Medicare (70). But it was only the civil rights bill that made some Americans run off the rails. That’s because it was the one that signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance.

The apocalyptic predictions then, like those about health care now, were all framed in constitutional pieties, of course. Barry Goldwater, running for president in ’64, drew on the counsel of two young legal allies, William Rehnquist and Robert Bork, to characterize the bill as a “threat to the very essence of our basic system” and a “usurpation” of states’ rights that “would force you to admit drunks, a known murderer or an insane person into your place of business.” Richard Russell, the segregationist Democratic senator from Georgia, said the bill “would destroy the free enterprise system.” David Lawrence, a widely syndicated conservative columnist, bemoaned the establishment of “a federal dictatorship.” Meanwhile, three civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss.

That a tsunami of anger is gathering today is illogical, given that what the right calls “Obamacare” is less provocative than either the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Medicare, an epic entitlement that actually did precipitate a government takeover of a sizable chunk of American health care. But the explanation is plain: the health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964.

In fact, the current surge of anger — and the accompanying rise in right-wing extremism — predates the entire health care debate. The first signs were the shrieks of “traitor” and “off with his head” at Palin rallies as Obama’s election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since — from Gov. Rick Perry’s kowtowing to secessionists at a Tea Party rally in Texas to the gratuitous brandishing of assault weaponsat Obama health care rallies last summer to “You lie!” piercing the president’s address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.



March 27, 2010