Archive for the ‘WTF?’ Category


Toronto Ethics Center to Close

July 6, 2010

This is a shock. Discussion at Leiter’s palace.


Hair Club for Men

June 4, 2010

It appears that one effect of climate change on at least a few otherwise imperiled pacific islands is not to sink them, not to shrink them, but to grow them… like hair, or bananas, or chimpanzees:

Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji used historical aerial photos and high-resolution satellite images to study changes in the land surface of 27 Pacific islands over the last 60 years. During that time, local sea levels have risen by 120 millimetres, or 2 millimetres per year on average.

Despite this, Kench and Webb found that just four islands have diminished in size since the 1950s. The area of the remaining 23 has either stayed the same or grown (Global and Planetary Change, DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.05.003).

This is all very interesting given Tuvalu’s shenanigans at COP 15.

At its highest point, Tuvalu stands just 4.5 metres out of the Pacific. It is widely predicted to be one of the first islands to drown in the rising seas caused by global warming. Yet Arthur Webb and Paul Kench found that seven islands in one of its nine atolls have spread by more than 3 per cent on average since the 1950s. One island, Funamanu, gained 0.44 hectares, or nearly 30 per cent of its previous area.

Holy smokes. That’s pretty interesting. Turns out, climate change is good for you. Which raises  a further very interesting point: what if it is good for you, or at least good for many or most? I pose that question, among similar such conundra, to my students at least once a semester.

Seems to me that it doesn’t make one silly bit of difference if it results in a net gain or a net loss for humanity; or for life; or for the earth, however conceived. Seems to me that we still should be concerned with our actions, and that climate change serves basically as a proxy for concerns about reckless behavior.

Carry on.


Gun. To. Head.

May 12, 2010

Hard to say if this is, legally speaking, a case of duress, but if the charges are true, I’d say that, at minimum, the “you can’t go home” part ought not to have been uttered.

Workers aboard an exploding offshore drilling platform were told to sign statements denying they were hurt or witnessed the blast that rocked the rig, killed 11 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, their attorneys said Tuesday.

Survivors floated for hours in life boats in the Gulf of Mexico after the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon, and were greeted by company officials onshore asking them to sign statements that they had no “first hand or personal knowledge” of the incident, attorneys said.

“These men are told they have to sign these statements or they can’t go home,” said Tony Buzbee, a Houston attorney for 10 Transocean workers. “I think it’s pretty callous, but I’m not surprised by it.”

The manifold ethical problems associated with this single disaster are already pretty difficult to parse. It’s hard to know where to stick the fork in. Still, if it’s the case that signed statements like those referenced above exist, and if it’s the case that the rig workers want to change their testimony to say that they do have first-hand knowledge of the incident, I can’t imagine anything that would validate the content of the former statements.


Ramping Up the Risk

May 11, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill is fast shaping up to be one of the worst environmental calamities in US history. As it happens, some of our friends who may know a thing or two about insane environmental disasters, have recommended that we just nuke the place into stability.

Komsomoloskaya Pravda, the best-selling Russian daily, reports that in Soviet times such leaks were plugged with controlled nuclear blasts underground. The idea is simple, KP writes: “the underground explosion moves the rock, presses on it, and, in essence, squeezes the well’s channel.”

Yes! It’s so simple, in fact, that the Soviet Union, a major oil exporter, used this method five times to deal with petrocalamities. The first happened in Uzbekistan, on September 30, 1966 with a blast 1.5 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb and at a depth of 1.5 kilometers. KP also notes that subterranean nuclear blasts were used as much as 169 times in the Soviet Union to accomplish fairly mundane tasks like creating underground storage spaces for gas or building canals.

And why not? What’s the possible harm in trying out a technology to stop what will potentially be the greatest environmental disaster the US has ever seen. If it’s already going to be the greatest environmental disaster, what could it hurt to pile a bit more disaster on top of that disaster?



May 6, 2010

In a move that should perplex all but the most cynical climate skeptics, the GOP has tapped Lord Monckton (?) as their sole witness in tomorrow’s hearing in front of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Seriously, Lord Monckton is a parody. There are far less goofy representatives of the contrarian climate position. Why not go with those folks, or at least, find another academic somewhere?

Check out the line-up. It’s actually kind of funny:

WHAT: Select Committee hearing, “The Foundation of Climate Science”

WHEN: Thursday, May 6, 2010, 9:30 AM

WHERE: 2237 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, and on the web at

Dr. Lisa Graumlich, Director, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona, and member of the “Oxburgh Inquiry” panel
Dr. Chris Field, Director, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, and co-chair of “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” portion of new IPCC report due in 2014
Dr. James McCarthy, Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University, past President and Chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, co-chair of “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” portion of IPCC report published in 2001
Dr. James Hurrell, Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research, contributor to IPCC reports
Lord Christopher Monckton, Chief Policy Adviser, Science and Public Policy Institute



May 4, 2010

Brad DeLong digs in today on Stephanie Grace at Harvard Law School regarding comments that she’s made about African Americans being, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. Here’s what she says, posted originally last week at Above the Law:

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

Oh dear. This is a fine little mess. Maybe I can just point out two quick problems.  First, African Americanism is a false category. At best, African Americans are, almost randomly, simply people with black skin, or maybe people who self-identify as black people, or who self-identify as African American. That’s not a real category of people. It’s nowhere near as firm as a category like gender, which also has problems. It’d be like saying something of this sort: people born in the state of Virginia (full disclosure: I was born in Virginia) are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than people born in the state of New York. It may be true that people born in the state of Virginia are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent… but it doesn’t tell us very much that they are. What such a claim does is reinforce some stupid ideas about people born in the state of Virginia, which isn’t really very helpful in the grand scheme of things.

And here’s the other problem: intelligence is also a pretty stupid category. Sure, it’s important for some things, like doing well on IQ tests; but it’s not a requirement for citizenship, it’s not the unique attribute that generates human rights, and it’s not even a requirement for doing well in a supposed meritocracy of the sort that we like to imagine we have. It’s a nearly useless and value-free category, like saying that people born in Virginia are more genetically predisposed to have crossed-eyeballs or bigger feet or blonder hair than people from other parts of the country.

There are other problems too — like that speaking in averages about classes of people doesn’t offer much in the way of useful generalizations at the level of the particular — but I’ll let those slide. For the time being, the important point is not that Stephanie Grace has made claims that may or may not, from a demographic standpoint, be true — and look, on one level, there is a certain tautological truth about what she says: any non-randomly selected cluster of people can be shown to have demographic differences, the etiology of which is nevertheless questionable — but that she has employed categories that reveal a substantial amount about her deficiencies in moral and political reasoning.

More here and here.


Eat Your Heart Out, Malcolm

April 2, 2010

Hard to believe that when Malcolm Gladwell wrote his multi-trillion dollar best seller that he was speaking literally. Check out this incident of monumental stupidity. I’d rank it as one of the more elegant defenses of Guam’s population and environmental problems:


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?


Sunday Chores

February 21, 2010

Need a reason to keep your house tidy? Well, today’s your lucky day. On this fine Sunday evening I leave you with the following thought, brought to you straight from the 1950s.

Atomic tests at the Nevada Proving Grounds (later the Nevada Test Site) show effects on well-kept homes, homes filled with trash and combustibles, and homes…

(Embed doesn’t seem to be working, so check it out here:



January 27, 2010

Andrew Revkin has this cute video up on his blog: