Tag: Biology

Chasing Libertarianism Into A Corner

One of the problems I have with my libertarianism — indeed, a big reason I often describe myself as a conservative-libertarian — is the tendency of some libertarians to chase the philosophy into intellectual cul-de-sacs. All political philosophies have a tendency to favor ever “purer” strains. But because libertarians define our philosophy as one of personal liberty, we have a tendency to think that the only acceptable policies are those with maximum personal liberty. Any practical objections tend to be swept under the rug with a few unconnected words about “free markets”.

I’m not explaining this well. Let me illustrate with an unrelated example.

When I was in college, I took a philosophy class with a feminist professor. When we got to the portion on feminism, we were discussing third wavers who thought that women in an oppressive society fundamentally could not consent to sex, that all sex was therefore rape and therefore women should not have sex. My response was that any philosophy that countenanced, at least in theory, the potential extinction of the human race was fundamentally immoral. I said that these were the deranged ramblings of someone who had drunk too deeply of the feminist well. They had taken good ideas (women shouldn’t be second class citizens) and purified them to a bizarre extreme.

A more germane example: a number of libertarians oppose environmental regulation on the grounds that if my neighbor is polluting my land, he is violating my property rights and this should settled in the courts. That sounds good if you only consider the ideology. But as a practical matter, it is a recipe for disaster. First, it’s not always clear that pollution has happened. The residents of Love Canal had no idea why they were getting so many birth defects and miscarriages. By the time they did figure it out, there had been immense suffering already. Second, it’s not always clear who is responsible for ills caused by pollution. In the Woburn Massachusetts case, it wasn’t clear who poured chemicals into the river that sickened the children. The jury was asked to decide the lawsuit based on a series of bewildering technical questions. Third, even in cases where the culprit is clear, you are frequently talking about powerful businesses with armies of lawyers who can drag a case on for decades. The Exxon Valdez lawsuits dragged on for twenty years. You can imagine how bad it is when the polluter is the government itself or when you’re dealing with the decade-old pollution of a business that no longer exists. Fourth, the ability of such a system to prevent pollution is dubious since it’s not always clear that Substance X will produce Harm Y for a long time. Finally, it seems absolutely appalling to countenance reparations for birth defects, miscarriages, severe illnesses and deaths rather than just preventing them in the first place in the name of free markets.

Does this mean the government isn’t over-zealous in fighting pollution? It frequently is and often chases its own ideology into banning minimally dangerous substances. Does this mean government always makes the right decisions? Of course not; the aforementioned Love Canal community was built on land the local government was warned was dangerous. Does it sometimes carve out exemptions for big polluters while hurting little guys? Absolutely; see what happened after the lead toy debacle. But at some point, we have to accept these limitations rather than get seduced by the seductive appeal of bottomless liberty.

(Another good example, on the Civil Rights Act, is illustrated here by James Joyner.)

I bring up this subject because there is a debate going on at Reason between Ronald Bailey and Jeffrey Singer over mandated vaccinations. Singer’s op-ed, which you can find here, crosses as me the rambling of someone drunk on libertarian ideals. It’s a series of libertarian statement strung together in the hope that it makes an argument. And it winds up saying bizarre things like this:

The phenomenon of herd immunity allows many unvaccinated people to avoid disease because they free ride off the significant portion of the population that is immunized and doesn’t, therefore, spread a given disease. Economists point out that free riding is an unavoidable fact of life: people free ride when they purchase a new, improved, and cheaper product that was “pre-tested” on more affluent people who wanted to be the first to own it; people free ride when they use word-of-mouth reviews to buy goods or services, or to see a film; those who choose not to carry concealed weapons free ride a degree of personal safety off the small percentage of the public that carries concealed weapons. So long as a person being free-ridden is getting a desired value for an acceptable price, and is not being harmed by the free riding, it really shouldn’t matter to that person. Achieving a society without free riders is not only unnecessary, it is impossible.

Well, duh. But we should try our best to limit the free riders to people who can not be vaccinated — people who are immunocompromised, for example. And while we can’t force 100% compliance, we can do as much as we can to get the immunization numbers into the 90-95+% numbers necessary to establish the herd immunity that protects the millions who have no choice but to free ride. Or people for whom the vaccine didn’t take.

On this subject, I find myself agreeing with Bailey: your freedom to swing your fists ends where someone else’s nose begins. I find it very difficult to countenance any version of a “free society” that includes the freedom to run around potentially spreading dangerous and deadly diseases. Most people are smarter than their government. But you don’t need a large percentage to be dumber to have, as we now do, huge outbreaks of entirely preventable diseases that are leaving dead and hurt children in their wake. Are those children to be human sacrifices to our idealized notion of freedom?

If we were talking about sexual transmitted diseases, I would agree with Singer. But these are diseases that can be spread by casual contact. They can be spread by people who are already vaccinated. They can be spread by people who never catch the disease themselves. This isn’t the moral equivalent of seat-belt law; this is the moral equivalent of laws against drunk driving.

Vaccinations are one of the greatest achievements in human history. They have destroyed smallpox and put hepatitis A and B, rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella and some forms of meningitis on the run. These diseases used to kill and maim millions. Their eradication is far too great an achievement to trust to the ideology-addled hope that people will act in their own enlightened self-interest.

Because too many people don’t.

Surprise Study Finds Rappers Use Brains

Yeah, I’m a music critic now.  What about it?

During the freestyle rapping, there was increased activity in an area of the brain that is responsible for motivation of thought and action (called the medial prefrontal cortex). At the same time, there was decreased activity in brain regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role (dorsolateral prefrontal regions).

The study went on to note that the wave patterns of rappers’ brains during nightclub shootings, assaults on record label producers, domestic violence situations, and appearances on VH-1 reality shows registered slightly between those seen in the brains of small mammals and the center of potatoes.  Jay-Z’s brain activity during Obama’s fundraisers were consistent with an adolescent either driving drunk or having an orgasm.  It was kind of inconclusive. 

Thank God nobody’s done this study yet on bloggers.

Matt Fracking Damon and the Anti-Science Left

And to think, all the Hollywood celebs joke that the facts have a liberal bias:

Matt Damon and John Krasinski ran into a big problem while making their film “Promised Land”; how they solved it tells us a lot about Hollywood.

Some time ago, the two actors decided to make a movie about fracking — a method of getting once-inaccessible oil and gas out of the ground that has become the bête noire of many environmentalists.

The two wrote a screenplay they said was about “American identity . . . and what defines us as a country.”

It was the usual Hollywood script. We all know the . . . drill: Damon’s character works for an “evil” oil company. He comes to small-town America and sells locals a dangerous bill of goods.

So far, so good. Damon was building a movie around environmentalist concerns about fracking. But then reality intervened:

But while “Promised Land” was in production, the story of Dimock [Pennsylvania] collapsed. The state investigated and its scientists found nothing wrong. So the 11 families insisted EPA scientists investigate. They did — and much to the dismay of the environmental movement found the water was not contaminated.

There was Wolf Eagle Environmental Engineers in Texas, a group that produced a frightening video of a flaming house water pipe and claimed a gas company had polluted the water. But a judge just found that the tape was an outright fraud — Wolf Eagle connected the house gas pipe to a hose and lit the water.

Other “pollution” cases collapsed in Wyoming and Colorado. Even Josh Fox, who with his Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland” first raised concerns about flammable water, has had to admit he withheld evidence that fracking was not responsible.

These frauds and misrepresentations created huge problems for the Damon/Krasinski script about “what defines us as a country.”

Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve been jerked around quite a bit by these bozos. I’m willing to listen to concerns about fracking. We should pay attention to concerns about new technology, especially one as dramatic as fracking. It’s the basic precautionary principle.

But many of these concerns have turned out to be overblown or outright fraudulent. And the people who should be maddest about this are the environmentalists. It’s their movement, their concerns, their compassion which is being hijacked by anti-corporate hucksters. Now if a legitimate concern were found with fracking, no one would listen because they’ve been lied to so many times.

Well, I’m sure they’ll find someone else to demonize. Maybe GM crops?

I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters.

Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they’ve been and who has helped them pull it off.

I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.

In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.

The latest and greatest is a claim that GM crops cause tumors in rats. Turns out this research was so bogus it got instantly torn apart on the science blogs. Read the details at the link. Read also that Grist, Mother Jones and other liberal publications — who are constantly excoriating global warming skeptics — continue to praise the researchers and their bogus anti-GMO science.

The vast middle of the country is pro-science. I see it every time we do public outreach — the genuine fascination, enthusiasm and wonder in each of the thousand eyes that looks through a telescope on a dark night or peers at one of Hubble’s new images. America loves science and technology. Even the evil fracking is greeted with amazement by many people.

But the hard fringes of either side of our political spectrum do not love science. Fundamentalists of any stripe hate science because science produce results that are inconvenient to their ideology. The Hard Left, which is just as fundamentalist as the hard Right, will accept scientific results — like global warming — if it can be used to support an agenda. But that support will vanish once science comes up with things they don’t like, such as fracking and genetically-modified crops.

And like it or not, these luddite attitudes influence the Democratic Party. You can read Ronald Bailey’s analysis of the 2012 DNC platform and how they have delivered on their 2008 promises. Some is good — oil production is booming, for example. But they’ve been dragging their heels on other issues. And, for all their bluster, federal R&D has fallen 8% under Obama. And if sequestration happens, the eagle will be coming for another chunk of our liver come January despite our never having been bulked up by the stimulus.

That’s the pro-science party?

As for Matt Damon, they are apparently rewriting their movie so that the fraudulent anti-fracking activists are moles for the industry. Okay. Good luck with that. I suspect this will simply be another “issue” movie that — like every issue movie for the last decade — no one watches.

Measles in Mass


Measles continues to spread in Massachusetts, with two new cases confirmed this week, including one involving a 23-month-old boy from Boston who had received his first measles vaccination last year, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. The other was a teenage boy from outside the city who was treated at a Boston health care facility.

That brings the state total to 17 this year — and counting. In each of the previous four years, Massachusetts has had one to three cases. The surge has been occurring nationwide as well, with federal health officials announcing Tuesday that measles cases have been on their fastest pace since 1996. So far this year, 118 infections have been reported in 23 states, compared with 50 in a typical year.

And we’re lucky that most parents have not bought into the whole anti-vax nonsense:

France reported 10,000 cases — and six deaths — during the first four months of the year, most likely due to low vaccination rates. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes the rise in measles cases in this country to the surge in cases globally, most notably in France, India, and the Philippines.

Vaccinations are one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in human history. Measles alone used to strike about half a million Americans per year. At that rate today, we’d be seeing a few billion dollars and a couple of thousand lives gobbled by the virus every year. And that’s just measles. I won’t say anything about whooping cough, the resurgence of which has killed children too young to be vaccinated. Even if vaccines caused autism — which they don’t — they would still be worth the risk.

The efficacy of any vaccine is dependent on having herd immunity: having enough people vaccinated to deny the virus the reservoirs it needs to break out. For that, you need to vaccinate almost everyone who isn’t immuno-compromised. You can maybe make some religious exemptions. But you simply don’t have room for people who refuse to vaccinate because they believe the tissue of lies that was Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study.

For people to turn their backs on this miracle is maddening. It’s like they’re going back to living in caves. Only they’ll take a few innocent people with them.

The Plankton Panic

Last fall, a paper came out claiming that global warming had reduced plankton populations by about 40%. There was a wide-spread freakout in AGW circles. Plankton are the foundation of the ocean food chain and the source of half the world’s oxygen. In his book Death from the Skies, Phil Plait talked about the danger presented by a nearby supernova or gamma ray burst: it would kill of the plankton. Not long after, oxygen levels would plunge, much sea life would die and CO2 levels would soar. It’s doubtful human civilization could survive that. Grim stuff.

At the time, I was highly skeptical:

While I accept global warming, the idea that we’re facing a phytoplanton apocalypse seems dubious. The planet has been a lot warmer in the past than it is today and supported more abundant life.

That was a comment from one of my linkoramas. To be honest, their claim sounded kind of crazy. A drop of 40% in plankton, given how crucial they are to the Earth’s ecosystem, is something we would have noticed. Ocean life would be in severe decline, rather than recovering. CO2 levels would be soaring even faster than they are.

Well, turns out, they may have been full of shit:

Now, three “brief communications,” essentially rebuttal papers, have been published in Nature pushing back strongly against the paper’s core conclusion. Links to the summaries are below. I’ve queried the authors of those papers and the original analysis and will post an update when that discussion begins.

You really should read that entire link, which walks you through the process. What has happened here is not some global conspiracy of evil global warming socialists. What’s happened is science. A new study came out making a bold claim and every climate scientists and marine biologist in the world started looking over it and found it was deeply flawed. Their analysis shows, if anything, an increase in phytoplankton mass (which one might expect with more CO2 — i.e, plankton food — in the air) and attributes the supposed decline to using two different methods of measuring plankton mass. Revkin again:

The eagerness to find the “Pearl Harbor moment” or line of evidence that jogs people to act on the long-term risk of human-driven climate change, combined with the “tyranny of the front-page thought,” will long cause the kind of reaction that the initial plankton paper engendered — and that past papers on frog extinctions, Atlantic Ocean currents, ice-sheet behavior, hurricane dynamics and other facets of the climate puzzle have done.

“The tyranny of the front page” is one of biggest problems in science today. It’s a sort of Peter Principle of science. The more flawed the research, the more likely it is to make a hysterical claim and the more likely it is to find prominence in the media. We see similar things in, for example, hysterical and wildly inaccurate claims about teen prostitution.

In many ways, this is refreshing. It shows that the scientific process is still working. For all the anti-AGW chatter about the conspiracy among scientists to hide the truth, it was the scientists came out and debunked this thing almost immediately.

Notice, however the thunderous silence from the “reality-based” Left and many AGW supporters on this debate. Many of them highlighted the initial plankton study precisely as a “Pearl Harbor Moment”. They’ve been a little more quiet now that the attacking planes have turned out to be made of balsa wood.

(Not that the anti-AGW faction is any better when they continue to repeat long-debunked talking points about global cooling or the Earth not having warmed since 1998 or AGW following solar cycles.)

I’ve long said that while I think AGW theory is accurate, projections about long-term climate damage and second and tertiary effects of AGW are, at best, suspect and, at worst, voodoo. Looks like a little bit more of the voodoo has turned out to be doodoo.

Update: As long as I’m up, I tweeted about this yesterday. There is no evidence that tornados increase with global warming … none. This makes the Left’s gloating over the deaths of 300+ people extra disgusting. The null hypothesis is not that global warming causes tornados; the null hypothesis is that it doesn’t.