Thursday, April 06, 2006


From Panda's Thumb, this link to a transcript of a lecture by Professor Eric Pianka. As commenter Aaron S. on PT wrote:
I think these two quotes basically say it all:

“The microbes are going to get us. We are, we are a great big immerging substrate just waiting for microbes to grow on us.”

“(T)hings are gonna get better after the collapse because we won’t be able to decimate the earth so much. And, I actually think the world will be much better when there’s only 10 or 20 percent of us left.”

It seems obvious that his “controversial” idea is that the current human population is unsustainable and will eventually be diminished, probably, by a disease.

That hardly seems like an idea that's unsupportable by the evidence.

Although it's not sufficient to judge the value of Pianka's ideas, it is worth noting the nature of the people objecting to them most vociferously: right-wingers and IDers. Folks on the right, of course, have a nasty little habit of rejecting any part of reality which refuses to conform to or confirm their ideological specifications.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/06/2006 06:19:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Why do I think that Kevin Drum's fallen in love with rhetorical questions, lately?

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/05/2006 09:49:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


In this week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews Why? by Charles Tilly, which he says "sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons." According to Gladwell, Tilly presents four general categories of reasons: conventions (conventionally accepted explanations), stories (eg. anecdotes), codes ("high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometime recondite prodecural rules and categories") and technical accounts ("stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority").
Consider the orgy of reason-giving that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington. Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. “Accidents happen,” they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, “The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there’s Harry falling. And it was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.” Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney’s critics, meanwhile, focussed on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney’s accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney’s shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn’t nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.

Here are four kinds of reasons, all relational in nature. If you like Cheney and are eager to relieve him of responsibility, you want the disengagement offered by a convention. For a beleaguered P.R. agent, the first line of defense in any burgeoning scandal is, inevitably, There is no story here. When, in Cheney’s case, this failed, the Vice-President had to convey his concern and regret while not admitting that he had done anything procedurally wrong. Only a story can accomplish that. Anything else—to shrug and say that accidents happen, for instance—would have been perceived as unpardonably callous. Cheney’s critics, for their part, wanted the finality and precision of a code: he acted improperly. And hunting experts wanted to display their authority and educate the public about how to hunt safely, so they retold the story of Cheney’s accident with the benefit of their specialized knowledge.

Another of Gladwell's examples involves abortion:

When we say that two parties in a conflict are “talking past each other,” this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent—regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious. By Tilly’s logic, abortion proponents who want to engage their critics will have to become better storytellers—and that, according to the relational principles of such reason-giving, may require them to acknowledge an emotional connection between a mother and a fetus.

It's worth noting that the stories told by opponents of abortion about the lives that have been "lost" are confabulations made up to support their view. Just as those who have lived past lives never seem to have been scullery maids or serfs, but generally led exciting or interesting lives in the past, the children that aborted fetus grow up to be in these stories are always well-cared for and beloved. They never suffer from abuse, malnutrition or neglect, which children born in poverty, for instance, to families that cannot afford more children, are more likely to do.

Abortion opponents are thus essentially lying in the service of what they believe is a higher cause.

(Ironically, many of the same members of the religious right who have so emphatically demonstrated the emotional superiority of stories when it comes to abortion insist, when it comes to Genesis, on a reading of the Bible as a technical account. Thus do creationists, in the service of reasongiving exigency, force the Holy Scripture to do double duty as a high-school biology textbook.)

That this is true follows from the second of two common errors we make when reasoning about reasons:

The first is to assume that some kinds of reasons are always better than others—that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. That’s wrong, Tilly says: each type of reason has its own role.

Tilly’s second point flows from the first, and it’s that the reasons people give aren’t a function of their character—that is, there aren’t people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles.

I'm not so certain that Tilly's first "error" is actually a mistake at all. I would think that in each particular circumstance there would be preferred type of reason, meaning that there is not a single hierarchy of reasons, but a catalog of case-specific hierarchies. So for any particular situation, one can indeed say which type of reason is the best kind.

The problem with stories, as the abortion example points out, is that they can so easily be perverted. While conventions have the vast experience of numerous human beings to support them, codes are consensual argeements made by interested people or the representatives of the citizenry, and technical explanations are backed both by expert knowledge and experience and, in many instances, the scientific method, anyone can make up stories, and often they can do so in a way that is convincing, not because they accurately reflect reality, but because they appeal to the prejudices and biases of the audience they're aimed at. Scientists have learned to suspect stories, and with good reason (although they can sometimes point the way to new channels of investigation).

It's hardly a new thought that one of the primary deficits often cited in the presentation of Democrats is the flaccidity of the stories they tell. It may not be too broad a generalization to say that Republicans are story-tellers while Democrats are analysts who present technical accounts when stories would be more effective at swaying voters -- but in shifting to telling more stories, we ought to be aware of the dangers of doing so. After all, as my son just reminded me, some stories are fiction, and some are non-fiction, and it's not necessarily true that the non-fiction ones are more convincing or powerful -- in fact, just the opposite is probably true.

[Thanks to Eliot for reminding me that I had intended to blog about Gladwell's article.]

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/04/2006 07:36:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


In the tank

Here's a small example of media bias: I just heard a local radio reporter say that New Jersey governor Jon Corzine's approval ratings had "tanked" last month after he released his first budget. Well, according to this article, Corzine's approval rating went from 47 to 39, a drop of 8 points, and his disapproval rating went from 16 to 36, a rise of 20 points, and his "poor" performance rating went from 8 to 22.

Now, that is indeed a drop, and perhaps "tanked" is a legitimate way to describe it -- but consider this: I have never heard any mainstream reporter refer to Bush's ratings drop in that way, despite the fact that his approval ratings, which were in the 80's after 9/11, and in the high 60's or low 70's after the invasion of Iraq, are now below 40, in the mid 30's, a total drop of almost 50 points! Similarly, his disapproval numbers went from in the single digits after 9/11, and in the mid 2o's after the Iraq invasion, to 50's now.

By any definition, that's "tanking", and yet it would probably be worth a mainstream reporter's job to refer to Bush's numbers that way -- after all, the Conventional Wisdom is that this is a "popular" President.

(Incidentally, anyone who's been around New Jersey politics for more than 10 minutes could have predicted Corzine's drop in popularity once he released a budget that included any kind of tax increase. For years, generations of politicians, Republican and Democrat, have fed the people of New Jersey the canard that one can have all the government services one wants without the necessary level of taxation to pay for them. New Jerseyites want to have it both ways, and they've been told for years that they could. Any politician who tries to deal with rationalizing the situation is naturally going to feel the heat.)

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/04/2006 02:33:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Breaking the Spell (2)

Continuing with some excerpts from Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, not selected to accurately represent the thrust of Dennett's book, or to establish an argument of my own -- they're simply passages that struck me as interesting as I was reading the book. (All typos are mine.)

[continued here]

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/04/2006 02:58:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


2005 Koufax Award Winners

This year's Koufax Award winners have been announced on Wampum:

Congratulations to all the winners from the bloggers, editorial staff and management of unfutz!

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/04/2006 02:00:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


What's the plan, Stan?

Kevin Drum points out that while Democrats are routinely castigated for "not having a plan" for Iraq, the Republicans don't have one either.

That's true but I think he rather misses the point. Complaining that the Democrats have no plan is intended to goad the Dems into getting very specific about their intentions, which would be a dangerous and very silly thing to do, since they're neither privy to all the intelligence available, nor are they in control of the American military forces which can (one would think) significantly change the circumstances, thereby potentially rendering any Democratic plan completely worthless. Not only that, but the Republicans still believe that coming out for withdrawal is a significant political liability, and the demand for a Democratic plan is designed to reveal withdrawal as an important part of their thinking -- which the Republicans think will hurt the Democrats with voters.

On the other hand, the Republicans aren't afraid of being asked for their plan, because what they will say is "Stay the course and win the war," which they not only believe is the ideologically correct answer, but also (in their eyes) the one that will not hurt them with the public.

They may be correct in both of their opinions. I think there is a distinct difference between the public's disapproval of how things are going in Iraq (as polled) and a popular groundswell for withdrawal, because withdrawal feels too much like defeat. If the Dems are to navigate around this propaganda minefield, they have to find a way to talk about ending the Iraq war without implying that by doing so we will be losing it, even though that's exactly what it will mean (because we are already losing it, and there are few if any prospects for reversing that trend).

Under no circumstances should the Democrats, as a party or as individuals, come out with a specific plan for Iraq until it is absolutely necessary for them to do so, and certainly not until after the midterm elections. My feeling is that it will become necessary much closer to the 2008 general election, when our Presidential candidate will have to establish his or her bona fides in regard to Iraq, but I can't see any value in saying anything before then. Let the public continue to distrust our current rulers more and more, instead.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/04/2006 01:18:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Monday, April 03, 2006

Spell checking

Daniel C. Dennett - Breaking the SpellI have a few more excerpts from Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell I want to put up, but before I do, a few other items about the book.

[Update: I've now posted those excerpts here. -- Ed]

I was absolutely appalled to see that the New York Times Book Review had assigned their review of this book by a philosopher about approaching the phenomenon of religion in a scientific manner to the literary editor of a political magazine. This is, I think, yet another indication of the decline of the NYTBR, as well as a sign that the editors' prejudice against science that's been spotted by others (Tristero and Michael Berube, for instance), is quite real, paralleling (and perhaps reflecting) the disrespect of the current government for the scientific method and any results from it that don't fit into their warped ideologically-determined view of the world.

(The NYTBR reviewer gets his comeuppance in the scathing letters to the editors that followed the review: from Dennett himself, and others. For a more balanced review, if still in fundamental disagreement with Dennett, see H. Allen Orr's review in The New Yorker.)

For myself, while I enjoyed reading the book, and found several things in it to interest me, I think that overall it's something of a failure on its own terms. Dennett's stated goal is to attempt to convince religionists reading the book that a scientific investigation of religion is warranted and important -- he specifically doesn't want to simply preach to the choir. To this end, he adopts a very reasonable and non-confrontational tone about religion as he works his way through his material. Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle of the book, Dennett seems to lose sight of this goal, and the reasonable attitude he had been presenting slips a bit. Not that he suddenly becomes a triumphal atheist, but he begins to take for granted that the reader shares with him certain views about religion which, in actuality, are unlikely to be held by religious people, but very likely to be espoused by fellow atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and Brights, the very choir that Dennett is supposed to not be focusing on.

Where Dennett is more successful is in laying out the bare bones of a theory (or actually multiple theories -- Dennett calls them "a family of proto-theories, in need of further development") about how religions start and grow -- theories the various parts of which are testable in a scientific way. He doesn't think or say that this is anything but a baby step, and certainly isn't claiming that anything he's putting forward is true per se, but I agree with him that his compendium is a step in the right direction, which can provide the framework for much interesting and important research yet to come.

But regardless of whether the book is entirely successful or not (and the task Dennett assigned to himself was a tremendously difficult one), it's an important book which should be read by anyone who prides themselves at understanding human social behavior. For instance, those political strategists who constantly recommend that the Democratic party must cater more to people of religion would do well to read it, not because it will change their minds, or because it in any way invalidates their strategy, but because it will help them understand why some of us respond to their advice as if they were scraping fingernails along a blackboard.

[I've previously posted excerpts from Breaking the Spell here, here and here. I'll have more shortly, later tonight if all goes well.]

Update: Part Two of the Spell excerpts can be found here.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/03/2006 10:14:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Access denied?

The public access television channels here in Manhattan are run by the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN). Their website has information on pending legislation (called BITS II) which will do away with the need for telephone and cable companies to get municipal franchises (the fees for which provide the funding for public access channels) by instituting national franchises.

I'm not going to make any claim for the brilliance of much (or even most) of the programming on MNN. Like a lot of public access channels I've seen across the country, the quality varies drastically, and some of it is very bad indeed, but these channels are among the few places where ordinary people can get their ideas out to the general television audience, and because of that they're worth preserving -- and there is enough interesting programming on MNN to prompt me to keep all four of its channels on my list of favorites.

Also on the MNN Save Public Access website is a link to a Common Cause article about astroturf groups that pretend to be grassroots citizen's organization, but are instead fronts for the telecommunications industry.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/03/2006 05:10:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Courting the maelstrom

I've read Frank Herbert's science fiction masterpiece Dune at least a half dozen times, and the original Dune series two or three times. (I gave up on the current Dune books, co-written by Herbert's son, after a while because it was so badly written.) The file of quotes and excerpts I've kept since November 1990 (but which I've been quite bad at updating lately, with quotes sitting in little files all over my hard drive) has a number of juicy ones culled from Herbert's books, but leave it to Billmon (who really should try to get back to posting more, his stuff is so good) to hit on one that's directly applicable to our current parlous state:
When politics and religion travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. The movement becomes headlong -- faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it's too late.
Frank Herbert
Dune (1965)

Although they had other reasons for doing so, the founders were wise to put into place structural dividers to keep religion out of our government. It's unfortunate, and very dangerous, that the Radical Right is working as hard as it can to break down those barriers.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/02/2006 06:45:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


"Surprise" is a bad thing

When you read the headlines about Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw making a "surprise visit" to Iraq, bear in mind that only when you see VIPs such as Rice and Straw (and Rumsfeld and Bush, who also made surprise visits in the past) making elaborately planned visits that are announced long in advance, will it be a real indication that the security situtation there is significantly better. In the meantime, as dignitaries sneak in and out without warning, you can be sure that it's primarily because the realists on their staffs and in the military recognize that they cannot be properly protected in any other way.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/02/2006 03:47:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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search websearch unfutz

Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
2005 koufax awards


Carpetbagger Report
*Crooks and Liars*
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Political Animal
*Talking Points Memo*
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2004 koufax winners
2003 koufax award
"best blog" nominees
the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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