Archive for December 2007

Death of the American Republic

December 20, 2007

Read it and weep.

An Icelandic tourist gets thrown into the black hole of “we don’t need no stinking habeas corpus.”  If her story does not make you mad, you’re not breathing.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan).

The only science that seems relevant here is this famous experiment.

I want my country back.

Missing details on a good book to come

December 20, 2007

I realize that in a post below, I forgot the crucial info.

Masha Gessen’s new book, Blood Matters, is coming in April from Harcourt. You can see the minimal catalogue copy here. I’ve just read it galleys, and it’s simply wonderful — a book that begins as memoir and then rides that story through to the complexity, human struggles with and implications of contemporary genetic medicine. This is what science writing can do when it is done right.

I’ll blog in more detail on the book nearer its pub date. Full disclosure: I have never met Gessen, nor have I read any of her other work, but she and I share both a publisher and an editor.

Does Torture Work? Why don’t we know?

December 20, 2007

Phil Carter at Intel-Dump is one of my favorite bloggers. Smart, thoughtful, deliberate in his analysis, he writes about US military matters as well as anyone in the blogosphere.

That said, his post on Tuesday (December 18, 2007) displays the limits of the virtues that make his blog so good. Carter explores the questions raised by the disagreement between the CIA and the FBI on the effectiveness of torturing Abu Zabaida. The argument has been all around the press, but Carter focuses on the Washington Post’s coverage.

Faced with the question of two interested parties stating exactly opposite conclusions — that torturing Zabaida either saved many American lives or was worthless brutality — Carter states what he sees as the central intellectual problem:

In general, I think that arguments on torture break down into two camps: the moral arguments, and the practical arguments. Those who make the practical arguments are sometimes called “consequentialists.” One of the problems with being a consequentialist on this problem is that it’s really hard to be a good one. Aside from a few popular articles and books on the subject, there just ain’t a lot of data out there on the torture question.

That’s true — as the study reported on here in January also concluded. The question Carter does not ask is why that data is unavailable. After all, this is at least conceptually a fairly simple question: interrogators make records (and much of the time, at least, don’t destroy them in the face of a court order). One could imagine the design of a (classified) study that would, you know, look at what was done; what was said in response to what was done, and what intelligence emerged from different practices. You’d need an untortured control group, and it would be difficult to ensure that the populations in the various groups were in fact equivalent (you know–twelve front line al-Qaeda types in the waterboarding group; eleven in the sleep-deprivation/electroshock group; eleven more in the conventional interrogation sample and so on.)

I haven’t seen anything like this out in the literature. Have you? A negative proves nothing — but the unwillingness or inability to come up with more than a “trust me, it works” support for the practice suggests that those who have most to gain from such proof are not confident (to put it too kindly) of the outcome of the experiment.

(PS — I hope y’all recognize the evil inherant in the above, but if you don’t, remember that this is a reductio ad absurdum thought experiment, not a proposal for some DARPA funded research — o.k.)

In that context, Carter’s sense of frustration at the lack of real data is misplaced. There is data here, both specific and general. Lots of interrogators have in fact provided information about their experiences of intelligence gathering; there have been some psychological studies of torture and so on. The preponderance of such reports suggests that torture is not effective, especially in the ticking time bomb scenario beloved of its defenders.And in the specific case of Abu Zabaida?

Carter’s a lawyer. He knows about weighing the credibility of witnesses. We have an action here that goes to the heart of the question of guilty conscience: the CIA destroyed the videotapes whose absence Carter bemoans. That event is itself a piece of data. No one destroys exculpatory evidence.

What do we know? For certain — as Carter notes — not much. With confidence short of certainty — quite a bit, thank you very much.

Image: Dieric Bouts, “The Martydom of St. Hippolyte” after 1468. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Carnegie Hall and early warning of an exemplary work of science writing to come

December 19, 2007

I’m just reading the galleys of Masha Gessen’s upcoming book — I’ll blog on it properly when it gets close to pub date, as this is a must-have book.

What caught me laughing to the point of drawing stares on the 71 bus this morning was a momentary brain bump over the phrase “practicing heterosexual.”

Y’all remember the Carnegie Hall joke, don’t you? Now try it on in new clothes:

Q: “How do you get to be a heterosexual?”

A: “Practice, practice, practice.”

Cue the snare drum.

(The real point of this post will become clearer after I deal with my take on Huckabee’s “spectrum” of sexual behavior. Sometimes, though, the only sanity-saving response to terminal cases of the stupids is to laugh.)

Image:   “Mozart at the Melk Abbey” Source:  Wikipedia Commons.

Why you should never listen to Gregg Easterbrook…

December 18, 2007

…who in his role as a repetitive but mildly amusing football commentator often digresses to pronounce on cosmology, faith and climate science, and has now come up with this doozy:

“…regarding Al Gore, who employed the Bali stage to denounce the United States”

Did I say doozy? I meant disgrace. Easterbrook, long a climate change skeptic, has come around lately, but he seems unable to avoid blaming others for the length of time it took him to figure things out.

Here’s what Gore actually said:

“My own country the United States is principally responsible for obstructing progress in Bali,”

Is that a denunciation? Looks like an accurate description of what the US delegation at Bali, under instructions from the Bush administration back in Washington, was doing throughout that meeting.

Does Easterbrook know this? Probably. But Easterbrook has a history of ignoring the obvious when it confounds his story line. Caveat lector.

Image: Jan Matejko, Kazanie Skargi. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Overbye on Laws of Nature: A pet peeve

December 18, 2007

Dennis Overbye, long time Einstein correspondent¹ for The New York Times, published this essay today on the question of what the existence — or trust in the existence — of fundamental laws of nature actually means.

I have some issues with the piece as a whole – in particular it seems on quick reading to conflate ignorance of a given law or set of laws with the absence of some fundamental law, and there are other questions I’d ask of it if my own deadlines weren’t pinching so hard.

But there was one moment when I threw my pen at the screen, and I want to call Dennis out on one word in this passage:

Plato and the whole idea of an independent reality, moreover, took a shot to the mouth in the 1920s with the advent of quantum mechanics. According to that weird theory …

Quantum mechanics is not weird. It is difficult to understand. It makes some seemingly un-commonsensical predictions. It has been popularized in all kinds of spooky language (but then so has Einstein’s impeccably classical work). It was weird once — in 1927, and for some years thereafter, maybe until some time after World War II — in the sense that it seemed foreign as a way of thinking to at least some of the generation of physicists active as it was being invented. (more…)

Rich Genes, Poor Genes — Sullivan (again) and Benjamin Friedman

December 17, 2007

Belatedly, one more quick jab at Andrew Sullivan — this time for another example of his seeming bent for genetic determinism. In this post of about a week ago, Sullivan links to Benjamin Friedman’s review of Gregory Clark’s Farewell to Alms.


Clark claims (Friedman writes) that there is an evolutionary backstory to the industrial revolution in Great Britain, and all the improvement in living standards that flowed in its wake. This social and economic transformation, Clark argues, derives from a process of biological selection, as for several centuries before the transformation took place, the rich out-reproduced the poor, thus disseminating “rational thought, frugality, a capacity for hard work — in short the familiar list of Calvinist, bourgeois virtues.” (Friedman’s words.)


All in all Friedman doesn’t do a bad job. He takes care to point out some of areas of concern, some gaps in the book. But he’s an economist. He won’t say for sure if he thinks Clark’s biological argument is bullshit. (He hints that it is, but holds back).

And that’s the problem: Friedman’s review, and Sullivan’s careful, clever use of it, highlight one of the most irritating features of a lot of public discourse on science:

Too much discourse and damn little science.