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The Great Non-Sequitur October 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, religion.
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Karen Armstrong’s career has been one long, mighty struggle to make sense of religion. And when she can’t make sense, she just asserts.

In her recent article in Foreign Policy she repeats the most banal of non-sequiturs:

While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere.

Yes, human beings must search for meaning and we are continually threatened by a loss of meaning. But that doesn’t entail that God exists or that humans must believe in God, or that belief in God is an adequate response to the threatened loss of meaning.

I have never been able to figure out, nor has anyone ever adequately explained to me, why life would lack meaning if God did not exist or why belief in God confers meaning on life which it otherwise would not have.

And neither can they explain why hope that God exists is somehow evidence that God must exist.

Yet, writers like Armstrong think this connection is so obvious it doesn’t have to be explained.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



Dangerous Liaisons October 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, religion.
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The Guam legislature is considering a bill to establish domestic partnerships for gays. The Catholic Archbishop with jurisdiction over Guam naturally disapproves, and in a pastoral letter, argues that homosexual relations are “objectively disordered”, and warning the legislature that the bill’s passage would “forfeit its moral authority to govern.”

This is standard fare for the Catholic Church on this issue.

But then the reasoning goes off the deep end. A statement from the Archdiocese argues:

Islamic fundamentalists clearly understand the damage that homosexual behavior inflicts on a culture. That is why they repress such behavior by death. Their culture is anything but one of self-absorption. It may be brutal at times, but any culture that is able to produce wave after wave of suicide bombers (women as well as men) is a culture that at least knows how to value self-sacrifice. Terrorism as a way to oppose the degeneration of the culture is to be rejected completely since such violence is itself another form of degeneracy. One, however, does not have to agree with the gruesome ways that the fundamentalists use to curb the forces that undermine their culture to admit that the Islamic fundamentalist charge that Western Civilization in general and the U.S.A. in particular is the “Great Satan” is not without an element of truth. It makes no sense for the U.S. Government to send our boys to fight Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while at the same time it embraces the social policies embodied in Bill 185 (as President Obama has done). Such policies only furnish further arguments for the fundamentalists in their efforts to gain more recruits for the war against the “Great Satan.”

Mark Kleiman’s summary is worth noting. The Archdiocese:

(1) cites the death penalty for homosexuality under sharia as evidence for the objective wrongness of the practice, without even hinting that carrying out the death penalty in such cases might not be the right thing to do, (2) offers suicide bombing as evidence of the moral health of extremist Islam (by contrast with the self-absorption it attributes to gays), and (3) says that the identification of the United States as the Great Satan is “not without an element of truth.”

Just remember: If you think that there are important commonalities of thoughts and purposes between the Islamic extremists currently ruling Iran and running the Taliban and the Christian extremists currently in control of the Vatican, you’re just an anti-Catholic bigot, because there’s no evidence whatever behind your fears.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Au Contraire October 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Last week I posted twice (here and here) about the limits of contrarians who seek publicity by going against the conventional wisdom. Both Bill Maher in his diatribes against the flu vaccine in particular and Western medicine in general, and Brownless and Lenzer, the authors of a poorly researched article in Atlantic Monthly on the effectiveness of flu vaccine, are guilty of a kind of knee jerk response to conventional wisdom on an issue that is important to people and may cause harm if not properly understood.

But the conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, so it is worth thinking about when being a contrarian is justified.

My short answer to this question is that “hit jobs” that cast doubt on the conventional wisdom  by oversimplifying the issue are never worth our attention. The point to remember is that if a contrarian is right about some issue, it typically makes the world more complicated, not less. The conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong but it is seldom without any reason or evidence behind it. Usually, people who hold conventional beliefs, especially in the sciences and social sciences that are evidence-based, have good reasons for holding the conventional belief.

When doubt is cast on those “good reasons” we are faced with attempting to confirm the new data, weighing the actual import of the new variables, assessing whether the new variables will produce multiple effects, and separating what was right about the old view from what was wrong about it and trying to accommodate the new information with what is worth saving of the old.

This process produces reactions, counter-reactions, and uncertainty among interest groups, and in the end the radical “new” insight is seldom as revolutionary as it appeared.

What matters then is that contrarians, or people who write about them, need to stay focused on the difficult search for truth and the need for nuance rather than bold statements that succumb to the temptation to be cute, hip, and cynical. Unfortunately, they are usually looking for entertainment value or promoting an ideology. Thus, contrarians are usually misleading.

This article at The Economist.com provides lots of examples of contrarianism run amok. (The new book by the authors of Freakonomics, called Superfreakonomics, is the latest example.) But there are others:

The first time I ever encountered an argument that I would now clearly recognise as “contrarian” was in elementary school, during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, when I first heard someone argue the supply-side case that lowering taxes would raise government revenues. Another early encounter I recall was my father describing a social scientist interviewed on NPR who’d argued that the main effect of minimum-wage laws was to raise the unemployment level for poor urban youth. And it’s been my experience ever since that contrarian arguments tend to skew rightwards.

I doubt that the right has a monopoly on contrarians.

At any rate, it would be good if contrarians were devoted to encouraging people to think more. Unfortunately it is quite the opposite. To the extent they encourage us to oversimplify matters they encourage us to think less.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Bad News for College Grads October 26, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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Now is not a good time to graduate from college. Peter Orzag, Director of Management and Budget, writes:

We often hear about people who are unlucky in love, but what of those who are unlucky in the business cycle? What is the impact of being born two decades before a significant economic downturn, such that you graduate from college and enter the labor force in the middle of a period of high unemployment?

As the class of 2009 is keenly aware, entering the labor market during a recession has immediate negative effects. Job offers are harder to find: according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, less than 20 percent of the class of 2009 graduated from college with a job offer in hand, compared to 25 percent in the class of 2008 and more than 50 percent in the class of 2007. Whereas year to year starting salaries on average tend to increase, with the tough competition in this year’s labor market, average starting offers for the class of 2009 are slightly down.

I recently read a paper that suggests that, for this cohort, the wage effect of graduating during a period of high unemployment will continue well beyond the end of the recession and even the labor market rebound. In examining the cohorts of college graduates that entered the labor market before, during, and after the recession of the early 1980s, Lisa Kahn of the Yale School of Management found that an increase in unemployment produces a significant and enduring negative wage effect.

The chart below illustrates this effect: a one percentage point increase in the national unemployment rate is associated with a 6 to 7 percent loss in initial wages. The annual wage loss declines over time, but is still statistically significant 15 years later. Comparing the wages earned by the class of 1982 (a peak unemployment year) with the wages of the class of 1988 (a peak employment year) over the first 20 years of a career, the wage difference resulted in a difference of nearly $100,000 in cumulative earnings in net present value.

Entering Labor Force During Recession Has Enduring Effect on Wages:
For the 1982 Cohort, $100,000 NPV Loss in First 20 Years of Career

Data from Kahn 2009

In other words, if you graduate in a recession without a decent job offer or with no job at all, even after 15 years and an economic recovery your wages will not have caught up to someone who graduates during good times.

As Matt Yglesias rightly argues:

If you’re graduating from college this spring, you’ll be sitting around at the age of thirty-five still suffering from the fact that Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, and Kent Conrad decided to make the stimulus bill stingier in order to better bolster their credentials as preening centrists. When thinking about short-term inflation-unemployment tradeoffs, this sort of thing is crucial to keep in mind. Inflicting a high unemployment rate on the population has incredibly punitive and deleterious long-run consequences for young people.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Standard Excuse for Immorality October 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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During a public debate about the financial crisis entitled “What is the place of morality in the marketplace?”, Goldman-Sachs advisor, Brian Griffith, defended the exorbitant salaries and bonuses his company will pay their employees this year. Goldman-Sachs was one of firms that was bailed out by the Federal Government last year. Although it has since paid back the funds, its current profits and bonuses are made possible by government programs that reduced Goldman’s competition and continues to give them access to taxpayer-supported cheap money.

The compensation packages are controversial because many think they are undeserved and in fact contain perverse incentives (emphasizing short-term profits) that led to the near collapse of our financial system.

Griffith argued:

“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” […]“It was the failed moral compass of bankers which was primarily responsible for why we had this crisis,” […] “The question is: what can we do in the culture of institutions to make them behave in a more socially responsible way?”

Well, one socially responsible thing he might do is to stop using the claim that inequality is necessary to achieve prosperity as an all purpose excuse for immorality.

This is the same kind of crude, delusional utilitarian justification that Hitler or Mao might have used to justify their atrocities.

This is not moral justification. Its just dishonesty. If you want to use the claim that prosperity requires vast inequalities as a justification, the claim must be in fact true. But there is little evidence for its truth.

Via the Wonk Room:

While record bonuses may indeed spur spending on million dollar apartments in New York City, the growth in Wall Street pay — and the growing share of national income that is going to the richest Americans — has not translated into shared prosperity. Consider, “back in 1985, the average annual salary for all workers across the country was actually a bit higher than the average [Wall Street] bonus ($19,000 to $13,970),” but “while the average bonus soared almost 14 times higher (by 2006), the average salary has essentially been stagnant since the mid-1980s.”

Pat Garafalo supplies a handy chart:




We know, after the past 30 years, that expanding incomes for the well off don’t translate into higher income for everyone else. And even if there is some connection between inequality and GDP, the money has to be put into circulation for it to have the effect rather than sequestered in some bank account in the Cayman Islands.

It might be nice at a conference about morality if they actually discussed morality instead of bogus arguments about economic efficiency.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Evolution of “Irrationality” October 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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Research in behavioral economics, especially by Kahneman and Tversky, shows that people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains and that our sense  of gains and losses depend on how they are framed rather than their objective outcomes.

Classical economics treat these cognitive biases as irrational but they nevertheless seem deeply embedded in human psychology.

Now some clever researchers, in a paper entitled  “How Basic Are Behavioral Biases?: Evidence from Capuchin Monkey Trading Behavior” show that the same biases exist in monkey behavior.

Thus, these behavioral biases are apparently very deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Apparently, from an evolutionary point of view, these behaviors are not so irrational.

Contrarians Selling Magazines May Harm Your Health October 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.

Beware the contrarian looking for an angle to sell magazines.

This article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Does the Vaccine Matter”, allegedly casts doubt on the effectiveness of flu shots. The article’s lede states:

In the U.S., the main lines of defense are pharmaceutical—vaccines and antiviral drugs to limit the spread of flu and prevent people from dying from it. Yet now some flu experts are challenging the medical orthodoxy and arguing that for those most in need of protection, flu shots and antiviral drugs may provide little to none. So where does that leave us if a bad pandemic strikes?

Here is an excerpt:

Study after study has found that people who get a flu shot in the fall are about half as likely to die that winter — from any cause — as people who do not….Yet in the view of several vaccine skeptics, this claim is suspicious on its face…..When researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases included all deaths from illnesses that flu aggravates, like lung disease or chronic heart failure, they found that flu accounts for, at most, 10 percent of winter deaths among the elderly. So how could flu vaccine possibly reduce total deaths by half? Tom Jefferson, a physician based in Rome and the head of the Vaccines Field at the Cochrane Collaboration, a highly respected international network of researchers who appraise medical evidence, says: “For a vaccine to reduce mortality by 50 percent and up to 90 percent in some studies means it has to prevent deaths not just from influenza, but also from falls, fires, heart disease, strokes, and car accidents. That’s not a vaccine, that’s a miracle.”

….The history of flu vaccination suggests other reasons to doubt claims that it dramatically reduces mortality. In 2004, for example, vaccine production fell behind, causing a 40 percent drop in immunization rates. Yet mortality did not rise. In addition, vaccine “mismatches” occurred in 1968 and 1997: in both years, the vaccine that had been produced in the summer protected against one set of viruses, but come winter, a different set was circulating. In effect, nobody was vaccinated. Yet death rates from all causes, including flu and the various illnesses it can exacerbate, did not budge.

But this article doesn’t deliver what it promises

Notice first, that the entire article is about mortality rates from the flu. But most of us get flu shots to avoid getting sick and losing a week of work. The chances of an otherwise healthy person dying from the flu are not great. Yet, the article never addresses the effectiveness of flu shots at preventing or moderating the flu. There are all sorts of reasons why an effective flu vaccine might fail to significantly influence mortality rates especially among the elderly. The main reason is that people with compromised immune systems, who are at greater risk of dying from all sorts of causes, will not benefit from the vaccine because their immune systems are compromised.

Mortality rates may not be a reliable indicator of effectiveness at preventing the flu.

Secondly the claim that “they found that flu accounts for, at most, 10 percent of winter deaths among the elderly” cannot be used to cast doubt on the data supporting the vaccine’s effectiveness—the fact that “people who get a flu shot in the fall are about half as likely to die that winter — from any cause — as people who do not”. The author is illicitly comparing two different populations—the elderly with all people who get flu shots.

Thirdly, there may be natural immunity that explains why incidence of the flu drops in years when less vaccine is available.

Finally, it may well be the case that healthy people tend to get vaccinated more readily than unhealthy people, thus providing an alternative explanation of why vaccinated people suffer less mortality. But the only way to test that claim is to compare two populations that have all relevant characteristics in common except for the fact that one population was vaccinated and the other not. But the article provides no data of that sort.

The medical professionals cited in the article may have good reasons for challenging the conventional wisdom of vaccine effectiveness. But if they do, this article doesn’t convey those reasons.

It is probably a good thing that professions count within their ranks contrarians who are trying to make a name for themselves by challenging conventional wisdom. Sometimes they turn out to be right.

But when the media presents speculative, untested, minority positions as serious challenges to the consensus, they mislead their readers.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

No Exit October 20, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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One could argue that in theory liberal democracies should exhibit a repeatable pattern in their politics.

Voters elect liberals who promise lots of social programs to improve people’s lives. But these social programs are expensive so they have to raise taxes to pay for them. The public eventually takes the social programs for granted but gets tired of high tax rates. So they elect conservatives who cut taxes and restrain spending on social programs.

But eventually the need for more social programs becomes acute and the liberals are elected again and the cycle begins anew.

In the U.S., this pattern was interrupted by the Reagan revolution and the Two Santa Claus theory—more formally known as supply side economics. Republicans discovered they could stay in power by cutting taxes (Santa 1) and increasing spending (Santa 2). And for 30 years it worked, thanks to the willingness of China, Saudi Arabia, etc. to buy our Treasury bonds. We buy their stuff; they use that money to buy U.S. securities—everybody is happy.

Until, of course, at some point the budget deficit will get out of hand. There is a good deal of debate among economists regarding whether we have reached the point where budget deficits will harm the economy—with interests rates low and no inflation on the horizon it would seem we haven’t reached it yet. (and no, the budget deficit is not the result of Obama’s policies—it is a holdover from the Bush Administration)

But eventually the budget deficit must come down or interest rates and inflation will take its toll.

So what are the options?

We can (a) cut government spending, (b) raise taxes, or (3) hope the rest of the world will continue to finance our deficit indefinitely. I see no evidence that the public is willing to see their taxes increased or their services (along with military expenditures) cut. The Two Santa Theory is now part of the public’s expectations.

That means our fate depends on the rest of the world. If or when China and other countries decide they have to reinvest their cash in their own economies or conclude that the U.S. is not a safe investment, the dollar will slide and interest rates will skyrocket.

Then the party will be over.

Both Santa’s will be out of a job.

Did I mention today is a glass half empty day?


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Bill Maher Falls Off the Wagon October 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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Bill Maher is usually smart and funny but last week on on his HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher,” he was neither when he advised people not to get their H1N1 flu vaccine.

In an interview with heart surgeon and former Republican Senator Bill Frist, Maher claimed that no one should let someone stick “a disease into your arm”, denied that healthy people could die from this virus, and continued to express skepticism about Western medicine and the health industry.

Aside from the factual errors—the vaccine is not a live virus and many otherwise healthy people, especially young people have died from H1N1—Maher’s skepticism about modern medicine is just bizarre.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine has the best take-down of Maher’s nonsense:

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. […]

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. […]

Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. […]

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 (“because it worked”), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people—when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention—suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training.

Come on Bill. It’s time to join the Reality Based Community. Liberalism is not advanced by lunatic theories and nitwit contrarian stances especially when your advice can really harm people.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Brain Quest: The Whole Brain Catalog October 18, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

We’ve got reason to be proud of San Diego these days: researchers from UCSD  have  just launched the Whole Brain Catalog in Chicago at Neuroscience 2009:

The Whole Brain Catalog is a ground-breaking, open-source, 3D virtual environment that connects members of the international neuroscience community. Researchers at UC San Diego’s Center for Research in Biological Systems (CRBS) have been developing the Catalog since 2008 with support from the Waitt Family Foundation. The goal of the Whole Brain Project: to pioneer brain research at the intersection of neuroscience, information technology, data management and scientific visualization. As the Project’s flagship, the Whole Brain Catalog aims to accelerate resolving the mysteries of the brain while also facilitating solutions to today’s intractable challenges in brain research through cooperation and “crowd-sourcing.”

The Whole Brain Catalog offers a powerful information integration tool to allow scientists to peer deep inside a virtual brain composed of hundreds of datasets — all from their personal computer. The Catalog provides rich, multi-scale views for researchers to zoom in, out and around structures deep in the mouse brain, and to trace neural pathways exploring their cellular and subcellular details. An open-source, 3D graphics engine used in graphics-intensive computer gaming generates high-resolution visualizations that bring data to life through biological simulations and animations for researchers to clearly see details such as electrical storms across neurons.

Researchers can access and navigate this “brain information system” via the Internet, much as students and consumers currently navigate today’s ubiquitous geographic information systems (GIS), including Google Earth and MapQuest. With a few clicks of the mouse, researchers can increase the explanatory power of their own scientific datasets by intermixing them with datasets contributed by others from around the world. Much as a motorist or homeowner might use Google Maps to get directions or find a house, scientists can zoom in for a “street view” perspective of their datasets uploaded to the Whole Brain Catalog, allowing them to understand the broader context of their research, and even explore alternative routes to new insights by reusing data imported from other researchers.

While it has been customary for philosophers to distance themselves from neuroscientific research, under the assumption that  theories about the brain somehow have no bearing on  theories of the mind—and above all have no relation to moral philosophy, there is a new rapprochement happening between neuroscience and philosophy, and the field of ethics in particular. We’ll see if this new brain information system will facilitate such meetings of the minds (or should I say brains!).

Added 10/20: And here it is! But I have to mention (which wasn’t clear to me before) that this is a catalog of the mouse brain, not the human brain! So far, anyway…