Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami aid and this Administration

Well many others have written about how horrible the tsunami disaster has been. I have nothing really to add but will give a few links to other places where you can donate. Go here or here to find links to aid organizations. I have no particular recomendations, but any aid that can be given will be a blessing.

I opened this post, however, to comment on this blog entry by Darrel Plant. I think this is a perfect example of what drives this administration. As Darrel points out, we are spending vastly more on Iraq, which with the WMD off the table, is supposedly about helping Iraqis. So why aren't we a great deal more generous when it comes to the tsunami victims. My impression is that the only force which drives these people is their own material well being. Attacking Iraq was seen by them as protecting themselves, it serves to improve their own material well being. There was fear of Saddam and attacking Iraq quelled that fear. Therefore they can spend any amount of money, any number of lives, inflict any casualties, commit any barbarity or crime against people in Iraq, because they percieve doing so as serving their own material self interests. There is similarly no reason to expend much of anything for the tsunami victims because nothing about the tsunami threatens the material well being of the members of this administration. They just don't care. That is why we are expending so much more effort on Iraq than on the tsunami.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Behe and Irreducible Complexity

My response to Behe and his argument from Irreducible Complexity is that it appears to have nothing, except in the most superficial sense, with biology. Yes, he presents it as an argument about evolution and natural selection, but as presented, at least with his mouse trap example, it is almost totally divorced from actual biology. Let me explain why I think this is so.

He presents the mouse trap as a means of illustrating this idea of an object that is irreducibly complex and therefore cannot be produced by natural selection. He argues that you cannot take the several pieces of the mouse trap and assemble those pieces one at a time into the final mouse trap and have a functional mouse trap at each step. Many have pointed out that this argument leaves out change in function, which is a valid point, but even without that problem I think his example has nothing to do with natural selection, or even biology. When he talks about assembling the mouse trap by successively adding parts, he is clearly talking about the parts of the final mousetrap. So, if you were to try and assemble the trap starting with the striker bar, you must use the bar from the final trap. You could not start with something that on its own serves to kill mice and later, as more parts are added, is modified into the final striker bar. He makes no effort whatsoever to argue that you cannot get to the final mouse trap by such a process of addition and modification. He fails to show that you cannot assemble the final mouse trap by adding parts which are modified between additions. The parts in his analogy, in other words, do not change. It is this which is at odds with actual biology.

The problem is even more striking if we look at biology a little deeper. If we are to consider some system in an organism, analogous Behe's mouse trap, whether irreducible or not, then in each generation the system is modified slightly by whatever mutations might occur. So the "addition of a part" which is the only process that Behe discusses occurring is something that takes place from one generation to another. That is some offspring have one 'part' more than the parents had. But we know of the kinds of changes that take place between generations. The types of mutations include point mutations, insertions, deletions, gene duplications and cooption (the process whereby a part which exsists in one system serving one function is taken over by another system to serve another function). Most of these changes involve the modification of parts in exactly the way that is excluded in Behe's analogy. Furthermore, the only processes that might be accurately described as 'adding parts' are
1) cooption and
2) gene duplication followed by modification

The problem here then is that Behe and Dembski specifically deny that cooption is a force in evolution which eliminates option 1 and option 2 includes gene modification which is nonexistent in Behe's analogy.

In short the problem is that if Behe recognizes that the 'parts' of biological systems are modified by evolution, then his argument with the mouse trap says nothing about whether you can produce such a thing by the gradual process of natural selection. If he denies that biological 'parts' are modified in each generation he is at odds with most of what is actually observed about living things.

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Thursday, December 23, 2004

Social Security Crisis

Bush and other proponents of eliminating Social Security have argued that the "crisis" in Social Security starts in 2018 because at that point the Social Security Administration will need to start selling off Treasury Notes in order to pay benefits. However, there seem to be only three possibilities with respect to this issue:

  1. The US government will have no problem paying off the Social Security Administration's Notes. There is no problem starting in 2018.
  2. The US government will be able to pay off Notes from the Bank of Japan, China, Citicorp and other such entities but the Social Security Administration and American Citizens will get shafted. I can think of no good reason for why this would be the case. Proponents of Social Security Elimination should explain why this would be, if this is the case.
  3. The US government will not be able to pay off any Treasury Notes starting in 2018. In this case we have a bigger problem than Social Security and this Administration really needs to explain what is going on and why such a crisis is looming.

If there are any other possibilities, I'd very much like to know. The cases I've outlined either indicate no problem or are implausible.


Beyond narrative

There has been a lot of discussion about the need for Democrats to develop a narrative in order to communicate their message. I agree with this and a lot of good work is being done. But I'm coming to think that there is another problem we have which goes beyond narrative. I think it might be better described as context. We need to better understand and tailor our message to the appropriate context of the existing political debate. The implications of both these ideas though is the same, we do not need to change our message by moving to the right (or left), the content of our message is fine, the presentation, however, stinks.

By context I'm suggesting that there is a framework for a political campaign, indeed the whole political process, in which all the participants, the parties, the press and the electorate have certain roles to play. There are different possible types of context and I think that everyone except for the Democratic party are interacting according to one context and we Democrats are off presenting our message in a different context. The result is a failure to get our positive message across but at the same time presenting the Democratic message in a very negative message light.

This concept of context can best be expressed in terms of analogies. The context then that everyone else is using is that of a jury trial. In that context the Republicans are counsel for conservatism and the Democrats are counsel for liberalism. The electorate is the jury and will decide the case (vote for the party) by analyzing the respective counsel's arguments. The jury does not do much in the way of analyzing and critiquing the two counsel's arguments, that is primarily the job of the attorneys. The job of each counsel is to present the best possible case they can. Each piece of evidence is presented unabashedly as being either favorable to their case, irrelevant, or else questionable. An attorney does not admit weaknesses to his case nor concede points to opposing counsel, certainly not with the jury present. I can elaborate on this analogy, but the point is that the two counsel are to present their case in a frankly biased fashion and leave it to the jury to select between the two cases presented.

Another context to consider though is that of a scientific conference or discussion. Very similar for most other academic discussions, but I'm most familiar with the sciences. Richard Feynman wrote an important essay once arguing that part of the scientific process depends upon a kind of extreme form of honesty, bending over backwards to make sure that those who will hear your arguments will not get mislead. To meet that standard you must not only make sure that what you write and say is accurate, but you need to go out of your way to point out possible flaws in your position. I wrote about these ideas earlier here and here

It is this pointing out flaws in ones own arguments which is such a strong contrast between those two contexts. In a scientific conference you are expected to point out the flaws in your own arguments and should expect those who disagree with you to do the same. In the trial context you do not do this, except perhaps as a tactical maneuver, and cannot expect your opponent to point out flaws in his position. Indeed in a trial it is entirely up to you to point out the flaws in your opponents arguments and if you fail to do this the jury cannot be expected to recognize the flaws at all. Furthermore, if this occurs it is in fact your error not that of opposing counsel nor that of the jury.

The point of all this then is to suggest that among the problems we Democrats have has is that we are arguing in the context of a scientific conference while everyone else is expecting a jury trial. We are admitting our faults, which the jury does not appreciate as extra honesty, but merely finds confusing. It means to them that there is no clear case to asses. We then complain that the jury is stupid and the Republicans dishonest because they are not admitting to their own faults. However, in the trial context they are not supposed to. We concede points to our opponents far too readily for the trial context.

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How Scary?

One of the striking differences between Republicans and Democrats on national security is that we Democrats do not see our enemies as being as enormously scary as do the Republicans. We do recognize that this country has enemies and that they are dangerous but we are a lot more calm about how dangerous they are. To me it seems that Republicans are ridiculously panicky about the degree of danger that we as a country face. The Republicans seem to be sure that this country is constantly on the verge of being overrun or destroyed by these enemies and that they are a huge threat. We democrats tend to see them as dangerous, but well within our current ability to handle. Of course, to the Republicans I apparently seem naive and credulous or indifferent to the (to them obvious) huge threat. Unfortunately, this country hasn't been having much of a debate on which view is correct and why.

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Creating Information

Nick Matzke, over on The Panda's Thumb was relating the other day his experience debating about Intelligent Design on the Michael Medved Show. One of the common arguments made by the ID/Creationist crowd was also brought up by a caller on that show, namely that no new information can be created, except via an intelligence. This is a common argument, but it seems to me to be typical of the ID/Creationist kind of thinking in that it falls apart with any degree of thought.

Supposedly, only an intelligence can create new information, but why should one believe that. Clearly, the information one gets from a book was created by an intelligence, but it was created by the entity which created the book, not by the person reading it. That goes without argument. But information is also available in all sorts of places. Last winter I saw a set of rabbit tracks passing in a straight line across our pasture. Well in a straight line up to a point where the tracks began to crisscross wildly and then reached a point where they simply stopped with no further tracks in the midst of fresh snow. The information that a rabbit had been caught by a hawk was not created by me reading the signs, but by the rabbit and hawk together. Ok, you say, but it was living things leaving the marks. Sure, but I can gather information of the same type about a landslide, or a river overflowing its banks. or a meteor impact. Clearly the information is left by the things acting according to nature, not created by me or by any observable intelligence.

In spite of the insistence of the ID/Creationist crowd, information is indeed created all the time by natural processes.

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Friday, December 17, 2004

More on arguing like a lawyer

Digby has a good post up about the problems we Democrats have communicating with the public. I'd like to offer another way of looking at what's going on here. I'm not at all sure that the public does quite want the shout fests that are such a part of televised political discourse, but the shout fests may be close to what they do want. I think that what the public expects and wants, and what nearly everyone (except the Democrats) are doing is treating our political discourse like a court trial.

The Republican representative is always the counsel for conservatives, and as such everything in the discussion that favors their position is presented as correct and unimpeachable and all evidence presented against them is doubtful and suspect. The electorate is acting as jurors and expects opposing counsels to make their cases. The press is simply reporting on what happens and is not involved in correcting either side.

Now enter the Democratic party. Instead of acting as counsel for liberalism and arguing in the same kind of "we and our witnesses are completely correct and theirs are all suspect or corrupt" kind of trial lawyers mode, we argue more like scientists at a conference. We will always concede a well made point and we make sure to inform everyone of the weaknesses in our positions and so forth (see Like a lawyer not a Scientist ). When people are expecting a trial lawyer and get instead a scientist he looks uncertain, weak and vacillating. Furthermore, I suspect that because we insist on presenting things in this scientific conference mode, when everyone else is at a trial, we seem stuck-up and elitist.

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Pro-War novel

Mark Kleiman is wondering if there are any recent (well post 1700) pro-War novels. The phrase pro-War novel might be considered ambiguous, but Mark offered up Starship Troopers as an example so we have a pretty good idea what he means. He's looking for a novel which promotes the "virtues" of war. That having people go to war and fight for the country creates a population of individuals who have virtues valuable to the nation, which would be absent were we to go without war for several generations.

The problem is that this notion that war promotes virtues in and of itself has long been pretty much abandoned by mainstream thinkers. Or at least, it is thought that the evils of war far outweigh the virtues that might be instilled. The warmest regard that anyone has for war today is perhaps best expressed by Robert E. Lee's comment that "It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it." Given that sentiment from someone such as Lee it is hardly to be expected that there are many authors promoting the virtues of war as a good in itself. Indeed this is in part why Starship Troopers is such a striking novel.

At the risk of falling prey to Goodwin's Law, might I suggest that the most significant group who has promoted the virtues of war for its own sake were the national socialists in Germany. Perhaps Mein Kampf would meet the request.


Saturday, December 11, 2004

Rumsfeld and the army you've got

I just have to add a bit on Rumsfeld's comment that "You have to go to war with the army you've got, not the one you want", and why it makes me so angry. All the reasons people have already given are part of it. but in addition it is flatly and demonstrably untrue, and the smug claim by Rumsfeld that it is true, shows up his laziness and incompetence. This country was attacked in December of 1941. By June of 1944 we were well prepared to invade northern Europe and take out the Wehrmacht. We were not restricted to use "the army we had", instead, under circumstances much more difficult than Rumsfeld faces as Sec. Def., we built and equipped the army we wanted and needed in 31 months.

Even if we grant that this administration did not start thinking about invading Iraq until September of 2001, it has now been 39 months (8 months longer!!) and Rumsfeld is testy that people think he should have been able to get a few thousand armored Humvees produced in the same time that this country had earlier raised and equipped some 90 divisions. That degree of laziness and incompetence is astounding.

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Kerik withdrawls

So Kerik has withdrawn already from his nomination to be homeland security chief. The reasons given were problems with the immigration status and tax payment to his nanny. I just have to say that after all the trouble that has come up over failing to pay taxes on a nanny, it seems incredible that this problem would only come up now. I'm sorry, but this sounds like cover for some other, probably more serious, problem with the potential confirmation. We'll have to see as events develop and will most likely never know the full story, but this certainly seems odd.

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Friday, December 10, 2004


One factor which is shaping political discourse is that there are a number of issues that are either poorly understood or misrepresented, yet no one is trying to clear them up. I think that, the value and nature of insurance is one of these. Atrios over on Eschaton has done a good presentation on this, but I want to add a few points of my own.

Confusion arises because what you are purchasing when you buy insurance, at least what makes it worthwhile, is intangible. Added to this is the fact that there are, for some, apparently tangible returns to insurance.

When you take out an insurance policy, you are paying someone to take risk off your hands. That is the intangible. Without insurance there is some risk which you are assuming, loss of a car, loss of a house, personal injury, etc. The risk lies in the fact that you don't know what your expenses will be. They are likely small or nothing but could be huge, you just don't know. With insurance the insurer takes on the risk and in this way you know what your expenses will be. It is the security and stability that comes from knowing what your expenses will be that makes insurance valuable. You pay money to get the security and stability. And, like most other things you purchase, there is no expectation of other reward.

So, if you own a $300,000 house and have no insurance you will, most every year, spend nothing. But there is a small chance that you will have to rebuild the whole thing at a cost of $300,000. Rather a lot for most folks. So although the chance of loosing the whole thing is small the cost is so large that the risk is substantial. If, on the other hand, you insure the house with a policy costing $1,000 a year, you know what your expenses will be. The probability of the $300,000 hit is zero and your expenses will be, in any case, about $1,000 a year (there might be deductible, etc.) There is no risk, no uncertainty. Your expenses will probably be higher with insurance than without, but remember you are paying for the security and stability of knowing what the costs will be. That is the value in insurance.

This value should not be underestimated. The stability provided by insurance of all types (private and public) is a huge advantage for the nation as a whole. Stability and security are vital of a strong economy. People are much more willing to invest and spend under stable, secure conditions.

These are points that Democrats need to promote and spread. The kind of cooperation that comes through insurance is a prominent part of the great successes of the Democratic Party, from social security to FDIC. We need to help people understand why we value insurance in the form of SS and health care.

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Thursday, December 09, 2004


One of my many interests is the so-called debate between Evolution and Creationism going on in society. I say so-called because as a matter of science there is no debate, Evolution has won solidly and Creationism is an odd, essentially anti-science position pushed by a political religious faction advancing its own agenda. I'm interested in the various forms of argument presented by the Creationists and how they contrast with my experience and familiarity with scientific discussions. I also feel that this Evolution vs Creationism argument mirrors very closely the political and social divisions going on the country today. In future posts I will talk about the relationship between Creationism (and Intelligent Design) and current politics.

Note also among my links are some of the more important sites dealing with this controversy.

Right now though, I would like to bounce an idea I have off of biologists, if there are any around. One of the most often phrases in the E/C debate is Herbert Spencer's summary of Evolution as "Survival of the fittest". This is a useful mnemonic for the whole of evolutionary theory (not surprisingly you don't capture the whole of such a complex theory in four words) but is often misleading. I think that a better, although longer and more technical phrase would be "Heritable characteristics interacting with a local environment are a major determinant as to which organisms leave many offspring and which leave few". Much wordier, but to my understanding it captures Natural Selection pretty well. The opinion of a biologist would be greatly appreciated.


War on Terror

To address in some part the whole controversy started by Peter Beinart in TNR, I have a few opinions on why liberals are not so enthusiastic about the "War on Terror". For my part the War on Terror, certainly as it is now being prosecuted is quite foolish. This is about the most completely wrong way to go about our national security. The central problem, as many have pointed out before, is that terror is a not an enemy, but a tactic. Similarly, Islam or militant Islam is not an enemy, but an ideology.A war, or indeed any really large project, needs to be directed toward a very clear and well defined goal, not something amorphous and ambiguous.

Therefore, to properly prosecute a war one needs an identifiable enemy. For example, in WWII, three nations (Japan, Germany and Italy) had, by mid December 1941, declared war on the US. One of them, Japan, had attacked us. We were at war with those three nations until they surrendered unconditionally and agreed completely that they no longer would be at war with the US. We had clear, well defined, unambiguous enemies. Furthermore, those nations were our enemies for clear and well defined reasons, they had attacked and or declared war on the US. Note also, it was not a war against Fascism (We were not at war with Spain), it was not a war against totalitarianism, or evil, or authoritarianism, or god knows a war to end war, or any other ideology or tactic. It was a war against three well defined enemies, and because of this it was successfully prosecuted.

Furthermore, because it was a war against well defined enemies and was well prosecuted it was very successful at reducing Fascism, and totalitarianism, and authoritarianism, and evil. It did not eliminate those things, but it has made it easier to reduce them in subsequent years.

Were we engaged in a similar, clear and well defined project today, liberals would be solidly behind it. When, in the aftermath of 9/11, it seemed that we recognized that there was a clear enemy, Ossama bin Laden and al Qaeda, liberals, such as myself, were solidly behind destroying those enemies. Currently, however, we are embarked on this huge effort that is very costly in both lives and money without any clear picture as to what is the object or how we get there.

During the course of the war on terror, we on the left have tried to raise an important point by asking whether the war on terror would be aided by attacking some terrorist group like ETA or the Tamil Tigers or hezbollah. The point is not to suggest that maybe some of these groups are really good guys, but rather to ask will attacking this group or that help us achieve our goals. Getting rid of ETA would reduce some terrorism, but would that help achieve our goals. The answer is not clear because our goals are not clear. Again to compare to WWII, one could ask in 1942 if maybe we should invade Argentina. However, it is clear that that would not help achieve the goal of bringing Germany, Japan, and Italy to surrender and therefore, no it would not help achieve our goals. The same clarity does not exist with the war on terror precisely because it is, as declared, a war against a tactic not an enemy.

So liberals are failing to support this war on terror not because we are unwilling to show strength or be tough on enemies, but rather because this war is so badly conceived, planned and executed, that in the long run it will only display weakness to our enemies.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

War like invasive surgery

One of the major problems Democrats have at this point is our perceived weakness on defense. There are a number of reasons for this appearance, but one thing I want to discuss here is that we regularly describe war as an option of 'last resort'. Kerry used that phrase regularly in the campaign. Now most of us democrats understand what is meant by this, but our opponents have been very successful at portraying this as meaning that we will avoid war at all costs, we are afraid to go to war, we are weak at protecting the country, etc. So, I've been trying to come up with a better way to describe our position that might speak to a wider group of people.

My attitude toward the use of war is similar to my attitude toward invasive surgery. I am certainly willing to undergo, or have family members undergo, surgery if needed, I am not in favor of returning to 19th century medicine. On the other hand, before I have my 11-year old go under the knife, I want to make sure that:

a) All other non-surgical therapies that could treat the problem have been tried

b) This is indeed needed and the problem the surgery is intended to solve is serious

c) The surgery has a high probability of success and a low probability of failure

Similar standards should be applied to our country going to war.

Also, the reason for this caution is not personal fear, but my understanding as to what is the best way to maintain security. One of the most valuable assets we can have for maintaining our security is control over the international situation. Control is very hard to maintain once shooting starts. One of the clearest lessons from history is that once the fighting starts events take on a life of their own, and no one can have much control of the situation. That is true at all levels from the squad to the entire nation. The grand-daddy of all such situations is, of course, the decision in 1914 by Austria to settle some problems of Serbian nationalism by military means. That got out of control. I think that here too the analogy holds. Simply being put under anesthesia for surgery is a huge risk.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

The Challenger disaster and modern management

Richard Fynman served on the review board which studied the causes of the Challenger disaster in 1986. One of his chief observations was that there existed a huge disconnect between Engineers who worked closely with the spacecraft and Management. While the Engineers were aware and knowledgeable of the many risks with the spacecraft, Management was generally much more ignorant. Management had a very rosy view of the status of the craft and it's ability to be launched safely. The Engineers were a great deal more skeptical. And detailed investigation demonstrated that, not surprisingly really, the Engineers view was much closer to reality. So something about the management of the program prevented accurate communication of the status of the spacecraft from the ground up to Management.

The same problems still existed for the Columbia disaster in 2003. It seems to me that much the same problem could be found at the FBI and CIA prior to 9/11. There was a great deal of information available to front line members of those organizations which simply did not get up the chain of command.

The point here is that there seems to be a fairly widespread problem with a failure to communicate from the ground up a chain of command. Furthermore, the problem seems to be that management is resistant to hearing about problems. Management is isolating itself. Unfortunately, this isolation frequently results in disaster.

This leads to one of the reasons for the strong dislike of President Bush. Far from trying to solve this problem, he intends to exacerbate it. This is especially evident with the recent cabinet shakeup. The attitude of this administration is not that we need to improve communication from the front line to the top, that the folks at the top need to do a better job of listening to those on the front line. Rather this administration apparently feels that the only problem is that front line folks talk at all. This administration acts as if it will decide what is going on in the world and the role of front line folks is only to support them and take the fall if disaster occurs. This is an awful system of management.

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Friday, December 03, 2004

Like a lawyer not a scientist

As democrats we need to consider different argument styles, I'm thinking of scientists and lawyers as templates. I believe that we are simply using the wrong one.

If I'm trying to argue a position at as a scientist there are three standards that I have to keep to if I'm going to keep my reputation.

1. I can't make statements that I know are false, that's a bare minimum that is required in all contexts.

2. I also need to go to considerable effort to make sure that statements I make are true. I can't just hear something from somewhere, or casually read a paper and then present my understanding of it as fact without first checking to make sure that what I'm saying is correct. Unintentionally presenting falsehoods is a big no-no. In a variety of contexts many people don't feel this error is too serious. I believe that the likes of Bush and Limbaugh are engaged in this sort of thing more than actually lying, but that's another discussion. In any case attorneys at court also must adhere to this standard.

3. As a scientist I'm also expected to honestly present, as best I can, the weaknesses of my case. I need to actually tell my audience if there is anything about the evidence I'm presenting that they should know will make my case weaker than it appears. To scientists it is not up to the audience or to other scientists to find this out. I am supposed to tell people about these weaknesses. Now an attorney does not follow this rule. It is most certainly up to opposing counsel to find out problems in my case if I'm a lawyer. I might present weaknesses as a strategic move, but leaving them out is considered perfectly ok.

Let me suggest that as Democrats we have too often been arguing like scientists following my rule 3 above, and not like lawyers and leaving it to Republicans to make the case against our positions. Our other problem is that the electorate is following politics more like a jury at a trial than like scientists. The result is that 50% of our effort helps the Republicans in this and 100% of their efforts help the Republicans and we are outnumbered 3 to 1.

I think this willingness to concede points to our opponent adds to the perception that we flip-flop and that we are weak. We need to get into the mind set of a lawyer at trial, our position is correct and we will not willingly concede anything.

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