Sunday, August 27, 2006

Of Pretenses and Perpetual Motion

I had a chance to take a look at the August 19th issue of The Economist today (for some reason it always seems to get misplaced between the mailbox and my inbox) and there's plenty of grist for the mill. Right next to the ToC, where one might expect to find an advertisement for a trans-Atlantic airline, is a pitch for a company claiming to have developed a technology that produces "free, clean and constant energy". The add goes on to say that the company, Steorn, is looking for a panel of twelve people (presumably scientists) to publicly validate and report on their technology. So what, exactly, is their technology? Microgenerators with "a coefficient of performance greater than 100%" (shouldn't that be "greater than 1"?). There's a discussion about Steorn at PhysOrgForum; of particular interest is a post by one Jacob Bohall positing that its a test of distributed debunking or a PR stunt. Possibly, but its an awfully expensive stunt what with the add in The Economist. My first thought (apart from "We've secretly switched this man's copy of The Economist with Conspiracy Digest; let's see if he notices") is who the hell is ponying up for the add? Other questions: Steorn's been researching this for years, but they just got their domain and haven't gotten around to getting an Exchange server? And what about The Economist's standards? They'll take anyone's money, even someone pitching a perpetual motion machine? But enough of that, on to other things. In international politics there's an overall well-written editorial about the implications of the cessation of hostilities in Lebanon. But I have to question the wisdom of one suggestion:
A better idea would be to deprive Hizbullah of the pretexts it has invented for keeping up its war. It would be useful, for example, if Israel gave up the Shebaa Farms, the bit of Syrian territory Hizbullah says is Lebanon's, and accepted a prisoner swap.
This suggestion seems to rest on the assumption that there are a finite number of pretenses. But isn't that the beauty of pretenses? When you run out you can always fabricate more. As the editorial goes on to state
Six years ago Israel withdrew from Lebanon to a border painstakingly demarcated by the UN. Hizbullah fought on anyway. Like Iran, it says its aim is Israel's destruction.
This would suggest that Hizbullah will not be satisfied, regardless of the overtures made by Israel. If your aim is to reduce Hizbullah's moral authority it would seem prudent to obtain a fixed list of grievances in advance (though it seems improbable that Mr. Nasrallah would be willing to sign off on such a list); otherwise Hizbullah retains the option of moving the goalposts to its heart's content. On the domestic front Lexington has an interesting article about Rahm Emanuel and "The Plan". Again, both their take and "The Plan" itself seem reasonable, but I'm going to quibble with Mr. Emanuel's assessment of ways to reduce health-care costs:
Probably the main reason wages have not risen much in recent years is that health-insurance premiums, which many American employers shoulder, have soared. The Plan lists ways to curb them. Doctors, rather than being paid for every test and injection they provide—an arrangement that inevitably leads to over-doctoring—should be paid by results. Patients should be given better incentives to stay healthy: insurers, for example, should push them to take free physical exams to spot ailments early.
I'd like to know how he came to the conclusion that financial incentives cause doctors to over-treat their patients. In some high risk practices/depts. (OB and EM are the ones I'm familiar with) there's a large incentive to over-doctor, but its not driven by financial concerns (at least, not directly). My wife and her colleagues in OB and EM are driven to over-doctor as a defensive measure against lawsuits; in the current legal climate there's nothing to be gained by not ordering another test. This would suggest that reform of medical malpractice laws are just as reasonable an arrangement as paying doctors "by results" (whatever that means). As far as getting people to seek preventive care, this won't happen until there's an incentive for insurance companies to push such treatment. With people switching insurance all the time its actually in an insurance company's interest not to push preventive care; after all, that would amount to spending their money to lower the next insurer's costs. Insurance companies won't have an incentive to focus on preventive medicine until people stick around on their roles for prolonged periods of time. And for this to happen medical insurance would have to be decoupled from a particular job/employer; not necessarily socialized medicine, but certainly different from the current system. And that's all there is to say about that.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


I had no idea I was running a feminist blog. Though I do approve of being mistaken for a philosophy instructor.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Ineffable Knowledge

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber writes:
A critique more suited to our postmodern times is that the whole idea of trying to tease out unspoken assumptions from our language is untenable, relying as it does on the notion that there exists an objective reality that we can apprehend independently of language.
I've pondered this particular issue a lot in the past, that objective reality is always interpreted through the lens of language, and have a question: What about procedural memory? There are clearly things that I know, and that exist objectively, which are either difficult (or impossible) to articulate. I first noticed this when trying to teach someone a kata; words are insufficient in describing how you shape your hand "just so" for a spearhand. Another example is cooking; I can't find any words to adequately describe the change in the pattern of bubbles on the surface of boiling sugar that lets you know that all the water has evaporated. Even if I could articulate these things in some fashion, its clear that my knowledge of the "how" of these things is not being mediated by language. This would seem to indicate that there is at least a subset of reality which can be apprehended independent of language. Nor is it clear that this is limited strictly to procedural memory. For example, in The Principles of Mathematics Bertrand Russell goes to great lengths developing a set-based theory of numbers, only to arrive at the conclusion that the phrase "a term" is axiomatic and cannot be further defined. People understand "a term" (or something close to it) without the mediation of language. All of which makes me think that its tricky, rather than "untenable", to try to understand and rectify language, since there are objective concepts that can be used as a firm foundation for such an endeavor.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Another Fundamental Question

In related developments, commenter Evonne Acevedo at Ballastexistenz takes exception to my suggestion that a disabled person would not wish their disability on others:
GG’s most telling remarks had nothing to do with the egg = person debate at all; they were something to the effect of “Well, of course people with disabilities are just as worthy as everyone else . . . but surely they wouldn’t want to *wish* their disabilities on anybody” . . . and other comments that more than implied that he (she? I dunno) thought that genetic screening and prevention accordingly was a swell idea . . . and which therefore implied that (s)he does not view life with a disability as an equally worthy life. But each time anyone attempted to address the more fundamental views associated with the original post, GG fell back into the “Hey, take it easy, all I’m saying is an egg is not a person” mode.
I think that Evonne's response conflates two ideas which I hold to be distinctly separate:
  • Recognition of the personhood and inherent worth of disabled individuals.
  • The preference for ability over disability.
So I'll raise again the question which I raised in my previous post: Can you acknowlege that someone's physical state is sub-optimal and still recognize their personhood? I'll use Evonne's phrase "equally worthy life" as a jumping off point. Equally worthy of what? Recognition of personhood? Respect as an individual? The right to coexist with other people and not be molested? If I express a preference for having both of my legs does it logically follow that I must treat the person who has none as somehow less of a person than I am? No, not through any chain of reasoning that I can come up with. It is certainly the case that many disabled individuals are treated as non-persons for just such reasons, but the point that I think its key to highlight is that such treatment is not rational. Its the result of irrational prejudice, not any sort of reflective or deliberative process. The comments quoted by Evonne do not reflect a belief that disabled people have less worth, but rather that living life as an able-bodied individual is preferable to living life as a disabled individual. Now, let's assume that the opposite is true, that prefering ability over disability intrinsically diminishes the lives of disabled people. Such a statement has a pernicious effect in the emphasis that it puts on a person's disability. Rather than treating a defect of mind or body as incidental to someone's personhood it puts that disability at center stage. It seems to say that, because a disabled person is disabled, they are fundamentally different from an abled person. It doesn't allow the abled and disabled to look beyond their bodies towards their shared humanity. Isn't that the diametric opposite of everything that the disability-rights movement tries to do? Personhood should not be confused with biology, something which I've noted in the past. The concerns about the ramifications of acknowledging the utility of ability, or the inconvenience of disability, rely on a biological definition of personhood which fetishizes the body over the person as a whole. So, strangely enough, I think that an argument can be made that concerns about PGH etc. are actually counterproductive, because they put so much emphasis on the body and not enough on the Ghost in the Machine.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Pre-Implantation Screening And The Valuation Of Disabled Individuals

In the comments from my previous post Ampersand raised an interesting question that I think merits further examination:
If we don't believe that nondisabled people are, in some sense, more valuable people, then why is it worthwhile to use medical technology to make it less likely that disabled people will be born?
It's a worthwhile question to pursue, but I'd like to narrow the scope a bit. Rather than focus on "medical technology" in general I'd like to focus specifically on pre-implantation screening, as this technology avoids the complication of having to abort a pregnancy already in progress. To paraphrase Ampersand, the question then becomes:
If we don't believe that nondisabled people are, in some sense, more valuable people, then why is it worthwhile to use [pre-implantation screening] to make it less likely that disabled people will be born?
My first observation about the question is that it asserts, as an implicit assumption, that the act of choosing not to implant an egg with genetic abnormalities is necessarily a commentary on the value of disabled people. I will acknowledge that it most certainly can be, but are there other considerations apart from the relative valuation of able/disabled which might lead a potential parent to choose not to implant an egg? One consideration which arises immediately to mind are the desires of the person that the egg will one day become. A parent, confronted with the choice to implant or not to implant, is acting as a decision-making proxy for this individual. Would that person, presented with the same choice, choose to be born disabled? Note that the answer to the question depends on context: the nature of the disability, the greater society in which the disability occurs, ability/disability status of the parents, etc., allowing for the appropriate level of nuance required in answering such difficult questions. Now, in that context, does a decision not to implant (i.e. a decision not to be born disabled) de-value the lives of existing persons with disabilities, or is it a morally neutral expression of personal choice? I'm trying to come up with an appropriate framework in which to analyze that question at this time; I will think on it more and write later. Another possible consideration are the resources required to raise a disabled child. If a parent doesn't have access to the appropriate/sufficient resources and decides not to implant the egg, does this decision devalue existing persons with disabilities? In this case I'd argue the opposite; the recognition by a parent that they lack the resources to provide a disabled child with the dignity and opportunities which it deserves would seem to be an explicit recognition of the value of disabled individuals. Conversely, raising a disabled child with insufficient resources seems to devalue the child and, by extension and example, disabled persons in general. The above two examples cast doubt on the assertion that choosing not to implant an egg necessarily reflects a valuation of abled persons over disabled persons. But, while we are on the subject, I'd like to more explicitly explore the issue of the valuation of disabled individuals. It seems to me that the elephant in the room is the fact that there are relative advantages to having all of your limbs, senses, etc. We can (and should) make accommodations for those who don't, but that doesn't negate the fact that its really convenient to have both of your legs. The $65k question, then, is whether acknowledging this fact devalues disabled persons? It would seem to me that you can acknowledge that someone's body is sub-optimal and still treat them as a human being with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. This goes back to my previous (admittedly flippant) comment about getting rid of the polio vaccine. The intention of the polio vaccine (and many other aspects of medicine) is to prevent people from becoming crippled. However, if we accept that such treatments are appropriate then aren't we also showing a preference for ability over disability? Being more direct still, what about medical procedures to correct congenital abnormalities? Do we tell the young girl with scoliosis that she doesn't need surgery because she's fine just the way she is? All the time? In every case? Even when she wants to be able to play soccer with her friends? Is it apparent what I'm trying to get at here? The notion that there is an equivalence between ability and disability isn't born out by our actions in the real world. Nor is it necessarily the case that acknowledging our preference for ability requires us to look down upon or deny the full personhood of disabled individuals. In which case the question "to implant, or not to implant" is most likely morally neutral. Questions, comments, flames?

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing?

Via Alas (a blog) I ran across this article by a Elizabeth Schiltz bemoaning improvements in prenatal screening technology. Her basic thesis seems to be something along the lines of
  1. pre-natal screening = eugenics
  2. eugenics = bad
  3. ∴ pre-natal screening = bad, by the Transitivity Property of Badness
Really, the reasoning demonstrated in the article is that bad; its not something that you would expect from a Professor of Law. I'll leave it as an excercise to the reader to determine if she's just being disingenuous. To me the ability to select against genetic defects pre-implantation seems like a win-win situation for all involved. What, pray tell, does she find objectionable in this practice?

While we are willing to mandate accommodation to make jobs or public transportation accessible to a person with spina bifida, the social cost of accommodating her birth is increasingly being seen as exceeding her worth.

Ok people, who can spot the flaw in her reasoning? Yes, you in the back with the hair... yes, that's exactly correct. I'll repeat it so that you can all hear the answer: An unimplanted egg isn't a person. Ms. Schiltz is confusing a person who's already been born with an unimplanted egg. The idea that an unimplanted egg somehow has intrinsic worth as a person is totally unsupportable, as is the idea that it somehow has a right to be implanted and brought to term. Of course we make accommodation for people with spina bifida, since they're actually people with an intrinsic worth. But wait, it gets better:

Do we truly endorse the implicit message we are sending to our disabled brothers and sisters—that our commitment to diversity does not extend to genetic diversity? We need to confront the disconnect between how we see ourselves—as an enlightened, liberal society committed to fully integrating people with disabilities in all sectors of life—and how people living with the disabilities we would identify for extinction must see us.

The idea that we have somehow failed in our commitment to genetic diversity by selecting againt fetal abnormalities is strained at best. I'm by no means an expert in disability politics, but I have a hard time believing that people with disabilities would see such selection in an unfavorable light. Ms. Schiltz's woman with spina bifida might value her condition for any one of a number of reasons, though I suspect that many such persons would prefer to have not been born with such a condition. But would any person with a disability go so far as to wish their condition on someone else? That's Ms. Schiltz's implication, that we are somehow lessened as a society by reducing the number of people born with disabilities. If so, why single out prenatal screening? There's lot of other ways that we can increase crippling conditions for the sake of diversity. Bring back polio, stop iodizing salt, and for god's sake get rid of safety standards for farm machinery. I have a hard time believing that she'd support those measures, though they would increase diversity as welll. This is why I think that she's being disingenuous. I can't help but feel that she's co-opting the language of liberalism to argue against prenatal screening when her true motive is altogether different. Maybe is has something to do with working for a Catholic University? It would certainly explain her focus on the dubious personhood of an unimplanted egg.

Where Do I Donate?

This just makes my day. I've said time and again that the War on Drugs is a bloody stupid idea that isn't doing anybody any good. Hopefully these LEAP folks represent a trend towards less stupidity. Oh yeah, and you donate here.

Dumb Ideas In Airport Security

I'm with Pam on this one. I travel all the time and I have to say that the liquid ban on airplanes is the most ineffectual security measure I've seen to date. So they screen you at the gate, and make you toss out all your questionable items. That's a reasonable enough step. But the fact that they don't want you to bring onboard items purchased in the "sterile zone" indicates that they don't have much confidence in the zone's actual sterility. So why the hell isn't there a second screening at the gate? Or, better yet, why not just postpone liquid screening to the gate itself? Admitting that you sterile zone isn't sterile and then letting people bring on whatever the fuck they want doesn't increase security. Its a fucking dumbshow to make people feel safer in some nebulous fashion.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Slow News Day?

An open letter to CNN: Dear CNN - This is not news. Love, Me

Told You So

As I speculated earlier, the links between Al-Qaeda and those arrested by British authorities in connection with latest terrorist scare are tenuous at best:
But the British security sources also cast doubt on British and Pakistani media reports that the suspects have links to Matiur Rehman, one of Pakistan's most wanted men because of his explosives expertise and his alleged links to al Qaeda.
Again, why the impulse to associate every terrorist act with Al-Qaeda?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Help Me Out Here

Having recently finished The Omnivore's Dilemma I'm finding myself in a bit of a quandary. Let me first commend Michael Pollan on writing an excellent book about modern food chains; it could have easily devolved into a touchy-feely polemic about the evils of the modern world, but didn't. Rather, it provides a fairly balanced look at the practices behind modern food production. So kudos to Michael. But I'm digressing... Mr. Pollan makes an excellent case for sustainable agriculture, but acknowleges its limits. As he points out, its not clear that a place like Manhattan could survive on anything other than industrial agriculture. Now it's easy to argue that Manhattan is an overgrown behemoth that survives by siphoning the life from elsewhere (like my property taxes) , one that deserves to collapse under its own weight. But what about other, more reasonably sized cities? Could these cities survive if they were served only by farms practicing sustainable agriculture? While the pursuit of sustainable agriculture is laudable I'm concerned about its implications. If we're to reject industrial agriculture we must, to be consistent, also reject the fruits thereof. From my viewpoint that looks to encompass an awful lot of ground. The increasing efficiency of agriculture is what freed people from tilling the earth and allowed them to pursue other activities, sparking the Industrial revolution and the migration to urban centers. It was from these cities and their associated institutions (businesses, universities, cultural attractions) whence most of what makes life worth living was derived. Not wanting to reject, well, just about everything, it seems to me that we must regard industrial agriculture as a necessary evil. The alternative, adopting sustainable agriculture, would seem to require the gradual dissolution of the cities and all the benefits which they bring. The carrying capacity of sustainably-managed land just isn't high enough to support large concentrations of people. Thus my dilemma: I think Polyface farm is an excellent idea, but I don't want to give up all the benefits of modern development. So, if anyone would care to show me how I can have my cake and eat it too I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Help Mom! There's an Al-Qaeda Under My Bed!

So I wake up yesterday morning and turn on CNN and, lo and behold, there's a great hub and bub about terrorism and toothpaste and such and the like. "Ballocks" I think to myself, realizing that I had to fly back home from New Mexico in this mess. I continue to listen to the talking heads as I go about my packing routine, and I start to notice something really quite strange about the coverage. They're going on and on and on about whether this plot could be tied to Al-Qaeda or not. I mean sure, that's probably a relevant bit of information and worthy of discussion, but they just kept hammering away at the topic with unusual vigor, talking about what officials were saying officially and what they were saying unofficially and all that jazz. It started me wondering why it was so important to tie this latest incident back to Al-Qaeda. Is it not still terrorism, regardless of which particular group is actually responsible? How come no one was going around breathless asking if the plot could be traced back to Jamaat Islamia or The Muslim Brotherhood? It makes me think that Al-Qaeda has become more than just a terrorist organization. The name "Al-Qaeda" has become decoupled from the groups' objective existance; it has now become a sort of bogey-man to which all manner of evils can be attributed. It struck me that "Al-Qaeda" has come to serve the same function as "communists" or "Emmanuel Goldstein", though I quickly found out that I'm not the first person to make this observation. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out in the long run. So far the evidence pointing to Al-Qaeda seems to amount to "this looks like something Al-Qaeda tried to do in the past". That, and then there's this guy who went to Pakistan. Really, you kind of get the feeling that the press is playing "7 degrees of Bin Laden".

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A Better Definition of Personhood

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of personhood recently. This was triggered, I think, by some otherwise well meaning scientist on NPR repeating the old canard about science not being able to determine when life begins. My reaction was something along the lines of "hold up, that's just a semantic dodge". Because its perfectly obvious that a fertilized egg is "alive" in the biological sense of the word. The confusion arises from the fact that the scientist meant something other than plain biological activity when he said "life". He was conflating the term "life" with something else, which I'll call "personhood" for lack of a better word. Presumably he understood the distinction, but didn't think that it was worth getting into. Which does a grave disservice to the discussion, I think, because it perpetuates the common view that personhood is equivalent to having human DNA. This view, as far as I'm concerned, is clearly erroneous because it fails to take into account most of those components of "being" that make a person a person. This is the single reason why science can't tell us when personhood beings, because there isn't a consensus definition of "a person". However, presuming that such a consensus definition could be reached, there isn't any reason to think that science couldn't at least contribute to the discussion. So what, perchance, makes a person a person? The elephant in the room which the biological definition is ignoring is self-awareness, though this myopia is understandable to some degree. If you admit cognition as a criteria for personhood then you run into a couple of issues which would, no doubt, be viewed as problematic by traditionalists: 1. Making self-awareness a criteria for personhood "de-personizes" (anyone have a better word?) some life forms (notably embryos and Terri Schiavo) which certain segments of the population would like to have classified as "people". 2. It opens the door to non-human persons. Now, you could make "and have human DNA" a requirement for personhood, but the speciesism in that statement is so blatant that it should be obvious to everyone. The argument can be raised that determination of self-awareness is inherently subjective; by definition only the subject can know with meta-physical certainty that they are self-aware (see Descarte, Renè). However, there are external tests which can serve as reasonable proxies1: The interesting thing about these tests is that not all animals can pass all of them. For example, it appears that only the Great Apes can pass the mirror test, but apes and dolphins can pass the meta-cognition tests. And then there are some animals, like the Sphex wasp, which exhibit little or no volitional behavior. This would seem to imply that "conciousness" is not a black/white issue, but rather comes in levels or gradations. The neat thing about this approach to personhood is that it provides a rational framework for some practices which we already observer. For example, its really easy to do lab experiments on rats or mice, but regulations for performing experimates on primates, Great Apes in particular, are much more stringent. Presumably thats because we recognize that Great Apes are more "like us" than other animals. Getting back to the central point, however, it becomes apparent that if cognition is used as a model for personhood then science can speak with some certainty to the boundaries of this state. Based on the results of the tests listed above we can assign animals greater or lesser degrees of personhood. We can also narrow the answer to the question of when personhood begins. For example, in humans the machinery for cognition isn't present until at least the 25th week of gestation. So, under a more reasonable definition of personhood, its no longer possible to dodge the question of when personhood begins.
1 There have been a number of criticisms of these tests in terms of what the results actually mean, but that's outside the scope of this particular post. Let's stipulate for the time being that these tests measure what they're supposed to measure.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

What Do We Want?

More random thoughts on the rut that my associates have found themselves in (see here for the previous installment). We return to the original observation that we have very little to say to each other anymore when we gather. Conversations seem to boil down to "Yup, still doing my thing". What are we hoping to hear instead? Something, anything, besides the same standard story. And yet that's exactly what most of us are doing, the same thing. Are we just fucked? No matter how I slice it, it seems inevitably to return to the unpleasant truth that we're upstanding citizens who go to work and pay our taxes, but don't do a whole awful lot aside from that. This isn't necessarily our fault; as discussed earlier we find our choices constrained before we really understand what we've gotten ourselves into. Nevertheless, it seems sad (and perhaps even tragic) that, bright folks that we are, we still live in relatively small worlds. When we do manage to break out of the routine, on vacation, its only for a little while. Even then we're often tourists; we're just looking at the places we visit, we're not really engaging with them. That's unavoidable as well; how can you engage with a place that you're only going to see for a couple of weeks at most? After contemplation the conclusion seems clear: the path we've chosen is incompatible with real variation in life. American, great place that it is, puts a premium on "respectability", which seems to be defined as "getting a job and settling down". Having subscribed to this system, however unwittingly, we find ourselves stuck. So the answer to our rut seems to be "Yeah, but what else are you going to do?". Crap.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Internal Contradictions of Prayer

Not only are statements about the efficacy of prayer utterly untestable, as Ed Brayton points out, but there's also a big problem with the whole concept of prayer itself. How, exactly, does prayer work? Are you pleading with God, seeking to influence its decision? This seems to be the viewpoint that Mayor David Miller of Lubbock, TX holds, as reflected in his request that the people of Lubbock pray for rain:
Nobody is going to tell God what to do and what not to do, but we are in a serious drought in West Texas, and since He is the man who controls the rain clouds, we're asking Him for His mercy and His help.
Surely an omniscient being already knows that the people of Lubbock need help. Mayor Miller makes is sound like God needs a little extra reminder or something along those lines, like it hasn't quite made up its mind what to do about Lubbock yet. But the notion that God can be persuaded implies that God can come to a less-than-perfect decision to begin with, which contradicts the idea of the omniscience of God. Is Mayor Miller seeking to demonstrate the piety of the people of Lubbock to God? If God is omniscient then it already knows their hearts; external demonstrations are unnecessary. Does God require people to pray because it likes the attention? The problem with prayer is that its based on an anthropomorphic understanding of divinity that was prevalent way back in the day when the stories and practices which would eventually comprise The Bible were being developed. In the Fertile Crescent and thereabouts this was an era of city-states, each with their own capricious, jealous, all-too-human patron divinity. Prayer was conceptualized as a way to cajole, wheedle, and otherwise persuade these deities to do the bidding of the folken. I'm certainly not the first person to point this out; there's good treatments of the subject in The Golden Bough and A History of God.
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