May 02

The true meaning of moral panics

In my experience, moral panics are almost never about what they claim to be about. I am just (barely) old enough to remember the tail end of the period (around 1965) when conservative panic about drugs and rock music was actually rooted in a not very-thinly-veiled fear of the corrupting influence of non-whites on pure American children. In retrospect it’s easy to understand as a reaction against the gradual breakdown of both legally enforced and de-facto racial segregation in the U.S.

But moral panics are by no means a monopoly of cultural conservatives. These days the most virulent and bogus examples are as likely to arrive from the self-described “left” as the “right”. When they do, they’re just as likely to be about something other than the ostensible subject.

Continue reading

Apr 15

Destroying the middle ground

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine yourself in an alternate United States where the First Amendment is not as a matter of settled law considered to bar Federal and State governments from almost all interference in free speech. This is less unlikely than it might sound; the modern, rather absolutist interpretation of free-speech liberties did not take form until the early 20th century.

In this alternate America, there are many and bitter arguments about the extent of free-speech rights. The ground of dispute is to what extent the instruments of political and cultural speech (printing presses, radios, telephones, copying machines, computers) should be regulated by government so that use of these instruments does not promote violence, assist criminal enterprises, and disrupt public order.

The weight of history and culture is largely on the pro-free-speech side – the Constitution does say “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. And until the late 1960s there is little actual attempt to control speech instruments.

Then, in 1968, after a series of horrific crimes and assassinations inspired by inflammatory anti-establishment political propaganda, some politicians, prominent celebrities, and public intellectuals launch a “speech control” movement. They wave away all comparisons to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, insisting that their goal is not totalitarian control but only the prevention of the most egregious abuses in the public square.

Continue reading

Apr 09

What if it really was like that?

If you read any amount of history, you will discover that people of various times and places have matter-of-factly believed things that today we find incredible (in the original sense of “not credible”). I have found, however, that one of the most interesting questions one can ask is “What if it really was like that?”

That is, what if our ancestors weren’t entirely lying or fantasizing when they believed in…say…the existence of vampires? If you’re willing to ask this question with an open mind, you might discover that there is a rare genetic defect called “erythropoietic porphyrinuria” that can mimic some of the classical stigmata of vampirism. Victims’ gums may be drawn back on the teeth, making said teeth appear fanglike; they are likely to be photophobic, shunning bright light; and, being anemic, they may develop a craving for blood…

Continue reading

Apr 02

Natural rights and wrongs?

One of my commenters recently speculated in an accusing tone that I might be a natural-rights libertarian. He was wrong, but explaining why is a good excuse for writing an essay I’ve been tooling up to do for a long time. For those of you who aren’t libertarians, this is not a parochial internal dispute – in fact, it cuts straight to the heart of some long-standing controversies about consequentialism versus deontic ethics. And if you don’t know what those terms mean, you’ll have a pretty good idea by the time you’re done reading.

Continue reading

Apr 01

AGW panic ending with a whimper

This is how the AGW panic ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Economist, which (despite a recent decline) remains probably the best news magazine in the English language, now admits that (a) global average temperature has been flat for 15 years even as CO2 levels have been rising rapidly, (b) surface temperatures are at the lowest edge of the range predicted by IPCC climate models, (c) on current trends, they will soon fall clean outside and below the model predictions, (c) estimates of climate sensitivity need revising downwards, and (d) something, probably multiple things, is badly wrong with AGW climate models.

Do I get to say “I told you so!” yet?

Continue reading

Jul 19

Napier’s Lesson

In the 1840s, Hindu priests complained to Charles James Napier (then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in India) about the prohibition of suttee by British authorities. Suttee was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands. According to Napier’s brother William, this is how he replied:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This incident, perhaps the finest single moment in the history of Britain’s relatively benign imperialism, teaches two lessons still profoundly relevant today.

Continue reading

Jul 03

Why I won’t be signing the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” as it is

There’s been some buzz in the last few days about the Declaration of Internet Freedom penned by some prominent libertarians.

I wish I could sign on to this document. Actually, considering who appears on the list of signatories, I consider the fact that the composers didn’t involve me in drafting it to be a surprising mistake that I can only ascribe to a collective fit of absent-mindedness.

But, because neither I nor anyone else from the hacker tribe was involved, it has one very serious flaw.

Continue reading

Apr 02

Trayvon Martin and the grievance factory

Even to a person as cynical and jaded as I have become about American politics, the brouhaha around the Trayvon Martin shooting is rather shocking. Usually, in past instances of even the most determined attempts to inflame racial hatred, there’s been at least a fig leaf of plausible deniability over the manipulation. Not this time. Not with MSNBC getting caught editing its presentation of the 911 tape to make it sound like the shooter uttered a racial slur. Not with Trayvon Martin’s photo obviously photoshopped to make him look younger, less threatening, and (ironically) more white.

I’m not going to utter or argue for a conclusion about whether or not Zimmerman shot in self-defense. We don’t know that. Perhaps he was, in fact, motivated by race hatred. The facts of the shooting will have to come clearer before that can be judged. We have more than enough facts, though, to observe and indict the operation of the racial-grievance factory, and to point a finger squarely at those who are dishonestly battening on Trayvon Martin’s death.

Continue reading

Mar 12

The moral equivalent of witchcraft

The New York Times is carrying an unusually in-depth story “What Happened to the Girls in Leroy? on an epidemic of twitching, stuttering, and tics among the high-school girls of a small town in upstate New York.

The reporter didn’t go there, but I couldn’t help noticing strong parallels to what we know about the run-up to the Salem witch trials. The symptoms reported from LeRoy are very like the “sickness of astonishment” which, in the belief context of Puritan Massachusetts in the 1690s, led to accusations of witchcraft and the torture and hanging of twenty people.

Today’s verdict on the epidemic in LeRoy matches what historians generally believe about the causes of the Salem witch trials. Mass hysteria – or, in more modern clinical language, an epidemic of “conversion disorder” in which psychological stressors turn into physical symptoms through unconscious neurological mechanisms that are not yet well understood.

What is yet more interesting, but not as closely examined by the reporter as it should have been, is the secondary illness the girls induced in the community around them. Parents reaching for explanations in Salem in 1692, living within a strongly religious world-view, seized on Satan and hostile witchcraft to explain the twitching, stuttering, and tics. The parents of Leroy, in a more secular world, instantly invented an equally unfalsifiable explanation – one which tells us a great deal about the native insanities of our own time.

Yes, it’s 2012, and trace chemical pollutants have become the new witchcraft.

Continue reading

Feb 21

The Grey Lady weeps for Peter Gleick

So, all last week on one of my favorite mailing lists I was hearing various climate alarmists crowing about a document leak from the Heartland Institute that supposedly prooooved that it (and by extension all other anthropogenic-global-warming skeptics) was engaging in a nefarious campaign to suppress its opponents and trash the teaching of science in the U.S.

You may, therefore, imagine my amusement when it turned out that the key, incriminating document in the Heartland dump is pretty certainly a fake. Several separate lines of evidence lead to this conclusion, including both content analysis of the document and some smelly things about the PDF metadata.

My initial reaction was: ho hum, more fraud by climate alarmists, good that they got caught again, should be entertaining to watch the mainstream media trying to suppress the story just as assiduously as they were hyping it when it looked like a good score against the eeeevil Heartland Institute and the eeevil denialists. In the normal course of events I’d have let all this pass without comment; it’s not surprising, and other than some entertaining resonances with Dan Rather’s forged TANG document back in 2004 it’s not very interesting.

That is, until yesterday’s unintentional hilarity at the New York Times.

Continue reading

Jan 29

Junk science double fail

Two bits of science news appeared on my radar today with not much in common except that they’re both exceedingly bad news for the political class. That more or less guarantees that they’ll get poor or nonexistent coverage in the mainstream media and is a good enough reason for me to write about them.

First, the British Meteorological Service and the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia are now admitting that global warming stopped in 1997 – there’s been no net rise in the Earth’s temperature in 15 years. And no, this isn’t an illusion produced by the 1997 El Nino peak – if you look at the chart accompanying the article you’ll see that GAT has dropped to pre-el-Nino levels.

The source makes this a particularly difficult pill for AGW alarmists to swallow – for of course, the CRU is the home of the infamous “team” whose work has been at the center of the panic. If they’re wrong now, what warrant do we have that they weren’t equally wrong then?

And, actually, it gets worse. Solar observations suggest we may be headed for an insolation minimum ever deeper than the one in 2008 that wiped out the entire 20th-century GAT rise – in fact, some NASA meteorologists are muttering darkly about a near-term recap of the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age!

This of course, is bad news for the political class because AGW panic was so useful for raising taxes and increasing central control of the economy. The general public has been increasingly skeptical of late, but popular reaction so far has been nothing compared to what will be unleashed if it turns out the real climate problem of the next two decades is how to keep our crops from freezing.

Our other news today is of a study apparently showing that the heritability of IQ increases with age.

IQ, and its heritability, has been a major irritant to would-be social engineers. Because – no matter how much propaganda they sponsor to the effect that IQ is meaningless, or multifactoral, or the tests are culturally biased – IQ assessments done in the traditional way aimed at approximating Spearman’s g keep turning out to be about the single most valuable statistical measure for predicting not just academic performance but all kinds of other interesting things like lifetime earnings and propensity to criminality.

This new result is another turn of the screw. Because now it turns out that while you can raise childrens’ measured IQ with all the usual nostrums (better family circumstances, intensive schooling, etc) the effects of such interventions vanish in the adults that the children become. A particularly strong finding is that while adoptive children tend towards the IQ distribution of their foster families, the adults they become revert to the IQ distribution of their biological families.

This matters because poverty is correlated with and often caused by low intelligence. This is even more true today than it used to be, because we have a whole meritocratic apparatus aimed at scooping up poor-but-bright kids and tracking them into good schools and good jobs so they don’t stay poor. (And, as cynical as I sound in the rest of this post, be in no doubt that I think this meritocratic apparatus is a good thing and among the proudest achievements of our civilization.)

But: Our political class is heavily invested in the ideology that all the factors driving poverty are environmental. Because that means we can social-engineer our way to an egalitarian utopia by methods which – surprise! justify raising taxes and increasing central control of the economy. It’s bad news for them that adult IQ is genetically heritable and intractable to the sorts of interventions that employ thousands upon thousands of bureaucrats and busybodies.

To be fair, neither the prospect of a cooling earth nor the intractability of IQ are good news for the rest of us either. It would be nicer, in many ways, if we really lived in the political class’s fantasy world – the place where all our troubles are self-created, there’s always someone to blame, and always a political fix.

But at least, since we don’t live in that fantasy world, we can tell the political class to stuff its coercive utopianism up its own ass and demand our liberty back.

Jan 03

Through a mirror, darkly

Today the New York Times is carrying a story on Chinese fears of “cultural encirclement”.

“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” Mr. Hu said. “We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond,” he added.

This quote reminds us of something too easily forgotten, which is that Communists have always taken ideological struggle seriously. Communist theory teaches them to believe that the most effective way to break the will of the opposition is to de-legitimize its ruling class, degrade its culture, destroy its confidence in its own institutions and its own way of life.

Hu Jintao believes that the West is waging a conscious memetic war against Communist China – because he knows that Communists including himself have been waging a conscious memetic war against Western civilization since the 1840s. Sadly, this is not yesterday’s news.

Continue reading

Dec 29

The Varieties of Anti-Intellectualism

One of the recurring features of American intellectual life is hand-wringing over “anti-intellectualism” by, of course, intellectuals.

One of my regular commenters has pointed out that the term and concept of anti-intellectualism are used to describe several distinct phenomena that are relatively easily confused. He’s right, and I think it could bring some clarity to the murkier corners of the culture wars to develop the point.

Note: The term “intellectual” is not infrequently applied to me. By the end of this essay it should be clear why, though I recognize the justice in that application, I’m not completely happy with it.

Continue reading

Dec 03

Why I love Walmart despite never shopping there

In a discussion thread that wandered to the subject of Walmart and its enemies, I said “Scratch a Walmart-basher and you’ll find a snotty elitist, a person who hates capitalism and consumption and deep down thinks the Wrong People have Too Much Stuff.”

The commenter replied: “You know, I don’t think you need to be an anti-capitalist in order to disdain over-consumption and its enablers.”

No, certainly not. My own preference is to live simply, getting and spending little and putting my energy into creative work. Much of what we think of as “normal” behavior in a consumer society strikes me as wasteful and vulgar. But it’s a disdain I tend to keep quiet about, for at least two reasons:

Continue reading

Nov 27

Seven Eight Warning Signs of Junk Science

I’ve written before about scientific error cascades and the pernicious things that happen when junk science becomes the focus or rationale of a political crusade.

The worst example of this sort of thing in my lifetime, and arguably in the entire history of science, has been the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) panic. Now that the wheels are falling off that juggernaut, I’m starting to hear ordinary people around me wonder how I knew it was bullshit and hot air so much in advance…

Continue reading