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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dec 16

SOPA and the oblivious

A government that is big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything away from you – including your Internet freedom.

That’s the thought that keeps running through my head as I contemplate the full-scale panic going on right now about SOPA, the “Stop Internet Piracy Act”.

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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:

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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…

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Sep 24

Community versus collectivism

Community and collectivism are opposites. Community is valuable and powerful; it is individuals freely choosing to cooperate and identify with each other to achieve more than they can individually, as we do in the open-source community.

Collectivism is a fraud. It pretends to be about community, but it is actually about the use of force. Collectivists want us not only to bow to their desire for power over others, but to thank them for coercing us and praise them as our moral superiors.

Compassion is a duty of every individual. Groups of people organizing voluntarily to achieve compassionate ends are deserve admiration and support. Collectivists pervert compassion, speaking the language of caring but committing the actions of criminals.

It is a crime to rob your neighbor. It is a crime to use your neighbor for your own ends without allowing him or her a choice in the matter. It is a crime to deprive your neighbor of his liberty when he or she has committed no aggression against you.

These crimes are no less crimes when a sociopath (or a politician – but, I repeat myself) justifies them by chanting “for the poor” or “for the children” or “for the environment”. They do not cease to be crimes just because a majority has been conned into voting for them. The violence is just as violent, the victims just as injured, the harm done just as grave.

Valid ethical propositions do not contain proper names. What is criminal for an individual to do is criminal for a community to do. Collectivists are not the builders of community, as they pretend, but its deadliest enemies – its corrupters and betrayers. When we fail to understand these simple truths, we board a train to genocide and the gulags.

(This was originally a comment I left on Google+)

Sep 19

Living in Euro-Cloud-Cuckoo land

I often tell people that I think The Economist is the best news magazine in the English language – and not because they make a relatively frequent habit of quoting me, either. The house style is intelligent, often penetrating, witty, and sober about important things.

It is very rare that The Economist indulges in wishful thinking to the point of doomed fantasy. But that is exactly where their lead editorial, How To Save The Euro, goes this week. Save the Euro? Really? One wonders what they’re smoking over there.

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Jul 18

Brin on Heinlein on guns is dead wrong

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about Robert Heinlein, but not to their own facts. In a blog post on Heinlein’s novel Beyond This Horizon, David Brin advances a number of claims which are disputable, and one that is utterly bizarre. He alleges that the thought behind Heinlein’s famous quote “An armed society is a polite society” was not Heinlein’s but issued from John W. Campbell, the editor who with Heinlein invented science fiction as we know it.

This claim is not merely wrong, it attempts to traduce a core belief which Heinlein expressed in his fiction and his nonfiction and his personal letters throughout his life. We do not have to speculate about this; as I shall show, it is so amply documented that Brin’s claim passes from being merely tendentious to outright bizarre.

Brin’s error matters to me personally because, as much as I am anything else, I am one of Heinlein’s children. I have closely studied his works and his life, and that study has shaped me. What I have given to the world through my advocacy of open source is directly tied back to what the Old Man taught me about liberty, transparency, and moral courage. And I am never more Heinlein’s child than when I advocate for an armed (and polite) society.

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Jun 27

Why the political class needs a Greek bailout

There’s been a lot of ink spilled lately on the likelihood that the nation of Greece will default on its public debt, and why it is utterly necessary for the European Union and the U.S. must ride the the rescue with some sort of fiddle involving a combination of (a) massive taxpayer-funded loans, (b) cramming changes in the terms of Greek government bonds down bondholders’ throats, and (c) stern finger-wagging at the Greeks.

Lost in the eye-glazing babble about maturity extensions, haircuts, and which acronymic organization is going to funnel the money into place is the real magnitude of the stakes here. It’s not just the Greeks’ opera-bouffé parody of the modern redistributionist state that is circling the structural-insolvency drain; what really terrifies our political class is the prospect that, very soon, the investors simply won’t buy government bonds anymore – and massive borrowing through bond issues is the only thing keeping the redistributionist state afloat.

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Mar 13

Politics as usual is over

A number of my regulars have asked me why I don’t blog about politics as much as I used to.

Fundamentally, it’s because I think the value of political persuasion is decreasing fast. Political persuasion matters most when when policy options are relatively open and unconstrained by objective conditions that politics cannot alter. It matters less when policy options are more constrained, and not at all when there are no choices left.

The political system I have been criticizing all my adult life is fast approaching the point of “no choices left”. And not just in the U.S., either; the same problems of political overcommitment and structural insolvency are playing out in advanced nations all over the planet.

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Mar 06

Rape statistics: a case study in public flim-flam

A commenter on a recent thread claimed “the lifetime risk of rape for a woman [in the U.S.] is one in six…Almost everyone who deals with the issue considers that wildly too low to be realistic. But one in six is indisputable.”

No incidence of rape above zero is acceptable to me. I teach women pistol self-defense at no charge. You may correctly infer my motives from the fact that the first time a female student of mine shoots a good tight center-of-mass group, my normal mode of expressing approval is to say “That’s one dead rapist!”

Accordingly, I found this claim so disturbing that I decided to research it. What I found appears to be a classic case of unreliable statistics being oversimplified through rumor, hysteria, the telephone effect, and self-serving inflation.

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Feb 03

Heavy weather and bad juju

Many primitive societies believe that maleficient spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes – cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficient human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.

A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers – but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” – you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.

English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.

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Dec 10

Examples and consequences

SF author and civil-rights activist Joel Rosenberg has been unjustly arrested. Good coverage at PopeHat; essentially this is harassment following a Nov 5th assault on Joel by a cop while he was pursuing a FOIA request related to his first arrest, on bogus charges that prosecutors subsequently dropped.

I have very mixed feelings about this one, because I suspect I may, in a manner of speaking, have helped get Joel in trouble.

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Nov 29

Other peoples’ money

“The trouble with socialism,” Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “is that sooner or later you run out of other peoples’ money. This observation is the key to understanding the wave of government bankruptcies that has already begun to break over us.

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