A Triumphant Day for Reason

Two otherwise unrelated news stories today have given me hope that human beings can sometimes act other than irrationally:

Pluto is out of the planet club! In a striking blow for the principle of parsimony, the IAU has taken us back down to eight planets. Pluto with its highly irregular orbit is now a mere "dwarf planet".

Cheer up, Pluto fans. This doesn't necessarily mean that My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us... Nothing! Perhaps she served us Noodles instead.

And, the FDA has finally approved Plan B for sale without a prescription! That's right, the "morning after pill" will now be available OTC. This is truly a victory for female promiscuity! Let the immorality commence!

(I'm just poking fun at Ben, and other conservatives, here. Honestly, though, we should be compassionate. They're probably pretty torn up about this. The next thing you know, they'll be letting the little sluts get vaccines against HPV. What a shame that would be! Don't people realize that loose women deserve to die of ovarian cancer? I mean, really now, let's be reasonable here. [This is sarcasm.])


The Politics of Fear (Updated)

The other day, I put up a post considering the issue of profiling in airports. I concluded that there are just too many problems to make it an easy solution, including the fact that serious terror organizations could probably find ways around it.

My motivation for doing so was to consider an alternative to draconian measures such as banning liquids on flights. Well, as it turns out, this may just be a case of politicizing terror threats--and the investigation might even have been prematurely terminated.

I've read recently--sorry, I couldn't find the links in a cursory search, so deal--that the information leading to the arrests was garnered from torture victims in Pakistan, and that the explosives they were supposed to use would be insanely difficult to make on board of an airplane (the reactions require lots of ice and temperature monitoring, and a lot of stirring over a few hours, among other things).

Unfortunately for Bush & Co., the GOP didn't get the bump in support they were hoping for (boy who cried wolf, anyone?), but they have managed to provoke irrational fear and racism, as Glenn Greenwald reports:

All of the fear-mongering and political exploitation of terrorism from the Bush administration and its loyal supporters (including the British Prime Minister) is starting to produce predictable results. Passengers are becoming unwilling to fly on planes with Arab males. Yesterday, British passengers on a Monarch Airways flight to Manchester "mutinied" because there were two Arab men on the plane:

British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny - refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.

The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.

Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.

Glenn goes on to make, more forcefully, some of the points I tried to make earlier:

It would be really great -- so, so comforting -- if terrorists could be identified by looking at their faces. But as is true with the use of torture as an interrogation tool, one can leave aside the moral questions if one insists because singling out Arab-looking males is a stupid, ineffective and totally irrational method for finding terrorists. Islamic extremists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, nationalities, and genders. If the category of suspects is narrowed to Arab-looking males, fewer things will help terrorists more since they will simply use terrorists whose physical appearance and demographic characteristics place them outside of the targeted class.

But it is the irrational fear here that is so striking, and really quite pitiful. They have whipped people into a state of such intense paranoia that they quiver at the sight of two Arab males on their plane. There is roughly one billion Muslims in the world, including some countries which have more than 100 million. The U.S. alone has 10 million. Enormous numbers of Muslims are not Arab and do not reside in Arab countries. There are 320 million people living in Arab states, and it should go without saying that only a tiny handful of them are "terrorists" (and that many terrorists reside elsewhere). To start refusing to fly or take buses or trains or be in the same room with the males in that population -- which is clearly the path we are on -- is just stupid, hysterical, and counter-productive from every perspective.

Anyway, you should read the whole thing. Apparently the rightwing blogs are applauding this reactionary racism. Big surprise, huh?

Reading this, I can't help but wonder how the fear has gotten to me personally. I already have irrational fears associated with flying--telling myself that I'm more likely to die on the interstate en route to the airport doesn't seem to help for some reason--and perhaps it's not so difficult to throw some other fears into the mix. Was this what really prompted me to consider the question of profiling?

It's times like this when you can see how Bush is a far more effective terrorist than Osama bin Laden is. I recently saw V for Vendetta, and while some have derogated the movie as superficial, I really liked it and think it's a nice reminder of the danger that fear-driven politics poses for our world.

We must remember, racism is bad not simply for the harm it does to minority populations, but because it is irrational. Statistically speaking, even if you find that one group surpasses another group in some characteristic on average, you can't use such knowledge to predict group status on an individual basis. For instance, men are taller than women on average, but if I tell you that a person is 6 feet tall, that by no means necessitates that it's a man.

This is especially so for something like terrorism, for only a tiny fraction of individuals of any race, religion, or nationality are aspiring suicide bombers. If we forget this, we let the terrorists and Republican politicians win.

UPDATE: Glenn links to this great analysis of the British incident at Mahablog. Definitely worth reading.


On a lighter note...

"Astrologers unfazed by new planet plans."

Thank heavens! I was afraid this might effect our precious pseudosciences! Hopefully scientology and creation science are also unfazed.

But really, I think 12 planets should be seen as a boon to astrologers, since that's the number of Zodiac signs and such. Why isn't the International Astrological Union doing something about this?

While they're at it, they should reform the way that signs of the Zodiac are determined to coincide with conception. I mean, it makes no sense to suggest that the womb gives us protection from the influence of the stars. And since gestation time is considerably variable (I, for one, took nearly 10 months to emerge from the womb, according to my parents), it couldn't just be a matter of offsetting things by 9 months.

Under the logic of the current conventions, what would happen if you were born into a house made of meat? Would you not acquire your sign until you left it? Perhaps the astrologer might counter that there's some kind of interference caused by the soul of the mother. Fine, but embryos created in vitro wouldn't have that problem.

Astrologers really need to get on the ball here.


Bonus Reader Poll: Which ultimate fate for the universe most appeals to you?

A. The Big Crunch
B. The Big Rip
C. The Big Freeze
D. The Big Gulp


Of Wanderers and Wonderers

Today is a good day for science.

Recently, I have been inspired by news that astronomers are currently convening in Prague to decide the fate of Pluto, the black sheep of our solar system. This "plucky" little spheroid (yes, one of the "journalists" covering this story used that adjective in describing some elementary school children's attempts to save its historical status) has, for decades now, been the recipient of the astronomical equivalent of affirmative action.

But discovery of other objects in the solar system of comparable size and orbit have called Pluto's status into question. For scientists to be consistent, they would have to allow Pluto's moon Charon, the heretofore-asteroid Ceres, and the newly discovered celestial body nicknamed "Xena" into the planet club. Moreover, dozens or perhaps even hundreds of roughly spherical objects orbiting the sun may be candidates for entry.

Reading about this fascinating shift in long-established facts has reminded me of the wonder I experienced in my youth regarding what I thought at the time was God's creation (or, more accurately, just God; I was pretty pantheistic). About the time of my sophomore year in high school, I really got into cosmology and astrophysics. I thought then that I would surely become some sort of scientist, a geneticist if not a physicist (I was taking biology at the time).

I read popular works, primarily by Stephen Hawking. I read the original version of A Brief History of Time, as well as the illustrated version, and I even made my parents play lectures of his on tape (in his robotic voice and everything!) during at least one family vacation. I saw in a bookstore the other day that he has a new illustrated tome entitled The Universe in a Nutshell which purports to be an update of that first popular book which I so enjoyed.

I see these sorts of adolescent ruminations on the nature of reality as my first stirrings of philosophical interest. My interests in science have shifted--towards evolutionary theory and neuroscience more than anything--but they never completely left me.

In fact, I could quite easily see myself in graduate school for science, were it not for the fact that experimental work never appealed to me. (Also, even though I am fortunate to be mathematically talented, I never really liked the more advanced math that I studied.) I'm too much of a big picture thinker; I wouldn't be satisfied chipping away at one small corner of the universe when there's so much out there that's exciting.

But, as I've said, my interest in cosmology has been rekindled, and I've been spending (too) much time recently perusing Wikipedia. I have to say, it is a fantastic source (as far as I can discern) for popular discussions of theoretical physics, advanced mathematics, and high-concept science-fiction.

I'm feeling lazy, otherwise I'd include links, but I started off looking at Dyson spheres, stellar engines, the Kardashev civilization scale, the anthropic principle, ecumenopoleis (plural form of ecumenopolis, or world-city), and cosmological evolution (what you might call Darwinism for universes). I swear, though, I could spend days reading about these things. They're utterly fascinating, truly a testament to the power of the human imagination and the sublime beauty of our universe.

I think it's no coincidence that I find Spinoza so compelling, given these sensibilities. Even though he is an amazing thinker in terms of human psychology, ethics, and politics, Spinoza is also a big picture thinker. I find some fascinating parallels between Book I of the Ethics and ideas like the infinite universes hypothesis and the anthropic principle. This is huge stuff--I mean, we're talking bigger-than-the-universe stuff.

Consider the following. It's a given that intelligent life is an extremely improbable phenomenon. Given enough time and space, it's bound to happen somewhere in a universe, but only if that universe falls within specific parameters, having certain fixed cosmological constants. Because of how rare it is, it would seem to us that (excluding the possibility of intelligent designer(s), whose existence would itself be even less probable than that of a universe capable of supporting some kind of intelligent life) it's unlikely to arise if only one universe existed. In other words, the fact that we exist seems to lend credence to something like the infinite universes hypothesis.

But, as it turns out, this kind of reasoning is an instance of the inverse gambler's fallacy! As you may know, the gambler's fallacy is this idea that if you've been, say, playing roulette for a long time and 17 hasn't come up yet, that it's due to show up on this particular spin. The error here is that dice (and roulette wheels) have no memory. On any given trial, it's just as likely that 17 will come up if the last 100 spins have not landed there as it would be if say 50 of the past 100 had (improbably) landed on 17.

The inverse of this, also a fallacy, is to think that the occurrence of something improbable means a long history of unsuccessful attempts. So, say I go to a casino and play the slot machine once, hitting triple-7 and winning the big jackpot. I then ask you, is it more likely that this is an old machine that has had many losers before or that it's a brand new machine which had never been used before? We'd be inclined to suppose the former, but unjustifiably so. The probably of hitting 777 on spin #1 is equal to that of hitting 777 on spin #1,000,000.

What does this mean for the universe? Well, the likelihood that life will arise in this universe does not change even if there are millions of non-life-supporting universes "out there" (assuming that universes are closed systems that don't interfere with each other). If this reasoning is correct then, from our perspective, it is no more rational to believe that there are infinitely many universes than to believe there is just one--it's merely an aesthetic preference. That's just so counterintuitive!


Airport Profiling

In light of yet more rules and restrictions on what can be brought on airplanes, many of us are probably wondering how far things will go. The current ban on liquids seems to me excessive--although the UK's response, banning carry-on luggage almost entirely, is even worse.

While any more successful terrorist attacks would be unacceptable, we let the terrorists win if we totally surrender our freedoms out of fear of relatively unlikely events. A balance must be struck between security and convenience.

This thus brings me to the issue of racial/religious profiling. On the left, this is typically dismissed without thought. Certainly there are enough cases of abuse among police forces to have put the practice into general disrepute. But, putting aside fallacious slippery slope concerns, is there a case to be made for using profiling in airport screening?

I'll begin by admitting that this practice probably already goes on to a great extent. In a sense, the question I'm asking is, should we look the other way when this goes on? I'm not a legal scholar, so I'll leave aside constitutional concerns (a case could be made that it violates the 4th and 14th Amendments). Instead I ask, what kind of profiling (if any) is (morally) acceptable in airport screening? Could such profiling be a substitute for other draconian measures that unnecessarily inconvenience us all?

Beginning directly with the most controversial case, race, I would argue that race alone should be insufficient. For one thing, being swarthy, olive-skinned, or more generally "of Middle Eastern appearance" (OMEA) is fairly common. Some southeast Asians, Hispanics, and even Southern Europeans can be OMEA. Nor is there any guarantee that a terrorist will be distinctly OMEA himself. So let us set aside race for now--it's probably better to do this anyway.

Certain types of profiling I think no one would object to. Passengers who buy one-way tickets, in cash, the day of their flight would rightly be subjected to scrutiny. Terrorists also don't typically travel with their wives or children--and are predominantly male, for that matter.

However, looking out for these signs would also be insufficient unto themselves. If terrorist organizations learn that certain things are being looked for, they can always adapt. How much harder would it be to buy round-trip tickets in advance, for instance? Similarly, attacks in Britain have shown how terrorism can come from native-born individuals as well as from foreigners. There are large enough populations of Muslims within the UK and the US for terrorist recruiters to draw from.

What then of specifically religious profiling? Surely this is something that all members of al-Qaeda have in common? Setting aside the fact that the vast, vast majority of practitioners of Islam are not terrorists, it would seem relatively easy to lie about such a thing.

As I ponder this issue further, it seems to be intractably complex. Even if we could compile a specific profile of hijackers, it's clear that there will always be difficulties. For starters, it's unfair to the majority of members of whatever demographic group who are peaceable, law-abiding citizens. Second, it's not so hard to work around such profiles.

Of course, these are criticisms of a more practical nature. The question is, if it were possible to produce a relatively successful profiling program, would it be right to employ it?

Then again, maybe asking such a question masks a crucial part of the enterprise--in the asking of such a question, we fall into the danger of overlooking the very real abuses that are likely to accompany such a practice. More generally, I'm inclined to believe that epistemic concerns can have an impact on the justifiability of certain practices. By way of explanation, let me draw upon two relevant examples.

First, there is the question of torture. Advocates are quick to point to something like the ticking time-bomb example, in which a terror suspect holds the key to stopping the death of millions, but must be tortured to extract said key. The problem with this scenario is that it constructs an ideal situation that we could never know that we were in. Even if we're pragmatic about justification, and settle for plausibility over certainty, we still run into significant problems. False bomb threats are not uncommon, suspects are often mistakenly apprehended, and the reliability of information garnered through torture is itself dubious.

Another example of this is the (original) justification for the Iraq War. The claim was made that Iraq had WMDs that posed a significant enough threat for us to attack them preemptively. At the time, I made an argument to the effect that such unprovoked military action requires a high threshold of certainty to be justifiable. Even if the Bush administration believed that Saddam had WMDs, they were in the wrong ethically if their belief was not adequately justified.

In the aftermath, it's clear that doubts were suppressed and dissenting assessments stifled in such a way that, even if Bush & Co. didn't explicitly lie, they are still morally culpable for wrongly believing something on insufficient evidence. Ordinarily, we don't hold people responsible for ignorance, but in a case such as this one (in which we had to take them at their word since the information they judged from was classified) different standards apply.

Returning to the example at hand, I would argue that efficacy considerations cannot merely be sidelined. If we could be sure that profiling would prevent some terrorist attacks, I would support it on consequentialist grounds. But efficiency is an empirical question, although one especially difficult to assess in this situation. While it may be possible to measure the number of plots thwarted, it's impossible to measure the number of plots that were entirely prevented. No terrorist attacks could mean a successful set of programs, but it could just be dumb luck.


If I draw one conclusion from this, it's that there is no easy answer to fighting terrorism. There can be no question of simply replacing the ban on liquids with more aggressive profiling. If our motivation for wanting to target specific groups is to reduce the inconvenience to most of us, who pose no threat, the question of implementation complicates the issue, drowning out common sense pleas of "But I'm no terrorist--why can't I bring my hair gel?"

Really, I have a lot of trouble thinking about this set of issues. Although I don't find it nearly as wrong-headed as the "War on Drugs", the "War on Terror" leaves me somewhat ambivalent. The Muslim world has some legitimate grievances with the West. Sometimes I wonder if what we're trying to protect includes advantages that we're not entitled to. Why should the US get more oil than anyone else?

Above all, I am reminded that terrorism is a problem that cannot be fought primarily with law enforcement and military action. Whether it's giving up cheap oil and global military superiority or losing the luxury of being able to fly with toothpaste, sacrifices must be made. The American way of life is ultimately unsustainable; it persists today only at a huge cost to the poorer parts of the globe.


A More Sensible Drug Policy

A new study by British researchers attempts to order 20 drugs according to the damage they do to individuals and to society as a whole.

Some of the most interesting findings indicate that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy, with alcohol coming in 5th after heroin, cocaine, barbituates, and (street) methadone.

The list is not comprehensive, omitting anesthetics like PCP and ketamine (Special K), hallucinogens like psilocybin/psilocin (magic mushrooms) and mescaline (peyote), and caffeine.

Reasonable Members of Parliament are suggesting that some drugs be reclassified:

Strongly influenced by the research, MPs on the Commons science and technology select committee demanded an overhaul of the system to give the public a "better sense of the relative harms involved".

They called for a new scale to be introduced, rating substances on the basis of health and social risks and not linked to legality or potential punishments.

They questioned whether ecstasy and magic mushrooms should remain in Class A and called on the Government's drug adviser, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), to look at the issue.

Phil Willis, who chairs the committee, said the current classifications were "riddled with anomalies" and were "clearly not fit for purpose".

"This research shows why we need a radical overhaul of the current law and a radical review of the classification system," he said.

"It's clearly not fit for purpose in the 21st century, neither for informing drug-users or providing public information."

One committee member, the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, said that putting drugs in the wrong category "undermined the whole system". "Lots of young people know that there's a difference between ecstasy and heroin," he said.

It's nice to see elected officials responding positively to scientific findings. I'm sick of the religious ideology that pervades politics in this country and results in the most illogical, anti-scientific conclusions and policies.

The fact that the researchers looked not merely at harm to individuals but at harm to society as a whole undermines, at least in part, some of the conservative arguments I've heard against the decriminalization of, e.g., marijuana. (Of course, one could always criticize the ways in which they gauge the degree of social harm, but at least they see the importance of including it).

It's always nice to find data like this to back up one's intuitions and personal experience. This should allow me to form a more coherent position on drug policy. Some of my new conclusions follow.

Despite their danger, it's not feasible to criminalize alcohol or tobacco. This doesn't necessarily mean, however, that everything below alcohol on the list ought to be totally unregulated. We may wish to keep some, especially those that fall between alcohol and tobacco, criminalized. And since alcohol and tobacco are themselves regulated, I don't see why we couldn't put an age requirement on the sale and use of cannabis, LSD, mushrooms, ecstasy, etc.

Here, I'd argue for 18; 21 is just ridiculous. That we can vote, fight for our country, be held fully responsible for criminal offenses, and so forth, but not drink is just idiotic. Now I'm not an advocate of the "forbidden fruit" argument (viz., that people want something more because it is denied them, so that granting access to it would actually reduce the number of users), but it seems to me that our current attitudes toward alcohol lead to binge drinking and other dangerous patterns of behavior.

By and large, I am very pro-drug use. Those of us with the misfortune of losing the genetic lottery (who suffer from depression or anxiety, say), can use them to make life more enjoyable, or at least tolerable. I definitely think people should be encouraged to take drugs like antidepressants and anxiolytics; I would even argue that they are underprescribed, not over-.

Street drugs are different, because their sale is not regulated (they may be contaminated) and they can come with nasty side effects, including dependence and addiction. Nevertheless, I see no problem with using drugs recreationally if people do so responsibly. We should educate, rather than indoctrinate, people about the risks associated with drug use.

Above all, I advocate the decriminalization of cannabis (for obvious reasons). Anecdotally, at least, comparing stoners to binge drinkers puts the former in a far more favorable light. Personally, I prefer the company of potheads to that of alcoholics. And smoking weed does not make people aggressive (or, even worse, sexually aggressive), nor does it carry any real risk of overdose (compare 16 UK deaths from marijuana use to 22,000 for alcohol and 114,000 for tobacco, in 2004; even if we account for discrepancies in the number of users, the cannabis figures are relatively miniscule).

Lastly, I would argue that cracking down on recreational users is a huge waste of resources. We don't need to be spending billions of dollars prosecuting victimless crimes, nor should we be filling our prisons with drug offenders. Really, the punishment ought to fit the crime. If the UK can understand that, why can't we?