Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What will those gun-crazy cowboys think of next?

Now this is why God wrote the 2nd Amendment!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

First, Do No Harm

Pen and Teller have a funny* take on circumcision. Caution: adult words and images, so view accordingly.

Humor aside, it is singularly difficult to find any rational explanation why this medical procedure is not accorded the same respect we reserve for female mutilation. The prophylactic effects are iffy, and even if taken at their maximum face value, would dictate that we also proactively remove appendixes.

Further, circumcision reeks of something that would never be invented if it didn't exist. Considering the scorn heaped upon unnecessary medical procedures, why does this one persist?

* Your humorage may vary. That, and I may have self diagnosed the refined, erudite, sense of humor possessed by your garden variety 12-yrd old boy.

Full Disclosure. I was cirumcised when I was four, in conjunction withing getting a cast on my broken arm. Near as I can figure, my parents must have gotten some sort of two-fer discount. So I remember the stitches, but, even so, don't give it any more thought than the broken army that presumably landed me in the hospital in the first place.

When we found out we were going to have a son, my wife and I faced the same dilemma as Krystal and her husband in the video.

She for, I against. She wanted him to be like all the other boys, and I wanted to avoid a procedure with no apparent medical justification.

Like all happily married men, I eventually caved.

His circumcision went awry, though, and required a painful redo to put this right.

In almost all cases, caving to my wifes wishes has been the smart thing to do. This caving, though, I still regret.

Welcome to the "new" Daily Duck

The DD finally became eligible to the new Blogger. Besides providing my profile info on the front page, I'm not sure what other improvements were made. There are probably plenty of bells and whistles that we can take advantage of. If anyone has some ideas, please let me know.

The Worst and the Dimmest

How did a party that in 1960 inspired the "Best and the Brightest" of this nation's talent to join the administration of John F. Kennedy become the party that instead promoted the Worst and the Dimmest to the national political stage?

Not so mere matter

There are few things that evoke a more visceral reaction of disgust from theists as the notion that their conscious experiences are the result of "mere" matter. It is the ultimate allergic reaction, almost a mental auto-immune response in which the mind treats the body as a foreign entity. I commented on this phenomenon in the first installment of my essay "Ideas and Consequences", likening it to the reaction that a diner would have on learning that the delicious delicacy he is feasting on was made from elephant testicles. "Blech!" the theist blurts as he spits out the news that his seamless experience of consciousness is "merely" an emergent phenomenon of matter and energy. I vainly asked if instead of judging the phenomenon by its components, we should judge the components by the phenomenon. If life is wonderful, then so is the matter that gives life. Not mere matter, but wonderful matter.

For those believers unable to stomach my advice, I warn you that the following article by Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, may result in symptoms of mental queasiness and nausea:


SCIENTISTS HAVE EXORCISED THE GHOST FROM THE MACHINE NOT because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people's thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.

And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.


ANOTHER STARTLING CONCLUSION FROM the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there's an executive "I" that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.

Take the famous cognitive-dissonance experiments. When an experimenter got people to endure electric shocks in a sham experiment on learning, those who were given a good rationale ("It will help scientists understand learning") rated the shocks as more painful than the ones given a feeble rationale ("We're curious.") Presumably, it's because the second group would have felt foolish to have suffered for no good reason. Yet when these people were asked why they agreed to be shocked, they offered bogus reasons of their own in all sincerity, like "I used to mess around with radios and got used to electric shocks."

It's not only decisions in sketchy circumstances that get rationalized but also the texture of our immediate experience. We all feel we are conscious of a rich and detailed world in front of our eyes. Yet outside the dead center of our gaze, vision is amazingly coarse. Just try holding your hand a few inches from your line of sight and counting your fingers. And if someone removed and reinserted an object every time you blinked (which experimenters can simulate by flashing two pictures in rapid sequence), you would be hard pressed to notice the change. Ordinarily, our eyes flit from place to place, alighting on whichever object needs our attention on a need-to-know basis. This fools us into thinking that wall-to-wall detail was there all along--an example of how we overestimate the scope and power of our own consciousness.

Our authorship of voluntary actions can also be an illusion, the result of noticing a correlation between what we decide and how our bodies move. The psychologist Dan Wegner studied the party game in which a subject is seated in front of a mirror while someone behind him extends his arms under the subject's armpits and moves his arms around, making it look as if the subject is moving his own arms. If the subject hears a tape telling the person behind him how to move (wave, touch the subject's nose and so on), he feels as if he is actually in command of the arms.

The brain's spin doctoring is displayed even more dramatically in neurological conditions in which the healthy parts of the brain explain away the foibles of the damaged parts (which are invisible to the self because they are part of the self). A patient who fails to experience a visceral click of recognition when he sees his wife but who acknowledges that she looks and acts just like her deduces that she is an amazingly well-trained impostor. A patient who believes he is at home and is shown the hospital elevator says without missing a beat, "You wouldn't believe what it cost us to have that installed."

Why does consciousness exist at all, at least in the Easy Problem sense in which some kinds of information are accessible and others hidden? One reason is information overload. Just as a person can be overwhelmed today by the gusher of data coming in from electronic media, decision circuits inside the brain would be swamped if every curlicue and muscle twitch that was registered somewhere in the brain were constantly being delivered to them. Instead, our working memory and spotlight of attention receive executive summaries of the events and states that are most relevant to updating an understanding of the world and figuring out what to do next. The cognitive psychologist Bernard Baars likens consciousness to a global blackboard on which brain processes post their results and monitor the results of the others.


A SECOND REASON THAT INFORMATION MAY BE SEALED OFF FROM consciousness is strategic. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has noted that people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents. The best propagandist is the one who believes his own lies, ensuring that he can't leak his deceit through nervous twitches or self-contradictions. So the brain might have been shaped to keep compromising data away from the conscious processes that govern our interaction with other people. At the same time, it keeps the data around in unconscious processes to prevent the person from getting too far out of touch with reality.

What about the brain itself? You might wonder how scientists could even begin to find the seat of awareness in the cacophony of a hundred billion jabbering neurons. The trick is to see what parts of the brain change when a person's consciousness flips from one experience to another. In one technique, called binocular rivalry, vertical stripes are presented to the left eye, horizontal stripes to the right. The eyes compete for consciousness, and the person sees vertical stripes for a few seconds, then horizontal stripes, and so on.

A low-tech way to experience the effect yourself is to look through a paper tube at a white wall with your right eye and hold your left hand in front of your left eye. After a few seconds, a white hole in your hand should appear, then disappear, then reappear.

Monkeys experience binocular rivalry. They can learn to press a button every time their perception flips, while their brains are impaled with electrodes that record any change in activity. Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis found that the earliest way stations for visual input in the back of the brain barely budged as the monkeys' consciousness flipped from one state to another. Instead, it was a region that sits further down the information stream and that registers coherent shapes and objects that tracks the monkeys' awareness. Now this doesn't mean that this place on the underside of the brain is the TV screen of consciousness. What it means, according to a theory by Crick and his collaborator Christof Koch, is that consciousness resides only in the "higher" parts of the brain that are connected to circuits for emotion and decision making, just what one would expect from the blackboard metaphor.

To stimulate the discussion, I ask my readers to answer the following questions:

1. Does the realization that consciousness is a byproduct of matter argue against the possibility of an afterlife?

2. If the answer to #1 is yes, is that the sole objection to this idea from a religious standpoint?

3. What are the implications for morality from this realization?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Regarding the Discussions that We've Been Having About Interstellar Colonization & Exploration...

C'mon. We GOTTA go. This is the ultimate Sci-Fi fantasy illustration, but it's real. (Well, it's not really this color, but the structure exists).

This floating ring is the size of a galaxy. In fact, it is part of the photogenic Sombrero Galaxy, one of the largest galaxies in the nearby Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. The dark band of dust that obscures the mid-section of the Sombrero Galaxy in optical light actually glows brightly in infrared light. The above image shows the infrared glow, recently recorded by the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope, superposed in false-color on an existing image taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in optical light. The Sombrero Galaxy, also known as M104, spans about 50,000 light years across and lies 28 million light years away. M104 can be seen with a small telescope in the direction of the constellation Virgo.

From Astronomy Picture of the Day, a Skipper "favorite"; link found in the right sidebar of this blog.

How to Spot a Rich Guy

This photo includes, but is not solely of, the rear view of a comely young women in a minuscule bikini.

While I consider it innocuous, I have no idea what your workplace or spouse considers "too much flesh". You Have Been Warned.

Courtesy of The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Incomes and Inequality: What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us
January 25, 2007

[All emphasis added].
[M]uch of the measured growth in income inequality has resulted from natural demographic trends. In general, there is more income inequality among older populations than among younger populations, if only because older people have had more time to experience rising or falling fortunes.

Furthermore, more-educated groups show greater income inequality than less-educated groups. Uneducated people are more likely to be clustered in a tight range of relatively low incomes. But the educated will include a greater range of highly motivated breadwinners and relaxed bohemians, and a greater range of winning and losing investors. A result is a greater variety of incomes. Since the United States is growing older and also more educated, income inequality will naturally rise.

Thomas Lemieux, professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, estimates that these demographic effects account for about three-quarters of the observed rise in income inequality for men and 69 to 95 percent of the observed rise in income inequality for women (“Increasing Residual Wage Inequality: Composition Effects, Noisy Data, or Rising Demand for Skill?” The American Economic Review, June 2006). In other words, rising income inequality is not just a result of unfairness or bad public policy. [...]

In any case, [...] income is not the only — or even the most — important measure of inequality. For instance, inequality of consumption — the difference between what the poor consume and what the rich consume — does not show a significant upward trend (Dirk Krueger and Fabrizio Perri, “Does Income Inequality Lead to Consumption Inequality?” The Review of Economic Studies, January 2006). Consumption, of course, is not an ideal indicator of well-being; a high or steady level of purchases may reflect growing debt, and the ease of buying a big-screen TV does not reflect a comparable ease in buying good health care.

Happiness, possibly the most relevant variable for a study of inequality, is also the hardest to measure. Nonetheless, inequality of happiness is usually less marked than inequality of income, at least in wealthy societies. A man earning $500,000 a year is not usually 10 times as happy as a man earning $50,000 a year. The $50,000 earner still enjoys most of the conveniences of the modern world. Even if more money makes people happier, it appears to do so at a declining rate, which places a natural check on the inequality of happiness.

Studies of personal happiness, based on questionnaires and self-reporting, indicate that the inequality of happiness is not growing over time in the United States. Furthermore, the United States has an inequality of happiness roughly comparable to that of Sweden or Denmark, two nations with strongly egalitarian reputations. (See the symposium in Journal of Happiness Studies, December 2005.) American society offers good opportunities for people to be happy, even if not everyone becomes rich.

If we look at leisure, from 1965 to 2003, less-educated groups experienced a bigger boost in free time than more-educated groups (Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time Over Five Decades,” Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper). In other words, the high earners are working hard for their money and perhaps they are having less fun. [...]

The broader philosophical question is why we should worry about inequality — of any kind — much at all. Life is not a race against fellow human beings, and we should discourage people from treating it as such. Many of the rich have made the mistake of viewing their lives as a game of relative status. So why should economists promote this same zero-sum worldview? [...]

What matters most is how well people are doing in absolute terms. We should continue to improve opportunities for lower-income people, but inequality as a major and chronic American problem has been overstated.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and co-author of a blog at www.marginalrevolution.com.

There’s daggers in women’s smiles, too

Given Bill’s enduring popularity on this side of the pond, Hilary Clinton might assume the British media to be sympathetic. Alas, Gerard Baker unleashes an exceptionally brutal character assassination in today’s Times:

...There are many reasons people think Mrs Clinton will not be elected president. She lacks warmth; she is too polarising a figure; the American people don’t want to relive the psychodrama of the eight years of the Clinton presidency.

But they all miss this essential counterpoint. As you consider her career this past 15 years or so in the public spotlight, it is impossible not to be struck, and even impressed, by the sheer ruthless, unapologetic, unshameable way in which she has pursued this ambition, and confirmed that there is literally nothing she will not do, say, think or feel to achieve it. Here, finally, is someone who has taken the black arts of the politician’s trade, the dissembling, the trimming, the pandering, all the way to their logical conclusion.

Fifteen years ago there was once a principled, if somewhat rebarbative and unelectable politician called Hillary Rodham Clinton. A woman who aggressively preached abortion on demand and the right of children to sue their own parents, a committed believer in the power of government who tried to create a healthcare system of such bureaucratic complexity it would have made the Soviets blush; a militant feminist who scorned mothers who take time out from work to rear their children as “women who stay home and bake cookies”.

Today we have a different Hillary Rodham Clinton, all soft focus and expensively coiffed, exuding moderation and tolerance.

To grasp the scale of the transfiguration, it is necessary only to consider the very moment it began. The turning point in her political fortunes was the day her husband soiled his office and a certain blue dress. In that Monica Lewinsky moment, all the public outrage and contempt for the sheer tawdriness of it all was brilliantly rerouted and channelled to the direct benefit of Mrs Clinton, who immediately began a campaign for the Senate.

And so you had this irony, a woman who had carved out for herself a role as an icon of the feminist movement, launching her own political career, riding a wave of public sympathy over the fact that she had been treated horridly by her husband.

After that unsurpassed exercise in cynicism, nothing could be too expedient. Her first Senate campaign was one long exercise in political reconstructive surgery. It went from the cosmetic — the sudden discovery of her Jewish ancestry, useful in New York, especially when you’ve established a reputation as a friend of Palestinians— to the radical: her sudden message of tolerance for people who opposed abortion, gay marriage, gun control and everything else she had stood for.

Once in the Senate she published an absurd autobiography in which every single paragraph had been scrubbed clean of honest reflection to fit the campaign template. As a lawmaker she is remembered mostly, when confronted with a President who enjoyed 75 per cent approval ratings, for her infamous decision to support the Iraq war in October 2002. This one-time anti-war protester recast herself as a latter-day Boadicea, even castigating President Bush for not taking a tough enough line with the Iranians over their nuclear programme.

Now, you might say, hold on. Aren’t all politicians veined with an opportunistic streak? Why is she any different? The difference is that Mrs Clinton has raised that opportunism to an animating philosophy, a P. T. Barnum approach to the political marketplace.

All politicians, sadly, lie. We can often forgive the lies as the necessary price paid to win popularity for a noble cause. But the Clinton candidacy is a Grand Deceit, an entirely artificial construct built around a person who, stripped bare of the cynicism, manipulation and calculation, is nothing more than an enormous, overpowering and rather terrifying ego.

The article also does the service of explaining the concept of a ‘skutnik’, which is a new one for me.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

D'oh !!

Existing home sales plummet in 2006

WASHINGTON - Sales of existing homes fell in December, closing out a year in which demand for homes slumped by the largest amount in 17 years.

The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes were down 0.8 percent last month, a bigger decline than had been expected. For the year, sales fell by 8.4 percent, the biggest annual decline since 1989, when existing home sales fell by 14.8 percent.

The sales figure underscored the sharp contraction that is going on in the once high-flying housing market, which before last year had set sales records for five straight years.

Even with the sharp drop in sales last year, the median price of an existing home sold in 2006 managed to rise a slight 1.1 percent. But that was far below the double-digit gains during the boom years. The median home price had risen by 12.4 percent in 2005.

After a five-year boom, housing slowed significantly last year, which has caused ripple effects throughout the economy with rising job layoffs in construction and other housing-related industries.

But economists said they believe the low point for housing has been reached and they are forecasting a slow rebound in 2007. Because of that optimism, analysts don't believe the slump in housing will drag the overall economy into a recession...

The slump in housing may or may not drag the overall economy into a recession, but anyone who claims that there will be a slow rebound in housing in 2007 is delusional - or has a vested interest in keeping homebuyers reaching for their checkbooks. The past five years has featured the greatest national boom market in American housing since 1890, although during that time there have been some regional manias, in California and Florida for instance, that were more absurd.
It will take many years to work through the excesses.

The 1.1% rise in the median price of existing homes was less than the rate of inflation for '06, and much less than the increase in average earnings for American workers, so in real terms we had markedly slowing volume, and falling prices.

Also, in '07 and '08 there will be approximately $ 3 trillion worth of Adjustable Rate Mortgages resetting to higher interest rates, and many of them can reset every six months, until they hit their ceilings. Many people who currently have ARMs got them because it was the only way that they could afford to make mortgage payments on their homes, since the initial interest rate was low. Over the past few years, such people have been able to continually roll over their debt into new, low-rate loans, backed by the market appreciation of their homes.
No more.

There are going to be millions of households faced with 25% - 50% higher mortgage payments, no option to re-fi, and no buyers for their home at a price that would pay off their existing home loan.
Even when such people avoid foreclosure and bankruptcy, they're going to be reducing spending on non-essentials, and consumer spending has been the engine of economic growth since '00.

Ford posts worst loss in its history
By TOM KRISHER, AP Business Writer

DEARBORN, Mich. - Ford Motor Co. lost $5.8 billion in the fourth quarter amid slumping sales and huge restructuring costs, pushing the automaker's deficit for the year to $12.7 billion, the largest in its 103-year history, [...] which represented a loss of $4,380 on each car or truck it sold in 2006. [...]

Dearborn-based Ford predicted more losses for this year and in 2008, but said its restructuring plan is on track to return to profitability in 2009. [...]

The company, which lost $6 billion on North American operations alone, said it expects to burn up $10 billion in cash to run its business through 2009 and spend another $7 billion to invest in new products. [...]

Ford mortgaged its assets to borrow up to $23.4 billion to pay for the restructuring and to cover losses expected until 2009. About 38,000 hourly workers have signed up for buyout or early retirement offers, and Ford plans to cut its white-collar work force by 14,000 with buyouts and early retirements.

Chief Financial Officer Don Leclair said Ford expects favorable results from its automotive business in 2007.

But because of interest on its debt "total automotive results are expected to be worse in 2007 than in 2006," he said.

Leclair said the company finished 2006 with $33.9 billion in cash available for its automotive operations, including $12 billion that it borrowed in December...

Ford shares rose on this news, natch. "Greater fools" indeed.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Cute & Cuddly Dolphins Try to Kill Swimmer

Black Sea Dolphins Try to Drown Drunken Swimmer

Ukraine’s emergency workers prevented a pod of dolphins from drowning an intoxicated man in the Black Sea, the Interfax news agency repors.

The incident took place off a beach near the Crimean resort city Yalta, where a pair of patrolling emergency workers happened upon a swimmer under an apparent attack by the water mammals.

The man, reportedly heavily under the influence of alcohol at the time, was some 30 metres from land, near a wave breakwater, and calling for help.

The dolphins [were] attempting to push the man out to sea, witnesses said. [...]

[S]aid Vasyl Tenishchev, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry, Yalta branch: “The dolphins probably were feeding on fish by cornering schools against the pier and the breakwater, and they saw the man as competition (for the fish),” Tenishchev said.

The swimmer was unharmed. He had plunged into the frigid winter water, averaging around four to six degrees Celsius, because of a belief swimming in cold water is good for the health.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Do Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls

When a killer cloud hit Britain
By Dan Walker
BBC Two's Timewatch

A little over 200 years ago, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland sent a huge toxic cloud across Western Europe. [The eruption of Laki was one of the biggest in recorded history].

"Such multitudes are indisposed by fevers in this country that farmers have difficulty gathering their harvest, the labourers having been almost every day carried out of the field incapable of work and many die." So wrote Bedfordshire poet William Cooper in the summer of 1783.
Across the country, newspapers reported the presence of a thick smog, and a dull sun, "coloured like it has been soaked in blood".
The cloud first reached Britain on the 22 June 1783. In his Naturalist's Journal, Gilbert White reported: "The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man."

The killer cloud lasted weeks, if not months, and engulfed much of Western Europe - as thousands of kilometres away in Iceland, the volcano Laki continued to erupt.
Millions of tonnes of toxic gas were carried by the prevailing winds across Scandinavia and eventually to Britain.
The cloud contained sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid which attacked the lungs of its victims, choking and killing men and women, rich and poor alike. [...]

Dr John Grattan of Aberystwyth University, Wales, has spent a decade scrutinising hundreds of local parish records looking for evidence of Laki's deadly effect.
"In Maulden (in Bedfordshire) the normal number of people who might be expected to have died in the summer would be about four or five - and in the summer of 1783 seventeen people die here.
"In nearby Cranfield, 23 people die in the summer and usually they'd see about six. And in Ampthill, it's 11 and usually it's about five. So parish by parish, these numbers add up considerably."

Dr Grattan's research revealed a similar pattern across the county, and across much of eastern and central England.
From the fives and tens in each parish, Laki's death toll increases into the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands.
In total, he estimates Laki's killer cloud took the lives of 23,000 British men and women, making it the greatest natural disaster in modern British history. France and other countries were similarly hit.

And it could happen again. Iceland has 18 volcanoes that have been active in recent centuries, the greatest concentration anywhere on the planet.
"There will be another one," says leading vulcanologist Professor Stephen Self, of the Open University, who has studied the Laki eruption.
"It's difficult to predict what size it will be, but there will be future events like this from Iceland.
"Ash clouds, gas clouds, sulphuric acid clouds from Iceland could sweep across Britain again."

Plus the Upcoming Recession, Which Will be Associated in the Public Mind With Bush & the GOP

The Great Unknown
by James Ostrowski
January 17, 2007

[I] warned those leaning to Bush over Kerry in 2004 that a Bush win could put Hillary in the White House for two terms. I’m sure many laughed at that line also. Now, Hillary has to be considered the clear favorite to win the Presidency. She leads the Democratic candidates in the polls and number two is Barack Obama whose entire résumé says: "very good public speaker." That’s a very good place to be.
(By the way, I’m sure many also laughed when I predicted on December 3, 2003, that John Kerry would be the Democratic nominee.)

Many people cannot believe that Hillary has a chance because everyone they know dislikes her. But that’s because birds of a feather flock together. Your friends are not a scientific survey.
Now look over at the Republican side and start laughing. Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich? [...]

For many reasons I [believe] Hillary would beat [John McCain]. Reason number one is his ferocious support of the [...] war in Iraq. If it’s Hillary versus McCain, Hillary has the good fortune of being the antiwar choice even though she supported the war...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Graphic Demonstration of Complete and Total Dominance

Saturday, January 20, 2007

For Brit's Festivis gift list

Check the historical record

Because God is revealed through history, say some. Including Sam Brownback, in his announcement of his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President in 2008:
The two-term senator said he will fight to renew the nation's cultural values and pledged to focus on rebuilding families.

"Search the record of history. To walk away from the Almighty is to embrace decline for a nation," Brownback said. "To embrace Him leads to renewal, for individuals and for nations."

OK, lets check the record:
394 AD - Emperor Theodosious declares Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
410 AD - The Visigoths sack Rome (D'oh!)

The Scandal of the Leftist Mind

As a close follow-on to our discussion of politically motivated social science as it pertains to gun control in "When Health Professionals Advise", I offer for your contemplation another object lesson why the social sciences are so polluted by ideology as to be worse than useless. In Psychology Today, Jay Dixit writes:

We think our political stance is the product of reason, but we're easily manipulated and surprisingly malleable. Our essential political self is more a stew of childhood temperament, education, and fear of death. Call it the 9/11 effect.

Cinnamon Stillwell never thought she'd be the founder of a political organization. She certainly never expected to start a group for conservatives, most of whom became conservatives on the same day—September 11, 2001. She organized the group, the 911 Neocons, as a haven for people like her—"former lefties" who did political 180s after 9/11.

Stillwell, now a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been a liberal her whole life, writing off all Republicans as "ignorant, intolerant yahoos." Yet on 9/11, everything changed for her, as it did for so many. In the days after the attacks, the world seemed "topsy-turvy." On the political left, she wrote, "There was little sympathy for the victims," and it seemed to her that progressives were "consumed with hatred for this country" and had "extended their misguided sympathies to tyrants and terrorists."

The article purports to explain how an event like 9/11can sway the political views of liberals by appealing to irrational factors like fear over rational, objective analysis. Here Dixit is equating the conservative position with ideology, whereas the liberal position is the non-ideological, rational position. Beside the outright hubris of such a position is the irony that the conversion of a liberal like Stillwell shows the exact opposite, that 9//11 acted as a shock to the system of many ideological liberals, making them less ideological and more open to the possibility that the opposing viewpoint had merit.

Dixit quoted from several studies of conservative psychology in the article, one of which was a paper by John T. Jost, who is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, titled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" (2003). Shawn Smith, a practicing psychologist in the Denver area and the proprietor of the Iron Shrink blog, dissects the shabby methodology of this study here. I won't reproduce it here, but Smith convincingly demonstrates how flawed and biased this study is. It's worth a read.

This kind of "research" is even more dangerous than the single issue oriented research that I discussed with regard to gun control because it seeks not to delegitimize just a single policy position but to label an entire political orientation as a mental disorder. But these studies seem to go unchallenged by anyone in the popular press, and act as fodder for leftists like Dixit, whose article is so breathtakingly and transparently biased as to almost be the work of a parodist. There is no need for any expertise in statistical analysis or research study design to pick apart Dixit's nonsense, run of the mill common sense will do. Here are some examples:
We tend to believe our political views have evolved by a process of rational thought, as we consider arguments, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions. But the truth is more complicated. Our political preferences are equally the result of factors we're not aware of—such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at a given moment, and personality traits that are first apparent in early childhood. Among the most potent motivators, it turns out, is fear. How the United States should confront the threat of terrorism remains a subject of endless political debate. But Americans' response to threats of attack is now more clear-cut than ever. The fear of death alone is surprisingly effective in shaping our political decisions—more powerful, often, than thought itself.

This is the main theme that Dixit and the Left are using to deligitimize the conservative mindset, it's reliance on fear. But when did fear become a dysfunctional emotion? Of course we fear death! Everyone fears death, and pain, and want, and disorder and danger. Only a sheltered innocent could imagine that he takes no stock of fear when he formulates his worldview. Fear is our early warning system, it was developed through millenia of evolutionary trial and error to tell us how to stay alive. There is untold wisdom embodied in our fears. The idea that rational thought can only occur in an emotional vacuum is incredibly naiive.
In 1969, Berkeley professors Jack and Jeanne Block embarked on a study of childhood personality, asking nursery school teachers to rate children's temperaments. They weren't even thinking about political orientation.

Twenty years later, they decided to compare the subjects' childhood personalities with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.

Sure, pick on the insecure kids! What this study ignores is that there is a ideological progression in most people's lives from youthful liberalism to mature moderation or conservatism. Dixit doesn't state it so obviously, but there is an implicit value judgment that feeling insecure is somehow dysfunctional or illegitimate. Yet there is no effort to determine if these young conservative's life experiences warrant their feelings of insecurity. Or maybe these young people are just more sensitive and perceptive than the others. As any adult past the age of 35 knows, youth is a time or startling ignorance and false confidence. It is amazing that as many people survive to adulthood that do.

We can't see the Left's most cherished value any more clearly than it is displayed here. The Left is the ideology of youthful optimism and innocence. It is the ideology of Peter Pan. The Left's prescription for mental health is to deny that anyone ever needs to grow out of this phase.

If we are so suggestible that thoughts of death make us uncomfortable defaming the American flag and cause us to sit farther away from foreigners, is there any way we can overcome our easily manipulated fears and become the informed and rational thinkers democracy demands?

To test this, Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.

"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.

This is really rich stuff. Yes, the huge dropoff in flag-burnings after 9/11 is definitely cause for concern. All healthy societies produce large numbers of people who loathe their own country. Afraid to sit next to foreigners? Where does he get this stuff?

So if we want working people to make rational political decisions, we should ask them not to think about losing their jobs or being without healthcare. Those Republican fearmongers are always filling people with the fear of poverty. Oh, wait! It's the Democrats who do that. The Left is motivated by just as much fear as the Right. They fear economic independence, they fear disparities in wealth, they fear social responsibility for sexual activity, they fear making tough foreign policy decisions, and they fear old age and death. Everyone fears death. To be more succinct, they fear the loss of innocence. They won't grow up.

Update 01/21/07: John Jay Ray at Dissecting Leftism concurs.

Update 01/22/07: Cinnamon Stilwell, who was interviewed for the article, has a roundup of internet reactions to it, including a mention of the Daily Duck.

52,000 MPH - Gravity-well Surfin' is the Ultimate Thrill

New Horizons targets Jupiter kick

The New Horizons probe is bearing down on Jupiter and a flyby that will swing the spacecraft out to Pluto.
The US mission was already the fastest ever launched, but the extra kick from the gas-giant's gravity will ensure it arrives at the dwarf planet by 2015. [...]

The $700m (£350m) probe was launched in January last year to gather information on Pluto and its moons.

The Jupiter pass is needed to accelerate New Horizons away from the Sun by an additional 14,500km/h (9,000 mph), pushing it past 84,000km/h (52,000 mph). This will shorten the journey time to Pluto by four years.

The probe will make more than 700 observations of the gas-giant and its four largest moons - Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. [...]

Long before it approaches Pluto, New Horizons will start collecting data. The first maps of Pluto and its biggest moon Charon will be made three months before the July 2015 rendezvous.

During a day-long close flyby, ultraviolet emissions from Pluto's atmosphere will be measured and the best quality maps of Pluto and Charon, including surface detail, will be made.

New Horizons will go to about 10,000km (6,200 miles) from Pluto and about 27,000km (16,800 miles) from Charon, before pressing onwards.

The spacecraft will look back at the "far side" of the pair to spot haze, look for rings and examine the objects' surfaces.

With extra [NASA] approval and funding, the probe will then be maintained to travel on to other objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region of space that contains many frozen leftovers from the construction of our Solar System.

"Going to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is very new; it's the new frontier," said [Dr. Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the principal investigator on the NASA mission]. "It's opening up both a window on the deep outer Solar System and a window back in time, 4.5 billion years to the birth of the planets."

Pluto facts:

Observations confirm Pluto has at least three moons
Orbits Sun every 248 years; surface temperature -233 C
Rotates every 6.8 days; gravity about 6% of Earth's
Resigned from solar system in 2006, citing "desire to spend more time with family", but has agreed to a part-time consulting position as "dwarf planet".

Friday, January 19, 2007

"Bering Strait Hypothesis" Melting Away as Explanation for Early American Peoples

[All emphasis, in all articles, has been added]

Oldest Human Remains in North America Found

In 1959, the partial skeletal remains of an ancient woman estimated to be 10,000 years old were unearthed in Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island, one of the eight Channel Islands off the southern California coast. They were discovered by Phil C. Orr, curator of anthropology and natural history at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The remains of the so-called Arlington Springs woman were recently reanalyzed by the latest radiocarbon dating techniques and were found to be approximately 13,000 years old. The new date makes her remains older than any other known human skeleton found so far in North America.

The discovery challenges the popular belief that the first colonists to North America arrived at the end of the last ice age about 11,500 years ago by crossing a Bering land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska and northwestern Canada. The earlier date and the location of the woman's remains on the island adds weight to an alternative theory that some early settlers may have constructed boats and migrated from Asia by sailing down the Pacific coast.

The Arlington Springs woman lived during the end of the Pleistocene era when large herds of bison and woolly mammoths roamed the grassy plains and other extinct native American animals such as camels, horses, and saber-toothed cats were still around...

Human skulls are 'oldest Americans'
3 December, 2002

[T]he skulls were analysed by [Dr. Silvia Gonzalez] from John Moores University in Liverpool, UK, with help from teams in Oxford and Mexico itself.

They came from a collection of 27 skeletons of early humans kept at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

These were originally discovered more than 100 years ago in the area surrounding the city. [...]

The earliest human remains tested prior to this had been dated at approximately 12,000 years ago.

Domestic tools dated at 14,500 years have been found in Chile - but with no associated human remains.

The latest dating is not only confirmation that humans were present in the Americas much earlier than 12,000 years ago, but also that they were not related to early native Americans.

Asian travellers

The two oldest skulls were "dolichocephalic" - that is, long and narrow-headed.

Other, more recent skulls were a different shape - short and broad, like those from native American remains.

This suggests that humans dispersed within Mexico in two distinct waves, and that a race of long and narrow-headed humans may have lived in North America prior to the American Indians.

Traditionally, American Indians were thought to have been the first to arrive on the continent, crossing from Asia on a land bridge.

Dr Gonzalez told BBC News Online: "We believe that the older race may have come from what is now Japan, via the Pacific islands and perhaps the California coast.

"Mexico appears to have been a crossroads for people spreading across the Americas.

"Our next project is to examine remains found in the Baha peninsula of California, and look at their DNA to see if they are related.

"But this discovery, although it is very significant, raises more questions than it solves." ...

New Evidence Puts Man In North America 50,000 Years Ago
November 18, 2004
Science Daily
Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University Of South Carolina.

Radiocarbon tests of carbonized plant remains where artifacts were unearthed last May along the Savannah River in Allendale County by University of South Carolina archaeologist Dr. Albert Goodyear indicate that the sediments containing these artifacts are at least 50,000 years old. [...]

The findings are significant because they suggest that humans inhabited North America well before the last ice age more than 20,000 years ago, a potentially explosive revelation in American archaeology. [...]

The dawn of modern homo sapiens occurred in Africa between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago. Evidence of modern man's migration out of the African continent has been documented in Australia and Central Asia at 50,000 years and in Europe at 40,000 years. The fact that humans could have been in North America at or near the same time is expected to spark debate among archaeologists worldwide, raising new questions on the origin and migration of the human species.

"Topper is the oldest radiocarbon dated site in North America," Goodyear says. "However, other early sites in Brazil and Chile, as well as a site in Oklahoma also suggest that humans were in the Western Hemisphere as early as 30,000 years ago to perhaps 60,000."

In 1998, Goodyear, nationally known for his research on the ice age PaleoIndian cultures dug below the 13,000-year Clovis level at the Topper site and found unusual stone tools up to a meter deeper. The Topper excavation site is on the bank of the Savannah River on property owned by Clariant Corp., a chemical corporation headquartered near Basel, Switzerland. He recovered numerous stone tool artifacts in soils that were later dated by an outside team of geologists to be 16,000 years old.

For five years, Goodyear continued to add artifacts and evidence that a pre-Clovis people existed, slowly eroding the long-held theory by archaeologists that man arrived in North America around 13,000 years ago.

Last May, Goodyear dug even deeper to see whether man's existence extended further back in time. Using a backhoe and hand excavations, Goodyear's team dug through the Pleistocene terrace soil, some 4 meters below the ground surface. Goodyear found a number of artifacts similar to the pre-Clovis forms he has excavated in recent years.

Then on the last day of the last week of digging, Goodyear's team uncovered a black stain in the soil where artifacts lay, providing him the charcoal needed for radiocarbon dating. Dr. Tom Stafford of Stafford Laboratories in Boulder, Colo., came to Topper and collected charcoal samples for dating.

"Three radiocarbon dates were obtained from deep in the terrace at Topper with two dates of 50,300 and 51,700 on burnt plant remains. One modern date related to an intrusion," Stafford says. "The two 50,000 dates indicate that they are at least 50,300 years. The absolute age is not known."

The revelation of an even older date for Topper is expected to heighten speculation about when man got to the Western Hemisphere and add to the debate over other pre-Clovis sites in the Eastern United States such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Pa., and Cactus Hill, Va. [...]

USC's Topper: A Timeline [...]

May 2000 Geology study done by consultants; ice age soil confirmed for pre-Clovis artifacts.

May 2001 Geologists revisit Topper and obtain ancient plant remains deep down in the Pleistocene terrace. OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) dates on soils above ice age strata show pre-Clovis is at least older than 14,000.

May 2002 Geologists find new profile showing ancient soil lying between Clovis and pre-Clovis, confirming the age of ice age soils between 16,000 - 20,000 years. [...]

November 2004 Radiocarbon dating report indicates that artifacts excavated from Pleistocene terrace in May were recovered from soil that dates some 50,000 years. The dates imply an even earlier arrival for humans in this hemisphere than previously believed, well before the last ice age.

[DR. ALBERT C. GOODYEAR III] has taken a geoarchaeological approach to the search for deeply buried early sites by teaming up with colleagues in geology and soil science. For the past 15 years he has studied early prehistoric sites in Allendale County, S.C., in the central Savannah River Valley. These are stone tool manufacturing sites related to the abundant chert resources that were quarried in this locality.

This work has been supported by the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society, the University of South Carolina, the Archaeological Research Trust (SCIAA), the Allendale Research Fund, the Elizabeth Stringfellow Endowment Fund, Sandoz Chemical Corp. and Clariant Corp., the present owner of the site...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

It's Best to be Headed Where You Are Going

The NTSB has released transcript details regarding last August's Comair crash in Lexington, KY, that killed 49 people.

Notable in the transcript was the amount of conversation on the flight deck during taxi. (the link has some particularly good diagrams completely lacking in the other coverage I reviewed)

[Snip. The time line is such that conversation prior to 5:56 was very likely prior to pushback]

Polehinke: (5:56:34) Right seat flex takeoff procedures off of um ... he said what runway? One of 'em. Two four.

Clay: (05:56:43) It's two two.

Clay: (06:00:09) Both kids were sick though, they, well they all got colds. It was an interesting dinner last night.

Polehinke: (06:00:16) Really.

Clay: (06:00:16) Huh, oh gosh.

Polehinke (06:00:19) How old are they?

Clay: (06:00:20) Three months and two years old. Who was sneezing, either nose wiped, diaper change. I mean that's all we did all night long.

Polehinke: (06:00:31) Oh yeah, I'm sure.

Polehinke: (6:06:07) Set thrust, please.

Clay: (6:06:11) Thrust set.

Polehinke: (6:06:13) That is weird with no lights.

Clay: (6:06:18) Yeah. One-hundred knots.

Polehinke: (6:06:25) Checks.

Clay: (6:06:31) V-one rotate. Whoa.

(6:06:33) Sound of impact, unintelligible exclamation.

The reason this is notable is the FAA regs completely forbid non-pertinent conversation during taxi, takeoff, and all non-cruise operations below 10,000'.

For good reason. A shockingly common factor among airline mishaps was such irrelevant conversation. IIRC, the FAA finally put the hammer down in the mid-80s.

As a matter of deep background, the airlines I have flown for are emphatic about this. Virtually all the Captains I have flown with brook no nonsense in this regard.

Airlines actually go a step further than the FAA. In addition to the stated restriction, the two I am familiar with prohibit conversation within 1,000 feet of level off altitude.

More pertinently, my current employer insists the First Officer provide "progressive taxi" instructions, using the airfield diagram to verbally direct the Captain at every turn. In this particular case, the direction would have gone like:

The dogleg is closed.

Make the 90 right.

We will be crossing runway 24. Final is clear.

The next intersection is runway 22.

The NTSB also recommended pilots cross check the aircraft heading against the assigned runway heading. That seems simple enough, and was common practice when I flew in the military. However, airline operations frequently include rolling takeoffs, making checking the heading somewhat problematic while also setting power, keeping the airplane on the stripe, monitoring engine instruments and warning lights, all while the airplane is accelerating at rates that can rival a race car.

However, it isn't a prohibitive task. Should the FAA decree it, the airlines would incorporate a heading check into their takeoff flows. Unfortunately, most of the wrong runway scenarios I know of involve picking the incorrect parallel runway, which this measure would do nothing to solve.

All in all, there is really no need. Just shut-up on the flight deck, and make sure someone is hawking the airfield diagram. You have to wonder how many times pilots will have to visit this particular morgue before finally taking on board the obvious.

The Scandal of The Religious Mind

If I was to deprive my children of, say, food, until they died, I would have well and truly earned my way into a Supermax prison.

If I was to deny them a blood transfusion during the course of medical treatment, I'm sure I would be listened to politely, faced with the Spock Eyebrow of Disbelief, and put on immediate disregard.

Claim to be a Jehovah's Witness, however, and:

Canada's first sextuplets, born more than a week ago, are facing an additional complication to the usual premature baby's struggle for survival: Their parents' religion forbids blood transfusions, a typical part of a preemie's treatment.

The hospital spokeswoman declined to provide any further details, out of respect for the family's privacy.

What entitles them to such respect, other than inexplicable deference to a silly religious doctrine, is beyond me.

A Withering Ruling

In the relatively distant past, I believed the Constitution should be read metaphorically, rather than tightly adhering to the words on the page.

Yes, I hang my head in shame. Particularly since, in retrospect, such extraordinarily clear writing is surpassingly rare.

However, it isn't as if strict construction is beyond its share of surprises.
In a ruling sure to make philandering spouses squirm, Michigan's second-highest court says that anyone involved in an extramarital fling can be prosecuted for first-degree criminal sexual conduct, a felony punishable by up to life in prison.

My guess is that OJ would prefer stoning, and would be the first to wind up.

"We cannot help but question whether the Legislature actually intended the result we reach here today," Judge William Murphy wrote in November for a unanimous Court of Appeals panel, "but we are curtailed by the language of the statute from reaching any other conclusion."

The law in question states that a person is guilty of first-degree criminal sexual conduct [CSC] whenever "sexual penetration occurs under circumstances involving the commission of any other felony.

Leaving aside for the moment whether women can, in the normal course of things, ever be charged, Michigan Law makes adultery a felony. Hence, adultery becomes first degree CSC because, by definition, it occurred during the commission of a felony.

CSC1 warrants, according to the law, life in prison. Good thing it's only that, because we sure would not want to mistakenly execute monogamists.

The case arose out of a transaction of Oxycontin for sex. The CSC charge was thrown out, due to the woman's consent.

However, the Michigan Attorney General, Mike Cox, appealed the ruling, because the law mandated the charge of CSC1.

Thereby providing as cautionary an example of "be careful what you ask for" as you could ever hope to find.

Attorney General Cox recently confessed to an adulterous relationship, for which he is guilty of CSC1.

But his paramour, regardless of her marital status, is not.

Go figure.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What if the inevitable becomes the optional?

Brian Appleyard has a new book out: How To Live Forever Or Die Trying

The Amazon blurb says: “I want to live for ever" sang the Kids from Fame, and they are not alone: the search for immortality has been a constant human refrain throughout history. But medical science has improved at an exponential rate in recent decades and there are those who believe that the ability to cheat death will soon be within our reach: the first person to live to be 1,000 years old has, they say, already been born. What has happened to get people so excited about the prospect of eternal life? And if they are right, what would it mean for us as human beings? If death became negotiable, would we still fall in love or have children? Would we still, in fact, be human? HOW TO LIVE FOREVER OR DIE TRYING tackles these and myriad other questions with dazzling skill. Funny, thought-provoking and often profound, it manages to grapple with the big issues of existence without blinding the reader with science, and sheds new light on why we are the way we are.

One question is: is this a scientific reality?

The more interesting questions are:

1) If you could take a pill that allowed you to live indefinitely, would you?

2) What if the pill meant that you permanently had the physique of a healthy 25-year old?

3) What if you couldn’t have children because of fears about overpopulation?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

I'm Such a Loser, Part CXXVII

The world's highest-earning sports stars
Below are the highest-earning athletes according to Forbes, in June 2006.

1 Tiger Woods (Golf) $90m

2 Michael Schumacher (Formula One) $58m

3 Phil Mickelson (Golf) $47m

4 Kobe Bryant (Basketball) $31m

5 (tied) Shaquille O'Neal (Basketball) $30m

5 (tied) Valentino Rossi (Moto GP) $30m

7 (tied) Tom Brady (American Football) $29m

7 (tied) Alex Rodriguez (Baseball) $29m

9 Carson Palmer (American Football) $28m

10 David Beckham (Football) $27m


I've never heard of Carson Palmer or Valentino Rossi; I'm stunned that Phil Mickelson is on this list, much less at #3.

pathetic (pə'θetik), adjective

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Will someone think of the children!

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was the target this week of Sen Barbara Boxer's awkward attempt to make parenthood, or the lack thereof, a litmus test on who has the moral authority to commit American troops to combat. Earlier in the war Maureen Dowd made the same claim in a more strident and absolute manner, saying:
But his humanitarianism will remain inhumane as long as he fails to understand that the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.

Call it the "Mommy Clause". Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made much of her role as a mother and grandmother and the qualifications that gave her to lead the House of Representatives.

Can another Million Mom March on Washington be long in coming, this time to protest the gun violence in Iraq that is killing our children?

The real problem with saying that only the mothers of servicemen in Iraq, or fathers for that matter, have absolute moral authority with regard to the war in Iraq, beyond explaining what that absolute moral authority should translates to with regard to the conduct of the war, is that all servicemen and servicewomen serving in Iraq or in any other theater of conflict are adults who have volunteered of their own free will to serve in our country's military. Sorry mom, but adults make decisions for themselves.

The idea of giving absolute moral authority to mothers basically infantilizes the men and women who serve this country. It symbolically denies to them their status as autonomous moral agents responsible for their own decisions, and turns them into passive victims helpless to fend off the predations of an imperial ruling class. As Christopher Hitchens rightly labeled it, it is "sinister piffle".

We should start to call the Democrats the "Piffle Party".

When health professionals advise..

..I grab for my gun. Especially since it is probably my gun that they are after. Glenn Reynolds links to a roundup of articles critical of the Harvard School of Public Health's latest press release of a study linking gun ownership and homicide. This trend of political advocacy by health professionals and institutions raises two issues of concern.

The first is the reliability of studies that are funded by partisan political organizations with an existing agenda to advance, such as gun control. In most instances these studies are designed to support foregone conclusions, or to ignore other factors that may impact on the problems under consideration. We trust the health care profession to be an unbiased advocate for scientific truth with regard to the health issues facing the public it serves, and it cannot do that while it is committed to partisan political agendas. Politicized science is bad science.

The second issue, regardless of whether the findings of the study are true or not, is to whether and how those results should determine legal policy with respect to gun ownership. Somewhere we've got this crazy notion in our heads that we should be ruled by experts. Health care professionals have expanded the scope of their role to include any and all political, economic or social interactions that can have any impact on anyone's health. So they take up violent crime as a medical issue, and think that as easily as they write a prescription for vaccinations to prevent flu outbreaks they can write prescriptions for legal bans on guns to prevent violence outbreaks. But that is a usurpation of a role that does not belong to them.

As a free people, we are not beholden to experts. Experts give us information, they provide us with expert services, they give us advice based on expertise. What they can't do, or shouldn't do, is determine the value that we as the public put on that advice relative to all of the other concerns of value that we have.

Dennis Prager gave a good example of this phenomenon on his radio program a while back. He commented on the policy in one school district of keeping the classroom doors closed when class was in session. This particular school did not have air conditioning, and on sweltering hot days the classrooms became unbearable. The policy regarding keeping the doors closed was by order of the Fire Marshall, as a precaution to slow the spread of a fire from room to room. There is no reason that the Fire Marshall should have sole input on this policy, his role should be to give advice based on his area of expertise to the school board and allow them, with the input from parents, how much emphasis to place on the risks posed by potential but rare fires to the ability of teachers and students to accomplish their learning objectives on hot days.

Dr Helen posts a question in a similar vein, about psychologists who ty to keep people safe in violent confrontations like car-jackings by preaching a psychology of acquiescence and submission. Is that how we want to approach the dangers of life, as helpless victims hoping to be spared by fate?

Experts look at people as statistics, and they want to use their expertise to move those statistics in a favorable direction. But they only see the statistics related to their own narrow field of expertise, and can't make the tradeoffs of competing values that people have to make in their own lives. And by acquiescing to the experts, people give up the one thing of primary value to their existence, which is self determination. Lets not let them take that from us.

Update 01/16/07: Glenn Reynolds offers a unique perspective on gun control in the form of pro-gun ordinances in today's New York Times.
Also, Of Arms and the Law blog does some research on the Joyce Foundation.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Discombobulation update

Yea, often have I warned the Daily Duck faithful of the dire portents and dark rumblings which foreshadow the Discombobulation, that time when all things will be turned on their heads, and the wailing and the gnashing of teeth, the chafing of thighs and the blushing of cheeks shall commence. For this have ye mocked me! Mocked and ridiculed me you have, and spread all form of vicious rumor, and calumny have ye heaped upon my head until it has been weighed down, yea unto the very ground. Mad ye have called me, mad and strange, as if it were unnatural for a man to see dangers where others saw none, or to find professional wrestling strikingly realistic.

But verily I say, if ye can look upon this sign and sleep soundly in thy bed, then thou art truly beyond hope!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

This one's for Harry

Preacher to hang for sin burnings

Nigerian high court has sentenced a Lagos preacher to death by hanging for setting fire to members of his congregation, killing one woman.

Emeka Ezeuko, better known as Reverend King, was found guilty on one count of murder and five of attempted murder.

In July last year, he accused six members of his Christian Praying Assembly church of sinning by having extra-marital sex.

He poured petrol over them before setting them alight.

Evil priests and capital punishment. What's not to like?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The scandal of the Evangelical mind

Joe Carter at EvangelicalOutpost is hosting an Athiesm Appreciation week in honor of his favorite "bizarre worldview". He shows his appreciation by posting some of the most transparently risible exposes of the untenable nature of materialism that an athiest is likely to see on the internet. This "proof" of the falseness of the materialist worldview has to hold a record for the silliest attempt at logic since Zeno proved that an arrow will never reach its target:

Earlier I stated that we should reject any presupposition that leads us to a belief that is logically impossible. If that is the case then we have sufficient reason to reject naturalism or to reject logic; we can't keep both. For materialism states that:

1. Anything that exists is made of matter.
2. All matter is one; everything that exists is one.
3. Doxastic states are composed of matter and can exist.
4. Beliefs are doxastic states.
5. A belief can be true.
6. A belief can be false.
7. Since matter is one and beliefs are made of matter, all beliefs are one.
8. All beliefs are both true and false.

Therefore, the presupposition that matter is all that exists is both true and false at the same time. But since that leads to a logical contradiction we must give it up (or give up on logic).

For more of this scintillating logic, read his fascinating take on free will.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Materialist, enlighten thyself!

While pointing fingers at the petty hypocrisies of religious believers lately, it struck me as an interesting exercise to take stock of how well we of the secular materialist realm follow our own professed and often unsolicited advice to the rest of the world. For we are the ones who, to quote Skipper, follow "what works". We put no stock in hazy mysteries or ill-conceived flights of fantasy, not we! Give us only the simple mead of experience, the lager of empirical datum to slake our thirst. Right?

One area where I feel that maybe we've been caught with our collective trousers at half-mast is in the whole arena of sexual liberation. I have no double-blind studies or peer-reviewed datum to rely upon here, but just a hunch that many materialists are also of the belief that a little female immodesty and relaxed attitudes towards sex, marriage and child rearing are perfectly consonant with sound material outcomes, ie. the sexual revolution "works".

How do we then explain the growing impoverishment of single mothers? To hear a sobering view on the outcome of the Sexual Revolution as visited upon two distinctly different demographics, college educated and non-college educated women, listen to this pod-cast of the Glenn and Helen Show as they interview with Kay Hymowitz, the author of Marriage and Caste in America.

OK, so this isn't totally fair, you can't blame all of the 60's on secular materialism. People who took avantage of the opportunity to get jiggy while the getting was good weren't thinking that deeply about it, and the revolution sucked in the religious and the secular alike. But where were the great materialist thinkers during this episode? Were there any from our side standing athwart the mad rush to personal liberation shouting "stop" or even "slow down"? What does "what works" tell us about how people should approach love, sex, marriage and children today?

I welcome the counsel of the Alliance.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Madam Arkin Sees All, Tells All

William M. Arkin, writing in the "Early Warning" column at washingtonpost.com, amid a tantrum of pessimism, and bile at the current administration and apparently everyone who serves in it, offers these interesting predictions for 2007:

"[T]he Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr will increasingly become a state-within-a-state Hezbollah-like force in Iraq, crowding foreign fighters out of the scene as al Qaeda recruits and begins to operate more amongst the Iraqi Sunni exiles who have congregated in great numbers in Syria and Jordan.
"[But Iran] will get a blow to their regional influence when Muqtada al-Sadr is assassinated."

[Y.H.S. steered in Arkin's general direction by Daimnation! blog]

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Gee, this helping people gig is complicated!

No good deed goes unpunished, the saying goes. And so Bill and Melinda Gates found out this week as the LA Times uncovers the seamy underside of their philanthropic foundation.

Ebocha, Nigeria - Justice Eta, 14 months old, held out his tiny thumb.

An ink spot certified that he had been immunized against polio and measles, thanks to a vaccination drive supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But polio is not the only threat Justice faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it "the cough." People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Justice squirmed in his mother's arms. His face was beaded with sweat caused either by illness or by heat from the flames that illuminate Ebocha day and night. Ebocha means "city of lights."

The makeshift clinic at a church where Justice Eta was vaccinated and the flares spewing over Ebocha represent a head-on conflict for the Gates Foundation. In a contradiction between its grants and its endowment holdings, a Times investigation has found, the foundation reaps vast financial gains every year from investments that contravene its good works.

In Ebocha, where Justice lives, Dr. Elekwachi Okey, a local physician, says hundreds of flares at oil plants in the Niger Delta have caused an epidemic of bronchitis in adults, and asthma and blurred vision in children. No definitive studies have documented the health effects, but many of the 250 toxic chemicals in the fumes and soot have long been linked to respiratory disease and cancer.

"We're all smokers here," Okey said, "but not with cigarettes."

The oil plants in the region surrounding Ebocha find it cheaper to burn nearly 1 billion cubic feet of gas each day and contribute to global warming than to sell it. They deny the flaring causes sickness. Under pressure from activists, however, Nigeria's high court set a deadline to end flaring by May 2007. The gases would be injected back underground, or trucked and piped out for sale. But authorities expect the flares to burn for years beyond the deadline.

The Gates Foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, including in the Niger Delta. At the same time that the foundation is funding inoculations to protect health, The Times found, it has invested $423 million in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Total of France — the companies responsible for most of the flares blanketing the delta with pollution, beyond anything permitted in the United States or Europe.

Indeed, local leaders blame oil development for fostering some of the very afflictions that the foundation combats.

Oil workers, for example, and soldiers protecting them are a magnet for prostitution, contributing to a surge in HIV and teenage pregnancy, both targets in the Gates Foundation's efforts to ease the ills of society, especially among the poor. Oil bore holes fill with stagnant water, which is ideal for mosquitoes that spread malaria, one of the diseases the foundation is fighting.

Investigators for Dr. Nonyenim Solomon Enyidah, health commissioner for Rivers State, where Ebocha is located, cite an oil spill clogging rivers as a cause of cholera, another scourge the foundation is battling. The rivers, Enyidah said, "became breeding grounds for all kinds of waterborne diseases."

The bright, sooty gas flares — which contain toxic byproducts such as benzene, mercury and chromium — lower immunity, Enyidah said, and make children such as Justice Eta more susceptible to polio and measles — the diseases that the Gates Foundation has helped to inoculate him against.

Gee, life is a tradeoff, no? Economic growth causes some problems, it seems. Workers and soldiers use prostitutes, which spreads AIDS. So do we just innoculate the poor and leave them with no opportunities for economic growth? Do we keep the soldiers away and allow their oil jobs to be sabotaged by gangs?

Noone is for sweatshop labor or dirty oil refineries, unless the alternatives are worse. What is the alternative for these people if the oil companies go away? Is it possible that the future for these people's grandchildren will be brighter because the current generation of Nigerians are willing to suffer the growing pains of economic development?

My grandparents and great-grandparents worked in the dirty, dangerous sweatshops of 19th century and early 20th century New England. The idea that they would be better off without the opportunity to do so would strike them as sheer lunacy. If not for the mills of New England, they'd be stuck trying to scrape a living off of the poor agricultural soils of Quebec, or in the asbestos mines. But I never heard one of them complain about the sacrifices they made there. They were actually proud that their sacrifices provided better opportunities for their children and their grandchildren. Gee, that's a radical concept!

These third world development critics can't get their minds around that concept. They expect multinational companies to come into these underdeveloped nations and somehow provide employment to the uneducated, unskilled natives in conditions and compensation levels that equal those of the trained and educated workers of the West and far East, with none of the benefits of infrastructure or political stability that the developed workd can provide. Anything less is rank exploitation and greed.

It will be a wonder if Africa manages to make any progress at all in the current century. If it does, it will be in spite of the do-gooders.

The Post-Judd Alliance grows..

With the addition of Peter Burnet's new blog "Diversely We Sail". Most of you know Peter as the irritating grain of sand that makes the Daily Duck the pearl of intelligent debate that it is. I invite all Daily Duck regulars to return the favor to Peter's promising new enterprise.

Viva la Alliance!

We invented it, and that is why it must be crushed

Nothing inspires Christian bipolarity more than the topic of secularism. Just compare this paragraph from an article in the Guardian:

Christians feel particularly aggrieved because we believe that Jesus invented secularism. Jesus's teachings desacralised the state: no authority, not even Caesar's, was comparable to God's. As Nick Spencer writes in Doing God, "the secular was Christianity's gift to the world, denoting a public space in which authorities should be respected, but could be legitimately challenged and could never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance". Christianity, far from creating an absolutist state, initiated dissent from state absolutism.

with this statement from quasi-Christian Dennis Prager entitled America founded to be free, not secular:

This country was founded overwhelmingly by men and women steeped in the Bible. Their moral values emanated from the Bible, and they regarded liberty as possible only if understood as given by God. That is why the Liberty Bell's inscription is from the Old Testament, and why Thomas Jefferson, the allegedly non-religious deist, wrote (as carved into the Jefferson Memorial): "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"

The evidence is overwhelming that the Founders were religious people who wanted a religious country that enshrined liberty for all its citizens, including those of different religions and those of no faith. But our educational institutions, especially the universities, are populated almost exclusively by secular individuals and books who seek to cast America's past and present in their image.

So which is it? How is it that one word, secular, can generate two such opposite reactions from the same group of people. Christians both embrace the word and revile it.

For starters, the first quote is simply nonsense. Secular government was a totally alien concept within Christendom right up until the founding of such oddball experiments in governance as the states of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. This modern view that Christianity either encourages or requires states to guarantee religious liberty is revisionist fantasy.

I guess what maddens the modern school of religious secularists is the fact that when given religious freedom, people actually act on it. When allowed to question the authority of Biblical religion, they do and often find it wanting. That's not how the script was written, apparently.

Another aspect of this secular bipolar disorder is that religious conservatives can't quite decide if America is a secular or a religious society. When confronting the lapse of religiosity in Europe, American conservatives revel in the fact that America is the most religious advanced country in the world, and enjoys the blessed fruits of that faith, including a fertility rate that is just barely above replacement rate (for now), economic growth, and boundles, God-given optimism. But when faced with the modern social pathologies of divorce, illegitimacy, drug use and pornography, America is a sick society suffering from secularization and a retreat from Biblical values, starting with the banishment of God from the classroom.

Heaven forbid that America could be both religious and morally corrupt.

Friday, January 05, 2007

When Strawmen Misbehave

Dennis Prager still can't get over his abandonment by the Right and Center over his outrage at Keith Ellison, Congressman from Minnesota, and his now completed plan to take the oath of office on the Koran, and not the Bible. The last time we heard from Prager he was prophesying dire portents for an America that didn't toe the narrow line on Biblical values. In his next installment, Prager, in his trademark oversimplification of the world (he calls it "clarity") divides us into two clearly separate camps: the People of the Book, and the Secular Left:

If you want to predict on which side an American will line up in the Culture War wracking America, virtually all you have to do is get an answer to this question: Does the person believe in the divinity and authority of the Five Books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah? ("Divinity" does not necessarily mean "literalism.")

I do not ask this about "the Bible" as a whole because the one book that is regarded as having divine authority by believing Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Mormons, among others, is not the entire Bible, but the Torah. Religious Jews do not believe in the New Testament and generally confine divine revelation even within the Old Testament to the Torah and to verses where God is cited by the prophets, for example. But "Bible-believing" Christians and Jews do believe in the divinity of the Torah.
And they line up together on virtually every major social/moral issue.

Name the issue: same-sex marriage; the morality of medically unnecessary abortions; capital punishment for murder; the willingness to label certain actions, regimes, even people "evil"; skepticism regarding the United Nations and the World Court; strong support for Israel. While there are exceptions -- there are, for example, secular conservatives who share the Bible-believers' social views -- belief in a God-based authority of the Torah is as close to a predictable dividing line as exists.

That is why one speaks of Judeo-Christian values, but not of Judeo-Christian theology. Torah-believing Jews and Torah-believing Christians have very different theological beliefs, but they agree on almost all values issues -- largely because they share a belief in the divinity of the same text.

Many members of all these different religions have found it quite remarkable how similar their values are to those of members of these other religions. An evangelical Protestant who might regard Mormonism as nothing more than a heretical cult will find himself seated next to Mormons at a rally on behalf of the Boy Scouts. An Orthodox rabbi who might never set foot in a church will join a panel of Christians in opposing the redefining of marriage. And so on.

Very often the dividing line in America is portrayed as between those who believe in God and those who don't. But the vast majority of Americans believe in God, and belief in God alone rarely affects people's values. Many liberals believe in God; many conservatives do. What matters is not whether people believe in God but what text, if any, they believe to be divine. Those who believe that He has spoken through a given text will generally think differently from those who believe that no text is divine. Such people will usually get their values from other texts, or more likely from their conscience and heart.

That a belief or lack of belief in the divinity of a book dating back over 2,500 years is at the center of the Culture War in America and between religious America and secular Europe is almost unbelievable. But it not only explains these divisions; it also explains the hatred that much of the Left has for Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon Bible-believers.

For the Left, such beliefs are irrational, absurd and immoral.

Which is exactly how most conservatives regard most leftist beliefs, such as: there is nothing inherently superior in a child being raised by a mother and father rather than by two fathers or two mothers; men and women are not basically different, but only socially influenced to be different; Marxism was scientific; that the Soviet Union was not an evil empire; it was immoral for Israel to bomb Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor; morality is relative to the individual or society; there is no moral judgment to be made about a woman aborting a healthy human fetus solely because she doesn't want a baby at this time; material poverty, not moral poverty, causes violent crime, etc.

This divide explains why the wrath of the Left has fallen on those of us who lament the exclusion of the Bible at a ceremonial swearing-in of an American congressman. The Left wants to see that book dethroned. And that, in a nutshell, is what the present civil war is about.

It is clearly a lot of hogwash, starting with Prager himself. By reading this, you would assume that he is pro-life, yet he is in the pro-choice camp. If you read the wording of the Biblical stand on abortion above, it is carefully positioned to include people who are pro-choice but who consider abortion to be morally wrong. Sorry Dennis, but that is not where the dividing line on abortion is drawn in this culture war.

He also concocts this strawman of "Bible-believing" Christians to only encompass those Christians who share right wing social values, whether they truly believe in the Bible or not (and how can you be a Christan without believing in it?) Apparently Jimmy Carter is not a Bible believing Christian, and neither is the Pope, who is against capital punishment. For those who haven't listened or read Prager much, he is adamant that the Bible not only sanctions capital punishment, but obligates society to use it to punish heinous crimes like murder.

Prager's tirade against the dangers posed by Europe's secularism ignores the fact that socialism has very strong backing by Catholics in places like Poland as well as in the Vatican.

Prager also refuses to believe that "Judeo-Christian" values, or those values practiced by a majority of Americans whether they are religious or not, can survive without the authority of the Torah. So no matter how often he offers the disclaimer that irreligious people can act consistently with Biblical morality, his faith demands that any large scale movement of society away from Judeo-Christianity must result in societal collapse. He observes Europe with all the objectivity of a man with his life savings on one horse observes the horse race. If Europe doesn't collapse because of its secularism, then he would have to conclude that his faith is a sham. One should never base one's faith on the failure of other faiths.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Surprising Secret to a Long Life: Stay in School
January 3, 2007
The New York Times

James Smith, a health economist at the RAND Corporation, has heard a variety of hypotheses about what it takes to live a long life — money, lack of stress, a loving family, lots of friends. But he has been a skeptic.

Yes, he says, it is clear that on average some groups in every society live longer than others. The rich live longer than the poor, whites live longer than blacks in the United States. Longevity, in general, is not evenly distributed in the population. But what, he asks, is cause and what is effect? And how can they be disentangled? [...]

The one social factor that researchers agree is consistently linked to longer lives in every country where it has been studied is education. It is more important than race; it obliterates any effects of income.

Year after year, in study after study, says Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, education “keeps coming up.”

And, health economists say, those factors that are popularly believed to be crucial — money and health insurance, for example, pale in comparison.

Dr. Smith explains [that health insurance] “is vastly overrated in the policy debate.”

Instead, Dr. Smith and others say, what may make the biggest difference is keeping young people in school. A few extra years of school is associated with extra years of life and vastly improved health decades later, in old age.

It is not the only factor, of course.

There is smoking, which sharply curtails life span. There is a connection between having a network of friends and family and living a long and healthy life. [...]

Graduate Student Finds Answer

[In 1999] a Columbia University graduate student, Adriana Lleras-Muney, was casting about for a topic for her doctoral dissertation in economics. She found an idea in a paper published in 1969. Three economists noted the correlation between education and health and gave some advice: If you want to improve health, you will get more return by investing in education than by investing in medical care.

It had been an inflammatory statement, Dr. Lleras-Muney says. And for good reason. It could only be true if education in and of itself caused good health.

But there were at least two other possibilities.

Maybe sick children did not go to school, or dropped out early because they were ill. Or maybe education was a proxy for wealth, and it was wealth that led to health. It could be that richer parents who gave their children everything, including better nutrition, better medical care and a better education, had children who, by virtue of being wealthy, lived longer.

How, she asked herself, could she sort out causes and effects? It was the chicken-and-egg problem that plagues such research.

The answer came one day when Dr. Lleras-Muney was reading another economics paper. It indicated that about 100 years ago, different states started passing laws forcing children to go to school for longer periods. She knew what to do.

“The idea was, when a state changed compulsory schooling from, say, six years to seven years, would the people who were forced to go to school for six years live as long as the people the next year who had to go for seven years,” Dr. Lleras-Muney asked.

All she would have to do was to go back and find the laws in the different states and then use data from the census to find out how long people lived before and after the law in each state was changed.

“I was very excited for about three seconds,” she says. Then she realized how onerous it could be to comb through the state archives.

But when her analysis was finished, Dr. Lleras-Muney says, “I was surprised, I was really surprised.” It turned out that life expectancy at age 35 was extended by as much as one and a half years simply by going to school for one extra year.

Her prize-winning paper appeared in Review of Economic Studies. And she ended up with a job as an assistant professor at Princeton. Now, others papers have appeared, examining the effects of changed laws on compulsory education in Sweden, Denmark, England and Wales. In every country, compelling children to spend a longer time in school led to better health.

“You might think that forcing someone to go to school who does not want to be there may not be the same thing as going to school because you want to,” Dr. Lleras-Muney said. “That did not seem to be the case.”

Not everyone was convinced. [...] [I]t might be expected that after a certain point, more years of school would not add to a person’s life span. That, however, is not what the data shows. The education effect never wanes. [...]

Dr. Lleras-Muney and others point to one plausible explanation — as a group, less educated people are less able to plan for the future and to delay gratification. [...] [E]ducation, Dr. Smith at RAND finds, may somehow teach people to delay gratification. For example, he reported that in one large federal study of middle-aged people, those with less education were less able to think ahead.

“Most of adherence is unpleasant,” Dr. Smith says. “You have to be willing to do something that is not pleasant now and you have to stay with it and think about the future.” [...]

An Observation on the Street

In the late 1970’s, Lisa Berkman, now a professor of public policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, took a part-time job at a San Francisco health care center. It drew people from Chinatown and the city’s Italian neighborhood, North Beach, as well as from the Tenderloin district, a poor area where homeless people lived on the streets and mentally ill people roamed. And she noticed something striking.

“In Chinatown and North Beach, there were these tightly bound social networks,” Dr. Berkman recalls. “You saw old people with young people. In the Tenderloin, people were just sort of dumped. People were really isolated and did not have ways of figuring out how to make things work.” [...]

The risks of being socially isolated are “phenomenal,” Dr. Berkman says, associated with twofold to fivefold increases in mortality rates. And the correlations emerged in study after study and in country after country.

Yet, Dr. Berkman adds, there was that perennial question: Did social isolation shorten lives or were people isolated because they were sick and frail and at great risk of death?

She knows that sometimes ill health leads to social isolation. But, Dr. Berkman says, the more she investigated, the more evidence she found that social isolation might also lead to poor health and a shorter life by, for example, increasing stress and making it harder to get assistance when ill. [...]

The cautionary tale, health economists say, is the story of the link between health and wealth.

Over and over again, studies show that health is linked to wealth. It even matters where a person lives.

For example, in a new analysis of Medicare beneficiaries, Stephanie Raymond and Kristen Bronner of Dartmouth College find that the lowest death rates are in the wealthiest places. [...] Race was not a large factor.

“If you control for where people live, the disparities between black and white mortality rates become much smaller,” said Jonathan Skinner, a Dartmouth health economist.

An obvious explanation is that wealth buys health. And it seems plausible. Poorer people, at least in the United States, are less likely to have health insurance or access to medications.

But [Victor Fuchs, a health economist at Stanford] says, then why don’t differences between rich and poor shrink in countries where everyone has health care?

“All you have to do is look at the experience of countries like England that have had health insurance for more than 40 years,” he says. “There is no diminution in the class differentials. It’s been the same in Sweden. It’s true everywhere.”

In fact, Dr. Smith says, the wealth-health connection, at least among adults, goes in the wrong direction. It is not that lower incomes lead to poor health so much as that poor health leads to lower incomes, he found.

A Skewing of the Numbers

Sick people tend to have modest out-of-pocket medical expenses, but often are unable to work or unable to work full time.

The result can be a drastic and precipitous and long-lasting drop in income. As the ranks of middle- and upper-income populations become depleted of people who are ill, there is a skewing of the data so healthy people are disproportionately richer.

That effect emerged when Dr. Smith analyzed data from the National Institute on Aging’s National Health and Retirement Survey, a national sample of 7,600 American households with at least one person aged 51 to 61.

If someone developed cancer, heart disease or lung disease — which will affect about a fifth of people aged 51 to 61 over the next eight years — the household’s income declined by an average of more than $37,000. And its assets — its wealth — fell by $49,000 over the ensuing eight years, even though out-of-pocket medical expenses were just $4,000.

Dr. Smith also asked whether getting richer made people healthier, an effect that could translate into a longer life. It does not, he concluded after studying the large increases in income during the stock market surge of the 1990s. [...]

Income, says Dr. [Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania], “is so heavily influenced by health itself.”

Much More Than Genes and Luck

[...] For the most part, genes have little effect on life spans. Controlling heart disease risk factors, like smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes, pays off in a more vigorous old age and a longer life. And it seems increasingly likely that education plays a major role in health and life spans.

And then there is the question of what to do. [...] There are just so many questions remaining, says Richard Suzman, a program director at the National Institute on Aging. Even studies showing that, for many people, the die may be cast early in life, do not reveal how best to make changes.

“We have only a vague idea of when and where early experience links to old age or when and where to intervene,” Dr. Suzman says...