I Like

I’m looking at my blog right now much the way I was looking out the window at the first hints of green earlier today–with a wistful little whimper. This is one of those weeks, during that time of year, when I can blog or I can sleep (some). So, for the next few days, you can find out more than you ever wanted to know about my musical tastes.

This one is one of my favorite odd little New Wave classics. Oh, the eighties.

I Like

They go to parties to steal the show by talking really loud and try to tell you what they know.

I Like

Sympathetic but Irrational

If you haven’t already read Greg’s post about a student of his recently sentenced for acts he committed as a member of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), I strongly recommend it. It is, in part, about dealing with people you love doing bad things. It is also about, well, here:

But there is a third axis along which we can judge movements that engage in violence to enact change: The link to and articulation of the rational argument. ALF does not have one. ELF does not have one. Their arguments are based on misconceptions, misinformation, crappy logic, bad planning, and political ineptitude. Their arguments are shit. ALF and ELF have probably done more harm than good, in terms of the politics and public opinion, in the areas of animal care and environmental concern. The environmental movement and the animal ‘rights’ movement have progressed to the extent that they have despite, not because of, ELF/ALF.

Becca asked the following question in the comments.

Do you think ALF and ELF are irrational because their goals are irrational or because their means of achieving them are counterproductive?

It’s a question that needs to be asked, I think, simply because of the causes these groups align themselves with. Implicit (and I speculate, in part, because I know Becca will correct me if I’m wrong) is a certain sympathy with the cause that bleeds over to the group. However, I also think the answer is important, so I’m putting mine here to make sure it isn’t buried forever in a comment thread.

We’ve got a related post at QM that’s been sitting in the queue waiting for this to be done, so I’ve been thinking about this a while myself.

I’ll start with the first part. For the ELF at least, their aims are irrational. I’m not talking about the loving the Earth part. That may be their motivation, but it isn’t their goal. Their goal is to decrease the cost to the environment by increasing the cost of development–because development costs are paid by the environment. To put it more succinctly, firebombing is bad for the Earth, both by itself and in the cost of replacing what was damaged.

On to their means. My first reaction on hearing about this was to be pissed at the ELF for screwing up another life. Yes, I know they haven’t killed anyone, but all too often, they end up hurting the good people.

When they decide to torch a condo construction project, it makes a big splash and a big statement. However, the people put at risk are firefighters and the neighbors who have chosen to live in high-density housing. The people who lost financially were, again, those living in high-density housing, plus those who were getting ready to move into high-density housing and those who saw their insurance rates go up to cover the costs of additional materials to rebuild.

Then there’s what they do to their own people. Take a kid like John, someone who presumably was driven by a passion for the environment. He wants to help. Other environmental groups are telling him that we need to continue to do ecological research so we understand the decisions we’re making, that we need to press politically for the action we already know is needed, that we need to engineer more efficient production and transmission of alternative energy, that we need to figure out how to slow or stop population growth.

Those are all good things to be doing. They also take time and perhaps some education that John hasn’t achieved yet. So what does he do? Does he buckle down and get that education and try to enlighten his fellow students as he goes, despite the fact that they’re more interested in Friday night’s party?

He’s, what, eighteen? What do you think he does when he has the ELF over here telling him he can help in a big way, right now, by playing with fire?

So now we’ve got another kid doing prison time instead of working on our problems, another extremist for political opponents to point to (only this one actually did extreme things). And Greg didn’t mention it, but it’s in the news. John will have to pay restitution, so he’ll be the one helping to pay for the environmental resources to replace those destroyed by the ELF.

Irrational top to bottom.

Sympathetic but Irrational

Revenge of Daughter of the Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival

As I explained to someone the other day, I thought that after the election, we’d be able to retire the Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival. Even though she squeaked through her reelection with a slim plurality, I was among the people who still considered the Republicans capable of learning what hadn’t worked for them in this election. One of those things being Bachmann, I thought she’d end up in some congressional broom closet somewhere, in a straitjacket with a duct tape gag. Not that I spent any time dwelling on this image or anything.

Alas, it was not to be.

The newest edition of the Replace Michele Bachmann Web Carnival is up at Quiche Moraine.

Revenge of Daughter of the Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival

Atheists Talk–Sean B. Carroll

Sean B. Carroll, “Remarkable Creatures”
Atheists Talk #0063 Sunday, March 29, 2009

Have you heard of the new science of Evo Devo? If so, then you’ve probably read Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Dr. Sean B. Carroll. It is a captivating book describing the genetic tool kit that humans and animals share. His engaging narrative style and clear explanation for how developmental biology works is not only smart it is fun to read.

His new book, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, shows what a gifted story teller he really is. It will also convince anyone (get this book, kids!) just how exciting, Indiana-Jones-style, adventuresome science can be. Epic adventures are just what Von Humboldt, Darwin, Wallace, Bates and other naturalist explorers experienced. Carroll selected the stories of 13 explorers for their courage, their tenacity and their respective abilities upon return to civilization to share their remarkable insights into how our world works.

Just as enthralling as the stories of 19th century explorers are the tales of current adventurers like Neil Shubin and Svante Paabo. Dr. Carroll’s admiration for his colleagues is very much in the 19th century spirit of acknowledging contributions from contemporaries. His explanation of how current research in molecular biology connects with how scientists historically used morphology, shows there are vistas in science yet to be explored. We catch the excitement of watching it unfold from this master storyteller as the age of discovery continues.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Interview by Lynn Fellman. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Directed by Mike Haubrich.

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Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at [email protected].

Atheists Talk–Sean B. Carroll

The Bullheaded Bullhorn

It was just yesterday I put up a post about Michele Bachmann’s “armed and dangerous” shenanigans. In what is for her perhaps a new record, today she’s got people hopping mad over a new outrage, with her questions to Geithner and Bernanke about the constitutional basis for the bailout. As usual, the first question is about Bachmann’s intelligence.

Can someone please tell me how this moron got elected in the first place? I was just watching her “try” to grill Bernanke and Geithner about the AIG bonuses. They were ridiculous questions too, like “where in the Constitution does it say you are authorized to distribute money to blah blah blah..”. WTF kind of question is that?

As much as I’d love jump on the bandwagon and blame this on Bachmann’s lack of any brain power, there’s actually something a bit more interesting going on. An interview with her in the MinnPost describes it, in a stunning piece of self-awareness on Bachmann’s part.

In an interview with MinnPost after the hearing, Bachmann said, “My intent to the line of questioning is legitimate because I have a number of constituents that ask me ‘Can they do this?’”

This is the point at which Bachmann reveals that she isn’t acting as part of some plan. She’s not trying to fulfill some agenda. She’s simply the final stage in a dogwhistle clarification and amplification apparatus. It works like this.

  • The right-wing message machine decides which fear they’ll play on this week.
  • They code their message to get past the majority of media filters, the people who don’t quite want to ask, “What kind of xenophobic crap is this?” without being very sure of their ground.
  • The chosen spokespeople, the ones who can be trusted to remember the right words, go out and speak.
  • Their voices are picked up by the timid media and rebroadcast ad nauseum by the radio, newpaper and television empires that were built for just this purpose.
  • Voters hear what they’re supposed to hear–nothing in particular or the confirmations of their beliefs, depending on their affiliation and closely held fears.
  • Some of these voters are certain (and right) that Bachmann shares their fears, and they go to her for help. In the process, the coding of the message is lost.
  • Bachmann opens her mouth on camera or microphone, and the message is broadcast in the baldest terms possible.

It’s a very simple system. It’s beauty is in its inevitability. Until the Republicans are willing to disavow Bachmann or stop using dogwhistles, we only have to listen to her to hear the what they’d rather we not quite hear. Not that this is an easy job, but it’s worth doing.

Let’s see how it works in practice. Everyone remembers Bachmann’s lovely statements about investigating Obama and the rest of Congress for signs of anti-Americanism. Those were made in mid-October. What happened in the middle of October?

Over the past few days there has been a concerted McCain campaign effort to paint Barack Obama’s tax policies as socialistic in nature. On Friday a surrogate for the Arizona Republican took the argument to the next overheated level, declaring as fact that Obama a socialist himself.

Oh, right. That was when McCain and Palin were objecting so strenously to Obama’s statement that spreading wealth (as opposed to the concentrating we’ve been doing) was a good thing. It didn’t take many steps, or many days, to go from that to Bachmann channeling McCarthy. With her in the picture, the subtext became the text.

The “armed and dangerous” comments have an obvious precedent in recent calls for “civil disobedience” and revolution against changes by the Obama administration. The sentiments Bachmann is broadcasting date back further to Palin inciting violence against Obama, with the change being that he now is the administration (and thus the government for those who still believe Bush’s claims to executive power). There’s additional evidence that the message is being heard and rebroadcast without its shroud of deniability, aside from Bachmann’s jaw flapping.

So, what’s behind the questions about the constitutionality of Congress authorizing spending? Well, there’s the obvious push by the Republicans to redefine deficit spending as a bad thing, including the claim that it will “bankrupt” the country (which, considering the etymology of the word, makes me laugh very hard). But the direct connection to constitutionality is a bit harder to parse.

Anti-American could translate to unconstitutional, of course, but I think there’s more to it than that. I suspect that this comes from the anti-tax fringe. We certainly have enough local representation, in the form of Robert Beale (Papa Day) and his cronies. One of the fruitbats favorite claimed defenses when they’re charged with not paying is that there’s no constitutional authority for the government to collect taxes.

Okay, so maybe it seems like a stretch, but don’t forget that Beale’s pastor, at his prosperity gospel church, is the guy who faced IRS investigation for endorsing Bachmann from his pulpit. No, I believe in the Bachmann bullhorn. Expect a rash of tax “protesters” to stop paying any day now.

Bachmann said so.

The Bullheaded Bullhorn

More Bachmann

Closing down the Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival after the election made sense at the time. After all, there wouldn’t be enough material for a weekly carnival, right?

“I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us ‘having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,’ and the people – we the people – are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States.”

[sigh] Right.

Luckily, the folks at Dump Michele Bachmann are still on the job, collecting her incendiary idiocies in one place. Go read.

More Bachmann

How to Do Sensationalism

First off, let me just say that it’s very wrong that I found out about an article in PLos Medicine through Facebook instead of Bora. I mean, I know Bora can’t bring everything interesting to my attention, but…still. It is a cool article, reporting a negative correlation between paternal age and children’s scores on a number of cognitive tests.

Seriously, though, I’m glad I didn’t know what the study was about when I saw the link to New York Magazine, or I might not have followed it. It was worth following, if for no other reason than the titles:

Do Cougars Have the Smartest Kids?

This Old Sperm
Science comes down on the side of the cougar.

What’s not to love? Well, after an introduction like that, I was actually expecting to hate the article. I mean, we’ve all seen plenty of overly sensational science reporting. The opening paragraph carries none of the caveats of the article.

Earlier this month, the journal PLoS Medicine analyzed data from a study of over 50,000 pregnant women and came to a simple but stunning conclusion: Older fathers have dumber kids. The more geriatric the dad, the dimmer the progeny, on measures including “thinking and reasoning, concentration, memory, understanding, speaking, and reading.” (Luckily, geezer offspring had no problems with motor skills, making them ideal for wheeling around their elderly dads.)

And there was plenty of hyperbole.

At last, science has produced the case for cougars. As Madonna understands intuitively, nature clearly intends aging women—whether married, divorced, or single; on vacation in Cancún or just killing time on line at the DMV—to snatch up passing youths in our talons and gestate a race of supersmart children. Who themselves, I presume, will be smart enough to self-select their partners likewise, forming a superrace of egghead Demis and Ashtons, a Cleopatran paradise of trophy studs and December–May embryos. Denying this is denying biology itself, and far be it for me to deny biology!

However, once it has your attention and gets its main points across, it immediately launches into a discussion of potentially confounding social variables. This is then followed by a critique of the kind of science reporting that would explain away results like those found in the study (older mother = good; older father = bad) with social variables while accepting cultural-norm-affirming sociobiology theorizing uncritically, ending with:

So if there’s something sickly refreshing about the bad news for older dads, let’s just admit that this is more about social gamesmanship than hard facts. If Us Weekly begins to print pictures of Owen Wilson with worried captions about stale sperm, would that be so bad?

The best part of the whole thing isn’t how concise it is, or how snarky. The best thing is that this lovely bit of contextual science reporting comes from Emily Nussbaum, who usually covers television. Beautiful job, Emily.

Thanks to Josh for the link.

How to Do Sensationalism

Painful Phone Calls

One of the hardest parts about running a talk radio show at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning is getting listeners to talk back. If this were a weekday, people would be mostly at work, already caffeinated. If this were a Saturday, slightly more people would be awake, somewhat fewer people would be at church and a lot fewer people would be leaving their radios off to avoid infomercials. Sunday morning is just a tough time.

Given that, one of the ways we measure the success–or lack thereof–of any show is by the number of calls and emails that we get. (Not the only way, of course. PZ doesn’t always get a lot of questions, but his download ratings are some of the highest we see.) Good shows are the ones where we can’t use everything that comes in, and not because of quality or the tendency for questions all to come in at the end of the show. Which they do.

By that measure, this morning’s program was definitely a success. We received six calls and one email. Yes, three of the calls were from the same woman, but only the email was from a Minnesota Atheists member–as far as we can tell. That’s reaching a new audience, part of what the show is supposed to do.

On the other hand, there were three calls from the same woman because she was too angry to let our engineer put her on hold so we could pick her up in the studio. One caller berated us for spreading “traditional medicine propaganda,” and the last caller called after the show was over to yell at the engineer and say he couldn’t believe Air America* would put something like this on the air. (Another thing about a Sunday morning slot is that you can’t buy your engineer a beer after a rough show. Sorry, Matt.)

We had one caller who left a message asking us to talk about the placebo effect and one email mentioning religious objections to vaccination. Aside from that, we only heard from people who were angry.

They had a reason to be angry. They were in pain. The woman who called multiple times had had a sister with cancer. The one who felt we were dealing in propaganda has two children with autism. I don’t know what the last caller’s story was, but I’m sure he had one. Every one of those people had a reason for their anger.

What they didn’t have was a rational reason to be angry at us. Reasons? Yes. Rational reasons? No.

That should have made them easier to deal with, maybe. Easier to shrug and say, “Not my fault. Not my problem.”

Easiest of all, in the short term anyway, would have been to tell them something that made them feel better. That’s what their gurus do. They tell these people that there’s a reason for what’s happening. They tell angry, hurt people that there’s something they can do to fix all this, right here, right now, without having to wait for more studies, more answers. They tell people like our callers that they’re in control–or will be if they can just get through to people like us.

We can’t do that, of course. We have to give the hard answers. We have to tell them there is no simple fix, not yet, maybe never that they’ll see. We have to take away this wall they’ve built around their pain, because it isn’t sound and it hurts people as it falls apart. And we have to make them understand that not letting their pain hurt other people is one of the hardest parts of growing up, but it’s time for them to do that.

No wonder they’re hurt. No wonder they’re angry. We’re asking a lot, and we have only two small things to give in return. Well, truth isn’t small, but it doesn’t look like a lot when you get it in the place of something you really wanted.

The other thing we can give them is their pain. We can acknowledge how they feel and acknowledge that it’s a perfectly reasonable response to their situation. And we can do that before we point out that it’s not a rational response to us. That’s not an easy thing to do when that pain is pointed straight at us with an intent to hurt, but if we’re asking them to be adults despite their difficult circumstances, it’s the least we can do. Isn’t it?

If you want to see it in practice, I recommend listening to the podcast of today’s radio show. PalMD is very good at it. I could be better, but I can practice. After all, just because I told Pal what I wanted us to talk about on the show, that doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from it too.

* The station is an Air America affiliate. We are not Air America programming. These facts calmed the caller down not at all.

Painful Phone Calls