Contributors

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Tragedies and the Genetic Fallacy


Q:  Suppose you were an Israeli living in 1995, and that you thought that Yitzhak Rabin's take on the Arab/Israeli Peace Process was dangerously naive, and that to support it would put your family and your country at risk.  What should you have thought about it after Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Admir, who violently opposed the process?

A:  You should have thought that the Arab/Israeli Peace Process was dangerously naive, and that to support it would put your family and your country at risk.

The reason is simple:  nothing changed that should have affected your conclusion.  You would have based your assessment of the Peace Process not on the personal virtue of Rabin or Admir, but on the trustworthiness of the two parties, the terms of any agreement, the ability of the leaders to ensure that their sides lives up to their obligations, etc.  The assassination might make a Palestinian question the ability of Israeli leaders to prevent outrages by Israeli citizens, but -- in spite of the shock, outrage, and even metaphysical horror the assassination created in the hearts of so many Jews (whether in Israel or elsewhere) -- it should not have changed the opinions of Israelis with regard to the Peace Process.

Yet in the real world, it certainly did affect Israeli opinions to an extent that I found utterly astonishing.  I do not approve of everything Israel does, and also I see a distinction between Israeli interests and American interests, but I give the Israelis a lot of credit when it comes to certain things, such as understanding the importance of air power and making rational decisions in matters related to their national survival.

Ultimately, this is a mixture of the genetic fallacy, which judges an assertion based on who supports it rather than on its own strengths, together with the modern cult of the victim.  Regarding the latter, society is all over the place when it comes to "blaming the victim".  Usually, for example, there is no hesitation in blaming a drunk driver who drives into a tree, let alone another vehicles -- unless the driver happened to be a celebrity, or the room is full of family members claiming that society is to blame for not protecting the driver from his addictions.  As a rule, though, it is taboo to claim that a victim was less than perfect, and doubly taboo to claim that a victim shared any responsibility for his own fate.  Even so, it is just silly to pretend that disagreeing with a victim's political opinions is "blaming the victim"; but that silliness is commonplace.  The reaction to the assassination of Rabin is just one example among many.

This was brought to mind, of course, by the shocking member of British MP Jo Cox.  It is right to condemn her murder, and it is right to mourn her death, but I hope that Britons who vote to remain in the EU (which I expect would have won the vote anyhow) will do so for reasons related to the good of the UK, and not as some misguided memorial to Jo Cox. 

EDIT 24 JUNE 2016:  The British have in fact voted to leave the EU.  This surprises me a great deal.  I really thought Scotland was more likely to leave the UK (which did not happen) than Britain to leave the EU.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Bigfoot and Planet Nine from Outer Space

47 Ursae Majoris b v5

47 Ursae Majoris as imagined by Debivort.  The proposed "Planet Nine" might look similar to this.

What should we make of the claim that there is an unknown entity lurking on the fringes -- an entity that would not overthrow everything we think we know about our place in the universe but would give it a tweak -- when the evidence in favor of the entity falls short of what is normally demanded for such things, but is sufficient to be suggestive?  This is an inherently "fuzzy" question, because ideas like "sufficient evidence" and "suggestive evidence" are at least partially subjective.  In such a case, it is important to have some estimate of the background noise of false positive observations; how likely is that the suggestive evidence is something other than a collection of false positives?  The answer to that question will determine how much confidence we have that the claim will eventually be verified, and our degree of confidence will strongly influence how much money, time, and effort we devote to the search.  However, in the absence of better evidence (or a better analysis of the existing evidence), it would be foolish to commit to either the proposed entity being real or to it being unreal.

From the title of this post and from the very vague language I have used, it is clear that I think it is worthwhile to compare and contrast the claims that there is an indigenous North American ape and that there is a large planet in our solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune.  The similarities are obvious.  The standard proof needed to name a new species is possession of a type specimen -- a body that makes it clear that the new species is both real and distinct from other named species.  There is no type specimen for a Bigfoot, only a collection of sightings, photographs, and footprints -- and it is certain that most of these are either frauds or cases of mistaken identity.  Likewise, the standard proof needed to name a new astronomical body is a series of direct observations from which the orbit can be determined in some detail.  There are no direct observations of "Planet Nine", only observations of small objects beyond Neptune that may have been perturbed by the gravity of the hypothetical object.  Yet the reception by the scientific community of the two proposed is very different.  Why?

I can only come up with three good reasons to treat the astronomical case differently than the biological case.  
  1. The first is that astronomy is much, much, much more mathematical, so that it is possible to calculate (subject to a handful of reasonable assumptions) what size and type of telescope would be able to see the hypothetical planet.  This means they are able to give an explanation for why Planet Nine has not yet been seen.  In fact, the team that proposed Planet Nine has even attempted to calculate the odds that the orbital irregularities of bodies like Sedna are due to something else, though I suspect they underestimate those odds.  In contrast, as far as I know there has been no serious attempt to quantify how many "Bigfoot sightings" we should expect each year if Bigfoot is not real and all the "sightings" are mistakes or hoaxes.
  2. Related to the first point, the hypothesis of Planet Nine is falsifiable.  If sufficiently powerful telescopes exhaustively search the area of the sky indicated but fail to find Planet Nine, astronomers will just shrug their shoulders and move on.  Belief in Bigfoot, on the other hand, seems to be perpetually content with fuzzy photos, dubious footprints, and the accounts of alleged witnesses.
  3. Finally, the evidence for Planet Nine is objective, available to everyone, and impossible to fake.  The interpretation may or may not be correct, and how convincing it is in its current form is a somewhat subjective question, but anyone with a large enough telescope can confirm the raw data.  This is not really true for Bigfoot evidence.  Eyewitness accounts are entirely subjective, and the credibility of footprints depends on how they were discovered -- a process that cannot be independently repeated.

These are important differences, and all told, I consider the Planet Nine hypothesis both to be better science and to be proven correct.  Regardless, it is important to be prepared for the possibility that either hypothesis may be false and also for the possibility that either hypothesis may be true.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Who Are the Real National Heroes?

Every year, the winners of major sports championships are invited to the White House, presumably because they are some sort of "national heroes".  (More realistically, it's a photo op for both parties, but the photo op needs an excuse.)  It would really be more appropriate to invite people who jump onto subway tracks to save a stranger from an oncoming train.  Of course, such incidents would have to be investigated first, because unsavory types would stage such events in order to arrange a meeting with the president.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Intrinsic Evils and Politics

I frequently see Catholics trying to draw a distinction between the Democratic and Republican Parties on the basis that whatever the evils of the Republican Party may be, they are not intrinsic evils.  This indicates a misunderstanding of what "intrinsic evil" means. It does not mean something that is distinguished by being a very serious wrong; the word for that is "grave matter" -- the phrase you will see if you look up the bit about mortal sin in paragraph 1857 of the Catechism. You can think of this as being something analogous to a felony in secular law.

Something that is intrinsically evil is not distinguished by the magnitude of the evil, but by the fact that the act cannot be separated from evil; it can never be an acceptable means to a good end. The parallel would be to an unconstitutional act.

Most intrinsic evils are closely tied to grave sins, but many grave sins involve doing something that might, under other circumstances, be permissible. For example, Catholic Tradition (as mentioned in the Catechism) allows for the possibility of capital punishment under certain circumstances, but obviously many evil governments have used capital punishment as a way to murder their opponents, or those from whom they wished to steal.

When some Catholics refer to non-negotiable principles, they are introducing yet another category. These have to do with the intersection between moral theology and secular politics. It may be a mortal sin to miss Mass (it is clearly a grave matter), but few if any priests or bishops would want the government enforcing a law that everyone must attend Mass on Sundays and days of obligation.

Saying that a particular sin is not an intrinsic evil does not mean it is not important or that we can safely ignore it in a political context. Think back to the four sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance: (1) willful murder, (2) the sin of Sodom, (3) oppressing the poor, and (4) denying workers their just wages. Number 4, for example, is not necessarily an intrinsic evil; it may come in the form of giving the workers SOMETHING, just not what they are due. Noting that it "cries out to Heaven for vengeance", though, is a pretty good indication that it's serious, and it clearly is something that the government should have some role in preventing.

Here's a hypothetical. Let's say a candidate was running on a platform that included a nuclear strike against North Korea before North Korea develops nuclear-tipped ICBMs. This would be a dangerously stupid idea, but not an impossible one. It would arguably not involve an intrinsic evil, but it would be unambiguously wrong (violating principles that have been spelled out for centuries), and its consequences would certainly be catastrophic for the Korean Peninsula, and potentially for the whole world. I don't doubt that priests and bishops would make it clear that such a strike would be a non-negotiable evil that no Catholic, Christian, or even sane person should have any part of.

Bringing these back into the realm of politics, it is an indisputable fact that the Democratic Party is deeply committed to defending practices that are intrinsically evil.  An individual Democrat might not support these planks of his party's platform, but he obviously does not find them so objectionable that he leaves his party.  The Republican Party's grave evils tend to be things like the support of unjust (and even unconstitutional) wars and torture.  These may not be intrinsic evils, but a serious Catholic can no more ignore them than the evils of the Democrats.  Finding a candidate one can support in good conscience is not easy these days, and in many races it may be impossible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Don't Embarrass Yourself with a "Clever Zinger"

I understand that some short statements can be a kind of rallying cry to one's friends or an act of defiance against one's foes, and I also understand that many people may be unaware of the arguments for or against a position.  That said, if you are dealing with a person or a group of people who are obviously committed to a particular belief, the odds are overwhelmingly strong that they will be aware of any argument against them that is short enough to fit on a bumper sticker, and they probably have spent a good deal of time developing a response to it.  If you use your quip with the expectation that it's a magic bullet, you'll just end up looking foolish.

Understand that this applies to all sides of any serious question.  I've seen "zingers" deployed against Catholics, against Protestants, against Atheists, against Muslims, against Democrats, against Republicans, against pro-lifers, against abortion supporters, against Capitalism, against Socialism, ... the list just goes on and on.  By all means, take a stand on issues that are important to you, just don't assume you are the first to bring up an important point, or that your challenges are unanswerable.

Monday, May 30, 2016

For Biospheres, Size Matters

Quantity has a quality all its own.
-- Attributed to several Soviet leaders, including Stalin

One crucial quality that can be possessed by quantity is given by the Central Limit Theorem, which basically states that if you have N independent random samples taken from a sufficiently well-behaved probability distribution (which is the usual assumption), the average from the N sampled values will follow a bell curve, and the width of the bell curve is inversely proportional to the square root of N.  This is used, for example, in polling; if a poll of 1,000 people produces a margin of error of 4%, to produce a margin of error of 0.4% would require a poll of 100,000 people, which is too expensive for most purposes.

The Biosphere 2 structure has a footprint of 1.27 hectares, compared with the surface area of earth, which is 51.01 billion hectares, making the earth about 40 billion times as large as Biosphere 2.  Of course, the conditions at any location are affected by conditions like droughts, fires, hurricanes, insect hordes, etc., that affect fairly broad areas, so there are not 40 billion times as many independent samples on the earth as there are in Biosphere 2.  It is hard to say by how much that number should be reduced, but let's reduce it by a factor of 10,000, which seems reasonable enough.  That means that fluctuations in the average amount of carbon dioxide taken up by the plants or oxygen produced by them should be expected to be 2,000 times larger than similar fluctuations on earth, even if there were no mistakes with how Biosphere 2 was set up.  Such a large fluctuation is likely to "break" the system; some organisms may flourish and others will probably die, preventing the mixture of gases from being returned to near its desired stable point.  I suspect this was an important contribution to why the Biosphere 2 experiment failed.

As a result, I have little confidence in any human-scaled terrarium being a working solution for colonizing Mars.  The same would apply to greenhouses in space to which the human race retreats in the movie "Interstellar", or even to the ground-based greenhouses that would have been a more sensible solution.  I'll have to add this to my list of problems with that very disappointing movie.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Best Case Scenario

Clinton goes to jail for her carelessness with classified data, and Trump goes to jail for Trump University, and the office of President is left vacant after Obama.  Every bill is considered vetoed; if a bill can't overcome a veto, it's probably not one we need anyhow.  With no new president anxious for the "greatness" that comes of being a "war president", maybe we could avoid wars in which we are not directly attacked.  At any rate, it would lie with Congress to declare a war, you know, the way the Constitution says.

Of course, this won't happen.  Some numskull would consider it a "long national nightmare" and act to prevent it.  The real worry would be that Americans might find a government with no president preferable to one with a president.