Category: Politics

Election Day

By Sean Carroll | November 6, 2012 7:49 am

Here’s an entertaining explanation of why winner-take-all voting procedures generally evolve into two-party systems, typically forcing most voters to support candidates they don’t always agree with.

But vote anyway! (If you are a US citizen, or a citizen of another municipality which happens to be voting today.) You never know when you might cast the deciding ballot.

I have to go figure out the jillion (okay, eleven) ballot initiatives we have to deal with in the barely-functional direct democracy called California. One of them — Prop 37, which requires labels on certain genetically modified foods — poses an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, the science seems to indicate that genetic modification doesn’t introduce any special health risks. (At least not to individuals; there may be deleterious effects on the diversity of food sources, but that’s a different issue.) On the other hand, giving consumers more true information is generally a good idea. Is it a weird kind of reverse-paternalism to not give people correct information because they might take the wrong message from it?

p.s. At the end of our Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, Jerry Coyne offered “I think the best someone can do to move naturalism forward is to vote for Obama.”


Metaphysics Matters

By Sean Carroll | February 13, 2012 8:38 am

Chattering classes here in the U.S. have recently been absorbed in discussions that dance around, but never quite address, a question that cuts to the heart of how we think about the basic architecture of reality: are human beings purely material, or something more?

The first skirmish broke out when a major breast-cancer charity, Susan Komen for the Cure (the folks responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons), decided to cut their grants to Planned Parenthood, a decision they quickly reversed after facing an enormous public backlash. Planned Parenthood provides a wide variety of women’s health services, including birth control and screening for breast cancer, but is widely associated with abortion services. The Komen leaders offered numerous (mutually contradictory) reasons for their original action, but there is no doubt that their true motive was to end support to a major abortion provider, even if their grants weren’t being used to fund abortions.

Abortion, of course, is a perennial political hot potato, but the other recent kerfuffle focuses on a seemingly less contentious issue: birth control. Catholics, who officially are opposed to birth control of any sort, objected to rules promulgated by the Obama administration, under which birth control would have to be covered by employer-sponsored insurance plans. The original objection seemed to be that Catholic hospitals and other Church-sponsored institutions would essentially be paying for something they though was immoral, in response to which a work-around compromise was quickly adopted. This didn’t satisfy everyone (anyone?), however, and now the ground has shifted to an argument that no individual Catholic employer should be forced to pay for birth-control insurance, whether or not the organization is sponsored by the Church. This position has been staked out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and underlies a new bill proposed by Florida Senator Mark Rubio.

Topics like this are never simple, but they can be especially challenging for a secular democracy. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Top Posts


By Sean Carroll | November 19, 2011 6:36 pm

You’ve probably heard that protestors at Occupy UC Davis were pepper-sprayed by police during a non-violent protest. (It’s very likely that you have heard but it hasn’t registered, as there have been many similar events nationwide and it’s hard to keep track.)

After the incident, UC Davis police chief, Annette Spicuzza, had this to say:

“There was no way out of that circle. They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.”

Imagine in your mind the kind of “volatile situation” to which this description might apply. Now here’s the picture:

Having never been pepper-sprayed, I have no idea what it’s like, although it doesn’t seem pleasant. But these protestors can take some solace in the idea that this kind of display will bring more support to their movement than a million chanted slogans. The police were obviously badly trained, but the ultimate responsibility lies with UC Davis Chancellor Linda Kaheti, who ordered them in. It’s a horrifying demonstration of what happens when authority is unchecked and out of touch. I’m not sure where the propensity of local authorities to call in police dressed like Storm Troopers started, but it has to end. This isn’t what our country is supposed to be about.

Here’s the video:

Update: On the question of since when are all protests met with police in riot gear freely dispensing pepper spray, Alexis Madrigal has researched the answer, which is: since the 1999 WTO/anti-globalization protests. Apparently police training is not flexible enough to accommodate the fact that different situations call for different responses.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, News, Politics

Scientists: Scamming America

By Sean Carroll | October 27, 2011 9:17 am

From The Daily Show, via Why Evolution is True, here’s a hard-hitting expose on the slick con called “science” that is scamming America.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights – Science – What’s It Up To?
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

I am generally a fan of the two-party system. Sadly, at the moment in this country, one of the parties is completely crazy.

Update: Sorry that the video isn’t available outside the U.S. Note that Lisa Randall was a guest earlier on the show.

The Atheism/Religion Turing Test

By Sean Carroll | July 10, 2011 10:52 am

[Update: the “Christian” answers are now available, and voting is open.]

A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman set off a debate by claiming that liberal economists could do a very good job at explaining what conservative economists think, but the conservatives just don’t understand the liberals. Regardless of the empirical truth of that statement, the idea is an important one: when there is a respectable disagreement (as opposed to one where the other side are just obvious crackpots), and important skill is to be able to put yourself in the mind of those with whom you disagree. Conservative economist Bryan Caplan formalized the notion by invoking the idea of a Turing Test: could a liberal/conservative do such a good job at stating conservative/liberal beliefs that an outsider couldn’t tell they were the real thing? Ilya Somin, a libertarian, actually took up the challenge, and made a good-faith effort to simulate a liberal defending their core beliefs. I actually thought he did okay, but as he himself admitted, his “liberal” sometimes seemed to be more concerned with disputing libertarianism than making a positive case. Playing someone else is hard!

Obviously it would be fun to do this for religious belief, and Leah Libresco has taken up the challenge. She came up with a list of questions for atheists and Christians to explain their beliefs. She then recruited some actual atheists and Christians (they’re not hard to find) and had them answer both sets of questions. You can find the (purported) atheist answers here — I think the purported Christian answers are still forthcoming.

Now, of course, the fun begins: vote! Go here to take a short survey to judge whether you think each answer is written by a true atheist, or a Christian just fudging it. At a brief glance, it looks like there are a few answers where the respondent is clearly faking it — but it’s not always so easy. I’ll be curious to see the final results.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Religion

Eat the Rich

By Sean Carroll | February 24, 2011 8:54 am

In times of economic turmoil, nothing has a calming effect like a few colorful charts. Here are a couple of thought-provoking ones via E.D. Kain at Balloon Juice.

First, originally by Alex Knapp, we have the distribution of wealth in the U.S.:

If it looks like a more dramatic amount of inequality than you are used to seeing, it may be because this is plotting total wealth rather than yearly income. Knapp also points out that the tax system doesn’t really redistribute wealth very much; the top one percent pulls in 19% of the pre-tax income, which after taxes is whittle away to … 17%.

Of course their share is growing with time, courtesy of Mother Jones:

We can compare that reality to what people think it is, and what it should be:

What does it imply that most Americans think the distribution of wealth is much more even than it really is, and would like it to be more even still? By itself, nothing at all. These are just data — descriptions of the world — and science doesn’t imply morality. The data are just useful to keep in mind when we do think about how a just society should be ordered, and what strategies (“share the pain!”) might be most appropriate when thinking about how to recover from our recent economic pratfall.

How many comments do you think we’ll get before someone claims that taxation = slavery? I’m guessing five.


Bloodbath for Science

By John Conway | February 13, 2011 3:55 pm

Last Wednesday the House Appropriations Committee released a list of proposed cuts totaling over $74 billion to be attached to the continuing resolution under which the government is presently operating. The next day, the committee promised even deeper reductions in the present fiscal year funding, which began last October, and which is nearly half over. The committee is set to propose some $100 billion in cuts, the rationale being “to rein in spending to help our economy grow and our businesses create jobs.”

Among the cuts is $1.1 billion from the Department of Energy Office of Science, the agency which funds the majority of basic physics research at universities and national labs. This is out of a total proposed budget of $5.12 billion for basic research. That request for FY2011 was slightly above the FY2010 actual appropriation, meaning that the proposed cut for FY2011 represents more than a $890 million decrease relative to FY2010.

If enacted (and what happens next is a high-stakes game of chicken), clearly, this represents a 20% rescission half way through the fiscal year. Effectively it’s a 40% cut. Imagine you are a national lab director, or a university PI like me. If I am told that I will not get the money we were awarded by the DOE, we will need to let people go, no question. People are talking about closing the national labs for some period, and I have heard rumors that the Tevatron at Fermilab, scheduled to shut down in September, will actually be turned off in a couple weeks on March 1, ten years to the day that Run 2 began.

The exact programs within the DOE Office of Science to be cut will be detailed by the committee soon, I expect. But this is utter devastation for the people that form the bedrock foundation of our high tech economy, and train the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is breathtakingly stupid.

And how does cutting $100 billion in government spending “help our economy grow and create jobs”? The immediate result will be the loss of something like a million jobs. This is just an order of magnitude guess, based on the notion that all government spending supports jobs one way or another, at about $100k per job. Maybe it’s 600k, maybe it’s 1.5 million – I don’t know. But to say this creates jobs? I am totally baffled by this logic. I am no economist, but maybe one out there can enlighten me.

As far as I can see, we cut federal spending so the ultra-rich can keep their tax breaks, and they invest the money they keep overseas where labor is cheaper. So we are killing American jobs – some of the best ones we have in high-tech and alternative energy – and sending them out of the country. This is incredible.

The administration’s FY2012 request will be released tomorrow. No doubt the house majority party will declare it DOA…

A Mixed Day for Basic Human Decency

By Sean Carroll | December 18, 2010 2:36 pm

Nothing focuses the mind of an elected representative like the prospect of their vacations being cut short, and Congress has been busy in the days leading up to the Christmas holiday. The big news today:

  • “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is being repealed. DADT was the ugly political compromise that allowed gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military, as long as they stayed in the closet. It was opposed by the military, most Americans, and even most members of Congress. Repeal was only difficult because of the bizarre filibuster rule that allows 40% of the U.S. Senate to gang together to block legislation they oppose on the basis of fundamental principles, such as the principle that homosexuals should be discriminated against. Oh, and the energetic opposition of Crazy John McCain, who was a longtime opponent of DADT until he decided it was politically expedient to switch sides. (“There will be high-fives all over the liberal bastions of America,” he said, taking the nonpartisan high road.) The legislative strategy for repeal is a hard-won victory for Obama, who could have overturned the policy by executive order, but argued that passing a law would yield a much more solid and lasting result.
  • The DREAM Act has failed. Again, not because it couldn’t get a majority, but because it couldn’t muster the votes to overcome a filibuster. (A handful of Democrats joined with the Republicans on this one.) In this case, the principled objection was to a bill that allowed non-citizens who were brought to this country illegally as children (when they were younger than 16) to attain citizenship if they graduated from high school and either completely two years of college or joined the military. Obviously we wouldn’t want people like that in our country.

Sorry to be snarky, truly. I much prefer having polite discussions about honest disagreements. But these aren’t examples of that; opposition to these measures arises from combinations of craven political posturing and straightforward bigotry. Nothing principled about it; just politicians preying on people’s fears. And I honestly believe that we have a more healthy political dialogue by admitting that outright, rather than pretending that opposition to bills like this is in any way honorable.

DADT repeal is a big deal. Congratulations to all the servicemen and -women who no longer have to live a lie (at least not because of official government policy; informal discrimination is harder to eradicate). High fives all over!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Politics

No Labels, No Point

By Sean Carroll | December 13, 2010 11:07 am

Michael Bloomberg and a posse of self-styled centrists have proclaimed a new movement that will save America from the tyranny of partisan gridlock: No Labels.

Maybe I’ve been radicalized by reading blogs for too long, but this is one of the dumbest ideas of all time. It doesn’t even have novelty to recommend it; an organization like this pops up every few years. (Remember Unity08?)

Sure, putting aside our differences and working together for the common good sounds like a lofty goal. Fine. But how is it actually supposed to work? Efforts like this are based on a fundamental unfixable mistake: the idea that what matters about politics is process, not issues. The idea that it doesn’t really matter what we do, only that we do it in a civil and constructive matter. The idea, in other words, that substance doesn’t really matter.

Here is an early post from the No Labels blog:

Lately, I find myself fielding variations of this question: “so what position will No Labels take on (insert issue)? The honest answer is I don’t know and to answer with exactness is premature. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of issues of importance out there. From the start, we’ve known that we want better approaches in the areas of the deficit, economic growth and education just to name a few examples.

Right. “Better approaches.” Why didn’t anyone think about this earlier. My predictions: they will come out firmly in favor of a lower deficit, more economic growth, and improved education. My heart beats faster just thinking about it.

Politics has a bad reputation. People don’t like it. You see family members saying silly things and then getting overly emotional about their commitments. There is an appealing fantasy that we could just learn to work together and get along, and then all of our problems would be solves.

But at the end of the day, the marginal rate of the top tax bracket has to be a certain number. There is or is not a public option for health insurance. We do or do not invade Iraq. People disagree about these issues. And politics is the way we make decisions in the face of those disagreements. Pretending otherwise is not principled, it’s wankery.

Politics might be distasteful, but it’s necessary, and taking it seriously is a virtue. Pretending to float above it all is not.


Leaking Wikis

By Sean Carroll | December 13, 2010 10:31 am

Obviously everyone in the world has heard about Wikileaks and its associated controversies. It seems like the site itself has to keep moving to avoid various attacks, but at the moment it can be found here.

My strong first impulse is to be in favor of shining light in secret places. This can be taken to extremes, of course; there is such a thing as appropriate privacy, for governments and corporations as well as for individuals. But the natural tendency on the part of governments (or bureaucracies more generally) is to go too far to the other extreme, making secrecy routine where it should be exceptional — and using it to cover up embarrassment rather than protecting people’s lives. Something like Wikileaks is a great corrective to this tendency.

I don’t really see, however, how something like the wholesale release of diplomatic cables helps this cause. Some of the cables might have been covered up for pernicious reasons, but for the most part diplomats should have an expectation of privacy in these kinds of communications, as much as an ordinary citizen would when making a phone call. This doesn’t seem like a brave strike against government corruption as much as a bit of leering Peeping-Tommery. I’d personally be happier if Wikileaks were a bit more selective in what it shared with the world.

Personally, the most depressing aspect of the whole affair — even more than the cartoonish responses from craven politicians — has been the attitude of the established media. Sure, they will publish the stories, although usually accompanied by some sort of meek apologia. But on TV and in the op-ed pages, there is enormously more discussion about Julian Assange and Wikileaks itself than about what we have actually learned from the documents. A lot of people in the media these days consider themselves to be more like partners with government, rather than respectful adversaries. I’d love to see more thoughtful pieces about what we’ve learned from all these documents about how the world actually works.

Regardless of the ambiguities, I certainly hope Wikileaks keeps going. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “The press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint.” Or as Ruben Bolling more recently tweeted: “If a journalist is walking down the street, and happens to find a box of secret government documents, what should he do?” Telling the truth is always a good first strategy.


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