Biography

RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mission creep and the League of Women Voters

I'm a pretty serious birder. I keep a life-list (we all do; some of us just admit it). I spend hours in swamps in cold rain trying to photograph them. My wife complains they dominate every vacation we take.(It is true I've got a mental list of the number of endemics on each Caribbean island, just in case we're get into a discussion where to go).

So it would be logical that I join Audubon, right? When I moved to Nebraska, I considered doing that. I looked up Wachiska Audubon, on the proto-internet. What I found is that it was an active chapter, which scheduled a lot of night meetings. But not to hunt for owls. Wachiska Audubon's primary focus seemed to be human population control.

Now you might argue, and they do, that humans affect birds (indisputable) and that reducing the number of humans increases the health of the bird population (very disputable). But when a birding organization takes a position on human population growth, it first of all excludes those of us who don't see human population growth as a major problem (IMHO, the best way to limit population is grow the economy). And second of all, there are lots of organizations dedicated to limiting human population growth already, and if those float your boat, you can join them instead of Audubon.

But that's not how it works. Being a mere birding club is not good enough for some people. I call it the totalizing impulse; the temptation to make every interest, every avocation, every activity part of one great scheme to Save the Planet. It's consumed most nature-oriented organizations. Audubon is now about Saving the Planet. The Nature Conservancy, which once had the very admirable mission of buying private land and setting it aside for wildlife, is now about Saving the Planet. The Sierra Club, which used to be about creating and maintaining a trail network, is now about Saving the Planet. I'm tempted to see in all of this a manifestation of O Sullivan's Law

Any organization or enterprise that is not expressly right wing will become left wing over time
The Left cannot leave anything alone. The most innocuous club, be it dedicated to needlepoint, or model airplanes, or birds, must be coopted as part of the great totalitarian endeavor.

So what set this off? Ben Sasse, Nebraska candidate for Senate, did not fill out a voter survey sent by the League of Women Voters. LWV is a classic example of O Sullivan's Law in action. Founded in 1920 as an organization to register women to vote, it still calls itself 'non-partisan', but has gotten deeply into public advocacy in areas that have nothing at all to do with exercising the franchise. It's most notorious intervention to date was a vicious attack ad run against Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, which used a young girl with asthma as a vehicle to assail Brown's position on the EPA regulating CO2 emissions (which, of course, don't cause asthma.) Factcheck.org called the ads deceitful. LMV's incredibly contorted excuse was that increased CO2 increases plant growth, which increases pollen production, which aggravates asthma. On this basis they should oppose planting trees.

In the end, of course, this will hurt LWV. Instead of having a distinctive and noble mission, it becomes just another generic red/green advocacy group. And there is absolutely no reason why a conservative or libertarian should treat it otherwise.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Never mind"

On Monday, October 3, Mr Eugene Quillen, a Berkeley student, was charged in Alameda County Superior Court with rape by use of drugs to commit sexual assault. He faced jail time and permanent registration on the sex-offender's list, and had to post $100,000 bail. Yesterday, Mr. Quillin was exonerated. California has an unusual (and highly laudable) legal finding called a 'factual finding of innocence', which states not just that the charges were dropped, but that the facts indicate the accused is innocent and should never have been arrested at all.

This is the assistant DA's remarkable statement.

In court Friday, deputy district attorney Joni Leventis said, according to a court transcript, that she had closely reviewed the evidence from police, and had interviewed the woman who initially reported the rape. “I’ve had several discussions with her about those events and we’ve concluded that Mr. Quillin did not commit any sexual assault on September 27th, 2014. And I would add that Jane Doe is in agreement with that conclusion that we have come to,” Leventis told the judge. Leventis also told the judge that there had been no indication that Quillin had been responsible in any way for the woman’s intoxication.
So 'Jane Doe' (unlike Mr Quillen, she is granted the privilege of anonymity), decided that she wasn't raped after all. Hard to believe one could be mistaken about something like that.

Too bad Mr. Quillen's name is all over the internet now. Even though his arrest records will be expunged, any future potential employer will find him in a Google search and likely rule him out immediately. He will live with this false accusation the rest of his life. And his accuser, who one is led to believe accused someone of rape, watched him charged, and then decided he didn't, will face no consequences at all.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dach deeds at the White House

This is hilarious.

Leslie Dach (I like to call him Papa Dach) is a long-time Democrat operative who also lobbied for Walmart. Presumably as a reward for his help in 2008, the Obama administration hired him as a 'counselor' at HHS and his son Jonathan Dach as a volunteer staffer in the White House. As an advance-man for the President's ill-fated trip to Colombia, Baby Dach had a prostitute stay in his room overnight. So did a bunch of Secret Service agents. They were fired. The White House denied all involvement by its staff. Baby Dach wasn't fired; instead, he's now under federal contract with the State Department, working for, wait for it...

The Office of Global Women's Issues! (rimshot)

Well, he's certainly had experience with global women!

BTW, Mama Dach, whose actual name is Mary Dickie (the laughs keep coming), is on the far left, Papa Dach next to her, and Baby Dach on the far right.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Closet deontology, or how climate change turns utilitarians into Kantians

(Despite my knowledge of the jargon, I don't philosophize for a living, so be patient, and if possible, kind. I'm not, by the way, claiming these are novel observations. In fact, I have no idea if they are, but I expect they're not.)

There are two great classes of ethical systems in contemporary philosophy; deontology and utilitarianism. (One could argue there's a third system, based on what seems to be a universal and innate human ethical sense, but I'd argue simply adopting that would be falling into the naturalistic fallacy.) Anyway, broadly speaking, deontology is 'duty ethics'; actions are right or wrong depending whether they accord with doing one's duty. Deontology is often religious; obeying the Ten Commandments is a duty for Christians and Jews. One can argue even fairly strict and seemingly arbitrary deontological rules, such as keeping kosher, once had a rational basis. Avoiding pork and segregating milk from meat probably made a lot of sense in the 1000 BCE middle east. But as several orthodox Jews have explained to me, one obeys God's laws because they are God's laws, not because they make sense.

The idea that one should obey revelation-based rules obviously was not popular during the Enlightenment, and 18th century thought took two tracks. One was Kant's, which sought to found deontological ethics on reason, and led to the categorical imperatives, the most famous of which is 'Act as though the maxim of your actions could be a general law', or as my mother (knowing nothing of Kant) put it "What would happen if everyone did that?" There are all sorts of criticisms of Kant, and attempt to build on or modify his ideas; my own experience is that raw Kantianism leads to a set of rules that are incredibly strict.

The other great thread is utilitarianism, which essentially says one should act to maximize the overall happiness, or good, or something, of the universe. There are of course all sorts of problems with this too. Is happinees necessarily a good thing? After all, a well-supplied drug addict is happy. How can you define good in utilitarianism in a non-circular way? How do we know if animals are happy, and is their happiness to be given equal weight to ours? If we knew killing a baby Hitler would spare 50 million people, should we kill baby Hitlers? But my own view is we can solve most of these problems sufficiently. The one insurmountable problem, in my view, is the impossibility of the utilitarian calculus. It is simply impossible to forecast the long term results of any action, even to some acceptable degree of probability.

It is probably fair to say most deontologists are on the right, and most utilitarians on the left. The reasons for that are pretty obvious, so I won't belabor them. Because of what I view as the fatal flaw of utilitarianism, I am sort of a half-hearted Kantian, partly by upbringing, partly because I see little practical alternative, being an atheist.

That's all background; here's the point of this post. Climate change is a case study in why the flaws of utilitarianism cause its adherents to become deontologists. Climate change is happening, because we are collectively pumping large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. I happen to think the short term consequences of this will be overall benign, but it's hard to say that about the long-term consequences; it will take an awful lot of carbon-dioxide-bestowed goodness to offset drowning the coastal regions of the earth. So what, ethically, should one do?

Oh, oh, I know, says the utilitarian. Institute policies to push us away from fossil fuel use. Stop the atmospheric CO2 increase! Problem is, we can't actually do that. We can reduce our own production of CO2, at some considerable cost to ourselves (a utilitarian evil). But there is no indication enough of the world will do the same. China will say it will, but it won't. India simply refuses. If we lower our consumption of fossil fuels, that will simply increase the supply, lower the price, and incentivize consumption elsewhere. It's depressing but entirely reasonable to predict humans will continue to consume fossil fuels, regardless of long term consequences, until the last readily available fossil fuels are used up. At that point, we are seriously screwed. Another problem with utilitarianism; sometimes you can't do anything to increase the good of the universe.

How does the utilitarian answer that? He/she says we should do it anyway, to show 'leadership'. Maybe if we do the right thing, others will follow. it will at least give us the moral standing to pressure them to follow. I think that's deluded. India has all sorts of good moral arguments why it should continue to grow, and self-interest will cause it to pick its own, over ours

So, in the end, utilitarians are forced to argue that we should limit CO2 production, because it would be good if everyone did it. Kant stirs in his grave and murmurs "By golly, that sounds familiar!" (Auf Deutsch, natürlich). Welcome to the categorical imperatives, boys and girls, and get out your reading glasses. The Critique of Practical Reason is heavy going, but you'll get through it; if everyone did, the world would be a better place.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chuck Hassebrook's disavowal of his role in 'Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest'

...which he issued tonight, in the Nebraska Gubernatorial Debate, is transparently false. Chuck claims he only wrote a few paragraphs of the report, and wanted his name taken off. But he was a member of the group that published the report! If he wanted his name removed, since he was a member of the group that published the report, he could surely have done so then, or at any time in the 24 years since! In fact, the Biotechnology Working Group, of which Chuck was indubitably a member, was a cosy little bunch...
In the U.S., a particularly important social space where anti-GE activists generated ideas was the Biotechnology Working Group (BWG). The BWG was formed in the late 1980s when a dozen activists working on various aspects of food and agriculture, environmental issues, trade policy, and biotechnology got together for the first time, thanks to a grant from two small foundations. In the process of meeting together for several years, the group’s members began to constitute themselves as a collective actor (Melucci 1996).
The BWG played a catalytic role in bringing these activists’ diverse trajectories to converge, both intellectually and organizationally, on the issue of biotechnology. The BWG was an important place for gathering and exchanging information, and for forming a collective political analysis. When they got together, BWG members would discuss recent developments in the technology and industry, and brainstorm action strategies. In 1990, the BWG published a report entitled “Biotechnology’s Bitter Harvest: Herbicide Tolerant Crops and the Threat to Sustainable Agriculture.” This report reflected a synergy of ideas among people from diverse backgrounds and organizations. This pattern of co-authorship became a common means by which the ideational work of grievance formation took place in the proto-mobilizational phase of the anti-GE movement.
The face-to-face interactions among BWG members were crucial in forging the intimate personal relationships and strong sense of commitment, solidarity, and mutual support that helped to sustain this fledgling movement and made it hum with energy, tension, humor, and excitement. For BWG members, they were an important source of inspiration and morale-building. “I have really fond memories [of the BWG] because initially it was really a wonderful group,” one member nostalgically recalled. “I mean, I’ve been to some [other] meetings, and people go, ‘oh, this was like the BWG in the old days.”
Hassebrook was a member of a group actively campaigning against GMOs, and he won't admit it.