Sunday, 2 November 2008
Stop Sylvia Browne is back online!
I was pleased to learn today that Robert Lancaster is recovering from his stroke and is back at work on the Stop Sylvia Browne web site. Robert is an extraordinary individual who provides this reference about Sylvia Browne as a public service, without any expectation of reward. I wish Robert the best — especially a full recovery.
Friday, 13 October 2006
Thursday, 1 December 2005
First Amendment analysis of Berkeley evolution web site
A lawsuit filed by Jeanne and Larry Caldwell against the operators of an educational web site about evolution (called "Understanding Evolution"), hosted by the University of California at Berkeley, has received international attention. Apparently, they claim that the use of public funds (a National Science Foundation grant) to write and publish documents that promote belief in evolution (which the Caldwells appear to believe contradicts their religion) violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.[FN1] This is my "quick and dirty" First Amendment analysis.[FN2]
In general, the Berkeley site seems, to me, to be on solid ground, although the First Amendment establishment caselaw sometimes requires a very narrow focus on the particular statements at issue, as opposed to on the web site in general. From what I gather from news reports, only one element (or a small number of elements) of the site appears to be under attack. I think that element will survive First Amendment scrutiny, although, personally, I think it was a bonehead thing to publish in the first place. The statements being attacked are pretty foolish.
Some news articles report that the suit seeks to force the site operators not to "mention" religion. I doubt those reports are accurate, since a prohibition on "mentioning" religion would clearly be too broad. The courts have upheld or favorably discussed many government mentionings of or references to (1) religion generally, (2) particular religions, and (3) religious doctrines. For example: "In God We Trust" printed on money, presidential proclamations declaring a national day of prayer and thanksgiving, public offices closing on "Christmas Day," prohibitions on selling alcohol on Sundays, and the recitation of a prayer at the beginning of each session of Congress and of the Supreme Court.
The First Amendment analysis most often used by federal courts is the "Lemon test," named for the Supreme Court decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The original Lemon test had three prongs: (1) whether the state action (or law) has a religious purpose, (2) whether the state action has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3) whether the state action excessively entangles the government and religion. In more recent cases, the last two prongs have been merged (or at least brought close together), so today there are really two prongs: a "purpose" prong and an "effects" prong. The prongs were further muddied in the late 1990s when one of the Justices wrote in Agostini v. Felton that excessive entanglement is one factor to consider in determining whether a state action's primary effect is religious (the other two factors being government indoctrination and defining the recipients of government aid based on religious criteria).
Courts also sometimes use the so-called "endorsement test" when the government is engaged in expressive activities like publishing documents or sponsoring speakers (such as commencement speakers at public schools). The endorsement test asks whether the state action somehow endorses a particular religious viewpoint. The rationale, according to Justice O'Connor, is that such endorsement can make some people appear to be favored and others appear to be outsiders in the political community on the basis of whether they share the religious belief endorsed by the government. (Justice O'Connor urged adoption of this test in 1984, in a concurring opinion in Lynch v. Donelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). I am not sure if the Supreme Court has ever expressly adopted it, but the Court does now use it as part of the Lemon test, as a factor to consider in determining if the state action has the purpose or effect of advancing religion.)
Finally, where the use of public funds is concerned, the Supreme Court applies the "neutrality" test, which asks whether the state action treats religious groups in the same manner as other similarly-situated groups. Use of the neutrality test is a more recent trend, and it has been applied most often in cases involving government aid to schools that are affiliated with religious entities (e.g., vouchers, textbook handouts, and E-Rate).
That is a nutshell of the law. Now for some facts about the Understanding Evolution site.
The site's search engine returns three hits for "religion." One is the particular FAQ (frequently asked question) that is receiving all the attention. It is only one FAQ among many. That FAQ also provides a link to a web page of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) which contains statements about evolution from religious organizations. The second hit contains the site credits, where a biographical blurb for Alan D. Gishlick states that Dr. Gishlick is interested in "the interface between science and religion, especially as it relates to biological evolution." The third hit is a list of FAQs on the controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution, which mentions the word religion solely in the context of a link to the same NCSE web page mentioned above. The rest of the FAQ answers on that page appear to be external links to other web sites with a terse description of what is on each external page.
Looking at the Understanding Evolution site as a whole, its mentionings of religion seem, to me, to be tangential and incidental to its main focus. The main focus appears, to me, to be just what is set forth in the site's "About" page: "Understanding Evolution is a non-commercial, education website, teaching the science and history of evolutionary biology. This site is here to help you understand what evolution is, how it works, how it factors into your life, how research in evolutionary biology is performed, and how ideas in this area have changed over time." That seems, to me, to be a good faith description of the contents of the site.
In the framework of existing caselaw, I doubt a court would rule any part of the site unconstitutional. It would be hard to construct a convincing argument that the site's primary purpose is other than scientific and educational. The site's primary effect is to disseminate facts about evolution and explanations of related concepts, with the intent of helping educators teach. I doubt anyone can plausibly argue that the site excessively entangles the government in any church or religious doctrine. The mere mention of a handful of religious entities and providing links to copies of their public statements hosted elsewhere does not seem, to me, to be particularly entangling or to endorse those particular religions over others.
Under the neutrality test, I think the proper question is whether the National Science Foundation (NSF) would, under the right circumstances, give a grant similar to the one it gave to Berkeley to a church if the church had submitted a proposal to create an educational web site about evolution that meets the same criteria as the Berkeley site — i.e., that it disseminates valid scientific information, that it is helpful to teachers, etc.
On the other hand, the particular FAQ that mentions religion does have some endorsement problems. It makes specific, declarative statements that evolution and "religion" are not incompatible and states that many religious groups accept evolution as fact. Those statements clearly have the effects of inhibiting (however slightly) religions which purport to be incompatible with evolution and of endorsing or advancing (however slightly) religions which purport to be compatible with evolution. They also have the effect (however slight) of making some people (e.g., fundamentalist protestants?) feel like outsiders.
Just how slight or not-slight those effects are is debatable — hence the endorsement problem and the need for good lawyers.
On the whole, I think the operators of the site have little to worry about. They might be ordered to revise or remove that particular FAQ. Rewording it in terms of particular religious groups rather than "religion" would make it more likely to survive First Amendment scrutiny. The site's controversy FAQs are instructive: they address much narrower concepts than "religion" (e.g., "What is Creationism?" and "What is intelligent Design?"), and they simply provide links to other web sites with terse introductions, without editorializing.
Believe it or not, that is the "quick" analysis.
Wednesday, 23 February 2005
CNN ran a Reuters article yesterday on the discoveries made surrounding Φtzi the Iceman ("Alpine iceman reveals Stone Age secrets"). The discoveries reviewed were no surprise to anyone following this story, but the article ended with an interesting section on the alleged "Iceman Curse."
The article makes a big deal of the deaths (or near-deaths) of a small handful of researchers who have studied Φtzi, from cancer, car crashes, avalanches, and severe weather. Typically, the article fails to mention let alone examine the expected incidence of deaths by such causes before resorting to the paranormal explanation of a curse.
In our everyday, ordinary experience, we expect various percentages of the population to die from various causes each year. In the years since Φtzi's discovery, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people have studied his preserved body, either through direct contact and examination or through materials produced by others (e.g., X-Ray films, photographs, etc.). It is perfectly normal and expected that some of those people would die over time from cancer, car crashes, avalanches, or severe weather. It would be unusual, and fairly interesting, if nobody in that group had died.
We should always examine probable natural causes first.
Saturday, 30 October 2004
Grand Canyon: A Questionless Inquiry
Last year, the National Park Service began distributing a book by Tom Vail, a veteran tour guide at Grand Canyon National Park and head of Canyon Ministries. The book, Grand Canyon: A Different View (available online at the Institute for Creation Research) argues that the eponymous gorge was formed quickly Diluvially, in the Noachian flood and not gradually, by millennia of erosion.
After a (relatively anemic) public outcry, President Bush promised that his administration would "review" the sale of the book at national park gift shops. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the review was discarded the moment the public had turned its attention elsewhere. The book is still on sale at the park, where the administration has also reinstalled bronze plaques bearing bible verses at scenic overlooks (from which they had previously been removed, on the advice of Interior Department lawyers). PEER's press release has more details. PEER also claims to have compiled numerous other examples of what it has dubbed Bush's "faith-based parks" agenda.
Thursday, 28 October 2004
"Hobbits" in Indonesia
This week excavators announced they had found human ancestor remains on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 and dated them to 18,000 years ago. The adult female, nicknamed Hobbit, was about three feet tall and had a skull about the size of a grapefruit. The working theory is that it descended from homo erectus, which is known to have inhabited the region. News reports: Wired, ABC, Illawarra Mercury. Read on.
This is being hailed as the most exciting anthropological discovery in 50 years. It is fascinating: human ancestors this short and with such small brain cases were believed to have died off about 3 million years ago. This find shows how bizarre-seeming evolutionary effects can occur when an island separates from larger land masses and its ecosystem is "suddenly" isolated for a long time. Australia's marsupials teach the same lesson, but they have become clichι.
Despite the mistreatment I am sure this discovery will receive in the Bible Belt, it reinforces the theory of evolution and highlights one of the key shortcomings of creationism and intelligent design. Evolution describes a process of mutation, adaptation, and natural selection and does not, under any circumstances, predict what morphologies should result from isolating an ecosystem for a long time. Sometimes it can, however, predict what morphologies can result from this kind of isolation.
To the extent that evolutionary theory does predict the future or posdict the past, it does so by examining a known starting point, the constraints within which change is possible, and the relevant environmental pressures. Contrast this with creationism, which states its conclusion before hearing evidence from more than one source and leaves no room for new data. Intelligent design similarly states its conclusion in advance, but at least it attempts to predict and postdict. However, its predictions and postdictions have been, thus far, uniformly wrong.
Notice that the "hobbit" skeleton looks pretty much like what you would expect of a humanlike creature of small size. From what little of the remains we have to examine, its features appear to have generally humanlike proportions. As the theory of evolution would predict, the creature does not have wings, fins, gills, or other features radically different from its close evolutionary relatives. Nothing about this find suggests supernatural or alien influence. (Although archaeologist Peter Brown joked, "I would have been less surprised if my colleagues had found an alien spacecraft.") This creature is simply an animal that was genetically isolated from its closest relatives for a few hundred thousand years. As the Wired article explains, isolation on an island like Flores typically puts selective pressure on human-sized animals to grow smaller which is exactly what appears to have occurred in this instance. The too-common refrain from the creationist camps that evolution fails to make falsifiable predictions is, again, demonstrably wrong.
Correction (29 Oct.): The remains have been dated to sometime between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago. I stated the latter as if it were firmly established. Fortunately, however, this gives me an excuse to link to more news and commentary coverage: Nature's Special Report, Tech Central Station, The Australian
Saturday, 9 October 2004
Political Science II
Anyone who reads DTM :<| knows what I think about President Bush's manipulation of science for political and religious ends (see, e.g., 1, 2, 3) and John Marburger's sale of his professional soul. (To be fair, there have been occassional, but unfortunately small, bright spots.) In this week's e-Skeptic, the editors of Skeptic Magazine have put together a summary of major events in this saga. See: "The Politicization Of Science in the Bush Administration: Science-As-Public Relations" and "'Political' Science."
Saturday, 14 August 2004
Empiricism and Public Policy
I have long been a critic of public policy of any ideological persuasion that ignores (or worse, misrepresents) empirical data. My friends will vouch that I have changed my views a handful of times sometimes quite radically when presented with solid evidence that I was wrong. Unfortunately, criticism on these grounds directed at anyone currently in power is too easily portrayed as partisan screeding. Just look at the Bush apologists' response to the ever-growing cadre of critics. I admit, however, looking back at some of my own comments in recent months (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) that I have focused perhaps too much on President Bush, because he is a convenient target. (Never mind that he has painted that target on himself a dozen times over.)
I have been a Robert Cringely fan for nearly as long. Two days ago he published a column ("Fred Nold's Legacy") that really struck a cord. The best part is, he based it on an episode from 22 ago that continues to haunt us today, in ways we scarcely understand.
Cringely tells the story of the Department of Justice's commissioning of a study on the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines by two Hoover Institution economists, Michael Block and Fred Nold. When the DoJ realized their report would criticize the Guidelines instead of rubberstamping them, it pulled the plug and implemented revisions that went against the weight of the evidence.
It is one thing to make what turns out to have been a mistake and another thing altogether to make what you have reason to believe will be a mistake. Why would the DoJ, having good reason to believe that the new sentencing guidelines would create the very prison explosion we've seen in the last 20 years, go ahead with the new guidelines? My view is that they went ahead because they were more interested in punishment than deterrence. They went ahead because they didn't perceive those in prison as being constituents. They went ahead because it enabled the building of larger organizations with more power. They went ahead because the idea of a society with less crime is itself a threat to the prestige of those in law enforcement.
Friday, 13 August 2004
Fellowship of the Rings
The Telegraph takes on the cerealogists with "The Fellowship of the Rings," an article by David Harrison. The subject is John Lundberg and his merry men, who make a nice living off the looniest among us and the advertisers who prey on them.
Why I love Bob Park
Bob who, you say? That is a shame.
Bob Park is a University of Maryland physicst, publicist> of the American Physical Society, and author of Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud. In addition to being one of the clearest thinkers on the politics of science it has ever been my pleasure to read, he is also one of the best sarcastic writers alive today.
Take, for example, the current edition of What's New, his weekly APS newsletter. In one article, he takes humorous bites at topics as wide-ranging as the thermodynamics diet, astrobots, computer disks missing on paper, lazy monkeys, and newks.
Thursday, 5 August 2004
Who invented aliens?
While talking about films, someone jokingly said that they thought that America 'invented' aliens for the sake of US films. The conversation drifted then on to who did 'invent' aliens? Rather, my question is, what are the earliest recorded popular references to the concept of aliens? If the response is that there is some obscure reference in 10,000BC in some ancient manuscript, when did the notion of aliens become part of popular culture?
Monday, 14 June 2004
Supreme Court dismisses Newdow's action on standing grounds
Time for me to live up to a promise made last October: "If the Supreme Court decides [Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District] on Article III (standing) grounds, I will be the first person to leap to its defense." I now leap to its defense.
Friday, 12 March 2004
Blundering through security
It appears the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) has removed the infamous ricin patent (No. 3,060,165) from its online database. The PTO boasts that it provides all patents since 1976 in searchable text and images of patent pages from 1790. Obviously, this is now false. (Via Ernest, via Dan Gillmor, via Bruce Schneier.)
Half the developed world's patent offices make this patent available over the Internet. Considering that the patent was granted in 1965, I think a few paper copies might also exist. Therefore, this is about as effective a security measure as requiring travelers to show a driver's license before they board an airplane that is to say, wholly ineffective. All this does is inconvenience the law-abiding American public when it tries to do research.
Ernest makes the important point that the fundamental principal underlying our patent system is that inventors get exclusive rights to their inventions in exchange for full disclosure of the invention to the public. This is hardly the first case where the public has been shortchanged in the name of security. Ernest also has the best summary comment thus far (hyperlink original):
Rest assured Senator, the lack of the patent in the US database means that terrorists will never be able to figure out how to make ricin because even web-savvy bloggers can't get the information very easily .... ooops. Never mind.
Wednesday, 7 January 2004
Grand Canyon: An Evidenceless View
Tom Vail, a veteran tour guide at Grand Canyon National Park has written a new book called Grand Canyon: A Different View (on sale at the Institute for Creation Research). This book encapsulates everything that is wrong with the creation "science" movement, and Vail's own words in the introduction summarize the main problem nicely, despite his obvious contrary intention:
For years, as a Colorado River guide I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time scale of millions of years. Then I met the Lord. Now, I have a different view of the Canyon, which according to a biblical time scale, can't possibly be more than a few thousand years old.
In other words, Vail once held a scientifically-justifiable opinion as to the Grand Canyon's origin. Then he underwent a religious conversion and decided that his prior conclusion was inaccurate without having seen any evidence contradicting it. Finally, he set out to collect evidence supporting his new conclusion. This last step would be a good thing (having more evidence to evaluate is almost always a good thing), except that Vail has decided to cherry-pick the evidence he wants to believe. The geological evidence surrounding the Grand Canyon's formation points overwhelmingly to a slow formation over millions of years, but Vail refuses to give the evidence a fair shake.
The book is currently on sale at the Grand Canyon National Park gift shop, among many other places. It is a small consolation that "the book was moved from the natural sciences section to the inspirational reading section of park bookstores" after the park's irate staff complained, according to the Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times (via Arizona Republic). At the same time, President Bush's faith-based National Park Service has blocked the distribution of informational pamphlets to park rangers and guides that would allow them to answer visitors' questions on the subject. (Source)
Tuesday, 6 January 2004
God, sports, credit, and blame
This morning David Bernstein wrote an entry on selective thinking for the Volokh Conspiracy. Ignoring the word "sports" in the second sentence, this is a concise summary of the largest thorn in the side of skeptical inquiry.
I've noticed that Americans have a tendency to publicly attribute any success they have had — anything ranging from winning a Little League playoff game to winning the lottery — to God's intervention on their behalf. But I haven't noticed a countervailing tendency to blame God when things go wrong, an especially annoying defect in the sports world, where victories are freely attributed to Jesus's blessings. If God wanted the Marlins to win the World Series, doesn't that mean he wanted the Yankees to lose? Just once, I'd like to see the losing Super Bowl quarterback tell the media "Guess Jesus really had it in for me today."
Tuesday, 30 December 2003
The quake & Iran's religious regime
Hossein Derakshan, a Tehran native and Toronto resident, blogs on "the quake's" implications for Iran's Islamic regime. "Nothing could ever show the real sense of diconnectivity and distrust between Iranian people and the Islamic regime, and its deeply dysfunctionality better than a devastating quake." (Via BoingBoing)
Friday, 26 December 2003
Jewish mysticism, vogue style
Today the San Francisco Chronicle took a critical look at two waves of resurgence of interest in Jewish mysticism, in 1997 and 2003 ("New interest in Jewish mysticism: Anxious times, celebrities ignite revival of Kabbalah"). This comes a mere ten days after the Chronicle reviewed the just-published first volume of Daniel Matt's new translation and commentary on The Zohar.
Here are a few quotes from today's effort (hyperlinks added):
Thursday, 25 December 2003
Florida launches faith-based prison
The Associated Press reports that Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida and brother of the President, quarterbacked the opening ceremony of a new social experiment: a faith-based prison. (Via Washington Post) The experiment is being hailed as the first such prison in the United States.
The "new" prison is really a rededicated old prison that has been in operation for some time. Now, however, it will cater to its prisoners' spiritual "needs" where the old system did not. The state claims that all 791 prisoners therein are living there voluntarily either because they chose not to transfer out or because they applied to transfer in. AP reports a different story, however:
Many of the prisoners who did not transfer from Lawtey stayed simply because they did not want to move, and not because they wanted to become more involved in religion. But inmates who want to make use of the faith initiative say those who do not participate eventually will be released and replaced by others who will make the program stronger.
The cynic in me wants to ask why this prison is the "first" of its kind in the country when the prison in Guantanamo Bay has been operating for two years. Oh yeah the governor's brother declared that prison not to be on American soil and not subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. judiciary. That prison is also mostly (entirely?) Muslim, and the President does not seem to consider it of the same stripe as a Christian prison.
Meanwhile, I will ask how long it will take for a court to declare the new experiment unconstitutional. Unless Florida plans to provide identical religious services to every person in every prison within the state, I do not see how it can escape the obvious problems under the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Each prisoner quoted in the AP article practiced some flavor of Christianity. Does the State also provide spiritual counseling to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, and Jedis? Does such counseling receive equal per-prisoner funding? How do the minister-to-prisoner ratios compare? Are their faiths' holy scriptures available in the prison library, alongside the Christian bible? Are the Jews provided with a Torah scroll? Do the Jedis get light sabers?
All the published interviews I can find thus far with prison officials, politicians, prisoners, volunteer ministers, and their families have been with Christians. Each one makes a point of saying that prisoners will be free to practice whatever faith they choose and that no one will proselytize. Unfortunately, their actions and attitudes belie this as dishonest.
For example, Paul Smith, pastor of Miracle Baptist Church in Stuart, Florida, said in an interview with TCPalm.com: "An inmate can be selected [to live in Lawtey prison] whether he has faith, whether he doesn't have faith, or whether he wants to come to faith." In other words, this volunteer was told something different than what Governor Bush told the press at the opening ceremony that some prisoners are not there because they chose to practice a particular faith. When asked whether the prison would cater to Christians, Pastor Smith said, "absolutely not. A faith-based prison is for all faiths and all denominations." When asked about those other faiths and denominations, however, he named only Catholics and Muslims. Later, he revealed the depth of his bias:
It does not violate separation of church and state, one, because all of the inmates have volunteered to be there. If they were being forced or if they were given some type of reduced sentence, or early release to participate in the program, then I think it's a violation. The only thing that this program is a violation to is the devil and the fact he wants to have more souls go to hell.
As established by AP, not all prisoners are there voluntarily, and the problems are compounded by the program's reliance on volunteer ministers. The motivation of all the volunteers appears to be wholly religious. The rationale behind the reliance on volunteers is to prevent the State from paying ministers' salaries on the theory that not spending money in such a manner will solve the establishment-clause problem. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
In the program, volunteers will act as personal mentors, offering support to each inmate both during their incarceration and as they settle back into the community after serving their sentences. Inmates will participate in all the usual day-to-day prison activities, but during evenings and at weekends will undergo extra classes examining issues such as anger management, good parenting, and the effect of crime on victims, run by representatives from a variety of faiths including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
Floridians have more than 26 religions, and I would bet that their prisoners do, too. Until they solve that problem and the problem of the "many" current Lawtey prisoners who want no part of this religious program this experiment will remain unconstitutional.
Saturday, 20 December 2003
Park on NMD
Missile Defense: Deployment is Still Scheduled for Late 2004
Wednesday, 17 December 2003
The last five days have brought big copyright news from the Great White North allegedly also known as "Canada." First, the Canadian Copyright Board issued a decision levying fees on many new media and interpreting Canadian law to permit downloading (but not uploading) of copyrighted works via P2P networks. Then the National Post reported that the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) might soon begin suing file sharers, ala RIAA.
During this time, I have been reading up on CRIA's chief, Brian Robertson. While he is reluctant to discuss CRIA's lawsuit plans, he loves to talk about the number 30. That is the percentage of revenue he claims the Canadian recording industry has lost due to file sharing. As far as I can tell, he has never cited any source for this figure, and the next-highest estimate is 23% and many estimates are even lower. Sources: CRIA press release, Globe & Mail, National Post, LA Times. Additionally, CRIA (like RIAA) fails to acknowledge that the recent recession might have had a negative effect on music sales equal or greater to the effect of file sharing.
Monday, 15 December 2003
God Considers Smiting Copyright Pirates
God is considering his options for action against Bible pirates. "God did not rule out smiting as a final measure against those who share his most famous work, the Bible, on the Internet," wrote Kristian Werner of BBspot Technology News.
Citing misuse of His word, misquotation, and putting hardworking Bible printers out of work, God said he would now start hunting Bible pirating around the globe. "I have to defend both my world-famous brand the Bible and its distinctive likenesses and the livelihood of those who create and distribute legal copies of it. Sure, they live not by bread alone, but website hits someone else's website mind you don't pay the bills for these folks."
Saturday, 13 December 2003
I would like to comment briefly on one post in ATAC's weblog, "Face Recognition and False Positives." This post raises the point of "a classic security mistake: ignoring the false positive problem." I addressed this issue in "Static Measurements & Moving Targets," my law-school thesis paper on biometrics and privacy in the context of consumer banking. In that paper, I looked at the problem from a perspective opposite Ed's. He describes facial recognition in an identification application, where its goals are substantially different from what its goals would be in an authentication application.
The designer of an application that flags passers-by as registered sex offenders has an incentive to overinclude suspects for security reasons — that is, to err on the side of false positives. The designer of an ATM authentication application, on the other hand, has the opposite incentive — to err on the side of false negatives, to prevent fraud. The point is that false positives are not solely a privacy issue: they also represent a security risk, depending on the context.
That said, I do agree with Ed's basic point, as I wrote back in October ("Terrified of Terror Profiling?"). I supported the point there with links to articles by computer security expert Bruce Schneier and mathematician John Allen Paulos.
Thursday, 11 December 2003
Psychics fail to find runaway dog
Doug Baker of Portland, Oregon really missed his dog, Fremont, after it ran away. He spent over $15,000 in his search and neglected his business to the point where it failed. After a conventional animal tracker failed to find the dog, the tracker put Baker in touch with several psychics.
Each psychic claims to have contacted the dog, but none could produce any tangible benefit — aside, of course, from cashing Baker's checks. Fremont was eventually found after someone responded to Baker's ad in the newspaper. Just for kicks, Baker has sued the dog sitter who was on duty when the dog ran away.
Baker hired all of them, paying between $55 and $100 a session. Each psychic claimed to have spoken with Fremont. One said someone had dragged Fremont into a car after putting something around his neck. Another said Fremont spoke to her, telling her that he saw a fence and the dogs were kept out of doors, sometimes in a kennel with a cover. Fremont told her, the psychic said, that the people holding him called him "Pal" and "Chief." He added that he missed his home.See also: "Owner sues pet sitter in loss of dog."
Sunday, 30 November 2003
Freaky food or biotech bounty?
The debate over this technology has become a leading issue in international relations, subject of a huge trade battle. Wall Street is watching anxiously as it presses companies to recoup their massive biotech investments by selling more seeds. Environmental advocates are marching in the streets to oppose the crops. Even the Vatican is weighing the issue, recently opening a debate about which is the moral course.
Thursday, 27 November 2003
Aaron Swartz has an amusing commentary on the role of preconceptions in science. I agree in general, but I would put more emphasis on the difference between science and scientists. See a shining example of this in tomorrow's Washington Post (article: "Monkeys, Dolphin Say 'I Don't Know'"). Note especially the comments of Clive D.L. Wynne (who "dismissed the study as one more unsuccessful effort to bestow greater significance on actions that simply result from environment and training") and Charles Shimp ("I don't think [this experiment] will change the minds of those who are dead set against this proposition.").
Sunday, 23 November 2003
Legal folklore & the "Twinkie defense"
The law has engendered a lot of interesting folklore through the millennia — usually concerning the content of the law. There is a widespread belief, for example, that most American states permit the use of deadly force to defend property. Wrong! (Whether the law should permit this is way beyond the scope of this blog.)
The myth of the "Twinkie defense" and the case of Dan White rank among the most bizarre in American law.
In 1978 Mr. White killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and a homosexual city Supervisor, Harvey Milk, and he was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter. White looked guilty of first-degree murder in the press, so his conviction on the lesser charge engendered an enormous public outcry. Misinformation began to circulate almost immediately after the case was resolved, despite the ready availability of debunkage. Almost none of the debating public properly understood the basis for White's defense. Even worse, the state of California enacted dramatic changes to its criminal law — based, at least in part, on the myth — soon thereafter.
Mr. White suffered from depression, and his attorneys argued that this condition reduced his capacity to form the requisite state of mind to have committed the crime of first-degree murder. A great weight of psychological research and legal authority supported this argument. The defense called several expert witnesses to the stand to provide corroborating evidence, and one of these experts made a passing reference to junk food. The night before the killings, White had eaten foods high in sugar, and the expert briefly stated that a sudden infusion of sugar might have contributed to White's loss of control. White's attorney also mentioned this fact in his closing argument; but it was, at best, a peripheral point in the case.
When the jury refused to convict White of murder, the public was outraged, and the stage was set for one of the great legal myths in Anglo-American history to take hold — the myth of the "Twinkie defense." It seemed plausible, to many people, that White's attorneys had hoodwinked the jury into believing that Twinkies had made him do it. This was never part of the defense team's trial strategy, and jurors from the case who have granted interviews over the years have called it bunk in no uncertain terms. Nonetheless, the Twinkie defense continues to enjoy widespread credulity.
The "Twinkie defense" is so ingrained in our culture that it appears in law dictionaries, in sociology textbooks, in college exams and in more than 2,800 references on Google. Only a few of them call it what it is: a myth. [...]
Sunday, 16 November 2003
Report on the Berkeley Psychic Faire
The friend I drove to the fair with happens to be pregnant (by her husband, NOT me!) and shares my penchant for jokes, so we got started right away. As we waited out front for some other friends to arrive, we struck up a conversation with the woman handing out fliers at the door. After telling us that she worked at the Institute and had been trained in the psychic arts, she told us that we could have our futures told inside. We asked if she could tell us if "our" baby would be healthy. "Of course!" she replied, "and I can tell that you are very happy in your marriage. You two have excellent communication with one another." Did I mention that I met this friend ten days ago and that I barely know her?
Our first stop inside the fair was a booth for aura healings. A portly gentleman named Howard slowly stroked the air around me for a few minutes while he asked questions and offered suggestions for improving my health. After correctly guessing that I have a brother (low odds on that one, huh?), Howard informed me that my cutthroat competition with my brother was the source of the negative, navy blue energy concentrated around my heart. (I lacked the heart to tell him that we have competed in nothing more serious than a belching contest in the last decade.) Howard helpfully released that negative energy, which allowed the more positive crimson energy he found behind it to expand. Next, he asked how my injury was healing. Huh? "You were in a car accident or broke a bone recently, no?" No. He was puzzled by the dark, murky, green energy that looked like it was emanating from a painful physical injury. It is possible, he admitted, that he was misreading what was really an emotional injury. A recent breakup, perhaps? No. A death in the family? No. Unfortunately, the mystery remains unsolved. (Hours later, I realized that he must have seen the slight limp I have walked with for 11 years the result of a long-healed knee injury, surgery, and nine months on crutches.)
The other booths sported palmists, tarot card readers, or bold fortune tellers who used no props at all. I had demonstrated cold reading and explained the technique to my friends a few days earlier. They recognized it instantly in each session with these charlatans. The only one who was (temporarily) fooled was told by her palm reader that she should pursue the PhD she was considering. My friend had revealed nothing of her educational plans and was amazed until we pointed out that her shirt read, "UCLA 2003." (For those outside the U.S., UCLA is the University of California at Los Angeles.)
The day climaxed with a workshop entitled, "The Astral: Where Do You Go?" A panel of three "astralists" led by a moderator, "Reverend" Todd Williamson, promised to examine the aura of a volunteer and diagnose problems with his astral health. The Reverend guided the panel through a few minutes of meditation to ready them for the task. After this dramatic preparation, he called on me as his volunteer. He had not scripted the scenario where his volunteer was wholly unversed in astral theory and lingo. (Like me!) He was knocked off his rhythm when I could not even formulate a proper question for the panel because I had no idea what astral space was. I would have felt bad if the workshop's blurb had not said it was an introduction to the astral plane which was precisely what I wanted. He recovered quickly, however, and he had the panelists just tell me their first impressions.
Two of them used so much jargon in each sentence that I could not follow what they said. The third took a different tack. He told me simply that I was trying to achieve communion with the supreme being in my dreams but that I was being blocked by some other spirits who were interfering with my astral space. Once I asked him to explain what he meant, he and the other panelists would talk about nothing else. They had found the chief problem with my astral health. I am glad they told me I might never have known. We ran out of time before I could ask how this related to what the first two panelists had said at the beginning.
At the end, they asked me channel the negative energies of the interfering spirits into a balloon, then pop the balloon by stepping on it. This, of course, would free me from their influence. Unfortunately, the balloon refused to pop when I stepped on it. I am hardly a lightweight, but it took nearly a minute of me jumping up and down before it would pop. The poor, tortured thing kept squishing out from under my feet even when I stood squarely on it with both feet at the same time. Pesky spirits die hard, I guess.
In a half-hour sample period, I counted 41 readings and 28 aura healings being conducted. An average of eight people attended each hourly workshop while I was present. Each thing required one ticket per person, and tickets were given out at the front door as "free gifts" in return for "donations" of $12 (or three tickets for $30). Multiply that out by two days (seven hours each) and ten workshops, and the Institute took in over $13,000 not including the additional donations that many attendees gave. Over 80% of attendees that I discreetly polled said their readers or healers had strongly recommended that they take one of the Institute's introductory classes (such as "Meditation," "Women's Intuition," or "Male") to cure some specific ailment or deal with a specific problem that was identified in the session. About one third of these people said they were considering taking the class, yet none could name the tuition price any more specifically than the organizers' common refrain, "an appropriate donation." Polite persistent questioning of several readers failed to uncover a meaningful definition of "appropriate."
The day was fun for all. And they served good coffee for a dollar per (tiny paper) cup.
Friday, 7 November 2003
Pitiful polygraph promotes paucity of protection
The confession of Gary L. Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer of Seattle, has lit up the media and the blogosphere alike. I would like to emphasize one oft-overlooked point about this affair that reinforces what the skeptical community has argued for years.
Ridgeway volunteered for — and passed — a polygraph in 1984. Despite the overwhelming evidence (collected in nearly a century of research) that the polygraph and its predecessors are not effective tools for detecting deception, the Department of Energy, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) still rely heavily on them. The tests do little to protect us because they are so easy to manipulate; yet we continue to expend resources administering them, training staff to administer them, and following up on results. Meanwhile, false "passing" scores give a false sense of security, and false "failing" scores arouse undue suspicion. Ridgeway, for example, admitted to killing people both before and after passing his polygraph.
Could the local authorities have recommitted the resources it wasted on polygraph testing to more effective techniques? Sure. Would that have helped them catch Ridgeway sooner and saved the lives of some of his victims? We will never know.
Monday, 27 October 2003
Message from god?
BBC News reports that actor Jim Caviezel was twice struck by lightning while portraying Jesus in Mel Gibson's forthcoming film The Passion Of Christ. (Article: Jesus actor struck by lightning.) The man upstairs did, after all, ask Job, "Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?" (Job 38:35)
Sunday, 26 October 2003
WMD: Where's My Dope?
All but the True Believers now agree that Iraq has had no cognizable weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program for some time. Indeed, it seems likely that Saddam Hussein abandoned his nuclear ordnance program in 1991, immediately following the Gulf War — just like he said he did. Barton Gellman reports in today's Washington Post:
According to records made available to The Washington Post and interviews with arms investigators from the United States, Britain and Australia, it did not require a comprehensive survey to find the central assertions of the Bush administration's prewar nuclear case to be insubstantial or untrue. Although Hussein did not relinquish his nuclear ambitions or technical records, investigators said, it is now clear he had no active program to build a weapon, produce its key materials or obtain the technology he needed for either.
Is anyone surprised that White House "officials interviewed for this report defended the integrity of the government's prewar intelligence and public statements" but that "[n]one agreed to be interviewed on the record?"
Saturday, 25 October 2003
Pope John Paul II's beatification of Mother Teresa last week brought the expected outpouring from international journalists and political leaders, who competed to produce the glurgiest fawning over this "icon of the Good Samaritan." It is fair to ask why.
Since the 1930s, Teresa's missionary order has preached in the bowels of society, and the world has heaped upon her the accolades she proved so adept at attracting. After her death, the world and particularly the Vatican has had less interest than ever in examining her deeds. John Paul II, who counted Teresa among his confidants, has canonized several times more saints than any other Pope in history. It is no accident that this occurred under the first Pope to reign in the era of global instant news. So why stop now? Teresa's beatification was as much a media event as a religious rite.
As is well known in the skeptical community (but largely ignored elsewhere), the alleged miracle performed by Teresa is likely a fraud. As Bob Park succintly explains:
This tiny woman had devoted her life to caring for "the poorest of the poor," built a charity network that spans 120 countries, and was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, but no miracle, no sainthood. It was easy in the middle ages; you could whip up a miracle or two before breakfast, but this is the age of science. So the Vatican sent a crack team of investigators to India, where a woman said a beam of light from a picture of Mother Teresa had cured her of cancer. The team pronounced it a genuine miracle. But her doctor says no one asked him. He insists it was a cyst, not cancer, and he cured it with medicine. Who's right? I asked an old classmate, Dom Credulo, who knows a lot about miracles. "Do you think this is a miracle?" I asked. "Of course it's a miracle," Dom snapped, "how many times have you seen a picture emit light and cure cancer?" He had me there.
Accounts published on behalf of the cured woman's husband confirm the doctor's objection, especially the fact that she was treated with modern medicine. He details the regimen of medication she followed, side effects she experienced, and the timeline of her recovery. All are in perfect accord with the generally-prescribed course of treatment in conventional (western) medicine in the region.
Why must we debunk Teresa's supposed miracles? First, because skepticism is a virtue. Second, because Teresa's accolades, and even her Nobel prize, were almost certainly acquired through fraud. Aroup Chatterjee, who grew up in Calcutta, has spent the last decade conducting an exhaustive investigation of Teresa's life, ministry, and reputation. The result of this research is his book Mother Teresa The Final Verdict, published this year. I could not do justice to Chatterjee's 400+ pages in this space, so I will let a recent book review by Krishna Dutta speak for me. This article is reprinted from the Time Higher Education Supplement. The book itself is available online at Meteor Books.
Wednesday, 22 October 2003
Terrified of Terror Profiling?
Bruce Schneier, the renowned expert in computer security (as well as founder and Chief Technical Officer of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc.) wrote a column this week for Newsday: "Terror Profiles By Computers Are Ineffective." As the title suggests, Schneier argues that all the approaches yet taken to "profiling" terrorists suffer from the same fundamental design flaw. "There's a common belief — generally mistaken — that if we only had enough data we could pick terrorists out of crowds," Schneier writes. He goes on to show that the types of information that we have endeavored to gather — indeed, the types of information that we can gather — bear no statistically significant relationship with terrorist acts, or even propensity toward terrorism.
Schneier's argument is bolstered by the simple, elegant, and compelling mathematical analysis done by Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos, in the January 2003 installment of his column "Who's Counting?." The article, "Future World: Privacy, Terrorists, and Science Fiction," assumes that a project such as the recently de-funded Terrorist Information Awareness program (nιe "Total Information Awareness"), has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders by 2054, the year when the film Minority Report is set. This hypothetical program has a predictive success rate of 99%. Examining this number and assuming that the U.S. has 300 million citizens, Paulos proves that it would imprison just under 1,000 terrorists and just under 3 million innocent people.
Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Standing questions in Newdow may prevent a ruling on the merits
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to the Elk Grove Unified School District in its dispute with Michael Newdow. In lay terms, it agreed to hear the case. Newdow indirectly sparked a firestorm of national protest last summer, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that a 1954 act of Congress that inserted the phrase "under god" into the Pledge of Allegiance violated the first amendment to the constitution. While some of the debate has been intelligent and productive (1, 2), some of it has been invective and immature. As the parties and government-intervenors prepare to argue before the Supreme Court, suggestions have been raised that the Court should "dismiss" the case on "procedural grounds."
While the laymen journalists have gotten the terminology wrong, they may have the substance right.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution begins, "The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may, from time to time, ordain and establish." Section 2 of Article III establishes the subject-matter jurisdiction of the federal courts — that is, the types of cases that the courts are empowered to hear. That section reads, in part:
The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made under their authority; to all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls; to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; to controversies to which the United States shall be a party; to controversies between two or more states, between a state and Citizens of another state, between Citizens of different states, between Citizens of the same state, claiming lands under grants of different states, and between a state, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign states, Citizens or subjects.
Together, these provisions give rise to the five-or-so (depending on how you count) sub-doctrines of justiciability: actual case or controversy, standing, ripeness, mootness, and political questions. These doctrines are complex in their detail, but their basic outlines are easy to understand. The long quote above from § 2 has been interpreted to require an "actual case or controversy" between two or more parties before a federal court can exercise the judicial power of the United States. The dispute must be a real one, not merely hypothetical, and the courts cannot issue "advisory opinions." The sub-doctrine of standing arises from this requirement.
To have standing to assert a claim, a plaintiff must show that he has incurred some injury, that the injury has been caused by the defendant, and that the court has the power to redress the injury if it rules in the plaintiff's favor. In this context, "injury" is defined broadly as prejudice to any right or interest that the plaintiff is legally entitled to assert. This covers everything from physical/bodily injuries to loss of money or property and harm to the plaintiff's reputation.
After the 9th Circuit ruled last summer, the school district and the federal government moved to disqualify Newdow as a plaintiff, arguing that he lacked standing to sue in this case. Their arguments revolved around Newdow's relationship with his daughter and her mother, Sandra Banning, whom Newdow never married. When Newdow filed the suit, Banning had sole legal custody of her daughter — meaning that Newdow arguably did not have a legal right to give input into her upbringing. Newdow has since obtained a revised custody order in a California state court that clarifies his rights with respect to his daughter. Under that order, Newdow has a clear, legally-cognizable interest in his daughter's upbringing. The standing doctrine, however, recognizes the plaintiff's status only at the time he filed the federal lawsuit. The Supreme Court has asked the parties to brief and argue the issues of whether Newdow had such an interest when he filed the present lawsuit three years ago and, if not, what should be done with this case.
The Court's critics argue that it may use the standing issue as an excuse to shirk its duty to rule on the merits of the case. They are probably right, since the Court has clearly gained a sense of its political status in the wake of Bush v. Gore (the 2000 Presidential election case), Lawrence v. Texas (the Texas sodomy case), and Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (the University of Michigan affirmative action cases). The facts of the Newdow case permit only one outcome — legally — but the Court will probably reach the opposite result for nonlegal reasons. The present Supreme Court is more conservative than any in recent history, and it would be highly entertaining to see it try to squirm its way out of its own precedents to find the Pledge constitutional in its current form — especially after Justice Scalia recused himself from this case.
However, as an honest man, I could not profess respect for the First Amendment without showing an equal respect for the rest of the Constitution. Although the First Amendment codifies the most basic liberties of our society, it coexists with other provisions of the Constitution as equals. Those other provisions, while not as morally compelling as the First Amendment, are equally demanding of our respect. Serious questions exist as to Newdow's standing in this case. Those questions will require a detailed examination of family law in California, which is the final arbitor of Newdow's legal rights with respect to his daughter. If the Supreme Court decides this case on Article III (standing) grounds, I will be the first person to leap to its defense. If it reaches the merits of the First Amendment dispute by shortchanging its analysis of the federal courts' jurisdiction, I will be the first to pen an editorial against it. I do hold out hope, however, that the Court can resolve the Article III question in Newdow's favor and reach the First Amendment question legitimately.
The worst harm that can come out of this situation will be for the Court to rule that Newdow lacks standing and dismiss the suit for that reason, then for supporters of the pledge in its current form to hail that decision as a ruling on the pledge. So let us try to avoid such misdirection, shall we?
Saturday, 11 October 2003
Do Condoms Cause AIDS?
Do condoms cause or contribute to the spread of HIV and AIDS? The Catholic church has concluded that they do in the face of overwhelming epidemiological and public health evidence to the contrary. Two days ago, the news agency Reuters reported that the Catholic church has announced a "clinical" finding that condoms are responsible for the fast spread of AIDS throughout the world. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, explains that condoms are not 100% effective at blocking sperm and that the HIV virus is 450 smaller than sperm. HIV can permeate the condom's barrier more easily than sperm, so condoms are ineffective at blocking HIV. Meanwhile, Trujillo argues, experts promote condoms as an effective tool for blocking HIV infection, inspiring false confidence in the public and causing more people to become sexually active than would otherwise have sex. When their condoms fail to block HIV transmission, these people become infected.
What is wrong here?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has studied the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS perhaps more than any other entity on this planet, and its research has repeatedly reaffirmed the scientific basis for condoms' effectiveness in combating the spread of the disease. WHO has initiated or promoted condom distribution programs in many developing countries, where HIV has reached epidemic levels of infection. Why? Because it has determined that condoms are a singularly effective tool for fighting the spread of the disease. Responding to the Catholic Church's position, WHO called it "dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million." While condoms do occasionally break and can permit the passage of semen, they reduce "the risk of infection by 90 percent and [are] certainly secure enough to prevent passage of the virus if not torn." (Source) True, this is not 100% effectiveness, but it is far better than zero.
What does the Catholic church get out of this? To be sure, the church has never been shy in its opposition to artificial contraception of all kinds. Traditionally, it has grounded this position in religious and moral reasoning (the merits of which I cannot discuss as a good skeptic). Now, however, the church purports to advance a scientific or at least empirical basis for its position. Unfortunately, Trujillo's argument on behalf of the church does not address the root cause of its opposition to condoms. This opposition most likely remains rooted in an interpretation of scripture, not modern science. That scripture was fixed in rougly its current form centuries ago, in a manner that prevents it from growing and adapting to modern scientific findings that cast doubt on its teachings. (This says nothing, of course, of the church's ability to reinterpret scripture in light of modern knowledge or international politics something the current Pope has shown more willingness to do than his predecessors.)
All that said, the Catholic church may be softening its stance on condoms. Although this week's announcement seems to be an attempt to bolster the church's traditional position with science, it may also represent a fundamental shift in what the church perceives as the rules of the debating game. The church may finally be prepared to debate public health issues properly in terms of science, rather than scripture and morality. While reasonable people may disagree on the implications of most scientific studies, it is important that the church has finally joined the rest of the world at the debating table. We should take the church seriously on this issue and, to the extent that it continues to speak the language of science, on other issues as well. Having set the terms for public health debates, perhaps now we can work on the church's data interpretation skills which have much room for improvement after this week. While this may be a good first step, we must be wary of a possible attempt by the church to "cherrypick" science that is, to adopt data it likes for political or religious reasons and ignore data it dislikes for those reasons. Time will tell.