America for sale

He thinks the Clintons had political opponents murdered. He thinks we should have seized all the oil in Iraq. He believes the nuclear fallout from the bombing of Japan made the Japanese healthier. Civil rights was a terrible mistake, and black people were better off in the 1950s. He’s a climate change denialist. He “believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make”. This profile of hedge-fund manager and political king-maker Bob Mercer is horrifying for its details about the man — Mercer truly is a Randian incompetent and obnoxious ignoramus with way too much money — but the paragraphs I found most chilling were not about Mercer, but about the way American politics was corrupted by a single Supreme Court decision.

Although Mercer has recently become an object of media speculation, Trevor Potter, the president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, who formerly served as the chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said, “I have no idea what his political views are—they’re unknown, not just to the public but also to most people who’ve been active in politics for the past thirty years.” Potter, a Republican, sees Mercer as emblematic of a major shift in American politics that has occurred since 2010, when the Supreme Court made a controversial ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That ruling, and several subsequent ones, removed virtually all limits on how much money corporations and nonprofit groups can spend on federal elections, and how much individuals can give to political-action committees. Since then, power has tilted away from the two main political parties and toward a tiny group of rich mega-donors.

Private money has long played a big role in American elections. When there were limits on how much a single donor could give, however, it was much harder for an individual to have a decisive impact. Now, Potter said, “a single billionaire can write an eight-figure check and put not just their thumb but their whole hand on the scale—and we often have no idea who they are.” He continued, “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

We are so fucked.

Sniny!

Got it done. My lab is all cleaned up and shiny and organized, except maybe for the bits behind the camera that you can’t see. So many beakers and flasks and bottles scrubbed! So many jagged shards of glass tidied up, pools of toxic chemicals siphoned off, untriggered bombs detonated, bones of previous adventurers interred!

LabPhotoMar2017

Tomorrow…my office. This was just the warm-up.

By their lies you shall know them

One of those anti-Cultural Marxism folks who are always claiming that their racism is justified by science just sent me a Darwin quote to shut me down. This one:

darwinlies

There are a few problems here, though.

  • Darwin is not our god-king. We recognize that he got quite a few things wrong, and also that his attitudes towards other races were a bit on the patronizing side. Perhaps an authoritarian thinks that citing an authority is persuasive, but we expect a little more.

  • Anyone who is at all familiar with Darwin’s writings would immediately recognize that there’s no way Darwin would have written that. Something’s fishy. This is the Darwin who wrote “I was told before leaving England, that after living in slave countries: all my options would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negros character”? He could be accused of condescension, fair enough, but not that kind of ignorance of African history.

  • Most definitively, Glenn Branch reports on the actual source of that quote. It’s not from Darwin at all. It’s from a notorious racist novel and play, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a maliciously misattributed by a guy named John Huppenthal, who was a Republican politician who was in the habit of spreading lies under various pseudonyms. I expect he’ll be joining the Trump administration any day now.

The bottom line: anyone who promotes that bogus quote is ignorant of how science works, hasn’t read a lick of Darwin, and is spreading a lie.

March for Science…in Morris!

morrismarchforscience

There will be a Morris Area March for Science, and I’m planning to be there. Especially given the announced savage cuts to science funding, it’s important that we stand up and testify to the importance of science.

The Union of Concerned Scientists interviewed a number of scientists about whether they’ll participate in the march, and the answers were overwhelmingly in the affirmative. However, there was also one naysayer, and it’s a good idea to consider the opinions of those who disagree in an intelligent way. Here’s Troy Livingstone’s opinion:

I believe strongly in the values inspiring the march. But I also believe it will be a mostly white, mostly privileged and elitist group who will not be or appear inclusive of all people.

Unintentionally, marchers may reinforce the negative stereotype that science isn’t for everyone.

Finally, I believe that the millions of dollars marchers will spend would have had more tangible benefit advocating for science if they went into the accounts of AAAS or the Union of Concerned Scientists or similar organizations.

I’m all for political activism, but I worry, just like with the women’s march, that many people will call this march their contribution to this cause and leave it at that.

What will matter most is not what happens on the day of the march but everything all of us have done and will do every other day of the year.

Those are very good points. I think he’s right that institutional science, by it’s nature, is privileged, and the people who participate will not be representative of the broader group that benefit from, and will contribute to, science (this problem was also not helped by the dudebro scientists who immediately started whining about identity politics as soon as the organizers tried to emphasize diversity). I think we need to reach out to our public schools and school teachers in addition to lab scientists to make it clear that these are issues that affect everyone. It has to be a march for all, not just working scientists, in support of science.

The concern that motivated individuals will spend “millions of dollars” on a demonstration is silly. Don’t try to police how individuals spend their personal efforts. We should be encouraging everyone to go public with their concerns.

But he’s exactly right that this can’t just be a one-shot, one-day show. This has to be the start of the work. It doesn’t immediately solve anything, but it can be a chance to get a greater commitment to working to tear down the ignoramuses in office.

Is this what you want?

The Trump budget:

War is up!

$639 billion in total defense spending, including both base budget and Overseas Contingency Operations (the war budget) — a $52 billion increase.

Increases of 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Veterans Affairs. That includes funding for a border wall, $1.5 billion more to remove undocumented immigrants, $314 million to hire more Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and a $667 million reduction in grants to state and local governments, including FEMA grants.

Science is down.

Huge cuts to medical and science research spending, including a $6 billion or 18 percent reduction in the National Institutes for Health budget, a $900 million cut to the Energy Department’s Office of Science, a $250 million cut to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants for research and education, and eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

A 31 percent cut in the Environmental Protection Agency budget, from $8.2 billion down to $5.7 billion, the lowest level (after adjusting for inflation) in 40 years and below where even congressional Republicans wanted it. More than 50 programs would be eliminated, as would 3,200 jobs. Specifically, the budget “discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts,” and reduces Superfund cleanup funding.

Art is to be eliminated.

Total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, the United States Institute of Peace, and 14 other agencies.

Follow the money, people. This is a president who wants to gut the country and start a war to distract us.

Mutual harm at Middlebury

Tristero strikes exactly the right note in this letter to the professor who was injured in the protests against Charles Murray at Middlebury. There is no excusing the harm done to Professor Stanger, but there is also no excusing the harm done by Murray.

I have, in fact, read The Bell Curve, the book Charles Murray co-authored with Richard Herrnstein (who died before publication).As I recall, the book appeared to me to be little more than a spectacularly pathetic attempt to boost the low self-esteem of the authors by claiming that blacks in general had inherently lower IQs than their own ethnic groups. My heart went out to Murray and I hoped he would find a good therapist that would instill some some self-confidence in him.

But even more so, my heart went out to the people who would be surely harmed by his terrible book. I knew that The Bell Curve would be mistaken as being super-serious intellectual research (it’s got charts and things!) when it was nothing of the sort.

Here’s where you come in.

Murray is a hero to racists with pretensions to intellectuality, like college-age right-wingers. But having regular access to the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed pages (I’ve also read many of Murray’s op-eds and they’re as unserious as The Bell Curve) makes it difficult for Murray to complain that someone’s trying to suppress his freedom of speech. For that, he needs useful idiots who are prepared to invite him not to fawning right wing think tanks or Klan meetings, but to places where the people who his writings actually harm can confront him.

Make no mistake about it: the racism that Murray empowers is as inexcusable and irresponsible as the injuries you suffered. I’m extremely sorry that you were hurt, but I’m also extremely sorry that Murray was provided an excuse to claim the high road. Both are utterly disgraceful outcomes of this unfortunate set of circumstances.

I too read The Bell Curve way back when it first came out, although, thankfully, the details of that pile of shit have faded from my memory, leaving only the recollection of a sensation of disgust. Murray relies on baffling his audiences with the arcana of statistical analysis which neither he nor most of his readers understand, but which earns him the love and appreciation of racists who don’t really care how he gets to his conclusions, as long as those conclusions support their prejudices.

I’m only competent enough in those arcana to see the flaws in his arguments, but not to explain them well. For that, I recommend the invaluable Cosma Shalizi, who made the case against g:

To summarize what follows below (“shorter sloth”, as it were), the case for g rests on a statistical technique, factor analysis, which works solely on correlations between tests. Factor analysis is handy for summarizing data, but can’t tell us where the correlations came from; it always says that there is a general factor whenever there are only positive correlations. The appearance of g is a trivial reflection of that correlation structure. A clear example, known since 1916, shows that factor analysis can give the appearance of a general factor when there are actually many thousands of completely independent and equally strong causes at work. Heritability doesn’t distinguish these alternatives either. Exploratory factor analysis being no good at discovering causal structure, it provides no support for the reality of g.

And also argued against misinterpretations of heritability:

To summarize: Heritability is a technical measure of how much of the variance in a quantitative trait (such as IQ) is associated with genetic differences, in a population with a certain distribution of genotypes and environments. Under some very strong simplifying assumptions, quantitative geneticists use it to calculate the changes to be expected from artificial or natural selection in a statistically steady environment. It says nothing about how much the over-all level of the trait is under genetic control, and it says nothing about how much the trait can change under environmental interventions. If, despite this, one does want to find out the heritability of IQ for some human population, the fact that the simplifying assumptions I mentioned are clearly false in this case means that existing estimates are unreliable, and probably too high, maybe much too high.

Once you knock those two props out from under Murray’s claims, he flops down into a disreputable heap.

But he keeps getting invited to speak at universities. I don’t know why. Stanger claims that the protest was a result of people not reading Murray’s book, but I think the real problem is people who read Murray’s book and don’t understand what a pile of garbage it is.