My objections to profiling weren’t actually addressed…but OK

The argument goes on. Sam Harris has reacted to my post on profiling.

One line in my article raised a tsunami of contempt for me in liberal and secular circles:

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.

Once again, I included myself in this profile—but that did almost nothing to stem the accusations of racism.

He keeps saying that. I don’t know why. The objection isn’t that Sam Harris wants to discriminate against people who don’t look like him, it’s that Sam Harris wants to discriminate against people on the basis of their appearance. The fact that his search criteria are so broad that they include him isn’t a point in his favor, either — it means he favors criteria that produce many false positives.

I really don’t understand why he’s finding that so hard to grasp.

Then he offers an example of how his version of profiling would work. I’ve highlighted a few words that I think are important.

Imagine that you work for the TSA and are executing a hand search of a traveler’s bag. He is a young man in his twenties and seems nervous. You notice that he is carrying a hardcover copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You pick up the book and ask him if he likes it. He now appears even more nervous than before. You notice something odd about the book—the dust jacket doesn’t seem to fit. Your remove it and find a different book underneath. How do you feel about this traveler’s demeanor, and the likelihood of his being a terrorist, if the book is:

A. The Qur’an (in Arabic)

B. The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide

C. Overcoming Impotence: A Leading Urologist Tells You Everything You Need to Know

D. Dianetics

If you care more about A than B, C, or D, as I think you should, you are guilty of religious profiling (and calling it “behavioral profiling” doesn’t change this fact).

I have no problem at all with that kind of profiling. The matter that raises concerns isn’t that the young man looks Muslim: it’s that he looks nervous, and that he’s hiding something. TSA, please do notice when people’s behavior is peculiar!

But now I’m curious. Change the story a bit. What if the young man were confidently and openly carrying his Qur’an? Should we stop and search everyone with a Muslim holy book?

What if he were nervous, and it was a Christian bible hidden away? Should we then ignore his odd behavior and wave him on to the plane?

What if he were openly carrying that bible? Does proudly carrying a Bible give you a free pass through the screening? He could wear a cross and a flag pin on his lapel, and no longer Look Muslim, I guess.

Harris doesn’t seem to understand that his critics are not saying TSA should be blind and deaf to the people passing through security checkpoints…but that there should be some intelligence behind it, and that the criterion of “looking Muslim” is stupid and useless.

Then he raises a series of strawmen — that we think there is no link between Islam and suicidal terrorism, that we have some pious fantasy of Israeli egalitarianism in their security procedures, and implies that we have no problem with TSA searching toddlers. I said precisely the opposite about Islamic terror tactics; I have no sympathy for Israel’s convergence on fascism; I think most of what TSA does in those security lines is a waste of time and bad security policy.

My fundamental issue with his whole proposal is the shocking innumeracy of it all. Here’s the perfect example: he asks, what percentage of the people who would murder the children boarding a plane, and all who accompany them, are Muslim? And here’s his strange answer.

Some readers might think that this question would be difficult or impossible to answer. Let’s try another, then: What percentage of porn stars are also theoretical physicists? Is this a hard question for which to give a ballpark answer? No. In fact, I would be willing to bet my life that I could get within 10 percentage points of the exact figure without doing any research—and the same holds for the question about using children as bombs on airplanes in the year 2012.

Wow. He gives himself a very broad 10% window for his answer.

So the percentage of porn stars who are also theoretical physicists? I guess 0%. I’m sure I’m within 10% of the correct answer. I won’t go searching porn studios for answers to cosmology questions.

The likelihood of a toddler being used to smuggle a terrorist bomb on board a plane? 0%, again. I’m confident — we aren’t seeing 1 in 5 kids being plucked out of line so the dynamite in their diapers can be thrown away.

But then his peculiar question — what percentage of suicidal terrorists boarding a plane are Muslim — I’d answer with 100% (OK, 90%, so my guess covers a broader range), and I suspect he would, too. But it’s the wrong question. It’s a completely bizarre twisting of what the appropriate question should be. We aren’t screening the guys who look like terrorists at the airport to find out which are Muslim; he wants us to screen the people at the airport who look like Muslims to find the terrorists.

The right question is what percentage of the people who “look Muslim” (whatever that means; Harris hasn’t yet defined it), his screening criterion, are terrorists? And again, the answer is 0%±10%, the same as the percentage of physicist porn stars, or bomb lobbing toddlers. I would agree that just screening Muslims would increase the likelihood of finding a terrorist by some small amount, but it has the problem that I still don’t know what a Muslim looks like, so that pre-selection is going to be awfully leaky, and you’re going to generate such a huge number of false positives that your more rigorous secondary screening is going to get swamped, and you’re going to open the door to even more false negatives as your real terrorists avoid “looking Muslim” in line.

So once again, we sacrifice civil liberties and real effective security for TSA showmanship, as people who “look Muslim” to uniformed low-wage security guards with a GED get thoroughly frisked. I don’t get it. Sam Harris is a scientist; how can he so blithely overlook type I and II errors in a statistical sampling protocol? How can he ignore the ambiguity of his sloppy definition of his primary measure, “looking Muslim”?

Good questions, ____________ answers

You fill in the blank. Greta Christina interviews Edwina Rogers.

Did you know 70% of Republicans are pro-choice? And that there is no Republican party position on abortion? It’s only a few elected officials who are anti-gay, not the majority. You shouldn’t stereotype Republicans! Republicans believe in the separation of church and state, too. But not a majority now (she’s backed down on this one). Republicans at the federal level have not been promoting creationism and intelligent design. It was OK that she donated money to Rick Perry because a) he used to be a Democrat, b) he was head of the Republican Governor’s Association, and c) she was interested in promoting health care. And we all know what a friend to health care Rick Perry has been. She joined the Republican party along with everyone else in the South because she like Ronald Reagan’s message, which was about working hard.

I learned many Surprising Facts™ about America in this interview. I haven’t been thrilled with the Democrats for some time, but apparently the Republicans have an agenda more in tune with my views (!), and I ought to have been voting for them.

The reports of dinosaurs dying of farts are greatly exaggerated

No, dinosaurs did not fart themselves to death. This is what happens when you get your information from Fox News.

Dinosaurs may have farted themselves to extinction, according to a new study from British scientists.

The researchers calculated that the prehistoric beasts pumped out more than 520 million tons (472 million tonnes) of methane a year — enough to warm the planet and hasten their own eventual demise.

Until now, an asteroid strike and volcanic activity around 65 million years ago had seemed the most likely cause of their extinction.

So I read the paper. The researchers didn’t say that at all. There is nothing about extinction in the paper; it would have been ridiculous and I was prepared to dismiss such a claim without even reading the paper (the Jurassic lasted 55 million years, the Cretaceous 80 million, with dinosaurs farting away throughout). But the paper makes no such claim, instead suggesting that the mass of herbivores during the Mesozoic would have made a substantial, but stable, contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that may have been partially responsible for the warmer, moister climate of the era and the greater primary production.

Take together, our calculations suggest that sauropod dinosaurs could potentially have played a significant role in influencing climate through their methane emissions. Even if our 520 Tg estimate is overstated by a factor of 2, it suggests that global methane emission from Mesozoic sauropods alone was capable of sustaining an atmospheric methane mixing ratio of 1 to 2 ppm. Equally, our estimate may be understated by a similar factor, (i.e. possibly supporting 4 ppm methane). In the warm wet Mesozoic world, wetlands, forest fires, and leaking gasfields may have added around another 4 ppm methane to the air. Thus, a Mesozoic methane mixing ratio of 6–8 ppm seems very plausible.

The Mesozoic trend to sauropod gigantism led to the evolution of immense microbial vats unequalled in modern land animals. Methane was probably important in Mesozoic greenhouse warming. Our simple proof-of-concept model suggests greenhouse warming by sauropod megaherbivores could have been significant in sustaining warm climates. Although dinosaurs are unique in the large body sizes they achieved, there may have been other occasions in the past where animal-produced methane contributed substantially to global environmental gas composition: for example, it has been speculated that the extinction of megafauna coincident with human colonisation of the Americas may be related to a reduction of atmospheric methane levels.

See? A reasonable conclusion, not Fox News sensationalism.

But here’s the information you really wanted to know: they estimate that a medium-sized sauropod would have farted out 2675 liters of gas a day. Happy now? Impressed?

Wilkinson DM, Nisbet EG, Ruxton GD (2012) Could methane produced by sauropod dinosaurs have helped drive Mesozoic climate warmth? Current Biology 22(9):292-293.

How was the vertebrate/arthropod LCA segmented?

Vertebrates are modified segmented worms; that is, their body plan is made up of sequentially repeated units, most apparent in skeletal structures like the vertebrae.

Arthropods are also modified segmented worms. Look at a larval fly, for instance, and you can see they are made up of rings stacked together.

So here’s a simple and obvious question: can we infer that the last common ancestor of vertebrates and arthropods was also a segmented worm? That is, is segmentation a common ancestral trait, or did arthropods and vertebrates invent it independently? At first thought, you might assume they are: it’s a complex trait shared by two taxa, so the simplest assumption is that both groups inherited it from their common ancestor (making it a synapomorphy), but there are also substantial differences in the mechanism of segmentation, so it’s possible that this trait wasn’t present in the common ancestor (making it a homoplasy).

[Read more…]

Why I am an atheist – Matthew Smedberg

I grew up Catholic, and had argued myself to the “correct” conclusion, that the Church’s teachings and morality were soundly defensible via logic. During college, however, my views on morality, especially but not limited to sexual morality, changed, forcing me to re-evaluate the logical connections I had previously accepted. (I remember vividly one time, while riding a horse into Damascus, reading a speech of Douglas Adams where he forcefully argues that calling masturbation wrong on the grounds that it does harm is not only false but unconscionably cruel.) I became convinced that humans have the power and the right to decide on what is just and moral together — that no god worthy of the name would give moral edicts at all, and certainly not ones merely reinforcing old, old prejudices.

I am an atheist because I became convinced that god was a story we invented. But I call myself an atheist because I do believe in something: I believe that we can do better.

Matthew Smedberg
United States

Academic advising

I’m just going to have to put the latest xkcd in front of the incoming students: as it says, Every Major's Terrible. I notice, though, that the only reasons he can give for biology sucking are ones of personal distaste.

Of course, rejecting the pragmatic rationalizations for every major is wonderfully liberating. If they all suck, then you should just major in what you love.