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The Crooked Heart


Thursday, May 01, 2003

Movin' on Up

After long and careful consideration, I have decided to move my blogging operations over to the new Crescat Sententia (formerly Baude's blog). This was a difficult decision for me, since as a rule I prefer to do things my own way, rather than as part of a team. However, I feel that given our largely shared readership it makes sense for me to join my fellow U of C bloggers in consolidating our operations at a single blog. Hopefully, our combined volume of posts will also attract new readers, and allow us to make our mark on the blogosphere.

The Crooked Heart is therefore going dormant for the forseeable future. Everything I've posted so far will remain here, but all my new posting will be at Crescat Sententia. Feel free to let me know what you thing of the change--you can be sure that if you take the trouble to email me, I will definitely take your opinion into consideration.

Monday, April 28, 2003

The Crooked Heart Hits 1000

That's 1000 visitors since March 21st, when I started counting. Not bad for something that started out as a way to procrastinate writing an irritating paper. Special thanks to everyone who has responded to my posts--either in their own blogs or by email. I appreciate being shown the error of my ways, and appreciate even more having their correctness confirmed.
Jacob Levy has a nifty post on the "secret sin" theory of politics. I like it generally, but I think the mechanism he proposes isn't quite right. It's not so much that we want the law to stop us from acting on our deepest, darkest desires, (after all, if someone has gotten to the point of wanting a law to stop them from acting a certain way, they must also recognize that there is something wrong with that action, and so are already being deterred). Rather, because we have only our own experience for evidence, we assume that other people are like us in the degree to which they harbor our secret sin, and want the law to stop them (since they may not also realize that the sin is wrong) from pursuing it.
For Whom Does Santorum Speak

I was going to remain silent on the whole Santorum debate, but this and this irritate me. In point of fact, the group for which Santorum speaks is the citizens of the State of Pennsylvania--not Christians, not Conservative Christians, not Catholics. If the citizens of Pennsylvania are dissatisfied with their chosen representative (as I hope they are) they will have a chance in 2006 to express their displeasure with their chosen spokesman and select another (as I hope they will).
More on Conservatism:

After being somewhat merciless in my last anti-conservatism blog post, I feel an extra obligation to defend him and other abortion foes who call abortion murder. (Defend them, that is, against the charge that this is a bad way to win supporters. Whether nor not abortion actually is murder is a question I'll reserve for a future post.) Will writes:

First off, let me just remind my friends on the other side of the abortion conflict (with which I really do sometimes sympathize) that making snide comments about murder really doesn't win new supporters, though maybe it sort of titillates the old ones.

While I think Will is spot on when he points out that the crux of the debate should be whether or not a fetus is a human being, I think he's a bit optimistic about the rationality of the participants of the debate. I suspect that most people who are neither virulently pro or virulently anti abortion actually regard fetuses as sort of human. A fetus isn't exactly the same thing as a five year old child, but neither is it the same thing as a cow or a chicken. Since our legal system sees living things as either human or not human, any attempt to articulate this position soon runs into problems, but nevertheless it makes a certain amount of emotional sense. Call abortion murder (or on the other side, refer to fetuses as its, or clumps of tissue) enough, though, and you might succeed in nudging people's views of just how human a fetus is a bit more in your direction. It's called propoganda, and evidence has it that it works.

UPDATE: William James did a much better job of making my point when he said, "There is nothing so absurd but if you repeat it often enough people
will believe it."

Friday, April 25, 2003

Audience Challenge:

Daniel Drezner has complained that "If the caricature of academia in the Blogosphere is a collection of tenured radicals, the caricature of academia in popular culture is a collection of lecherous white males who inevitably bed one or more of their students...if a fictional character is a white male professor, nine times out of ten he’s sleeping with the co-ed."

So my question is, how many pop culture profs really do sleep with their students? To answer this question, I need you--my pop-culture-loving readers--to send me examples of pop-culture professors. For the purposes of this survey, pop culture is going to be defined as any work produced within the past fifty years, and professor means an individual holding a teaching position at a college or university. I'll post a full list of the responses I get in a few days.


So far, I've had two other persistent tropes suggested--the brilliant but absentminded professor (think of Albert Einstein in I.Q.) and the disaster-averting hero such as Indiana Jones or Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. More suggestions?

Thursday, April 24, 2003


Following the success of my sex-ed post (I got fanmail!) I figured I would move on to the ever-contentious topic of evolution. As a former biology major, I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but I hope that what I say might be of some use to those who are curious. Furthermore, Will has given me an excellent opening by linking to this piece calling evolution a "mere educated guess at how humans and animals came to exist upon this planet." Now, fisking this piece is really rather akin to clubbing baby seals, but I'm going to do it anyway, because I'm mean and nasty like that.

The theory of evolution has more than just "reasonable doubt" associated with it. It is only a mere educated guess at how humans and animals came to exist upon this planet. Nothing more.

The theory that the New Testament was written in the first centuries AD to record the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is only a mere educated guess at how this text came to exist upon this planet. Nothing more. After all, we weren't there to see it for ourselves. We have to rely on evidence, and the evidence could all have been concocted by a gaggle of medieval pranksters. Is this a reasonable doubt? But can you prove it isn't true?

It is neither fact nor very reliable, and it continues to be a capricious theory. Every time another fossil is discovered, it seems, a huge part of the theory radically changes.

A huge part? Like the huge part that explains why fossils don't look like animals that are around today? While is is true that the proper placement of fossils on the evolutionary tree is a hotly contested subject, it remains fairly obvious that such a tree should exist.

I personally got a kick when I heard about "punctuated equilibrium." This is a counterintuitive sub-theory that was dreamed up when the fossil record couldn't be explained.

Ever seen a gyroscope? If so, do you still want to claim that the workings of nature are intuitively understandable?

(Obviously, evolution is true, so the fact that evolution never took place is not an option to consider). Punctuated equilibrium essentially postulates that evolution is slow for a while, and then it speeds up for a very short time: the environment FORCES a crocodile to turn into a bird in a few thousand years. If you believe in magic, evolution is for you.

When you think of it, punctuated equilibrium is actually a fairly intuitive theory. The basic idea is that when the environment is stable, species are also reasonably stable. They've found their niche, they fill it effectively, and most changes to the formula are maladaptive. However, when the environment changes, species are no longer well adapted to current conditions. Most of the population will die off, but what is left will change rapidly, not because the environment forces it to change, but because mutations are much more likely to be adaptive. For instance, polars bears with a mutation leading to thin coats would be very maladapted for life in the Arctic, and one would not expect to see these animals reach maturity. However, if a catastophe (like a meteor) were to warm the globe enough to make the arctic regions temparate, one would expect to see such a mutation become highly favored, and for the appearance of polar bears to change drastically within a few generations.

Sadly, evolution is "gospel" in scientific circles.

Actually, this is a fairly apt description. As my high school biology teacher explained to me, science is based on the premise that material events have material causes. If a scientists observes a material event that seems to have no cause, he should conclude not that it had a supernatural origin, but that we have not yet observed the material causes responsible. This is what it means to be a scientist, and this is why we no longer believe in spontaneous generation, action-at-a-distance, or the miasma theory of diseases. So just as it's rather difficult to call yourself a Christian if you don't believe the Gospels are true, it's rather difficult to call yourself a scientist if you're not willing to accept evolution.

If you don't believe in it, you're condescendingly viewed as a non-thinking moron who obviously knows nothing about science.

Right. Because if you did know something about science, you'd understand that creationism is not a scientific explanation.

It is scientific dogma, and it's not a surprise that many are dogmatic when it comes to evolution. It's a scientific religion with many, many adherents. Question it, and you're generally laughed at, patronized, and ostracized.

Oh. I'm sorry. Am I patronizing you?

Those two paragraphs were an intro to a story I saw today. A "smarter-than-everyone-else" type professor at Texas Tech University was using it as a litmus test in order to write students recommendations in order to get into medical school, and the Bush administration began to probe the McCarthy-style Darwinist. Well, the Bush administration has chickened out and dropped the probe.

So supporting evolution makes you smarter than everyone else? Wow. Finally something we can agree on.

Here's what the professor, Michael Dini, still says:

"If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: 'How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?'" Dini states on his updated Web site. "If you will not give a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation."

I don't get it. Why is this even a question? It's completely irrelevant to becoming a physician. Maybe he should ask, "Do you believe in the latent heat of fusion?" Why evolution?

Why not evolution? Why shouldn't Dini be able to ask whatever questions he wants before he writes his recommendation? When you ask for a recommendation from a professor, you're asking for a favor that he should be able to grant or refuse as he sees fit.

I'll tell you though, here's the answer: it's a religious belief, and some evolutionists like Dini want an inroad to try to shove God out of intellectual and professional circles (and then trickle down through society). Trying to keep out doctors who don't believe in pseudo-science would help that process.

Trying to keep out doctors who don't believe in pseudo-science probably isn't going to do much to remove religion from America, but it would do a whole lot to improve the quality of the medical profession. Should we perhaps return to the era when medical care was the province of quacks and faith healers?

Now, I could maybe see asking, "Are you a humanist? That is, do you care about the well-being of humans and humanity?" Even that's borderline, but that'd be a more fair question because of what doctors do.

Actually, doctors do more than care about the well being of humans and humanity. They apply science to help humans and humanity overcome their medical problems. Would you rather have a misanthropic surgeon or a caring, loving, generous poet performing your appendectomy?

Mikey, keep your religious beliefs to yourself, okay? Teach the theory in class, but don't use it as a litmus test. Lots of doctors look to God for the strength to allow them to deal with so much illness, disease, and death. I want qualified physicians. If they'll give me the care I need, I don't care what they believe in. You shouldn't either.

Professor Dini, however, is not assessing whether or not a physician is capable, but whether or not a student is likely to become a capable physician. These are two different tasks. A physician looking to God for strength and support is one thing, a physician looking to Leviticus for the cure for skin diseases is something I certainly don't wish to see.

But how strong, actually, is the evidence in support of the theory of evolution? That depends upon what you mean by theory of evolution.

My introductory biology textbook defined evolution as change in the frequency of an allele in the gene pool over time. That such changes occur in response to natural selection has been overwhelmingly established. Most creationists I know are willing to concede this definition of evolution.

Things start to get sticky around speciation, which is the proccess whereby one species evolves into another species. This process has been well-documented in plants, somewhat less so for animals, but nonetheless there are several pretty persuasive instances of speciation being observed in the laboratory. (See this website for more info.)

Though some creationists are willing to concede that limited speciation may occurr, the majority balk at the theory of evolution, properly called--that all life on earth is decended from a common ancestor. While this, obviously, cannot be observed in a laboratory, the evidence is pretty compelling. From traditional studies of physiology and embroyology, to the establishment of molecular family trees, and the degree of similarity, for instance, between the genomes of humans and chimpanzees, the evidence that mutation and speciation, as observed in the laboratory, are enough to account for the great diversity of life we see today. (See here for more.)

Finally there is the question of the initial origins of life. Here the evidence begins to get shaky. Scientists have explained how organic molecules form spontaneously when a mixture of inorganic molecules is electrocuted. Scientists have also shown that under the proper conditions, an organic soup can give rise to incredibly interesting structures known as microspheres. These membrane-enclosed sacs of organic chemicals take in materials selectively, and spontaneously divide when they grow. However, they're still a far cry from even the simplest anaerobic bacteria, and the processes in between these two states remain a mystery. (See this site.)

This has led a number of people to embrace the theory of intelligent design--that the first origins of life must have had a designer behind them. The problem with this theory is not that it's obviously false, but that finding an Intelligent Designer who operates outside of the rules of nature cannot be done by science. Hence, it is the duy of scientists to search for a material cause of life--a project that, while off to a good start, is far from complete.

UPDATE: Stephen has graciously replied to my comments here. I plan to post a few more general thoughts on the debate a bit later.
Save Steadywind!

Matt isn't sure if he wants to continue blogging. If you liked Matt on guns in planes, Maine politics, or consumerism, let him know. If you happened to miss his brilliance, go read them now and then let him know. I'd certainly hate to lose the only Green party member on my blogroll.
Cheap Wine

New York has discovered the other cultural advantage of California--Trader Joe's. Will, however, is dubious (of the price? of the drinkability? of the sanity of Californians?). I'm happy to report, having sampled Mr. Shaw's chardonnay and merlot on several occasions while back in California for Christmas beak, that this is no wine-in-a-box. While it's certainly not outstanding, it is a pleasant bevarage. The merlot is fruity in a somewhat generic way, but the chardonnay is crisp and surprisingly well-balanced. I have, at any rate, paid two or three times as much for wines that are certainly no better. For those who believe that life is too short to drink cheap wine, this isn't going to change their opinion, but for those of on a limited budget who would rather drink pleasant wine frequently than great wine rarely, it really doesn't get much better than Charles Shaw.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The long-awaited abstinence-only sex-ed post

There is a general consensus in U.S. society that teenagers having children is a bad thing, and there is also a general consensus that it is preferable for teens not to get pregnant in the first place, rather than have abortions. This, unfortunately, is where the consensus ends. There are two main schools of thought regarding how best to prevent teen pregnancy. The first school believes that teens will be teens, and hence are going to have sex no matter what parents, pastors or teachers say. The focus, they believe, should thus be on teaching kids to have sex safely. The second camp holds that since there is no such thing as completely safe sex, the focus should thus be on discouraging kids from having sex at all. So what’s wrong with some of the arguments in favor of abstinence-only education?

1. Sex before marriage is sinful. Granted, given the whole deal with separation of church and state, this argument isn’t usually made openly. Nevertheless, given the strong support for abstinence education among conservative Christians, it would be wrong to assume that it isn’t implicitly present in the minds of many abstinence supporters. The problem with this view is twofold. First off, there is general agreement among Christians that avoiding the temptation to fall into sin is difficult, and in fact, as a conservative Christian teenager, I remember hearing several inspirational talks claiming it was impossible to remain chaste until marriage without God’s assistance. Hence, by expecting teenagers to adhere to a divinely oriented standard, but not telling them, in a secular abstinence-only education program, about the divine assistance that will be required for them to succeed, Christian abstinence advocates are essentially setting them up to fail. Second, no matter how much sin one avoids in one’s life, if one does not accept the saving power of Christianity, one will not make it into heaven. While Christians may disagree as to whether faith is a sufficient condition for salvation, I think they all consider it a necessary condition. Consequently, if one’s interest is saving souls, promoting chastity among the atheistic or agnostic is not a particularly effective way to do so.

2. Sex before marriage is unsafe. Yes, but so is driving cars. In 1999, 14,000 Americans died in 1999 in car accidents , and about 17,000 died from AIDS. I don’t see a strong movement for telling kids to abstain from driving. This is a facetious comparison on many levels, but the point is that just because an action carries risks doesn’t necessarily mean that one should abstain from it. Rather, one needs to balance the benefits and risks, and decide whether on the whole the action is worthwhile or not. As to exactly how unsafe sex outside of a monogamous relationship is—good luck wading through all the contradictory statistics, but it seems to boil down to the unsurprising answer that it depends a great deal upon how careful you are.

3. Because teenagers can’t be trusted to use protection regularly, we need to scare them into not having sex at all. Does anyone else see how contradictory this argument is? If we can’t even scare teens into using condoms, what makes people think it will be easier to scare them into not having sex at all? It’s the lack of reasoned judgment on the part of many teens that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. Telling teens that condoms fail a third of the time seems as likely to make them not use condoms at all as to stop them from having sex. And if the problem is limited to teens, then why not advocate abstinence until age 18? Or 21? Moreover, I think there’s something just plain wrong with lying to teens as a way to make them behave. If schools have a duty to teach teenagers anything, it's to teach them to make the sort of judgments between reasoned arguments and unreasonable scaremongering, or solid analysis and statistical manipulation that we're going to desparately need them to start making once they reach voting age. Are abstinent teens now really worth a credulous voting population, untutored in the difference between facts and propoganda, five years down the road?

4. Sex before marriage is bad for emotional reasons, or teenagers aren’t ready to have sex, or we need to encourage the development of a less sexually permissive culture. There is a constellation of similar reasons here, all essentially pointing to the emotional or cultural benefits that come from waiting to have sex, preferably until marriage. It’s not that I don’t think these benefits exist, or that everyone is ready to have sex at age fourteen. I just don’t understand why encouraging restraint on the part of teenagers requires not telling them about methods that exist for drastically reducing the potential physical consequences of their actions.

Fetal Rights

Will writes on the subject:

Some women's-rights-advocates are afraid of the slippery slope issue-- recognizing that killing a fetus is a bad thing could lend weight to the tenuously balanced scale of abortion rights. Rightly so.

While I don't know much about the subject, and am hence hesitant to write much, I think it is fundamentally wrongheaded and unjust for a society to fail to recognize that a woman who is assulted while pregnant, and so loses her child (or even potential child, if that's how you think about these things) has had a much more serious wrong done to her than a woman who suffers only the bruises. The issue here, I think, for those who are devoted to saving abortion rights is not to not recognize that killing a fetus is a bad thing--it is--but rather to define this as a wrong done to the mother (and to the father, and other relatives) rather than a wrong done to the fetus. Maube someone who knows more about the legal issues here can tell me if I'm completely off base.


Well, u-- um, can we come up and have a look?

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If I'm a King Arthur , why don't I have traffic like this at my blog?

Monday, April 21, 2003

Marriage, redacted:

Here is a summary of the debate as it now stands

First post--Amanda
Second post--Sara
Third post--Will
Fourth post--Amanda
Fifth post--Amy
Sixth post--Will
Seventh post--Amanda
Eighth post--Will
Ninth post--Sara
Tenth post--Will
Eleventh post--Peter
Twelfth post--Amanda
Thirteenth post--Sara

I'll keep my comments brief. Though I've argued against Sara, in point of fact I'd rather have a marriage based on something more than mere "personal intimacy" or transitory romantic love. I just don't want to see the government engaged in a wholesale imposition of my view of marriage on the country as a whole. Partly this is because I think government legislation is by and large too crude of a tool for a task as delicate as building good marriages, partly beause I'm not confident that I have truly found the only right formula for good marriages, but mostly because I think that the only way that my sort of death-do-us-part marriage can succeed is if both partners are committed to it, and no amount of legislation can make someone want to stay married to someone. Thus, I think that the best poliy to follow on marriage is for the government to ensure that it remains a meaningful legal institution, but for friends, family, religious institutions and the like to help couples, if the should desire it, figure out what marriage should mean beyond a legal contract.
Bad Art

Jeremy Reff draws extensively on Nabokov for his analysis of Saddam's taste in art. Go read the full post.

Link via Oxblog.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Sara at Diotima is upset over Matthew Yglesias' disregard for the great books of philosophy. Now, I have read Aristotle, Descartes, and Mill (as well as Plato, Cicero, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and probably some others I'm forgetting), and on the whole I have to agree that he hasn't missed that much. This may seem like a paradoxical position for an historian to take, but most of the historical texts I've read have been irrelevant to me in forming my opinions about present events, what I have gotten from them could probably be summarized in a few paragraphs per thinker.

I like to read the great books of philosophy because I care about what people used to think about politics, and because I enjoy the pleasures of an elegant turn of phrase, or a particularly apt example. Reading Machiavelli is a pleasure, figuring out what he meant is a worthy challenge, but having done the first and made a stab at the second, I have to say that I could have gotten everything I needed to know about The Prince as it applies to contemporary politics from reading the Introduction. It's not that the great works have nothing to do with anything--they just don't have a whole lot to do with life as we live it today.
As you doubtless noticed, I have a new template. Like the Baudes, I wanted more width for my posts, unlike them I wasn't willing to settle for kinda boring. Hopefully the result is still clean and readable. Let me know what you think.
Mahwige...That Dweam Wivin a Dweam

Amanda has proposed that the government ought to get out of the business of recognizing marriage. I'm no law student, or future law student, but it seems to me that marriage is recognized by the government because whatever else it is, it is also a legal contract between two individuals, and the government is deeply, irreversibly, and properly in the business of enforcing contracts. It's not just taxes and insurance benefits--there are genuine advantages to publicly entering into a partnership that takes court action to dissolve.

However, I also agree with Will that lack of government recognition of marriage would not lead to its abolition. In many of its fundamentals, marriage is already privatized. No-fault divorce makes individuals free to define it as a temporary institution, the repeal or non-enforcement of adultery laws makes them free to define it as sexually exclusive or open, and birth control combined with a greater acceptance of illegitimacy have done much to loosen (though not dissolve) the link between marriage and family. Nevertheless, this has not stopped people from publicly promising to marry until death do them part.

The distinction that I think needs to be made here is between the government recognizing marriages--that is, registering as legally valid a certain type of contract between two individuals--and the government encouraging marriages, or encouraging a specific sort of marriage. It is the second, I think, that most irritates Amanda. A government registering a contract of a commonly understood type is a neutral, useful action. A government defining what such a contract entails is also a useful (though somewhat less neutral) action. A government telling people that they ought to enter into one of these contracts, or that they can only enter into one of these contracts if its terms fit a certain moral standard is something else entirely. (Perhaps the government has a public policy interest to encourage marriage to form stable families for raising children. Perhaps. I am, however, dubious.) Marriage is not just a legal contract. It's also a social institution, and a deeply personal relationship between two people, and insofar as it is these things, its operation is none of the government's business. The optimal position for government, I believe, is to regulate the legal arrangement without imposing its vision on the personal one.

Also, in answer to Will's question, I would say that governments have recognized marriage as an institution as long as they have been around, by recognizing the right of a man to redress should his wife be taken from him.

UPDATE: Will wants to know about homosexual marriage. I think it is a fairly obvious corollary of what I said above that the government should not be in the business of telling people who, or what gender, their spouse should be. If they must be called "domestic partnerships" instead of marriage to pass popular muster, so be it, but the legal status of the two arrangements should be identical.

UPDATE II: Amanda has responded to my post. Again, because marriage is more than a religious institution, I think the government has a legitimate interest in limiting arrangements that it is willing to call marriages. It's interest is more than just recording contracts, but recording said contract as one of a standard type. If individuals can give the term whatever meaning they want, it becomes essentially meaningless. Thus, I think it is reasonable for the government to say, for instance, that you can only be married to one person at a time, or that ending a marriage requires initiating divorce proceedings (essentially--not allowing sunset clauses). I'm not willing to say that all of these sort of limitations as they currently exist are correct, but I think that making them is a job for government.

Musings on a transient world.

Amy Lamboley
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