Killing Baby Hitler

When Kevin Drum and Jeb Bush agree about something, one of two grossly implausible events must have occurred: either Kevin is wrong or Jeb is right. Since Jeb’s wrong-headedness is more reliable than even Kevin’s good sense, a devout Bayesian in this situation will start out suspecting that Kevin has made one of his rare mistakes.

Some time ago – sorry, real life has been interfering with my blogging – the New York Times asked what seemed like a remarkably silly question: “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?”

Answers: 42% Yes, 30% No, 28% Not sure.

The Huffington Post picked this up and asked it of JEB! by email. Bush (sensibly) ducked it until he was asked on camera, at which point he emitted a characteristically inarticulate grunt of affirmation. “Hell yeah, I would! You gotta step up, man.”

Kevin was more thoughtful but equally decisive:  “I’m not an especially bloodthirsty guy, but hell yes, I’d do it. Sure, maybe World War II would happen anyway, though that’s hardly inevitable. Maybe the Holocaust too. But even a reasonable chance of stopping either one of them would be well worth the life of a baby who would otherwise grow up to be a monster. What am I missing here? I wouldn’t even hesitate.”

I’m pleased to report another success for the Rev. Mr. Bayes. In my judgment (which I would be glad to pronounce ex cathedra if someone would just build me a cathedral) both Bush and Drum are obviously and catastrophically wrong.

Forget about time-travel paradoxes, forget about the risk that something even worse would happen, and assume that your powers of foresight are perfect. You still shouldn’t kill Baby Hitler, for the simple reason that the Baby Hitler you’d be killing wouldn’t have done anything wrong, and intentionally killing innocent people is wrong, the same way torture and slavery are wrong. End of discussion.

Logically, of course, the Right-to-Life crowd should be up in arms about Bush’s expressed willing to intentionally take innocent life. And logically, of course, Bush himself couldn’t really hold his expressed position on abortion and also his expressed opinion about baby-killing. But, of course, logic has nothing to do with it.

Continue Reading…

Semi-pro athletes, our moral lodestars

If you still aren’t sure about how completely big-money sports have corrupted universities, today’s WaPo rundown on how the University of Missouri–which is full of philosophers, sociologists, organizational behavior professors, furious students, and what-all other sources of insight–figured out it needed new leadership should knock some scales from your eyes.

The Marcy case III

Geoffrey Marcy is resigning from the Berkeley faculty. [15/X/15: the Daily Cal has a good long wrapup here] Mark Kleiman has noted that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their superiors, and I would add …”and by their peers.” The Astronomy faculty’s public statement, copied at the end of my previous post, along with similar sentiments from the students and post-docs, obviously made it impossible for him to stay, even though the university authorities had no way to make this happen.

I take no satisfaction from this worst possible outcome.  Cal has lost an important, productive scientist, careers of other scientists (especially the women Marcy abused) were damaged or ended before they began, Berkeley is enduring pessimal PR, and everyone feels just wretched about the whole thing.

What went so wrong here, and who are the authors of this episode? Simple: there were many moments at least a decade ago when some members of the astronomy faculty, perhaps clued in by students, were aware that they were harboring a ticking bomb. That was when a chair or dean, or maybe just a peer pal, should have taken Marcy aside and drawn a diagram:

Everyone knows what you are doing. You have to stop, now, forever, because you are damaging not just these young women but all of us and yourself as well. If you don’t, here are a series of things that will happen to you, in sequence of increasing severity, and to show how serious this is, I expect you to ask for an unpaid leave from teaching next semester.  That’s half your pay. Next step will be to inform the department of the reasons, and so on.

Instead, one after another of his friends and colleagues decided that it was more important to avoid an awkward moment than to (i) try to save their friend from a suicidal path (ii) protect their young colleagues. Marcy was thus given a ten-year lesson that he could get away with it, and that his peers and superiors would not only not protect the junior people, but would cover up for him and assure his continued access to prey and personal comfort. Indeed (see my last post), that club of powerful friends continued to operate in that way until it became impossible.

A systematic contributor to this outcome is cultural: because there is so much of this (sexual and other harassment) going on, and we know it, students and others are increasingly enraged and act out by expecting atom-bomb sanctions for the few violations that come to light, initiating a positive-feedback cycle that suppresses appropriate and humane guidance out of fear of a disproportionate result. One colleague just told me that if he saw a faculty member pat a student’s rear end he would not take it up with the violator but go immediately to a formal report. The more common response in fact is of course to do and say nothing. That’s not how healthy societies enforce and implement norms of behavior; that’s how organizations are managed for the short-term comfort of their managers, usually with bad outcomes on many dimensions.

The chancellor and provost are working on “different and better options for discipline of faculty.” OK, but if they aren’t also working in different and better ways to acculturate, teach, and guide faculty (yes, and randy frat boys), they will leave a lot of value on the table and set us up for the next humiliating and tragic episode.


The Marcy case, cont.

[15/X/15: last word on this here]

One of W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for quality assurance is “drive out fear,” and Deming is one of my moral and intellectual heroes.  It runs like a river through all the reporting on the Marcy affair (see the links in my previous post), and also on reporting sexual abuse on campus generally, that we have not driven out fear at Cal: victims of abuse, by men who can damage their lives and careers, are broadly afraid to stand up for their rights; witnesses are afraid to step up and drop a dime.  Fewer than one in twenty rape victims in college report or complain formally.  We’re in court now defending ourselves against the justice department for mishandling sexual assault cases. Students in astronomy are not OK with things as they are.

This whole vile episode did not begin in a drunken frat party, but with a peer group of senior faculty protecting one of their number–whether because of his charming wit and lively presence, or his management of a Niagara of research money we do not know–from the discomfort of a serious talk with the chair or dean, and documents in a file, when he started his campaign of abuse.  All of them are obligatory reporters under UC rules, by the way; but there’s no talk of going after them for ducking that duty.  Anyway, there’s always another student sending in an application (docility in a labor force is surely a virtue, which fear usefully furthers), and seriously, Geoff is One of Us! Think how awkward this will be (for us) if it gets out (of our senior common room), not to mention if Marcy decides the hunting is better at MIT.  We’re serious scientists here, not social workers, and everyone needs a hobby.  Continue Reading…

Maybe John Yoo will have lunch with him? [see note at end of post]

[15/X/15: last word on this here]

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is a big deal in big science, apparently on the Nobel Prize short list.  A Sirius-level magnitude star in Berkeley’s constellation.  For  a decade, at least, he’s also been a serial harasser of women and on notice about it, in a field that has a big problem treating women as colleagues. Not a careless act or slipup: a long-time hobby. Everyone knew about it; women had a whole network to warn each other about him.  You will, however, be pleased to know that Cal deeply deplores this behavior, and after six months of finding out what, apparently, any one in the exoplanet trades could tell them, he has been given a sharply worded admonition and told to not do it any more! His department chair, who presides over a faculty of 21 men and 3 women, counsels them that the episode is “hardest for Geoff in this moment”.  No, really; this guy thinks this is something that happened to Marcy! and in case you think the god of irony is on travel today, that chair is also our Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.

Marcy is so contrite and abashed that he has personally written a uniquely mealy-mouthed letter of apology and posted it on his own web page, where we can learn that even a Nobel Prize candidate can be clueless enough to need ten years of “deep and lengthy consultations” to figure out what any woman over the age of six could tell him, and indeed what many of his adult victims have been telling him in “complaints…going back more than a decade“.

Now, this is a good opportunity to all calm down and not get emotional, and do a little cost-benefit analysis.  And let’s be sure to keep our eye on the ball, which is doing more better science for the benefit of all humanity, plus getting more bigger grants at Cal.  How serious is this, really?  On the one hand, Marcy undoubtedly published more brilliant papers, and found more planets, on account of the emotional support he appropriated for himself from his female grad students. Sort of like the Japanese victories that wouldn’t have happened without the “comfort women” who nourished the soldiers’ morale, right? If he had been fired or driven away early in his tenure here by an administration more concerned for our own women’s dignity and morale than his comfort, he would have done famous things somewhere else, which is  at least as bad as doing less of it here.  So there was great scientific value created by letting him do his thing his way as long as possible.  Slapping his wrist gently, as we have, assures several more years of high-powered scientific achievement, maybe even that Nobel Prize, before having to upset him again, even if he should backslide immediately, because these investigations cannot be rushed.  Best of all, any women inclined to blow a whistle and upset Marcy or another Big Man groper will be suitably abashed and discouraged by seeing how little their abuse counts, and not make waves.

So the scientific benefits of letting this skeeze skate as long as possible are enormous, one could say cosmic.  On the other side, what were the costs?  Well, at least three of his victims dropped out of astronomy entirely, so whatever discoveries they might have made are gone.  There’s the science other women in the department aren’t doing day by day, because they are enraged, afraid, anxious, and demoralized as they see, year after year, that the senior people who are supposed to be taking care of them and mentoring them are OK with a big shot  treating them like toys [only one? I have no evidence, but I know organizational culture is usually a pervasive thing].

Some number of women who could be probing the cosmos in our shop didn’t come and are doing it elsewhere. And this is not just a “women’s issue”: every man on the Cal faculty, and in science everywhere, is suffering some degree of harm as women we work with, quite understandably, are giving us the fisheye because of stuff like this. Not to mention men being hit on by gay, or female, profs, and yes, that happens too.

On balance, I don’t think coddling Marcy had net benefits in science: we don’t even have to examine all that mooshy stuff about human dignity and a safe workplace and equal rights!

We have a Vice Provost for the Faculty in charge of this stuff. Obviously not VP for the students, as her office mission statement confirms, but one can’t do everything.  Janet Broughton is a philosopher specializing in theories of mind (to be fair, that might well leave little time for theories of heart, or ethics).  And when you’ve spent your career in the field with the smallest percentage of women faculty of any of the humanities, I guess you could get to think that’s the way it s’posed to be.

Now we have a PR disaster. When you cover up and enable outrage for the comfort of Important People, better wear a hat, because sooner or later It’s Going to Start Coming Down. [minor non-substantive edits 10/X/15]

[more here 12/X/15]

[added 10/X/15] If you don’t think it should be this way, there is a (very gently worded) petition you can sign here.

[added 12/X/15] a couple of people have criticized what they took to be an implication that John Yoo is a sexual harasser.  I do not mean that; as far as I know Yoo is a perfect gentleman in all his personal and professional relationships. I meant to use him as an example of a professor with whom no colleague should share so much as a cup of coffee. Yoo is a war criminal who enabled and justified torture in our name (that didn’t even obtain useful intelligence). As a government lawyer, he violated his professional obligations, dissserved his client,  shamed my country, and implicated me as a citizen in those crimes. To my knowledge, he has never retracted his torture memo.

The Berkeley law school dean’s office suite is decorated with paintings of Abu Ghreib.



The moral universe of the corporate killers

Daniel Fisher – not otherwise known to me – writes for Forbes, covering “finance, the law, and how the two interact.” Naturally, given where he works, he hates plaintiffs’ lawyers, which is his right and privilege in this great and free country of ours. So his first reaction to the VW emissions-cheating scandal was to criticize - not VW – but a class-action law firm threatening to sue VW on behalf of consumers.

His point is that the buyers of the supposedly-clean-but-actually-filthy-dirty VW diesels weren’t in any direct sense harmed by VW’s fraud. By disabling pollution controls except when the car was being tested, VW managed to pack more performance and fuel economy into a car than it could have done while also actually meeting the emissions targets. So when VW issues a recall notice it will in effect be asking consumers to trade their existing car for one that performs worse and gets lower miles-per-gallon. So, he says, except for a few Marin County cranks, they’re mostly going to ignore the recall.

Therefore, the plaintiffs’ lawyers are being silly again.

Tort reform, tort reform, sis, boom, bah!

Now, I don’t know what it is you need to know to be a Certified Financial Analyst - that’s the credential Fisher claims – but apparently it isn’t logic or economics.

Continue Reading…

Gay marriage, divorce, and the Gospels

Ted Cruz’s statement on Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk now in jail for defying a court order to do her job by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, demonstrates once again that a high IQ and excellent meritocratic credentials are consistent with functional idiocy, and that functional idiocy is no bar to being treated as a “mainstream” Presidential candidate. (Walker, Jindal, Rand Paul, and of course Huckabee, all came out the same way.)

Of course Davis wasn’t arrested “for living according to her faith.” She was arrested for refusing to do what a judge, after a hearing, ordered her to do. She could have avoided jail by (1) doing the job she gets paid for; (2) allowing her clerks to issue the licenses she doesn’t want to sign; or (3) resigning. She chose to do none of these, and she’s in the clink. That’s life in the big city. When she gets out, she will no doubt spend several years collecting some kind of wingnut welfare.  To liken her to victims of genuine religious persecution is an insult to those victims.

On some level Cruz is plenty smart enough to understand all this, but he’s decided to make a career out of not understanding it.

There’s been some rather indecent glee among supporters of same-sex marriage about Davis’s own rather colorful marital history. There ought to be a strong presumption that a public official’s private life is off-limits in political debate, and Davis has on the face of it a reasonable case that behavior predating her religious conversion is irrelevant to her current beliefs.

But, as Lt. Colombo used to say, there’s just one more thing. Davis claims to be acting as a Bible Christian. Adultery violates one of the Ten Commandments. (Male/male sex violates a rule that’s on a list with eating shellfish, and female/female sex is never mentioned.) And Jesus of Nazareth – breaking with existing tradition in the interest of protecting women against being cast off by their husbands – says quite explicitly (Matt 5:32 and Luke 16:18) that marriage with a divorced woman (or marriage by a divorced man) constitutes adultery.

Therefore, by Biblical standards Ms. Davis’s sin is not in the past. Every time she has sex with her current husband, both of them are – according to the one they acknowledge as the Son of God – violating one of the Ten Commandments. The only way she could stop sinning would be to live as a celibate from now on (just like all those gay folks are supposed to do).

So, whatever religion Kim Davis is suffering for, it’s not the one preached in the Gospels.

This analysis suggests a question for Cruz and the other Republicans coming out in support of Davis:

If an elected county clerk who was an actual Bible Christian refused to issue licenses for the remarriage of divorced people with living spouses, on the grounds that his religion forbade him to connive at adultery, would that be legitimate exercise of individual conscience? And should divorcees in that county remain unable to marry?

Footnote There’s a general point here: Lots of the stuff that’s done in the name of “Christianity” has as little to do with the Bible as some of the stuff done in the name of “Islam” has to do with the Koran. In each case, local customs have been engrafted onto a larger religious tradition. As Don Marquis said, an idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe it. Especially, as he might have added, when they really don’t.









Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Mike Huckabee are firmly on record that an embryo is a person, and abortion is murder: no rape, incest or mother’s survival exceptions, end of story.  None of the other candidates volunteered a less absolute position.

OK, if you think abortion is murder, you must demand indictment, prosecution and at least life without parole for any woman who arranges her own abortion (am I misunderstanding the word premeditation?), but I’m not aware of any anti-abortion advocate, let alone a “tough on crime” candidate for office, who has done so.  If you think abortion is murder, and you aren’t calling at the top of your lungs for murder-one prosecutions of one in three women, you are a pandering hypocrite without the courage of your convictions, or a flat liar (about the “fetus is a person” part), or simply a coward who won’t say what you think.

More cowardly in my view are the reporters and pundits who get one of these absolutists across an interview desk or in a debate (I’m looking at you, Megyn Kelly) and never ask this question.  Here, say it out loud to practice: “You are sure that a fetus is a person. Do you demand first-degree murder prosecution of women who arrange to abort their fetuses? Have you filed legislation to accomplish this? If not, why not?”

Good followups: for tax-cutters, “How do you expect to pay to imprison for almost a third of all women?” and for death penalty advocates [channelling Barney Frank]: “Would it be correct to say you believe human life begins at conception and ends at birth?”

The Francises, Pope and Saint

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Pope Francis Bergoglio’s encyclical Laudato Si’  “on care for our common home” is the first SFIK to have an Italian rather than a Latin title. It is also more significantly unusual in being addressed to “every person living on this planet” (§3). So non-Catholics like me are invited to react.

The praise part is easy. It’s a solid exposition of a theology of creation that most Christians and many followers of other faiths would endorse. The application to climate change and the call to action (§169) is clear and excellently timed, in the runup to the critical Paris climate conference in November. At times it transcends mere soundness and achieves prophetic force:

  • “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (§11)
  • “We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (§59)
  • “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…” (§83)

The Pope, channelling Francis of Assisi, condemns the instrumental view of animals of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:

We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (§67; see also §221)

Thomists get a consolation citation of their hero in §86. We can expect to see more and stronger Catholic condemnations of factory farming.

The encyclical is far from perfect, and I have my little list of complaints, for what they are worth. Continue Reading…

The German Problem is back

Ever since 1945, it’s been a cardinal principle of German foreign policy to look harmless. Merkel and Schäuble’s mishandling of the Greek eurozone crisis has changed all that. The genie of fear of German power and self-righteousness is out of the bottle.

Comparisons with the Third Reich are as ridiculous as they are offensive. But raise the Second Reich, and you may have a point. Consider the Belgian atrocities.

American bond poster, 1917-18

American bond poster, 1917-18

The accusation implied by this skilfully understated wartime American poster is false. The Reichswehr did not make a habit of raping children, or bayoneting babies. Any large body of men includes some psychopaths (like Feldwebel Adolf Hitler), but there is no reason to think these were any more numerous in the German army than in its adversaries, or its discipline more tolerant of them. For most of the war, the trenches kept the armies largely insulated from the civilian population.

After the war, right-thinking opinion in the Allied countries became ashamed of the excesses of the propaganda like this manufactured by Northcliffe and friends: to the extent that the core of truth in the accusations was forgotten.

What happened was this. Continue Reading…