Wednesday, December 22, 2004


I'm off for vacation, so no posts for a couple weeks. Happy holidays! (This is a secular blog - no Merry Christmas here.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Decline in foreign graduate students in the U.S.

Over on Left2Right, Stephen Darwall discusses the decline in foreign applicants to U.S. graduate schools as part of the decline of U.S. dominance in postgraduate education, due to both post-9/11 visa restrictions and increasing competitiveness of non-U.S. graduate schools, such as in the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, China, etc.

He's largely right, but I would caution against inferring too much from data on applications. Most U.S. graduate schools, at least in the sciences, get a huge number of international applicants for each available spot (i.e., hundreds). (Graduate school admissions websites usually say something like "funding is extremely limited for international students, but we have a few places for very exceptional students.") Even reducing the number of applicants by 50% would probably not affect the ability of U.S. graduate schools to get foreign students. The same goes for data on the declining number of people taking the Graduate Record Exam in China and India (the GRE is the graduate school equivalent of the SAT).

(This explains why Stephen Darwall's analogy between a 28% decline in foreign applications and a 28% decline in demand for American cars is not quite right: there is a fixed supply of spots for foreign students in U.S. graduate programs, but a non-fixed supply of American cars.)

Of course, if there are fewer applicants, it is likely that U.S. graduate schools won't be able to pick the cream of the crop. Still, using crude measures like average GRE and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test scores, it appears that average quality of international applicants is not declining.

Declining enrollments of foreign students is the key statistic. And foreign enrollment in U.S. graduate schools is declining - about 6% down from last year. But this is not as drastic a drop as the 28% decline in applicants (on top of a 34% decline the previous year), so it's not quite as disastrous as it sounds.

I don't mean to imply that the decline in international students studying in the U.S. is somehow illusory - it's real. And it's a problem (but a complicated one), connected (in a complicated way) with the decline of American dominance in science. But the sky isn't falling -- yet.

Who's afraid of reproductive cloning?

To partially get back to biology after posting about politics and economics: a post on reasons for opposing reproductive cloning. Everyone seems to oppose it reflexively, especially people in favor of therapeutic cloning. (It's as if to say, "Look, I'm not in favor of all biotechnology!") But reflexive opposition does little to advance serious reflection of the ethics of cloning; so, here I go...

To be clear on terms: cloning is when you take a nucleus from an adult cell, put it into a de-nucleated egg cell, and then stimulate the egg to divide and form an embryo that is (for all intents and purposes) genetically identical to the adult that donated the nucleus. In therapeutic cloning, the purpose is to create a ball of cells after a few days, from which you can harvest embryonic stem cells. In reproductive cloning, the purpose is to create a full adult organism that would be genetically identical to the individual that donated the transplanted nucleus.

The most obvious reason to ban reproductive cloning is safety. Reproductive cloning hardly works at all in animals, and if we tried it in humans, we'd almost certainly create babies with horrible birth defects. Even if we got it working, it probably wouldn't be as safe as regular fertilization, and even the tiniest risk would be a significant reason not to do it. (Though minimal risks would not necessarily be prohibitive.)

But for many people, it goes beyond that. Even if there already existed a perfectly safe and reliable way to carry out reproductive cloning, they would still oppose it. Why?

We can dispense immediately with the argument that cloning is "unnatural" or amounts to human "defiance of nature." In vitro fertilization is unnatural too, and most people don't object to that anymore. For that matter, all medical interventions are in one sense or another "unnatural," so opposition to cloning has to come from another source. In any case, "natural" is not necessarily "good."

More serious is the idea that you'd be destroying personal identity. After all, you're creating a clone of yourself! (It's like the movie Multiplicity!) However, this misunderstands the nature of the genome and succumbs to genetic determinism. You are not made up of your genes; you are made up of a very complex and unique pattern of protein, lipids, sugars, etc; your identity is coded in the pattern of neurons and synapses firing in your brain. This pattern is not entirely determined by your genes. Just look at identical twins, who are very similar but not entirely identical. A cloned human would probably be even more dissimilar than an identical twin, because a cloned human would grow inside a different woman's uterus, and receive different influences during pregnancy. So it's really not true that your clone would be in any significant way the "same person" as you.

I am open, however, to the possibility that cloning could create the perception of the loss of identity. That is, the cloned child would grow up knowing that his identical twin had already lived part or all of his life. Even though this doesn't really compromise his personal identity in reality, as I argued in the previous paragraph, perhaps the perception of such a compromise would be enough. After all, we all subconsciously depend on believing that we have autonomy and free will to act morally responsible, whether or not free will "really" exists; if you grew up doubting this (in more ways than just wondering whether free will in general is an illusion), your sense of free will would be compromised -- even though, as I said, this sense would be mistaken. (One could also argue that identity is subjective and socially constructed anyway, so my distinction between 'real' identity and 'perceived' identity cannot be sustained. Fair enough. But at least a perceived loss of identity with little rational basis could potentially be overturned.)

However, this is not, I think, a problem inherent in cloning per se, but rather a problem in the perception of cloning. (Similar to this are scenarios where people treat cloned children as outcasts or weirdos; where the parents think the cloned child has to "live up to" the person who was cloned; where the existence of cloning encourages the fallacy of genetic determinism; where the cloned child is confused about his family relations; etc.) I am not comfortable with the idea of banning a procedure because of mistaken perceptions. After all, a cloning ban itself would contribute to a stigma against cloned children, and would reinforce misperceptions of cloning. In some ways, this is analogous to the question of whether parents should abort fetuses that have the "gay gene" because they don't want their kids to be discriminated against. In the case of gay kids, the answer is clearly no. Likewise, should we ban cloning because cloned kids will suffer from the false perceptions of others (or themselves)? I lean toward no; still, the analogy with gay kids is not perfect (selecting for straight children denigrates currently existing gay people while a cloning ban doesn't denigrate any currently existing people), so I am somewhat open to banning cloning on the grounds of negative perception of one sort or another.

The other major argument against cloning is the argument of design. When we have kids, we don't design them - we just leave their genes up to chance. But a cloned child would be designed by virtue of having picked a specific genome to clone. Design is not compatible with dignity: something designed has a purpose external to itself, so a cloned child would be a means, not an end in itself.

But dignity-denying design is not the same as reproductive cloning. That is, not all cloned children would be designed in this dignity-denying sense, and many non-cloned children are already being designed. On the former: reproductive cloning may not always carry the intent of design (suppose someone infertile gets cloned as a last resort for having biologically related children), and a cloned child could certainly be treated with dignity as an end in herself rather than a means if her parent so chose. On the latter: the boundary between reproductive cloning and IVF regarding "design" is so flimsy as to be nearly non-existent. After all, what is the difference between selecting a genome to clone and selecting an embryo to implant? Yet the latter is already happening. Sex selection; conceiving a child to be a tissue donor for a sibling; etc. Design even happens in non-biotechnology circumstances, like the parent who forces his child to train intensively in baseball/football/piano/etc so the parent can live out dreams of lost glory. The 'designing' of humans is a distinct issue from cloning and ought to be addressed on its own terms.

So, the argument against reproductive cloning seems to take two major forms: that cloned children would be subject to harms that are largely due to misperceptions and fallacies, and that cloning necessarily dehumanizes through design. The first form of argument is only persuasive to the extent that people cannot be re-educated; the second form is persuasive but isn't about cloning per se.

I suppose the whole argument is moot for now, as the safety concern trumps all. So I still have time to figure out what I think.

Update, 12 Jan: Welcome to all the visitors from Tangled Bank! Please check out my main blog here. To anyone else, go read the posts in the Tangled Bank carnival - there's a lot of good stuff there.


I changed the comments to Haloscan so now commenters can sign their names (or pseudonyms, as the case may be). I couldn't figure out how to preserve the old comments through the change in system, so they are now unfortunately hidden (though not deleted, according to Blogger).

Friday, December 17, 2004

Myths and fallacies?

After reading (and thoroughly disagreeing with) Don Boudreaux's post comparing statism and creationism, I decided to check out some of his other posts under his "Myths and Fallacies" category. Ironically, it seems to me that some of these posts, intended to debunk other people's fallacies, contain a fair number of fallacies themselves.

Today, he writes that he finds it strange that our culture celebrates self-interest if its consequences only apply to yourself (exercise, eating healthily), but looks down on self-interest if its consequences apply to others (the profit motive, which helps business run smoothly and provide useful goods and services).

This seems to me to get it exactly backwards. Yes, the profit motive benefits others - sometimes. But sometimes it harms others. I'm not talking about the simplistic idea that the free market is a zero-sum game, so if you win, I must lose. Really, self-interest can actively harm others. For example, carelessness in maintenance (which saved on operation costs) led to Bhopal, the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world. In contrast, self-interest that concerns only yourself may not benefit anyone else, but it also won't harm anyone else. (I don't think it really counts as "harm" to say that by being slimmer and healthier, you'd harm others by out-competing them in the dating game.)

Boudreaux also ignores the role that intent plays in forming moral judgments. A self-interested company doesn't intend to help anyone by providing useful goods and services (after all, that's the beauty of self-organizing markets). This is therefore not morally good in the same way that an act of charity is morally good (an act of charity that actually does some good, that is). In contrast, the intent to be careless in factory maintenance is an aggravating factor in our moral condemnation of Union Carbide's selfishness in Bhopal. (Negligent homicide, anyone?)

Meanwhile, here Boudreaux ignores what is for me the most salient part of the letter he was responding to. The letter complains that the minimum wage has remained constant since 1997 while CEO compensation has skyrocketed. Boudreaux responds that the minimum wage is a government-imposed floor on wages and distorts the market mechanism for setting wages. But he misses the key similarity in the contrast between the minimum wage and CEO compensation: CEO compensation actually has no relation to job performance. CEO salaries have skyrocketed not because demand is so high for the tiny supply of qualified individuals, but because CEO salaries are set by the CEO's friends in an opaque, corrupt process that distorts the free market of salaries. So both minimum wages and corporate governance distort the free market. The injustice, then, is that one anti-market mechanism has been used to rase the salaries of the fantastically rich, while another anti-market mechanism has not been used for 7 years to raise the salaries of the desperately poor. A classic libertarian fallacy - overlooking the coercive power of private parties and only seeing the coercion of the state.

Finally, this. Boudreaux provides examples of poor people who became rich (mostly from the late 1800's) as evidence against the assertion that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. For an economist, Boudreaux seems strangely willing to ignore any sort of statistical evidence and rely purely on anecdotes. To address his point directly: yes, it's true that under capitalism, poor people can get rich. This is good. But that doesn't refute the idea that overall, the wealth gap is growing. Moreover, it's extremely bizarre to cite historical examples of successful entrepeneurs to counter the claim that it's currently getting harder for poor people to become rich.

A friend of mine told me that due to the changing structure of the American economy, it really is getting harder to "climb up the income ladder." Once upon a time, blue-collar workers in factories could rise up the ladder by becoming the floor foreman, then moving into management, and so on. But those manufacturing jobs are disappearing from the economy, being replaced with service jobs. Service jobs, unlike manufacturing jobs, are relatively sharply divided into unskilled labor (retail, food service) and skilled labor (software engineer, scientist, professor). The education gap between the two means it's actually very hard to transition from unskilled to skilled. Thus poor people really are stuck being poor. Now I'm not an economist so I don't know if this is an accurate description of the American labor economy. But it seems that if Boudreaux wants to say that the wealth gap isn't growing, he should address claims like these rather than using anecdotal evidence.

By the way, Steve Jobs coming from a modest background is very different than Steve Jobs coming from a poor background. He had the education and skills to start a successful computer company. Would he have done if he were a sweatshop laborer?

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Scope v. intensity of government

Via Matthew Yglesias, Will Wilkinson asks, what is big government?

The problem with the big/small government dichotomy is that it conflates two or three measures of government. That is, the scope and the intensity of governance. Scope refers to what areas the state claims authority over: the military, transportation, public health, the environment, education, etc. Intensity refers to how strongly and effectively the state acts on the areas it claims authority over. (Intensity could be split into effectiveness and strength/intrusiveness, which is why I said "two or three.")

It's fairly clear that Republicans who complain about "big government" are referring to scope, not intensity. One element of conservative rhetoric is government is sticking its nose into somewhere it doesn't belong, like the environment, health care, etc. (Some Republicans, namely social conservatives, want to expand the scope in other directions, such as "moral values." But it's clear that these social conservatives are not really interested in the size of government.) They're not complaining about the intensity of government. Certainly they're not complaining about effectiveness. But they're not even complaining about strength/intrusiveness: on areas that conservatives agree are proper areas for state action (crime, anti-terrorism, and foreign policy spring to mind), they want the government to be as strong as possible. Longer prison sentences; more police officers; bigger military; more assertive foreign policy.

Now, historically, scope and intensity of governance have tended to increase together. Intuitively, this makes sense: if you've consolidated power well enough to rule over issue X and Y intensely, you might think about expanding the scope of your power to include issue Z as well. But scope and intensity are different concepts and should be distinguished when talking about the "size" of government.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Statism is not creationism

Via Crumb Trail, a critique of statism as tantamount to creationism, by Don Boudreaux, an economics professor at George Mason University, and apparently an ardent libertarian.

He writes that just as creationism insists that only an intelligent, intentional creator could create the marvelous order and complexity of living creatures, so do statists (he focuses his ire on left-liberals) insist that only an intelligent, intentional government can create order and prosperity in society. Both fundamentally fail to see that order can emerge spontaneously from chaos. Natural selection shows how mindless algorithms create design, and Hayek-ian market theory shows how social order emerges from individual self-interest.

This analogy is intended to sting people like me - committed Darwinians who despise creationism yet are left-liberals also committed to the use of state power to improve society. Fortunately for me though, the analogy is flawed, in two basic ways.

Creationism makes easily-rejected empirical claims, whereas statism makes normative claims that are harder to dismiss

Creationism and statism are different kinds of theories. Creationism is a descriptive theory, claiming to present the actual history of the origin of life, and it is false on empirical grounds. Though most of its proponents have normative motivations (i.e., hating 'godless' evolution), the theory of creationism itself makes no normative judgments and therefore stands or falls (i.e., falls) on empirical facts. In contrast, statism is both descriptive and normative: it claims that the state is the best provider of order, prosperity, etc., and bases these claims on both empirical facts (about what the state can do) and value judgments (about what things are worth doing, the relative values of liberty and equality, etc.). Thus, the debate between creationism and evolution is largely a no-brainer if you accept the facts, whereas the debate between statism and libertarianism is much harder to resolve.

To draw further on this distinction: The similarity between natural selection and free markets is that they operate by stupid, intention-less principles. Without intention, they are morality-neutral, and thus may not always produce good or desirable results. Natural selection has produced monstrosities that are "good" in the sense of reproducing well, but pretty awful in any other sense - parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in caterpillars, which the wasp larvae then devour alive once they hatch; all sorts of horrible diseases; etc. Similarly, free markets do not necessarily produce results that match human ends - e.g., depending on your moral views, the inequality produced by free markets might be a bad thing. There is no recourse when natural selection produces "bad" results, but statism posits that the state can fix the bad results of the market.

Furthermore, natural selection and free market theory rely on different logics, which their similar reliance on mindless, non-intentional algorithms obscures. The logic of natural selection guarantees that over a long time, populations change to become better at reproducing (and thus more "adapted"), because the genes of individuals that are better-reproducing tend to become more widespread in the population. In contrast, free markets have no such guarantee because they are not subject to this selective pressure. They really do arise spontaneously. It's like those disclaimers that say, "this product is provided 'as is' and we make no guarantees on its quality." Free markets do not replicate themselves with slight mutations, such that those that more efficiently distribute resources reproduce faster than those that don't. Without this pressure to increase order over time, we're stuck with whatever imperfections arise spontaneously from a certain market system.

Statism does not posit an 'uncaused Creator'

God is a skyhook; states are cranes. Cranes and skyhooks are another Dennett metaphor: both cranes and skyhooks can raise objects from the ground, but cranes are also based on the ground, while skyhooks appear out of nowhere from the sky, in contradiction of the laws of physics. Natural selection is a crane because it builds up design from undesign, whereas creationism is a skyhook because it requires a deus ex machina, a supernatural power that merely begs the question - it can't explain its own design.

In contrast, states are cranes, not skyhooks. They are institutions made up of people, organized to exercise legitimate coercion over a defined territory. These people live within society, not outside it. No statist ascribes supernatural powers to the state. So, statism is unlike creationism in that it doesn't posit skyhooks.

Moreover, as this commenter points out, in some ways libertarianism invokes an uncaused Creator much more than Sunstein-ian statism. This is because libertarians invoke "natural rights" (e.g., right to property) that can't be abridged by government (e.g., taxation). But where do these natural rights come from? The traditional American answer is obviously creationist ("they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"). But even answering "human nature" smacks of essentialism, a very creationist idea. (Darwinism recognizes, indeed requires, that species exist as variable populations without a defined essence.) In contrast, rights as social constructions (e.g., rights granted by the state, as Sunstein argues), fits much better with the idea of order arising naturally from disorder. After all, even states emerged "naturally" out of society thousands of years ago.

So take heart, liberals: you're not really creationists, after all.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Science and mice

The Onion reveals that scientists only experiment on mice because they hate the little bastards.

All kidding aside, this is a serious issue - animal rights, research ethics, etc. I hope to post more about this later.

Update, 20 May 2005: I've become aware that the above link no longer goes to the correct article. The gist of the original (satirical) article was that scientists had "admitted" that there is no scientific merit to experimentation on animals - they use mice for biomedical experiments purely out of spite and a desire to inflict pain on mice. Obviously this is satire of the portrayal of scientists by animal rights extremists.

We have no money

This is old news by now, but Congress's final budget for fiscal year '05 includes a 2% budget cut for the National Science Foundation.

Obviously, I think this is an awful move. But beyond the obvious point, we should realize that the government just doesn't have any money anymore, after tax cuts and war. Our budget deficit now outweighs all non-defense discretionary spending (i.e., excluding Social Security, Medicare, etc. - this leaves "trivial" things like science, environmental protection, transportation, education...) Congress isn't cutting NSF because it hates science - it's cutting NSF because it has no money.

Bleeding the government dry through tax cuts and budget deficits has long been the strategy of conservatives and libertarians who want to reduce government size by "starving the beast." But it was always a lie that spending cuts could just get rid of "fraud, duplication, and waste" or just eliminate useless bureaucracies. The truth is that starving the beast forces cuts in valuable programs that truly benefit American society. Government can accomplish a lot of good - for example, in getting around the problem of how to fund research that has no commercial applications but that may in the long run immensely benefit the country. "Starving the beast" only results in indiscriminate and desperate attempts to cut spending, which end up then ruining perfectly good government programs.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Sorry, but your non-existent soul just died

Slavoy Zizek in the London Review of Books has a great article about "biogenetic intervention." It is a response to arguments that modern medicine threatens to destroy human nature by improving it out of existence, most notably made by Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

Now, I have many, many problems with Fukuyama et al.'s views. And I hope to bring out more of my objections as time goes on. For now, I will just highlight an especially cogent point that Zizek made.

He writes:
It's not so much that we are losing our dignity and freedom with the advance of biogenetics but that we realise we never had them in the first place. [...] We are not being told, to quote Tom Wolfe, 'Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died': we are in effect being told that we never had a soul in the first place. If the claims of biogenetics hold, then the choice is between clinging to the illusion of dignity and accepting the reality of what we are.
That's exactly right. It is not the therapies that undermine the traditional view of human nature; it is the basic neuroscience underpinning the therapies. Therapies like genetic engineering, Prozac, and Ritalin are only the logical culmination of a revolution that began with the repudiation of vitalism in the 19th century and continues today with the repudiation of dualism. Prozac may make it very obvious that happiness is not a property of the soul, but the real enemy of the soul is the neuroscience itself. Biotechnological therapies merely demonstrate the strength of a theory about the human body and mind that, like Darwinism, has already undermined traditional accounts of the soul.


In his book, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," Daniel Dennett characterized Darwinism as a "universal acid" because of its power to chip away at so many traditional ideas. His point was that Darwinism is not just about natural selection; it is about the way that complexity can arise by itself through automated algorithms, rather than by intelligent design. By removing design and outside intent from the catalog of explanations for the way the world is, Darwin made possible a radical new worldview of naturalism, materialism, and secularism. As Richard Dawkins said, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. In this way, Darwinism is a "universal" acid because its central idea is too powerful to contain within biology alone.

So on that note, welcome to my blog. I intend to write about biology, science, politics, society, and the intersections between those areas. I have titled it "universal acid" because it seems like an apt metaphor for my general worldview - secular, naturalist, critical, modern. This will, I hope, provide a theme for a blog that touches on such diverse subjects.