Friday, February 25, 2005

The biologization of psychiatry

A friend of mine once pointed out to me the reconceptualization of mental disorders once we discovered biological tools for probing the mind. Years ago, people started doing brain imaging of schizophrenics to see how their brains were different from normal brains. It turned out there were a some pretty drastic differences. Once people could see the biological correlates of the behavioral symptoms and saw them as causes, the definition of schizophrenia began to shift from a set of behaviors to a set of biological pathologies. Now theoretically you could look at someone who acts like a schizophrenic but doesn't have the typical brain damage and say, "oh, you're not really schizophrenic, it must be something else" - an impossible diagnosis few years ago, not just practically but also theoretically.

The trend continues:
A blood test that measures the activity of genes can accurately detect mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, a small trial suggests.

RNA molecules are produced whenever a gene is active and, by measuring levels of these molecules in the blood, a team led by Ming Tsuang, at the University of California in San Diego has distinguished healthy individuals from patients with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (manic depression).

These conditions are currently diagnosed by assessing patients' behaviour. "A laboratory test would enable earlier diagnosis and more timely treatment," Tsuang says.

Tsuang's team ... measured the levels of eight specific RNA molecules, all from genes linked to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The researchers could then tell the groups apart with an accuracy of 95 to 97 per cent
If this pans out (e.g., the unique gene expression profile is not caused by the drugs that the patients were taking), we have an even further shift in the biologization of psychiatry.

(Also, the part about lab tests providing quicker diagnoses was kind of weird - behavior only takes an hour or so to diagnose - I don't see that a lab test would be any faster. Realistically, the lab test would probably just supplement the psychiatric evaluation, the way a tumor biopsy (and more recently gene expression analysis) supplements a cancer diagnosis.)

I'm also slightly uncomfortable at the idea that this could "redefine" mental disorders - that one day, you could present with all the classic signs of major depression but then get your blood test and be told that you're not "really" depressed. And any time there is something that resembles a Kuhnian paradigm shift, I get a little uncomfortable because it makes me wonder if we're really getting any closer to "the truth" in scientific research.

Then again, this isn't a huge shift. We already believed that all behaviors are caused ultimately by biological mechanisms in the brain. And even before being able to see what's going on the brain, psychologists were always debating whether some commonly accepted disorder might "really" be, at some deeper level, an amalgamation of two different disorders, or a disguised manifestation of something else. For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder has different subtypes with different causes - one which runs in families, is linked to Tourettes' syndrome, and tends to start in childhood, and one which starts in early adulthood and is linked to depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

So I suspect that most people already knew that behavioral diagnoses were an operational definition pending further investigations of the causes, and that recent advances in brain imaging and DNA microarray technology have taken advantage of a longstanding desire to see what's "really" happening.

Slavery and capitalism

Don Boudreaux misses the point. He's trying to refute the idea that modern-day capitalist wealth is the product of pre-abolition slave labor. He responds to a questioner at one of his lectures:
She anticipated my response. "Not directly. But the capital that made these innovations possible was extracted from slave labor. The wealth accumulated by slaveholders is what financed the industrialization that makes today's wealth possible." ...

Collecting my thoughts, I pointed out that slavery had been an ever-present institution throughout human history until just about 200 years ago. Why didn't slaveholders of 2,000 years ago in Europe or 500 years ago in Asia accumulate wealth that triggered economic growth comparable to ours? ...

And why, having abolished slavery decades before their Southern neighbors, were Northern U.S. states wealthier than Southern states before the Civil War?

The fact is that slavery disappeared only as industrial capitalism emerged. And it disappeared first where industrial capitalism appeared first: Great Britain. This was no coincidence. Slavery was destroyed by capitalism.
Astonishingly, he misses the point completely. No one says that slavery was sufficient to spark the industrial revolution. The argument is that slavery was necessary. That is, modern prosperity is the product of slavery insofar as the economic products of slave labor were necessary to bring it about. This is an empirical question that historians debate (for example, did the explosive takeoff of textile production in Britain depend on a steady flow of cotton from the US slave states?), yet Boudreaux never addresses it at all.

So yes, duh, capitalism and chattel slavery are antithetical. But you don't have to be a card-carrying Marxist to appreciate the idea that sometimes one system of social relations will contain the seeds that give birth to an entirely contradictory system of social relations. Just because capitalism abolished slavery doesn't mean that capitalism didn't depend on slavery to get started.

As for why other slave societies didn't get wealthy - well, that's because they didn't have the many other factors that were necessary to kick-start the industrial revolution. That doesn't mean that slavery wasn't also one of those factors.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Summers releases transcript

So, Larry Summers has released a transcript of his controversial remarks about why women are underrepresented in science and engineering. Will this change the debate at all? (I'm guessing not. I didn't see anything that was hugely different from the previous reports of what he said.)

Skeptic's Circle

Orac has the second edition of Skeptic's Circle up, including my posts about MMR vaccine and autism and the resurgence of polio. Lots of good stuff over there... go check it out!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

"Vulnerable Populations"

Yet another example of the Bush administration's shameful attempt to marginalize GLBT issues:
A federal agency's efforts to remove the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "transgender" from the program of a federally funded conference on suicide prevention have inspired scores of experts in mental health to flood the agency with angry e-mails. ...

At issue is a conference on suicide prevention to be held Feb. 28 in Portland, Ore., and organized by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center of Newton, Mass., a SAMHSA contractor [SAMHSA, the substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the Dept. of Health and Human Services]. On the program is a talk that, until recently, was titled "Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals."

Everyone seems to agree the topic is important. Studies have found that the suicide risk among people in these groups is two to three times higher than the average risk.

So it came as a surprise to Ron Bloodworth -- a former coordinator of youth suicide prevention for Oregon and one of three specialists leading the session -- when word came down from SAMHSA project manager Brenda Bruun that they should omit the four words that described, precisely, what the session was about. ...

SAMHSA prefers the term "sexual orientation" simply because it is more "inclusive," he said. And besides, he added, it was only a suggestion. Asked how strong a suggestion, Weber replied: "Well, they do need to consider their funding source."

Upon due consideration, Bloodworth renamed the session "Suicide Prevention in Vulnerable Populations." But he is not happy.
What's even worse is the way SAMHSA is trying to spin this so that they come out as the victims:
"It is incredible, the venom from these people," said Mark Weber, a spokesman for [SAMHSA].

"My boss is being called a Nazi," Weber said, referring to SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, whom President Bush appointed in 2001 to run the $3.2 billion agency.
Um, venom? Maybe people are just angry at the way prejudice and absurd squeamishness are marginalizing valuable knowledge that could actually, you know, prevent suicides. So much for the "culture of life."

Monday, February 14, 2005


Sorry if anyone tried to post a comment over the weekend... Blogger changed the comment system and my comment hack couldn't deal with it. Now fixed.

Friday, February 11, 2005

More on vaccines

In my post yesterday about MMR vaccine and autism, I forgot to mention another especially bad consequence of anti-vaccine movements: the resurgence of polio in Nigeria and now around the world.

The WHO had a goal to eradicate polio by 2005. Just a couple years ago it was down to Nigeria, Niger, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Egypt. But rumors spread in northern Nigeria that the vaccine was actually a plot by Western powers to sterilize Muslim men, and some local officials capitalized on Muslim resistance to the vaccine in the north as a way to build their own power at the expense of the central government, by blocking the World Health Organization from carrying out vaccination drives in their provinces.

After this resistance to the polio vaccine, polio has spread beyond Nigeria to neighboring countries in Africa that had previously been declared polio-free. And now, pilgrims have brought polio to Mecca during the pilgrimage season:
Polio apparently reached Mecca, Islam's holy city, just before last month's annual pilgrimage by two million Muslims, and World Health Organization officials now fear that it could be spreading around the world, carried by returning pilgrims. In crowded nations with spotty vaccination coverage, like Bangladesh and Indonesia, "there could be substantial consequences," Dr. Bruce Aylward, coordinator of the W.H.O.'s Global Polio Eradication Initiative in Geneva, said in an interview. ...

Spotting new outbreaks in far-flung countries will still take weeks, experts said. Paralysis affects only about 1 in 200 carriers of the virus, symptoms can take up to 35 days to emerge, pilgrims traveling by bus or boat can take weeks to get home, and epidemiological reporting in poor countries is often slipshod. ...

The virus lives in the intestine and spreads through fecal-oral contact, so anything from changing a diaper to sharing a food dish or swimming in contaminated water can transmit it. Polio vaccination was not required for hajj pilgrims because it was a rapidly diminishing threat until this year. Even if it was required, thousands of pilgrims arrive illegally, and many legal visitors carry forged immunization records, said the government spokesman, Nail al-Jubeir of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
It's hard to blame anyone for this because the responsibility is so diffuse; but I really just wish people would stop inventing absurd fears about vaccines. Polio could have joined smallpox on the list of eradicated diseases, but for baseless fears about safe and effective vaccines.

N.B. I do realize that resistance to polio vaccination in Nigeria occurs in a different sociocultural context than Western anti-vaccine movements, so perhaps it's not accurate to group them together as "anti-vaccine movements" (as if they were a unified intellectual phenomenon) even if they are both, literally speaking, anti-vaccine movements. The point is, though, that vaccines prevent really bad diseases, and stopping vaccination really does lead to a resurgence of those diseases.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

MMR vaccine and autism

I just got a suggestion to write about the putative link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. I'm happy to oblige, as this is a subject that connects to science, public health, public perceptions of science and medicine, all things I find very interesting! This is a fairly long post, so quick summary: the MMR-autism link is bogus; the uncertainty that the MMR-autism claim has created has led to concrete harms in terms of public health; and the widespread acceptance of the claim is typical of modern skepticism about the "scientific establishment." Feel free to skip down to whichever section interests you most.

MMR vaccine does not cause autism

In 1998, a group of doctors led by Andrew Wakefield published a paper associating the MMR vaccine, gastrointestinal inflammation, and autism in a study of 12 children. The paper stated that in these children, intestinal inflammation and "neuropsychiatric dysfunction" (diagnosed as autism in 8 of the 12) followed MMR vaccination, usually within a week. Even though they were cautious enough to state that "We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described," public fears of the MMR vaccine became widespread and MMR infant vaccination rates fell to record lows.

As it turns out, Andrew Wakefield received £55,000 (over US$100,000 at current exchange rates) from lawyers who were suing the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. He found his patients through those lawyers, whose clients were the parents of many of the children in the study. He never disclosed this conflict of interest. 10 of the 13 original authors retracted the study when they found out. What's more, the study represents a few children that Wakefield selected precisely because of a temporal coincidence between MMR and autism (i.e., which caused parents to worry and join a lawsuit. This selection bias is a fatal flaw on top of the failure to disclose a critical conflict of interest.

As for methodologically valid studies: this one found that incidence of autism is equal among MMR-vaccinated and non-MMR-vaccinated children (498 autistic children analyzed from a survey of medical records). Incidence of autism in the UK steadily increased from 1988-1993 even though MMR vaccination rates were virtually constant at 95%. Within autistic children, neither "developmental regression" (meaning worsening of symptoms) nor bowel problems increased from 1979 to 1999. (The MMR vaccine was introduced in Britain in 1988 after a measles outbreak killed 17 people.) This study, covering 5773 people, also found no evidence for a link between MMR vaccine and autism.

Anti-vaccine movements lead to concrete harms

MMR infant vaccination rates in Britain are now about 80%. Before the 1998 MMR scare, vaccination rates approached 92%. 95% coverage is required for "herd immunity" to kick in, where so many people are immune to measles, mumps, and rubella that the viruses cannot spread in the country at all.

Before the MMR vaccine was introduced in 1988, a handful of children died of measles in the UK every year, and thousands contracted it. (The death rate from measles is pretty low for healthy children.) After 1992, there has not been a single death from measles in the UK. (Worldwide, it's estimated that almost 800,000 people died from measles in 2000, out of almost 40 million people who got the disease, mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia.)

But now, the percentage of unvaccinated children is high enough that measles is on the verge of becoming an endemic disease in the UK. In technical terms, the "reproductive number" (R) of the measles virus, or the chance that each infected person will transmit the virus to another uninfected person, rose sharply from 0.47 to 0.82 from 1995-98 to 1999-2002. Above R = 1.0, the disease is endemic (e.g., common cold); below 1, it occurs in isolated outbreaks. If reduced vaccination rates continue, the proportion of unvaccinated children will grow (after all, 1998 was only 6 years ago), and R will grow as well. I quote the original Science paper:
If the current low level of MMR vaccine uptake persists in the UK population, the increasing number of unvaccinated individuals will lead to an increase in the reproductive number and possibly the re-establishment of endemic measles and accompanying mortality. In their attempt to avoid the perceived risk associated with vaccination, parents' behavior collectively results in a substantial increase in the real risk of exposure to measles.
If you can access the paper, check out the figure - it's shocking how sharp the rise in both the frequency and size of measles outbreaks is, and how sudden the rise in reproductive number is.

Meanwhile, mumps is also on the rise. For example, in the last couple months there have been several outbreaks of mumps in UK universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. College students are vulnerable because they were born in the 1980's, before the MMR vaccine was introduced in Britain. But these mumps epidemics are happening now because of the loss of herd immunity in the general population.

For another example of anti-vaccine movements harming public health, see this paper, a cross-country comparison of incidence of pertussis (whooping cough), showing that countries with active anti-vaccine movements suffered increased incidence of pertussis shortly after vaccination rates dropped. This comparison is especially striking: (the gray on the England and Wales graph represents a period in the mid-1970's after a public health academic said the pertussis vaccine was not worth the risks, and before a national reassessment declared the vaccine to be of "outstanding value.")

Why do people still believe the MMR-autism link?

Autism first becomes apparent before the age of 3 - just about the same age as childhood vaccines like MMR are given. By sheer chance, you'll always have some kids who show the first signs of autism right after they get the MMR vaccine. Parents naturally worry over their kids, especially for a condition like autism that seems to parents to rob their child's heart and soul, and the first instinct is to find an explanation. Hence the continuing tragic personal testimonials, which unfortunately have no relevance to whether MMR really does increase the risk of autism.

The problem is that these personal testimonials really tug at the heartstrings ("Won't someone please think of the children! --Helen Lovejoy). And when parents are convinced that something harmed their child, they are (naturally) really, really vocal about it.

The second problem is that childhood immunization has been so spectacularly successful that it's become self-defeating in a sense. Smallpox is eradicated. No one in the developed world gets polio anymore. Measles, mumps, rubella, diptheria, pertussis - all are now extremely rare. Formerly widespread childhood diseases are now so rare that almost no one in the developed world thinks or cares about them. Because no one is afraid of these diseases anymore, people see vaccines as having a negligent marginal benefit. (Due to herd immunity, they're right - if everyone else is vaccinated, you're safe even if you're not. But if everyone thinks that way, we're in trouble.) Next to even the tiniest perceived risk, the benefits of vaccination suddenly doesn't seem worth it. This is the availability heuristic - people think something is more likely if it's more salient in their minds. Absence of childhood diseases + media reports of an MMR scare = an availability heuristic in exactly the wrong direction.

Perceptions of science, medicine, and the establishment

I was slightly shocked by this website, especially this bit (attacking this article in JAMA):
The information on the internet, thank goodness, is not peer reviewed by doctors like these authors or we wouldn't be able to believe what is on the internet anymore than we are able to believe what is published in JAMA.
This sort of complete distrust in the scientific and medical establishment is the third reason that the MMR-autism link has gone so far in public opinion. It doesn't do any good to report that "the overwhelming majority of experts have concluded there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism," because scientific "expertise" (and science itself) has lost at least some of the patina of authority it once commanded. The anti-vaccine movement is thus intimately connected (as an intellectual and social phenomenon) to quack medicine, conspiracy theories, and even (loosely) creationism.

What to do about this? Some policy ideas do make sense - for example, the US government has a system where reporting adverse reactions to vaccines is required, and has a fund to compensate victims of the (extremely) rare complications of vaccines that stops them from suing the manufacturer. This last one stops pharmaceutical companies from halting manufacture of a critical vaccine because they're afraid of lawsuits. But these treat the symptoms of the anti-vaccine movement, not the root causes.

Meanwhile, I don't think we can turn back the clock to "just trust me, I have a white lab coat on," and a healthy distrust of "the scientific establishment" is probably a good thing, lest we end up with pseudoscientific theories like eugenics once again taking over the scientific community. In combating the excessive anti-science paranoia, I have little else to suggest other than continued efforts to explain to the public that vaccines are safe, and to do so not by appealing to expert authority but to demonstrate it transparently (e.g., publicize studies on vaccine safety). (I won't buy into the line that we need to do "more research" on vaccine safety - usually, there's plenty of research and the anti-vaccine activists just use it as a rhetorical technique, for there can never be enough research done in any field to definitively prove a negative - only to prove that the risk is lower than the very stringent limit of detection.)

Maybe the only thing that will cure us of anti-vaccine hysteria is a good old-fashioned reminder of how awful infectious diseases can be. That may be the one good thing to come out of the recent mumps outbreaks in Britain - the constant appeals to get vaccinated will be more convincing next to the actual risk of getting sick. (Availability heuristic, once again.)

There's more on this from Respectful Insolence (scroll down to the comment by "Dreaming again" for a personal testimonial of the what vaccines are good for.)

Update: I've now posted about resistance to polio vaccine in Nigeria, here

Questions for general use

Foreign Dispatches relays this amusing item on how to conceal your complete lack of understanding of a talk when the speaker says, "Any questions?"
Recently, I attended a mathematical lecture given by a guest speaker where absolutely nobody, except possibly the speaker, had the remotest idea what was going on. Normally, one can absorb at least some of the preliminary definitions and follow, say, the first blackboard full of development of the theory, but on this occasion everyone was completely lost after the first definition. After the speaker had finished over an hour later to an enthusiastic round of applause, the chairman asked for questions, and, of course, there was a deathly and highly embarrassing silence. Then and there I resolved to put together a collection of universal questions for use in such situations. Such questions must sound sensible, but they are designed to cover up the total ignorance of the questioner rather than to elicit information from the speaker. The following is the list I came up with.
  1. Can you produce a series of counterexamples to show that if any of the conditions of the main theorem are dropped or weakened, then the theorem no longer holds?

    [The speaker can almost always do so - if not you may have presented him with a stronger theorem!]

  2. Isn't the constant 4.15 in Theorem 2 suspiciously close to 3/4 pi?

    [This question can clearly be generalized for any constant k - "Isn't k suspiciously close to p/q pi (for suitable integers p and q)?"]

  3. Why not get a graduate student to perform the horrendous calculations mentioned in Theorem 1 in the case n = 4?

    [The answer is always "I've a student doing just that at the moment."]
This technique could also be applied to biology talks:
  1. Does this phenomenon have any clinical relevance?

    [The answer is always yes, since any basic scientist in biology will have some explanation of clinical relevance to please NIH study sections.]

  2. Has your hypothesis been tested in other model organisms?

    [Make sure you understood enough of the talk to get what organism the speaker studied.]

  3. Why not get a graduate student to carry out the incredibly time-consuming and tedious biochemical prepration needed to answer question X?

    [Answer is probably that an undergraduate has been assigned the task.]
This also reminds me of this list of mathematical proof techniques:
Proof by example:
The author gives only the case n = 2 and suggests that it contains most of the ideas of the general proof.

Proof by intimidation:

Proof by omission:
'The reader may easily supply the details.'
'The other 253 cases are analogous.'

Proof by reduction to the wrong problem:
' To see that infinite-dimensional colored cycle stripping is decidable, we reduce it to the halting problem.'

Proof by reference to inaccessible literature:
The author cites a simple corollary of a theorem to be found in a privately circulated memoir of the Slovenian Philological Society, 1883.


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Genetic engineering = political realignment?

TangoMan at Gene Expression argues that the debate over genetic engineering cuts across the traditional left-right divide and as genetic engineering becomes more important in the future, there will be a political realignment with libertarians and "new liberals" on the "progressive" side (ie favoring the new technology) and the religious right and "old liberals" aka "race/culture/gender warriors" on the Luddite side.

It's a twist on the idea (I first came across it from Virginia Postrel but don't know if she invented it) that the new alignment has "dynamism" (libertarians, tech-friendly liberals) v. "stasis" (social conservatives, eco-radicals). TangoMan's twist is that the left side of "stasis" opposes biotechnology not because they want to keep everything the same, but because they are ideologically opposed to the idea that any cognitive/behavioral variation among humans could be due to genetics (and therefore logically opposed to engineering people to be smarter, because that can't be possible!).

I liked Postrel's take better. First of all, biotechnology is just one aspect of "dynamist technology" - it hardly seems that it would come to prominence so far that ideological opposition to "human biodiversity" would eclipse general suspicion of technology as a reason to oppose genetic engineering. I just don't see biotechnology per se being the definitive factor.

Second, I find it bizarre when TangoMan writes that the left-Luddites "share the Marxist perspective of shaping mankind through ambitious social and political efforts and can't abide the notion that substantive differences are the result of evolutionary pressures." The defining feature of the kind of radical Jacobinite leftism that embraces "ambitious social and political efforts" is that it wants to radically reshape society into something better. (Eric Hobsbawm famously said that he would probably still have been a communist in the 1930's had he known of Stalin's gulags, "because in a period in which … mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing.")

That is, Marxists like ambitious social and political efforts only insofar as they are the means to reshape society. Since it was premised on the (false) idea that human nature is infinitely malleable by social conditions, wouldn't Marxism seize on the idea that human nature actually could be changed by social and political efforts (using new biotechnology)? Leftists fear behavioral genetics because it suggests that social and political efforts can do nothing - but once they see that it allows social and political efforts to do practically anything, wouldn't they embrace it? In other words, I don't see how the "race/class/culture warriors" will end up opposing biotechnology. What TangoMan characterizes as a "new liberal" position ("embrace genetic engineering as a vehicle to remediate many social problems") could, I think, be applied to all leftists. (I suspect that TangoMan has fought one too many comment wars over evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, etc. and become too frustrated at intransigence on the left to entertain this possibility.)

Postrel's analysis still holds, of course: she envisioned "stasis" as including not just conformity to the past, but conformity to any central planning (which radical reshaping of society would almost certainly involve).

Redistricting yet again

The New York Times is reporting that campaigns to end gerrymandering are building steam all across the country. I posted about this a while back, when Arnold first proposed an end to gerrymandering in January - first here ambivalent in the case of California, then here more enthusiastically.

A few interesting bits from the article:
Common Cause, one of the nonpartisan groups championing changes in the system, said campaigns to overhaul redistricting were under way in at least eight states, including California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
One of the concerns I had was that redistricting reform would go through in blue states (with the starry-eyed idealist Democrats in control of state government) but not in red states (with cynical scheming Republicans in power). How does that stereotype hold up in this case? On the one hand, 4 out of 8 are blue states, 3 are swing states, and only 1 is reliably red. And according to the Council of State Governments, 5 of 8 have Democrat-controlled legislatures (CA, CO, MD, MA, RI). On the other hand, 7 of 8 have Republican governors (CA, CO, FL, GA, MD, MA, RI). And Arnold is a Republican who probably helped bring this debate to light. Anyway, this probably doesn't mean much, except that Democrats aren't starry-eyed idealists after all (surprise!), but it does suggest that it may be legitimate to worry that the early stages of ending gerrymandering nationwide could disproportionately eliminate Democratic House seats (by taking place in blue states) rather than Republic House seats (in red states).

Meanwhile, as I said here, gerrymandering doesn't always benefit one party over another anyway (with the exception of DeLay's Texas).
While a political party might want to redraw lines in a way that expands its control of Congressional and state legislative districts, legislators themselves are more likely to want to draw lines that protect their own careers - and Democrats and Republicans frequently strike deals on maps that are more about protecting incumbents than expanding party control.

In California, Mr. Schwarzenegger's proposal has faced some of its fiercest opposition from Republicans, some of whom suggested that it was hardly clear that, in the long run, it would produce a gain of Republican seats in the Congressional delegation.
Sounds about right to me. Finally, an incredibly wrong-headed comment which I've come across in almost identical form before:
"I think taking it away from the legislature goes against the intent of the founders of this country," said Representative John T. Doolittle, a California Republican. "It's a very misplaced effort and I strongly oppose it. Redistricting is inherently political. All you're going to do is submerge the politics."
On the "intent of the founders" point - first of all, the power to draw districts still rests ultimately with the state legislatures. If they choose to delegate it to an independent, nonpartisan body, that is a decision that can be made (or rescinded) by ordinary legislative means. But more importantly, the founders believed above all in restricting the power of the government by the separation of powers and so on. It's pretty clear that they would be none too pleased at the way incumbents have managed to reduce many elections to a farce, cementing their own hold on office (and therefore their power). They couldn't have predicted how easy modern demographics and computers make it to draw extremely cleverly drawn districts for political advantage. Any rational legislative majority, once elected, will take steps to insulate itself from being ousted, unless political institutions are in place that stop them. Of course the founders of this country would want to stop gerrymandering. And hey - delegating redistricting powers to an independent commission would be - wait for it - separation of powers!

Of course redistricting is political. That's exactly why we have to restructure how it is handled so it's not abused. (I criticized the "redistricting is inherently political" meme here in another instance from this article via Jesse Zink.)

Friday, February 04, 2005

Straw corporations

Don Boudreaux criticizes the idea that corporations are under pressure to maximize short-term profits and thus neglect long-term gains.
[The new double-decker Airbus] won’t even begin to carry commercial passengers or freight until sometime next year. Yet already several companies have placed orders for the $250 million jet, including Virgin Airlines, UPS, and Federal Express. Federal Express, for example, won’t get its first 380 until 2008 – yet it has already placed orders for ten of them.... A company obsessed with maximizing quarterly profits would not spend millions of dollars today for a benefit that won’t begin paying off until several years down the road.
This strikes me as attacking a strawman. I don't think anyone is arguing that corporations ignore long-term profits entirely (another counterexample: industrial R&D) - rather that the drive for short-term profits produces a kind of myopia that makes corporations place less (not zero) importance on long-term profits than they would if they were perfectly rational. It's not clear how advance purchases of planes refute the latter argument in any way.

The Chinese virtual room

So I've been asked to give my account of the mind-body problem. Kind of a huge question (quick answer: dualism is wrong, the brain creates the mind, and artificial intelligence is at least theoretically possible), but I started writing something a while back about Searle's "Chinese room" argument, and this seems like a good opportunity to finish it.

Many years ago, the philosopher John Searle made a much-discussed argument about what a mind really is, based on the idea of the "Chinese room":
Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
The argument was intended to refute computer pioneer Alan Turing's conception of understanding, which was that if a computer could carry on a conversation with a human being such that no one could tell it was a computer, the computer really would understand language and should be considered intelligent. Searle replied that the person in the Chinese room does not understand Chinese, so neither would a computer following a similar set of instructions (i.e., a computer program).

I like the Virtual Mind reply, which is related to the Systems Reply. The Systems Reply is that even though the person in the Chinese room doesn't understand Chinese, the system made up of the room + the person + the rulebook does understand. This is vulnerable to Searle's counterreply, that the person could just memorize the rulebook, yet still wouldn't understand Chinese.

The key to understanding why Searle is wrong there lies in the idea of virtual machines. This is an idea familiar to most computer users: if you have a Mac but want to run Windows-only programs, you run a Windows "emulator" that creates a virtual Windows machine on top of your Mac. Even though the virtual Windows machine is contained within the Mac, it still has states that the Mac does not have. For example, the virtual Windows machine could crash, even though the Mac software underneath is still running fine. Similarly, the "virtual Chinese-speaking mind" that the English speaker implements by memorizing the rulebook can understand Chinese even though the English speaker underneath cannot understand Chinese. (Similarly, the virtual Chinese mind probably doesn't understand English, even though the English mind underneath does.)

An afterthought: a friend of mine recently pointed out that the "Chinese room" is not only wrong, it's also kind of racist and offensive: namely, the selection of Chinese as a language so alien and bizarre that it's the perfect intuition pump for seeing a lack of "understanding." Especially the characterization of Chinese characters as "squiggle squiggle" and "squoggle squoggle." It's part of the whole Orientalist thing, the Asian as the permanent, unassimilably exotic Other. (Related to the all-too-common exchange: "Where are you from?" "New York." "No, where are you really from?" as if a Chinese-American could not be a true New Yorker.) Also especially because the "Chinese room" argument is descended from the "Chinese nation" or "Chinese gym" argument (i.e., if everyone in China made phone calls in a pattern that mimicked the neural state of a human being in pain, would there be a conscious mind created that was in pain?) - which summons up images of robotic, overcrowded hordes of "Chinamen." (Yellow peril, anyone?)

(Or maybe I'm just being paranoid...)