Political theory and molecular biology

I just got an invitation to a Brisbane conference on the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke (Interested readers can email j.jones@griffith.edu.au, there are also events at Yale and Oxford).

I was first introduced to Locke through his demolition of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia in which the divine right of kings is derived from the supposed natural rights of fathers, beginning with Adam. Locke has great fun with this, pointing out that if Filmer is right, there is a single rightful monarch for the entire planet, namely the man most directly descended from Adam under the rules of primogeniture – by implication, all existing monarchs (except perhaps one) are usurpers who can justly be overthrown.

I was very disappointed then, to discover that Locke’s own analysis of property rights was no better than Filmer’s theory of divine right; in fact worse. Rights to property are supposed to be obtained by the first productive user and then passed on by inheritance and voluntary transfer. So, if we could locate the Garden of Eden, where Adam delved, his lineal descendent, if not king of the world, would be the rightful owner of Eden. To determine a rightful allocation of property, we would need to repeat the same exercise for every hectare on the planet. The Domesday Book wouldn’t even get you started on this task.

That was thirty years ago or so, and science has advanced a lot since then, to the point where we can award victory to (a modified version of) Filmer. By careful analysis of DNA, we can now postulate a mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam from whom we are all descended (of course, there’s no reason to suppose the two were contemporaneous). Suppose, following the practice of various hereditary monarchies, we identify the rightful heir of Y-chromosomal Adam as the man with the smallest number of accumulated mutations (defects from the point of view of a strongly hereditary principle). In principle, this man could be identified uniquely. In practice, I imagine it would be possible to identify the ethnic group to which this man belongs, probably somewhere in Africa, and crown some prominent member of that group. A feminist version, with descent on matriarchal lines, is equally reasonable and, on the current state of scientific knowledge, a litte more practical.

Of course, for those of us who don’t buy patriarchal/matriarchal arguments in the first place, this isn’t at all compelling. But I don’t find Locke’s theory of property any more compelling and, unlike Filmer, his theory is no closer to implementability than it was 300 years ago.
[Posted with ecto]

Quotations

Ozplogistan has been buzzing over an article written by perennial target of the right, Phillip Adams, accusing Bush of lying in the leadup to the war on Iraq.. Professor Bunyip leads off, accusing Adams of plagiarism and fraud, and is followed up by Ken Parish (who echoes Bunyip in his initial post, but backs off a bit in the comments thread), Bargarz and Tim Blair.

The key fact, which seems pretty clear, is that Adams has taken a series of quotes, attributed to Bush and other administrative figures, from a piece in the New York Review of Books by Thomas Powers , all of which show the Administration claiming that Saddam had large stocks of WMDs. The plagiarism count doesn’t stand up, since Adams refers to Powers, though in my view the article fails the Google test, and was a fairly lazy piece of work.

The real problem, though, is that the quotation of Bush’s State of the Union speech is inaccurate, making it appear that Bush positively asserted the presence of

500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 30,000 prohibited bombs and warheads

In fact, Bush listed these amounts as estimates (quite wrong estimates as it’s turned out) of Saddam’s stocks in 1999, and then said that Saddam hadn’t accounted for them. Bush’s speech wasn’t paraphrased by Powers as asserting Saddam might have these weapons, and Adams then converted this back into a direct quote, omitting the “might”.

My guess is that this is sloppiness rather than deliberate distortion – it’s easy to find better, and more obviously false, quotes from Bush and the Administration. Still it is, or ought to be, a basic rule of journalism that you verify quotes rather than reproducing them from hostile sources, particularly when the original is as easily accessible as the State of the Union speech. Adams has failed to obey this rule and ought to publish a correction and apology – if he doesn’t the inference of deliberate distortion could fairly be drawn.

What’s interesting about this is that it is an almost direct parallel of the infamous Schneider quote, discussed at length on this blog, except with sides reversed. In this quote, widely circulated around the blogosphere despite repeated refutation, Schneider is made out to advocate scientific fraud in the interests of the environment by such quote-doctoring techniques as omission of sentences, running together of separate sentences and, in a version propagated by the late Julian Simon, outright fabrication.

Many of those who’ve complained about Adams have, in the past, taken a fairly relaxed view of the Schneider quote, and correspondingly derisive about my prissy concerns for accuracy in quotation. Quite a few still seem to see the two as differing in crucial ways. On the other hand, respondents from a left perspective have been inclined to suggest that Adams didn’t really change the meaning of Bush’s statements. (The comments thread to the Ken Parish post is a good place to observe the debate.)

In my view, the differences are entirely in the eye of the beholder. In both cases, people who are hostile to the person being quoted see the omitted sentences as mere weasel words, while those being quoted (and their supporters) see them as crucial. The same is true of fabricated additions such as those used by Julian Simon in quoting Schneider (one of many examples from both sides) – for the critics, it’s only a matter of inserting a sentence to show what the speaker “really meant”.

So we have a choice. Either we can make up whatever quotes we like and put them in the mouths of our opponents, provided we judge that the manufactured quote is an accurate reflection of the speaker’s real meaning, or we can stick to the rules of exact quotation*. Which is it to be?

* That is, quote the entire relevant statement by the person being quoted with omissions of irrelevant material denoted by ellipses. If the person being quoted objects to the omissions, or would be likely to do so, then they are not irrelevant, regardless of what the person doing the quoting thinks.

FTA vs PBS

This nicely spun piece from the Age makes it pretty clear that the proposed FTA with the US will mean a lot more money for Big Pharma coming out of the pockets of Australian taxpayers and consumers.

Medicines Australia chief executive, Kieran Schneemann, said the deal and changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) would act as an incentive for American firms to invest in Australia.

and suggested as much as $1 billion might be spent on research here.

I think we all know what “an incentive” means in this context. If Schneeman’s estimate of a response on the scale of $1 billion is remotely plausible, the incentive must be a really big one. It would be more cost effective to give a bit more money to the National Health and Medical Research Council

Monday Message Board

It’s time for the Monday Message Board, where you get to post your comments (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). My suggested discussion starter – Is the Latham resurgence too good to last (or, if you prefer, a nightmare that will soon pass).

Milloy again

Tim Lambert has a devastating critique of Steve Milloy, operator of the “junkscience.com” site attached to the Cato Institute, and model for many of the similar party-line science sites that have proliferated in the blogosphere. Most of these promote some combination of

  • global warming contrarianism
  • ozone layer contrariarianism
  • shilling for the tobacco industry, and
  • boosting creationism

but Milloy covers all bases. I’ve covered Milloy at length before and pointed out most of these things with links. However, in the light of this 1999 story linked by Tim, I’m disinclined to engage in the kind of contact with slime implied by a new link, so if you want to check him out you can type the URL yourself.

As with John Lott and the American Enterprise Institute, the link between Cato and Milloy raises the question of how an institution that has some pretensions to respectability and employs some decent people can justify supporting such unethical and intellectually bankrupt charlatans.

What I'm reading, and more

Off Course: From Public Place to Marketplace at Melbourne University by John Cain and John Hewett, which I was alerted to by a couple of critical reviews from people close to recently-departed VC Alan Gilbert, the book’s main target. Andrew Norton’s was the better of the two, but still consisted largely of quibbles. As Norton says, the book doesn’t contain much that is new, but it certainly provides convincing evidence for several of the main propositions put up by critics of the university reforms of the past fifteen years or so.

First, the idea of ‘the enterprising university’ has been a failure. All of Gilbert’s big commercial visions – Melbourne University Private, the University Square development, Universitas 21 and so on – have come to nothing, or almost nothing, after chewing up tens of millions of dollars of public money. The same is true of the grandiose plans for international expansion that led to Monash claiming to be the world’s first “global university” and to the establishment of money-losing overseas offshoots by many others. As far as I can tell, the only successes have been those that have operated as low-cost feeders for fee-paying students to the parent campus.

Second, the managerialist thrust of the last fifteen years, while inevitable in some respects, has failed to deliver the goods. A really striking instance of this is the gradual re-emergence of discipline-based departments and the increasing reliance on (largely unpaid and sometimes unofficial) department heads to run the actual business of the university, while a proliferation of deans, deputy vice-chancellors and so on pass paper between themselves and the government

Third, increased exposure to market forces has not produced diversity among universities, a renaissance of liberal arts, or freedom from centralised government control. In fact, we have seen a proliferation of low-cost, high margin business courses, and increased homogeneity in organisation, teaching style, research orientation and almost everything else. Meanwhile, a shrinking public contribution is still sufficiently critical to be levered into absolute control that can be exercised at any level the Minister chooses (witness the recent fuss over ‘capuccino courses’, most of which were created in response to the very market forces that are still a central theme of policy).

The good news, in my view, is that, in important respects, the worst is over. Its generally recognised that universities are a lot worse off now than when the reforms began, and some of the worst cuts have been restored. Moreover, while the managerial class has not improved much in competence, it has gained in humility. Of course, given the record of the past decade or so, university managers have a lot to be humble about.

I also went to see Dogville, about a fugitive woman (Our Nic!) taken in by a town which then turns on her. I went despite bad reviews, which turned out to be justified. Adding to my difficulties with the film was a narrator who sounded identical to the one in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy

Lent

With Christmas, post-Christmas sales and Valentine’s Day all behind us, it’s time for the next season in the annual consumption calendar, so I wasn’t surprised to see Easter Eggs on sale when I went grocery-shopping today. I do however, have a couple of questions for historically-minded readers.

First, while I know that it’s traditional to have a day of excess at Mardi Gras, followed by forty days of feasting in Lent, and then another blowout at Easter, and that this festival of consumption follows an earlier Christian tradition, I have the feeling that there has been a subtle change somewhere along the line – can anyone tell me what it is?

Second, where does the name Lent come from? Is this considered a particularly auspicious time for adding to your consumer debt, or is that just a piece of folk etymology?