Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Philosophers on rac

This is an eight-part series that the NYT did, of interviews with philosophers who think about race in the US.  I've still got quite a few of these to read, but I think the pieces are good food for thought.  In particular I like this quote, "The political framework of liberalism, which promises equality and universal protection for “all,” depends on people to believe those promises, so that racial discrimination, brutality, violence, dehumanization, can be written off as accidental, incidental, a problem with the application of liberal theory rather than part of the deep structure of liberalism."  It captures what I perceive to be a fundamental disconnect of experience in most white-black discussions.  Often the white interlocutor in such a conversation can't get past the fact that, if we all (white and nonwhite) just truly believed in the liberal promise of equal rights and treatment for all, then all race and class problems would vanish in a generation.  This is probably sound in a very logical, idealistic way--almost tautological, indeed.  If people stopped treating each other unjustly, then by definition injustice would seek to exist.  Meanwhile, the black interlocutor in such a situation can't get past the reality of systemic, relentless abuse and menace and harm to him and his own from the society at large, all rosy tautologies be damned.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Complaining at dinner

This is an insightful article on complaining at dinnertime.  Specifically, it posits that one factor discouraging people from cooking more at home is that their families always complain about the food that they do cook.  I was a bit shocked to hear how common this apparently is, because the "brazen discourtesy" of complaining about the food someone has prepared for you is so alien to what we encourage or allow in our family.  If our kids are ever picky, and especially if they explicitly say that something is "yucky", we swiftly and strictly reprimand them and explain that A) food is never yucky, because why would so many people be eating a particular thing (eggplant, greens, liver, whatever) if it were indeed yucky?, and B) when someone cooks for you it is a gift to appreciate, not to spurn.  In this sense I think our childrearing philosophy is closer to that a peasant immigrant family with very clear rules about acceptable behavior, as opposed to the "typical" US family with its many breakdowns in normal human interaction and common decency.  Indeed, when my four-year-old Sam does something inappropriate at table or in general, we can often see the clear mark of his presumably more typical, spoiled, bourgeois classmates, since he reproduces phrases or terms we never use in the house, often without being able to explain exactly what they mean.

The moral of the story is:  Don't complain about what someone else is cooking for you.  And don't always make someone else cook for you, for that matter.  Do your part for your family's cooking!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

National Geographic as industry shill?

Recently National Geographic did a cover article on science skepticism.  The article discussed the specious claims linking vaccines to autism, or denying evolution or the moon landing, and examined the collective psychological reasons behind such anti-scientific thinking.  Among the supposedly specious claims on the cover was "Genetically modified foods are evil".  I was struck by the fact that, while the other claims were issues of refutable fact (evolution and the moon landing either did or did not happen, vaccines either can or can't lead to autism), this claim on transgenics was a value judgment.  In other words, something that can't be confirmed or refuted, and really has little to do with scientific or anti-scientific though processes.  I was dismayed to see NG enter the fray of popular media polemics and industrial transgenic pushers by lumping in a totally different kind of statement with other patently absurd denials of fact.

This article comments on the NG treatment, though it focuses on the supposed lack of scientific consensus around the safety of transgenic foods.

I tend to agree more with this article, which argues that a pretty robust scientific consensus has formed on the immediate safety of eating genetically engineered food (at least the Roundup Ready and Bt soy and corn that comprises most of our current GE food consumption). 

At the same time, this second author hints at my major concern; that genetic engineering is profoundly and fundamentally different from the conventional breeding work that has been carried on by humans since the dawn of agriculture, and streamlined in the 20th century.  I think it is perfectly valid for society to collectively decide (and thus for individuals to advocate for such decision) that genetic engineering is a technology that we have ethical objections to, and thus that it should be avoided as much as possible except in clear cases where it can be shown to have a real societal benefit.  Glow-in-the-dark pet fish would not meet this criterion, while synthetic insulin clearly would.  Glyphosate-resistant crops might or might not. 

The bottom line is that science and technology exist in a social, economic, and political milieu, and it is perfectly valid to guide and regulate them according to this milieu.  Many potential lines in medical research are forbidden by ethical concerns--certain types of human or animal testing, stem-cell work, etc.  Some societies have decided to limit or strictly circumscribe the use and study of nuclear energy.  Certain industrial technologies that would negatively impact workers or small producers are discouraged by legislation (for instance Colombia's policy of reserving panela production to small farmers as a way of promoting rural livelihoods and preventing mass banditry and insurgency of displaced farmers).  We should all probably put strict controls on self-replicating technologies of global impact, such as nanotechnology or geoengineering

I would argue that, because of its self-replicating and inevitable potential of transgenes to spread throughout the entire gene pool for a given species, genetic engineering should be another such technology that we strictly regulate.  Just as bison conservationists try to maintain at least a reserve population of "pure" bison, that is bison that have never been crossed with domestic cattle genes, society should strive to maintain plant and animal populations free of transgenes.  There's nothing inherently bad about the cattle genes, and in fact domestic cattle are very close genetically to bison (that's why they can interbreed).  But I think most people can agree on the inherent value of purity in the natural world--full-blood bison, natural areas free from invasives, seas without man-made chemicals, food without petroleum-derived additives. 

You could argue that everything under the sun is in fact natural, and thus that such emphasis on "purity" is misplaced.  A cow is not inherently better or worse than a bison.  One plant species is not inherently superior to another.  Indeed, even man-made plastics or anything else extracted from petroleum is ultimately "natural", in that petroleum is ultimately derived from plants and animals that lived millions of years ago.  But I think that such justifications would ring hollow to most people, and reasonably so.  We all know the difference between a wild animal population and a domesticated species, or an intact ecosystem versus one degraded by invasives or synthetic chemicals. 

On this basis I would argue for keeping transgenes out of our natural and managed ecosystems, to the extent possible.  Having a Bt gene present in native Mesoamerican corn and its relatives will not kill any people, and it might not even alter the local insect populations that much.  But something will be lost, just as it would be if there were some heavy metal or organic solvent or invasive plant added by humankind to those Mesoamerican ecosystems.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Is McDonald's cheap? reprise

Here is a brief article from the Washington Post that argues that home-made food is both cheaper and tastier than fast food.  This should be pretty obvious, but I guess most of us are so kitchen-averse that it's not.  The author did a panel study with a number of her teenage child's friends to see whether they preferred their typical take-out chain's version or her version of a few classics like the egg mcmuffin or pizza. 

The author confirms (though with less information for the reader on the economic calculations, and a slightly more sanctimonious, "why don't the poor just buy a skillet and wooden spoon" tone) what I tried to show in a blog post I wrote last year precisely on the perceived cheapness of McDonald's.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Gated internet

This is an article about the dominance of "gated" communities in the internet, meaning platforms like Facebook or iPhone apps that screen and shape users' experience online.  The article shares recent study results that show that a large percentage of newer internet users in the developing world are accessing these closed platforms and not the open internet ("open" meaning the full range of sites available if you have a browser and an internet connection), and sometimes they don't even know that they are on the internet.  Why does this matter?  Because if the free exchange of ideas is limited to or dominated by platforms controlled by private companies, that exchange can never be completely free.  The type of stuff most of us do on Facebook tends to be frivolous and superficial, which is fine if you know that there is a wider online world out there where you can consult news, academic work, open-source information, business and government and NGO websites, etc.  But if you don't even know that the internet can do anything for you beyond Farmville and status updates, then your possibilities of doing worthwhile, noble, and even great things is going to be severely limited.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Obama on foreign aid

Here is a good, succinct explanation of the importance of foreign aid for US security and geopolitics, from the US president himself.