From the monthly archives:

March 2010

No true Scotsman

by John Quiggin on March 31, 2010

It was not surprising that the group recently arrested and charged with plotting to kill police officers, then those mourning at their funeral using IEDs have nowhere in the mainstream media been referred to as “terrorists” or even “terror suspects”. After all, they aren’t Muslims. But, that’s not enough for the political right. Apparently, on the “No True Scotsman” principle, it’s also unfair to refer them as “Christians“.

Minds, Magnets and Morals

by Jon Mandle on March 30, 2010

MIT researchers have shown that people’s moral judgments change when the functioning of a certain part of the brain is suppressed using magnetic stimulation. Here’s the abstract:

When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor’s mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment (experiment 1, offline stimulation) and during moral judgment (experiment 2, online stimulation). In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor’s mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms.

So basically, they have identified a part of the brain that is important in attributing mental states to others. And the moral judgments of normal adults depend on attributing mental states – intentions, specifically – to others. When they suppress the functioning of this part of the brain, moral judgments alter.

“We judge people not just for what they do, but what they’re thinking at the time of their action, what they’re intending,” [Liane] Young says. But, she says, a brief magnetic pulse was able to change that.
[The resulting judgments are] the sort of moral judgment you often see in kids who are 3 or 4 years old, Young says.

Interesting. The researchers themselves seem to be fairly careful in stating their results, but Joshua Greene – psychology professor at Harvard, Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton – swings for the fences (although note that this is mostly a reporter’s paraphrase):

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says.
[According to Greene,] The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and “break it down in mechanical terms.”

If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.

But of course the scientists are not adjusting morality with a magnet, they’re affecting people’s moral judgments. I don’t think anyone ever doubted that manipulating the brain in various ways can lead people to alter their judgments – moral and otherwise. This is obvious to anyone who has observed the results of alcohol, for example, or – much more indirectly – framing effects.

The experiment really doesn’t have much to say one way or the other about souls, meta-ethics, or the justification of any ground-level moral judgments. (Actually, it might suggest that you shouldn’t rely on your interpersonal judgments when the neural activity in your right temporoparietal junction is being disrupted by transcranial magnetic stimulation, or perhaps just when you’ve volunteered as a subject in an MIT lab.) Rather, it highlights the importance of attribution of intention in the moral judgment of normal adults, shows how localized in the brain this function is, and demonstrates how easily it can be suppressed in isolation from other functions. A plausible next step:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a brain expert at University College London, said the findings were insightful.
“The study suggests that this region – the RTPJ – is necessary for moral reasoning.
“What is interesting is that this is a region that is very late developing – into adolescence and beyond right into the 20s.
“The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”

I did a “bloggingheads with Dan Drezner”: last Friday discussing, among other things, the organizational problems of the Catholic church, which seem to me to be (a) enormous, and (b) reasonably well understood in terms of Albert Hirschman’s “famous book”: If the Catholic church were a normal organization that was even moderately responsive to external feedback, one would have expected that the Pope would have resigned by now. As Duncan Black “notes”:, the issues are quite straightforward, and have nothing to do with questions of theology. At the least he’s presided over an organization that has systematically covered up for child abusers, and it seems quite plausible that he’s been actively involved in said cover-up. The problem is that there is no very good way to force him to resign, or indeed to exert significant internal pressure on the Catholic church (which is constituted so as to be highly resistant to bottom-up pressures). In Hirschman’s terms, the Catholic church has never been particularly keen on voice (it is notable that the organization tried ruthlessly to stamp out the first stirrings of protest among lay-Catholics in the US against child abusers. Nor does it seem likely to be stirred to radical reform by the threat of exit. Clearly, the church is worried that Catholics will drop away – equally clearly, it wants to respond in ways that reinforce the current hierarchy rather than modifying it (e.g. by sending an Apostolic Visitation – a class of a senior inquisitorial team – to inspect the Irish Catholic church). Hence, it is forced to rely on a kind of loyalty which rests on specifically pre-modern ideas of authority. But loyalty is likely only to go so far, even when it’s larded with “substantial dollops of conspiracy theorizing”:

bq. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, an aide to the Pope, set the tone, telling reporters on Thursday: “This is a pretext for attacking the church. . . There is a well organised plan with a very clear aim.” This theme was pursued by Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, in an editorial accusing the media of neglecting facts with the “evident and despicable intent to get to and strike Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators, regardless of everything”. People close to the Vatican have been speaking in ominous tones of a conspiracy by masonic lodges and big business to undermine the church.

The church is faced with a very tricky set of organizational trade-offs. It seems to be opting for a bare minimum of external accountability (acknowledging that there is a problem, and apologizing for it, while refusing to undertake substantial reforms or to admit that the rot has spread to the top), combined with an appeal to the loyalty of the faithful. This plausibly shores up the position of those at the top – but at the risk of provoking mass exit (at least among churchgoers in industrialized democracies – I don’t know enough about the church in the developing world to speculate). Senior figures in the church have been muttering for years that, if it comes down to it, they would prefer a smaller and more orthodox church to one which had more members but had to accommodate greater heterodoxy. I suspect they are about to get their wish, although I imagine that they would prefer that it occurred under somewhat different circumstances.

To each according to his knees

by Kieran Healy on March 29, 2010

New this season, shoes designed to make everyone two meters tall.

Same Height Shoes

As you may know, following the passage of the Health Care Reform bill these shoes are now mandatory for all Americans.


by John Holbo on March 29, 2010

Suppose you have a two-party system.

One of these parties enjoys/enforces total party discipline, the other, not: members of the latter party side with their own, or cross the aisle, on individual issues/votes, as conscience or self-interest dictate. Let’s call the completely disciplined party the Partisan Party. The completely undisciplined, the Bipartisan Party (to reflect its principled commitment to always keeping the door open to the higher value of bipartisanship!)

Over time, both parties will push positive proposals/ legislation. Quite obviously, the Bipartisan Party will be at a tactical disadvantage, due to its lax discipline. Less obviously, it will have an ongoing optics problem. All the proposals of the Partisan Party will be bipartisan. That is, a few members of the other party will, predictably, peel off and cross the aisle to stands with the Partisans. None of the proposals of the Bipartisan Party, on the other hand, will ever be bipartisan. No Partisan will ever support a Bipartisan measure. In fact, all proposals of the Bipartisan party will face bipartisan opposition – as a few Bipartisans trudge across the aisle (there are always a few!) to stand with the Partisans. Result: the Partisan party, thanks to its unremitting opposition to bipartisanship, will be able to present itself as the party of bipartisanship, and be able to critique the Bipartisan Party, with considerable force and conviction, as the hypocritically hyperpartisan party of pure partisanship.

Conclusion: two measures of partisanship/bipartisanship that you might think make good heuristic sense – 1) being able to get bipartisan support for your proposals; 2) being opposed to those who can’t get any bipartisan support for their proposals – in fact aren’t good heuristics.

(Obviously it’s misleading to hint that the Democrats have no party discipline whatsoever, but the point still stands if modulated to match actually existing actuality.)

Some Pushback On The Frum Front

by John Holbo on March 26, 2010

Apparently David Frum got fired from AEI. Bruce Bartlett sees it as a further sign of the closing of the conservative mind. But maybe there are two sides to the story. Or maybe just one side – a totally different side. At any rate, we shouldn’t just drink the kool-aid. Over at the Corner, Daniel Foster reveals that, apparently, Frum was offered a chance to keep his job at no pay, and declined. So I guess he wasn’t fired for what he wrote! (Why don’t more employers offer employees this sort of option, rather than firing them?) Nothing to see here. Next post up the page: K-Lo suggests Israel should change it’s name to ‘Iran’. “No pressure, no impolite diplomatic language, no pushing it to give up land.” Yes, it’s hard to see the downside, isn’t it? It’s not as though Israel receives U.S. aid – material or otherwise – in any way, shape or form that Iran currently does not. Thank goodness the conservative mind is still open and thinking things through in an altogether sensible sort of way.

What’s the opposite of ad hominem?

by John Holbo on March 25, 2010

No, I don’t mean: arguing fair. I think it should be ab homine. A moving (irrationally) away from the man. It’s a fallacy.

Here’s the context. Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait have a diavlog in the course of which Chait takes the scrupulous high-road position that, when it comes to charges of racism, you really have to be slow to accuse. He rolls out the standard fair-play-in-debate considerations: if the person is saying something wrong, but not explicitly racist, you can just point out the wrongness, without speculating, additionally, that they said the wrong thing out of racism. There is, he implies, no real loss in not being able to delve into dark motive.

But here’s the problem with that. In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading. It inevitably generates the strong impression that this bad motive – out of the whole colorful range of diseases and infirmities of the mind and spirit – is an especially unlikely motive. Which, in the sorts of cases Chait and Yglesias happened to be discussing, is not true. So, contra Chait, an inconsistent semi-norm against ad hominem arguments encourages an ab homine error that may be less angry (that’s not nothing) but is significantly more confused that what excessive – but even-handedly excessive! – hermeneutics of suspicion would produce.

Yglesias makes this point, mostly by saying that you have to ‘tell narratives’, and the narratives have to attribute motives. But I think ab homine is snappier.

UPDATE: On reflection, ab homuncule might be still better. The aversion of the gaze from one possibly semi-autonomous, agent-like module of the overall man, conjoined with cheerful willingness to shed light on every other part of the man, motive-wise.


by Kieran Healy on March 25, 2010

Congratulations Matt McIrvin, you are the author of Crooked Timber’s Two Hundred and Fifty Thousandth Comment! And I’m not even counting all the spam we deleted. I believe the term of art these days is that these quarter of a million comments — do you mind if I say that again? These quarter of a million comments — are “curated”. Gently managed. Lovingly tended. Hosed down twice a day. It’s kind of like you are all in a big museum, or possibly zoo. Of the future. We’ve come a long way from the very beginning. Eventually there will be a grad student and a thesis, I am sure. In the meantime, for his good fortune Matt wins, em, well anyway we thank you sincerely for your many contributions. And of course we thank you, as well. And you. And especially you. But certainly not you, you troll. You are banned.

Oiks and toffs

by Chris Bertram on March 24, 2010

If you are one of the people who hasn’t yet read “Ian Jack’s piece”: on the photo that symbolizes the British class system then you should. (h/t “The Online Photographer”: .)

Iraq in the movies

by Chris Bertram on March 24, 2010

I’ve seen The Hurt Locker and Green Zone within a few days of one another. Purely as a piece of cinema, The Hurt Locker is probably the better film, but politically it is nowhere, and indeed it suffers from the same syndrome as many Hollywood Vietnam pictures – they are all about Americans and how they feel, and the poor natives appear as mere ciphers. Not so Green Zone, where the Iraqis appear as persons in their own right, with interests, feelings, grudges, agendas. Green Zone is, in some ways, a pretty crude film, and there’s a striking disconnect between the late-Bourneish style and the anti-war substance. Still, if that gets a broader audience remembering and thinking about what happened, and what went wrong, and why, that’s no bad thing. In the credits at the end, I was surprised to see “Based on _Imperial Life in the Emerald City_ by Rajiv Chandrasekaran”. I’m not sure what the necessary and sufficient conditions for the “based on” relation are, but this is not that distant from saying that the latest Bond movie is “based on” the official history of MI5 (although to be fair, the account of the pathologies of the CPA is recognizably, though distortedly from _Emerald City_). One thing that both book and movie reminded me of is this: that the cheerleaders for the war (be they neocon or “decent left”) didn’t just applaud the invasion. The awfulness of Saddam was such that being pro-war in 2003 was wrong but perhaps forgiveable and — as some of the barely repentant cheerleaders keep reminding us — was sometimes motivated by moral motives. They also applauded or excused the really bad post-invasion fuck-ups: the failure to control looting, deBaathification, the dissolution of the Iraqi army, etc. So thanks to Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon for keeping a light shining on that.

I think I know what you mean

by Kieran Healy on March 24, 2010

Seen on campus this morning:

Ramesh Ponnuru:

Understandably, Cornyn doesn’t want to touch the most popular element of Obamacare, the ban on discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. But unless it’s modified substantially, the individual mandate has to stay too — and therefore so do the subsidies and the minimum-benefits regs. Without perhaps realizing it, Cornyn has come out for tinkering at the edges of Obamacare.

This is the problem the Dems faced (well, one of them), just in reverse: namely, what you want is uncontroversial and small-seeming. But in order to ask for that one thing, you have to ask for all this other heavy-duty stuff. Now, in reverse, the Reps can’t object to the heavy-duty stuff without getting pinned to the charge that they want to do really gratuitously, pettily awful stuff.

I predict that Cornyn is ahead of the curve. Soon it will have been the common wisdom all along. Basically for the reasons Ponnuru outlines. There will never be a moment when any large number of Republicans announce they’ve changed their minds, of course. (In 1994 and even until 2006 the individual mandate was moderate – then in 2009 and especially in early 2010 it was radical from the get-go – then in late 2010 it continued on, moderate as ever.)

I hereby lay my bet as to when the flip will take place: immediately after 2010 primary season. During the primaries, Republicans will be strongly and vocally in favor of total repeal, a unified front against being primaried from the right. Then, after the primaries, all that will fade, like a dream upon waking. Blogs and the conservative commentariat will be slightly slower but will catch up before the 2010 general. By 2012 the apocalyptic rhetoric will have faded so far from memory that Mitt Romney will be able to run as a Republican, without having to run from himself. Of course someone will point this out, but it won’t matter that much. Heat of the moment stuff. Ancient history.

Of course I could be wrong. What do you think?

Crisis is the normal state

by Daniel on March 23, 2010

I find myself disagreeing with Paul Krugman, though not about anything important.

” I’m reading Gary Gorton’s Slapped by the Invisible Hand, which tells us that there were bank panics — systemic crises — in 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1896, 1907, and 1914.

On the other hand, there were no systemic crises from 1934 to 2007.

The problem, as Gorton makes clear, is that the Quiet Period reflected a combination of deposit insurance and strong regulation — undermined by the rise of shadow banking.

I don’t think this is right. If we’re going to include things like the First Baring Crisis and the Panic of 1893 (which were big news at the time, but by no means earth-shattering), then I can give you a list. Even using a selective criterion of only crises with significant US involvement (ruling out the Nordic, French, Spanish and Japanese banking crises), we have the following list …

2007 – current crisis
2002 – Enron/Worldcom/Global Crossing crises
2000 – dot com bust
1998 – Asia/Russia/LTCM crisis
1994 – Tequila crisis
1991 – commercial real estate crisis
1987 – Black Wednesday
1985 – Savings & Loans crisis
1982 – LDC debt crisis
1975 – New York City bankruptcy
1971 – Collapse of Bretton Woods
1970 – Penn Central commercial paper crisis

As far as I can see, things were pretty stable between 1934 and 1970 (give or take the odd war), but that in the era of floating exchange rates it’s been very unusual to go seven years without a crisis and the modal gap looks closer to three years than four.

Why Does Italian Academia Suck?

by Henry on March 23, 2010

Tyler Cowen “tosses in an aside about Italy”: in a post on changes in economics department rankings.

bq. The big change in the former has been the rise of economics departments around the world in virtually all developed countries (though not Italy). It’s now quite easy to encounter a place you have heard of — yet never really thought of — and find they have a bunch of young faculty with articles in tier one journals.

Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi “make the argument”: (“previewed”: in this post last year) that people in Italian academia (and in Italy more generally) may not have much incentive to deviate from an equilibrium in which genial incompetence is rewarded with genial incompetence. Roughly speaking – if everyone promises high quality goods or services to each other, but everyone actually delivers low quality services to each other, this may work out to everyone’s advantage because no-body expects too much of anyone else. They provide a fictional example: [click to continue…]

More CTers in the news

by Henry on March 23, 2010

In which it is revealed that John Q. has been hiding his light under a bushel – I hadn’t realized that he had recently been described in an “editorial”: by the _Australian_ as a green activist with a totalitarian mindset. I obviously need to keep up a little better with his “personal blog”: