Two Separate Questions

So what are we to make of the divisions that emerged in the course of Arizona’s consideration of its version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the responses it inspired? I think it comes down to a matter of priorities, and to the broad-based willingness to let personal inclinations about what society ought to look like overwhelm a reasonable understanding of the ramifications of giving government the power to shape that society.

via The Federalist

Two question:

  1. “What society should look like” – that is, we should or shouldn’t limit Christian power, and/or we should or shouldn’t limit gay rights, or whatever.
    (In other words, the ends that may or may not justify the means.)
  2. Question #2: Should government have the power to shape society into (1)?

Are people even thinking at all about how it might change our world to change our structure of governance – changing the right to be free from governmental coercion into the right to use government to coerce the other guy?

“White House imposes secrecy rules on first lady’s lavish, celebrity-filled birthday party”

According to reports in People, the Chicago Tribune, TMZ, US Magazine, and elsewhere, among of the attendees were, in no particular order: Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Janelle Monae, Mary J. Blige, Angela Bassett, Courtney Vance, Herbie Hancock, Samuel L. Jackson, Grant Hill, Alonzo Mourning, Ledisi, Emmett Smith, Star Jones, Al Roker, Steve Harvey, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Michael Jordan, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Gayle King, Ahmad Rashad, Kal Penn, and Ashley Judd. Among the current and former government officials attending were Joe Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Susan Rice, Eric Holder, and Kathleen Sebelius.


“So great was the secrecy surrounding the party,” the Tribune reported, “that guests were handed an invitation — on their way out, the sources said.”


Why the secrecy, especially for an event involving so many well-known people? Maybe the Obamas just wanted a little privacy for an important occasion in the first lady’s life, although having 500 guests, including some of the most famous people on the planet, is perhaps not the best way to achieve that goal. Or maybe, since the president has announced he is devoting the rest of his time in office to an “inequality agenda,” the White House felt photos of a champagne-soaked, star-studded party would be somewhat off-message. But the Obamas are well-off, accomplished people. They can have a big party if they want (and if they pay for it). Why hide it?


“Europe is slowly strangling the life out of national democracy”

Mair argues that political elites have turned Europe into “a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives”.

This European political directorate has taken decision-making away from national parliaments. On virtually everything that matters, from the economy to immigration, decisions are made elsewhere. Professor Mair argues that many politicians encouraged this tendency because they wanted to “divest themselves of responsibility for potentially unpopular policy decisions and so cushion themselves against possible voter discontent”. This means that decisions which viscerally affect the lives of voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians responsible to their voters.

via Telegraph

The EU is not the only place with a political atmosphere characterized by an “unhealthy similarity between supposedly rival parties; the corruption and graft that has become endemic in modern politics; the emergence of a political elite filled with scorn and hostility towards ordinary voters….

“Your Phone Number Is Going To Get A Reputation Score”

Now Telesign wants to leverage the data — and billions of phone numbers — it sees deals with daily to provide a new service: a PhoneID Score, a reputation-based score for every number in the world that looks at the metadata Telesign has on those numbers to weed out the burner phones from the high-quality ones. Yes, there’s yet another company out there with an inscrutable system making decisions about you that will effect the kinds of services you’re offered.

via  Forbes.

Because privacy is apparently only for Silicon Valley CEOs….and that’s the way Americans want it?

I asked the company to score me and a few of my colleagues to get a sense of how this will work. The range is 0 to 1000, with 0 being a gold iPhone and 1000 being a burner phone that’s only used to order drugs and kill people. Luckily, none of us got that latter score. My office landline scored a 100. Two of us got 10s for our mobiles, and two others got a 200. I also got to see where all of the numbers had been registered and who provided their service.

These are all high quality scores, says Jillings, who explained that anything below 200 will tell a company to roll out the red carpet for you. He didn’t seem to think the differences in the scores mattered and could not explain what might account for the 10 – 200 range, though one of those 200-scored accounts is less than a year old. Between 400 and 600 would lead to a fuller review, and anything over 600 would be flagged as a potentially fraudulent or abusive account, and likely blocked from signing up for that service.

So now your social equivalent-of-credit-score will be tied to your phone number, and people can decide whether to do business with you based on whether you’re worth it.


How unfortunate that our nation is populated by people who will be too busy worrying about whether their score is good enough to actually be concerned with the basic quality-of-life issues they’ll be handing over.

Because today’s public school education does not cover what feudalism is, or how it starts.

“Hate is a Cheney (-haters) family value”

I already believe that Dick Cheney is among the luckiest men to ever walk the face of the planet. He will never have to pay, in real terms, for the blood of untold thousands he has on his hands. He will live out his days not just a free man but also with another human being\’s heart beating relentlessly in his barrel chest.

Almost every family contains a divide of some sort….For the Cheney family, it’s that Liz Cheney doesn’t think her sister, Mary, who is married to another woman, should be equal under the law. “I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage,” Liz said on Fox News Sunday.


I have added two new categories to my tags: “physician, heal thyself” and “identity politics based double standards“. If it’s not clear why, first go read the article: this is an author so steeped in pure hate that she simply can’t stand that Dick Cheney is allowed to be alive. It is pure scapegoat mode, terrifying in its irrationality.

She hates him for having had a heart transplant? Is that what makes him a hater, that he shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from medical technology for some reason?

She hates him because he hasn’t been convicted of any crime, and thus will live out his life as a “free man”?

The suggestion seems to be that it’s just self-evident why it’s okay to hate him (even in an article about how wrong it is to hate): he’s Dick Cheney! Duh!

Did I just make an argument in favor of the Guardian’s position? I didn’t mean to.  It isn’t really self-evident. It’s not self-evident at all! Hello? How does one break past such a wall of cognitive dissonance? How does one explain the concept of reciprocity in a world where it’s just self-evident that some pigs are more equal than others?

Here is why those two tags:

Physician, heal thyself: the only “hating” I see going on here is the author.

Consider: it may or may not be true that members of the Cheney family “hate” each other, but holding a political belief that your sister does not like is not the same as hate, and it’s hateful – if I may use that word – to attribute false motives to people, to say that because that because they believe something you hate, that therefore they must be motivated by hatred just because you are. That’s called “projection” in modern psychological parlance – in the old days, we just called it “bearing false witness”.
Or, in other words, telling dirty lies about someone.

Identity politics-based double standards:  If we still believed in justice – real justice, the idea that everyone should live by the same rules and be held to the same standards – then it would be as morally wrong for this author to be as openly, unabashedly hate-based as she is, all “justified” by the claim that the Cheneys somehow “deserve” it because they are themselves “hateful”.

Either it’s wrong to be hateful or it’s not.

Justice is the antithesis of identity politics. Justice is “blind” – meaning it applies regardless of who you are, of what your identity is. That is quite literally the opposite of what this author relies on, which is literally the claim that she can be hateful to the Cheneys and this is acceptable – even noble – because she’s got the right identity, the right values.  (Don’t ask “according to whom?”). She gets rights that they don’t get. She gets to do things that they would be horrible, horrible people for doing – in fact, they ARE horrible, horrible people for doing it, even though they’re not. They’re not even the ones being hateful, but they’re the ones found guilty – because identity politics.And what does it mean to be hateful? Again, identity politics provides us with a helpful double standard: are you “us” or are you “them”? If you’re “us”, then you can be as hateful as you want and it’s not hateful, it’s noble. It’s making the world better. You’re doing a good deed by unloading your venom on the people you choose as scapegoats. But if you’re “them”, then simply being who you are is hateful. And of course having beliefs that violate the tenets of “diversity” and “tolerance” and “coexist” mean that you are bad and not worthy of tolerance or the right to coexist. Oprah apparently literally said you should die if you’re that sort of person, because isn’t that what coexist is all about?

“just like creationists” and other name-calling

When our new book, Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, came out at TAM last July, Daniel and I were both wondering what kind of response we would get from the cryptozoology community. Daniel is always more optimistic about people than I am. He felt that at least some cryptozoologists attempt to follow the scientific method and want to be taken seriously as scientists, and they would give the book a fair hearing despite the mountains of evidence we compiled that demolishes their ideas. My expectation was a bit different. My hide is scarred by 40 years of battling creationists, and I’ve seen how facts and evidence and logic don’t matter to people when a skeptic challenges a belief that they hold deeply and which gives them meaning in their lives.

via Skepticblog.

This drives me nuts: real science doesn’t need to resort to name-calling.

Sometimes creationists get on my nerves, with their attempts to make the evidence fit their narrative – and I don’t care at all about cryptozoology – but I am far more concerned about what is IMO a much greater threat to science. I am watching the growing tendency of scientists to merge their beliefs with articles of faith and dogma, and I think it’s not a coincidence that such “scientists” need to call their ideological rivals ugly names.

Why do scientists feel the need to shout down everyone who does not agree with them? Why do they not lay out their evidence and defend it? The answer: because if they did that, it would be only three or four “moves” until we got to the heart of the matter: their answers are only “true” if their assumptions are – and the disputed realms are those which involve inherently unprovable assumptions.

“Google Patented the ‘Heart’ Gesture and Other Fun Hand Moves”

Quick futuro-philosophical question: Will we reach a point where everything is patented?

…what kinds of gestures can even be patented?

via Motherboard.

Some things clearly belong to the public domain. Gestures, colors, human body material, folk remedies, and phrases like “put first things first” do not belong to anyone, and nobody should be able to claim legal ownership of them.

But the question of ownership is touchier than it seems. Consider the following:

The family of Henrietta Lacks is finally getting a say in how researchers can use her cells, six decades after her fatal cervical tumour spawned the HeLa cell line. There is little doubt that the controversy over the case contributed to the decision by the US National Institutes of Health to consult her relatives about the future use of her genome information (see pages 132 and 141). But people who donate samples to biomedical research today are unlikely to find out what happens to their material.

Standards of informed consent have improved since scientists established HeLa without approval from Lacks or her family. But research participants still have little control over how their tissues and data are used, and often never hear from the researchers again.

Increasingly, volunteers are asked to give ‘broad consent’ for samples and data to be used in studies that may not have been conceived at the time of donation. In exchange, donors should have the option to learn how their specimens are being used — and even to withdraw consent.

This already happens informally in some studies, but digital technologies could allow researchers to keep patients updated. Imagine the thrill of giving a sample, logging on to a secure website years later and discovering that your specimen helped to develop a skin-cancer treatment.

This continued contact with donors raises issues — not least how to ensure their anonymity. But researchers must also be honest and tell donors that privacy cannot be guaranteed, particularly for highly identifiable genomic information. Some volunteers and their families are rightly proud that they are directly contributing to research. Funders and researchers should give more of them the chance to stay involved.

via Nature

Now consider the arguments in the “comments” section:

john werneken • 2013-08-08 04:06 AM

Why were the family concerns considered worth blocking research over? I find it unbelievable that an individual would be thought to “own” their dna.

S J • 2013-08-21 08:04 PM

John, you are not actually believing what you wrote, right? Your comment must be only meant to stir controversy (or advance the debate, depending on the viewpoint). Well, if you mean owning their DNA as in owning the actual physical DNA molecules: They were synthesized by their body and are an integral part of it. I do believe they do own those. I am actually rather glad that I live in a country where my body parts belong to me and cannot be harvested without my approval even if this can be viewed as “blocking the research” by some. You are however most likely talking about the information content of one’s DNA. Since it does contain family-related private medical information and we are talking about publishing it, I believe the individuals do own the rights to that information and should have the right to chose what can be done with it. You would not think it is acceptable for your neighbor to publish online pictures of your family, despite: 1. being only a bunch of 1’s and 0’s on the hard drive of a server and not the actual individuals. 2. not being obviously offensive. 3. being captured using the light that the individuals choose to reflect in their everyday life without involving physical contact. 4. the fact it will possibly not have any consequences for the actual individuals in the photographs. 5. the fact that your neighbor thinks it is OK. Many people are just fine with posting their pictures online, but it remains a personal decision. The only difference with posting DNA data is that *you* personally can easily open a digital photograph but you would struggle reading genetic data. But the discussion is not only about your skills. I believe it is up to the Lacks family to decide if they are willing to give up a small portion of privacy for a greater good. They should of course take into account how tremendously useful this cell line has been in improving people’s lives. But ultimately, the choice to make this sacrifice should come down to them. We can only ask for that favor.

Byard Pidgeon • 2013-08-14 04:42 AM

If an individual cannot “own” their DNA, then anyone using that DNA to manufacture something should not “own” that product, either.

Robert Gertz • 2013-08-13 08:14 PM

What a disturbing comment. I’ve worked with HeLa cells and they’ve been incredibly useful but the notion that family concerns in such cases should be brushed aside?…Highly unethical to my thinking. And “unbelievable that an individual would be thought to ‘own’ their dna”? Well, if Ventor can try to patent sequences, surely the individual should be considered as having some say and stake. As for other comments hinting that the family’s concerns are either trivial or interested, financially…Every researcher can be accused of wishing to put his or her research first, in part for grand and noble reasons, but in part for career success and in the case of patenting sequences, even financial gain. I see no loss to Science in pausing to consider the rights and wishes of individuals and families in these matters. A balance of course is required but to suggest the families and individuals are not driven by motives as noble and fair as the researchers is unfair and unethical. Researchers are human…They seek fame, success, even yes, financial gain. A balance between our desires and those of the human (and animal) subjects employed in our research is vital.

via Deal done over HeLa cell line : Nature News & Comment.

The DNA in question is viewed as very useful. Do we owe our bodies to the larger community? It’s a serious question:

But the descendants of Henrietta Lacks — whose cervical tumour gave rise to HeLa cells — saw otherwise, as did other scientists and bioethicists. They have criticized the decision to publish the sequence, noting that the HeLa cell line was established without Lacks’s consent (around the time she died in 1951) and that aspects of what Steinmetz and his team have published may disclose genetic traits borne by surviving family members….

…The donors of most other human cell lines are anonymous. But in this case, “hundreds of thousands — millions of people — know that HeLa is derived from cells from Henrietta Lacks”, Clayton says. “I think that really made it at best imprudent to publish the genome of those cells on the web without talking with anybody first.”

…The HeLa controversy holds some general lessons as well, researchers say. Many cell lines propagated in labs were established without donor consent, including, possibly, some embryonic stem-cell lines….

…Applied more generally, such a claim raises important questions for genome research — such as whether family members have the right to override the wishes of individuals who choose to share their genetic data, and whether scientists are obligated to disclose a person’s genetic information, such as disease risk, to family members.

via Nature News & Comment.

Meanwhile, we don’t necessarily own our body, but Mattel owns “Barbie Pink” (because apparently that shade of pink didn’t exist before Mattel created it?)

And while we are considered criminals if we use some corporation’s intellectual property in the wrong way, they feel perfectly free to appropriate, trade, commodify, buy/sell and transfer our personal information – including our body, our facial likeness, and our thoughts – in whatever way they can, with profit as self-evident justification.

When do we prioritize individual rights, and when do our own individual rights and interests deserve protection?

We need better guidelines.

“The Drunk Sluts Rights Movement”

Of course, feminists would denounce such a statement of fact as a misogynistic expression of “rape culture,” but facts are facts: Alcohol is a significant contributing factor in the incidence of date rape….

…So the coed who starts guzzling tequila at the ATO house and wakes up the next morning sore, sticky and naked, with only vague memories of how she got that way, is not merely a victim of drunken fratboys — and we all know what deviant beasts those ATOs are, right? — but also a victim of all men everywhere throughout the course of human history. Anyone who says otherwise is just a misogynistic slut-shaming bigot.

via The Other McCain.

It’s really very simple: men should carry breathalyzers, and should test prospective mating partners.

And should call campus police on sexually aggressive women who flunk the breathalyzer, filing a complaint about drunk and disorderly behavior.

They should do this in the name of protecting their fellow man from false charges.

Yes, it’s harsh – but so is wrecking a guy’s life by having him tagged a rapist. Guys should drink responsibly…but then, so should females.