Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Newton's Third Law of Politics

I am currently reading Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann, and with each page I grow more annoyed. The very premise of the book is a logical fallacy for which there may not yet be a name. I would like to suggest one, but I can't decide between "The Fox News Fallacy" and "The Air America Fallacy."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Another Tragedy, Another Miracle

Yesterday a small plane, apparently piloted by New York Yankee's pitcher Cory Lidle, crashed into the 30th floor of an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and fell, burning, to the pavement.

In the course of recounting the story this morning on NPR, a reporter hit both of my pet peeves about the use of language. While people first feared that the crash was a terrorist attack, the reporter intoned, it quickly turned into a story of "personal tragedy." Meanwhile, the two people who were in the apartment that was struck "miraculously" escaped unharmed.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


I came across a nice bit of satire, aimed at the argument for Intelligent. Its form is basically that of a reductio ad absurdum.

Advocates for Intelligent Design maintain that their account of the origins of life on Earth should be taught in the science classroom, in part because it is supposed to fill in "holes" in the theory of evolution, in part because ID is itself supposed to be a scientific theory backed by evidence . . . of some sort.

Well, if they are correct, then the science classroom should be open to any account of the origins of life on Earth that has as much or more actual scientific validity as ID, including the theory that life on Earth began when the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) strecthed out His Noodly Appendage . . .

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Goodbye, Err America

I found out yesterday that Air America Radio will be losing its Atlanta outlet soon. Someone recently bought the station - 1690AM - and will be converting it to some sort of music format, keeping only the Al Franken show for the afternoon drive time.

I'm only a little bit conflicted about this. As I've written before (here), listening to Air America Radio is at best a mild guilty pleasure. Most of the time, it's just annoying.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006


Is he here yet? Is he here yet?


Didn't think so.

Oh, well. Better luck in 2106 . . . or maybe in 2999.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

A Convenient Fabrication?

I heard about this yesterday on the NPR show "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!", and looked it up online today. Here is the full story, as it appears on the Washington Post website, with the source given as
Greenpeace Just Kidding About Armageddon
Friday, June 2, 2006; Page A17
The environmental activist group Greenpeace wanted to be prepared to counter President Bush's visit last week to Pennsylvania to promote his nuclear energy policy.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Civic Energies

Within a few hours of my last posting I started to wonder what the heck I was thinking of. I was half tempted to delete the entry altogether.

Now that Chris has commented on it though, I suppose I ought to think it through a bit. What do I mean by "civic energies"?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Worn Out?

These days, a passage from Rousseau's Social Contract keeps coming to mind.
Although a people can make itself free while it is still uncivilized, it cannot do so when its civil energies are worn out. Disturbances may then destroy a civil society without a revolution being able to restore it, so that as soon as the chains are broken, the state falls apart and exists no longer; then what is needed is a master, not a liberator. Free peoples, remember this maxim: liberty can be gained, but never regained.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Missionary Trouble

The other day I was in my home office when the doorbell rang. I looked out of the window and saw two older women in their Sunday best (it was a Saturday) coming up the driveway. I recognized them as half of a team of missionaries who come through the neighborhood every month or so; the other half of the team, being fleeter of foot, were already on the doorstep.

I ignored them. I returned to my computer, sat there working quietly, and ignored them.

Just last week, my valiant spouse wasted nearly an hour of her time in conversation with missionaries on our doorstep - whether it was the same group, I don't know. I was unwilling to follow her example.

It's not that I'm afraid to talk to missionaries. It's that I can no longer be bothered with them.

Friday, April 7, 2006


I found myself in a peculiar situation the other day. I had been asked to lead a brief discussion on "The Social and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology" at an event dubbed "Nanotech Day" - a meeting between researchers in a nanotech center at Georgia Tech and researchers from the CDC. The meeting turned out to be something like a four-hour, interactive infomercial.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Avoiding Tragedy . . . or Not?

I wrote in my last post that skepticism may be rooted in a desire to avoid tragedy, to the extent that tragedy is the product of stubbornly insisting on the universality and rightness (and righteousness) of what turns out always to be a partial and flawed view of the world.

There is a problem with the desire to avoid tragedy, of course: the easiest way to do it is to just not give a damn about anything. Historically, perhaps stereotypically, skepticism has always seemed to slide into quietism, complete passivity and indifference in the face of whatever happens. How do you know it matters, anyway?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Tragedy Revisited

My recent research into the notions of moral imagination and moral luck has led me to revise (slightly) my previous view of the use and misuse of the term "tragedy."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Err America

I have a secret vice, which is that I occasionally listen to Air America Radio. The experience is sometimes cathartic and often (and often unintentionally) comical, especially in times of great stress. I listened quite a lot during the run-up to the 2004 election, and once or twice a week since then.

Listening intermittently over the past week has helped me to crystallize some of my thoughts about what, exactly, is wrong with Air America. Ever since Vice President Cheney pulled the trigger last weekend, they - and I mean everyone on every show, from Jerry Springer to Janeane Garofalo to Randi Rhodes - have been in ecstasy. They've been howling about secrecy, riffing on the metaphorical connection between hunting accidents and foreign policy, spinning out salacious gossip about alleged affairs and binges of drinking and hunting, and indulging in that most popular of rhetorical tropes: the conspiracy theory.

Most of this is bullshit, in the precise, technical sense of the term (following Harry Frankfurt): utterances made with no regard for truth and at best a tenuous connection with reality.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

More on Civic Skepticism

The lead editorial in tomorrow's New York Times is a systematic demolition of the Bush administration's alleged defense of domestic spying without a warrant. One point in particular echoes the point on civic skepticism I was making a few weeks ago.
Just trust us. Mr. Bush made himself the judge of the proper balance between national security and Americans' rights, between the law and presidential power. He wants Americans to accept, on faith, that he is doing it right. But even if the United States had a government based on the good character of elected officials rather than law, Mr. Bush would not have earned that kind of trust. The domestic spying program is part of a well-established pattern: when Mr. Bush doesn't like the rules, he just changes them, as he has done for the detention and treatment of prisoners and has threatened to do in other areas, like the confirmation of his judicial nominees. He has consistently shown a lack of regard for privacy, civil liberties and judicial due process in claiming his sweeping powers. The founders of our country created the system of checks and balances to avert just this sort of imperial arrogance.

I have nothing to add.

Atheistic Zealotry

My local paper ran an AP story this morning about a peculiar legal action in Italy: 
An Italian judge heard arguments Friday on whether a small-town parish priest should stand trial for asserting that Jesus Christ existed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Civic Skepticism

I'd like to, but I'll refrain from belaboring the argument against the current expansion of executive power in the government of the United States. Suffice it to say that we have a President who believes he is free to interpret laws even as he signs them, and free to break them when it suits his convenience as Commander in Chief. The President has a long and very public history of not paying attention to evidence or arguments that might count against his own beliefs about the world. He has also nominated to the Supreme Court a judge who has advocated for something called "the unitary executive."

All of this is a matter of public record.

Watching the trend toward greater executive power as it has unfolded over the last four or five years, all the while teaching and thinking about the bases of a legitimate political order, I've been struck by the degree to which the Constitution of the United States - and perhaps liberal democracy itself - is grounded in a kind of civic skepticism.

Consider the largely tacit argument for allowing the President to have more power: George W. Bush is a decent man, the argument runs, a fine and upstanding Christian conservative; we should trust him. In short, we should give him the benefit of the doubt. The President's opponents, on the other hand, are supposed to bear all the burdens of doubt: doubts about their intelligence, their claims to knowledge, their moral standards, their integrity, their support for the troops, their patriotism.

As an example, consider the ease with which the Adminstration appeals to strategic skepticism when it suits their purposes - shifting the burden of doubt onto others in the case of climate change, for example - all the while labeling as an enemy of liberty anyone who disagrees with the President on any other matter of policy.

It doesn't matter how trustworthy the President says he is. It doesn't even matter how trustworthy he seems to be. We have the right and the responsibility as citizens to doubt him on this point, and to keep him from overstepping the constitutional bounds of his office.

The whole point of our system of government is that we should not have to trust one individual, whether it's George III or George W. Bush. The United States is supposed to be a nation of laws, not of people, precisely in order to avoid the imposition of arbitrary power of any individual or group over any other individual or group.

I would certainly not be the first to say that dissent is the first right of a citizen in a democracy. I would add that a moderate sort of civic skepticism may be our first duty.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Intelligent Design and Philosophy, cont'd

On reflection, I think there's an easier way to characterize the problem with the supposed "philosophy" course in California that is set up to assault the "philosophy" of Darwin.

The point of "teaching" ID in a philosophy class would not be to get students to either accept or reject ID as such, but to help them gain some critical perspective on the broader debate over the place of ID in public schools. This would involve looking carefully and thoughtfully at the existing debate over science and religion, its history (going back to ancient times, if necessary), and the assumptions that underpin the arguments of various advocates on various sides.

Intelligent Design and Philosophy

Advocates for "intelligent design" have found a new tactic: since they cannot seem to pass legal muster in their efforts to get ID into science classes, at least one teacher has taken the suggestion of the ACLU and others that ID might be taught as part of a philosophy course.

The problem is that the teacher in question doesn't seem to have the slightest idea what philosophy is, or what it means to teach philosophy.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Blasphemy for Fun and Profit

I discovered a few years ago that I have the same name as a writer of comic books, including Invincible and the inimitable Battle Pope (about which more in a moment).