Depleted Uranium: The Hysteria Rolls On

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use depleted uranium (DU) as ammunition because of its potential value as an energy source. Other than that, its substantial advantages as a penetrator for defeating armored targets are likely grossly outweighed by the value of the propaganda weapon we hand to our enemies when we use it, not to mention the massive cost of litigating cases brought by lawyers who are well aware of the potential value of DU hysteria for lining their pockets. That hysteria lost touch with reality long ago, and continues to grow. A glance at the facts should be enough to cure anyone of an overweening faith in the intelligence of human beings.

The basic propaganda line relating to DU weapons is that a) Great increases in cancer and other health problems are experienced in areas where they are used, and b) Most of these health problems are due to radioactivity from DU.  The professionally pious have devoted a great deal of webspace to the subject, typically short on facts but with lots of pictures of terribly deformed infants and, as usual, featuring themselves as noble saviors of humanity. Those with strong stomachs can find examples here, here and here. It’s all completely bogus, but the truth has never been more than a minor inconvenience for ideological poseurs.

The World Health Organization, public health arm of the UN, an organization that has not been notably chummy with the US of late, debunked the DU hysteria in a report that appeared in 2001 (click on the link to see the document). Quoting from the report,

For the general population it is unlikely that the exposure to depleted uranium will significantly exceed the normal background uranium levels.

Measurements of depleted uranium at sites where depleted uranium munitions were used indicate only localized (within a few tens of metres of the impact site) contamination at the ground surface.

General screening or monitoring for possible depleted uranium-related health effects in populations living in conflict areas where depleted uranium has been used is not necessary. Individuals who believe they have been exposed to excessive amounts of depleted uranium should consult their medical practitioner for examination, appropriate treatment of any symptoms and follow-up.

The potential external dose received in the vicinity of a target following attack by DU munitions has been theoretically estimated to be in the order of 4 μSv/year (UNEP/UNCHS, 1999) based on gamma ray exposure. Such doses are small when compared to recommended guidelines for human exposure to ionizing radiation (20 mSv/annum for a worker for penetrating whole body radiation or 500 mSv/year for skin (BSS, 1996).

Of course, the poseurs dismiss such stuff with a wave of the hand, claiming that, for reasons known only to them, the authors of the report suppressed damning evidence, or didn’t consider certain miraculous processes whereby the DU can be transported into the bodies of its victims without showing up in urine samples.  If one points out, for example, that natural background radiation in places such as Iran and India is much higher than any increase due to DU in the places where all the birth defects and illness is supposedly taking place, without ill effects to the local populations, they merely reply that the DU is carried on insoluble particles, that are infinitely more dangerous than natural uranium.  If it is pointed out that, in that case, it would actually be much more difficult for DU to cause birth defects because the rate at which the body carries insoluble compounds to the vicinity of the reproductive organs is an order of magnitude less than for soluble uranium compounds, or that it is much more difficult for insoluble compounds to get into the food chain, they quickly change tack.  Suddenly, the DU becomes soluble, and the circle is squared. 

A moment’s rational consideration of the facts demolishes the DU hype.  For example, it is claimed that 320 tons of DU were used in the Gulf War in 1991 and 1700 tons in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Those numbers pale in comparison to the approximately 9000 Tons of natural uranium and 22400 tons of thorium currently released each year from the burning of coal.  Much of this material is pumped directly into the atmosphere in the form of particulates that easily enter the lungs.  It is far more likely to contaminate nearby population centers in this form than the byproducts of DU munitions.  Coal consumption in China alone is over 2 million metric tons per year, resulting in the yearly release of about 3000 tons of uranium and 7450 tons of thorium.  There have certainly been health problems downwind of these plants, but they’ve been due to plain old-fashioned air pollution.  There have been no massive increases in birth defects or radiation-related cancer, flying in the face of claims about DU’s supposedly demonic power to sicken and kill.  Uranium absorbed in the body will show up in the urine, whether it is ingested in soluble or insoluble form.  Yet, despite massive screening of military veterans, ongoing studies find no persistent elevation of U concentrations beyond that found in the general population other than in soldiers actually hit by DU fragments or involved in friendly fire accidents.

Studies of uranium miners confirm the absurdity of the inflated DU claims.  Exposure to increased levels of uranium dust has not been associated with increases incidence of cancer, even in older miners.  Increased levels of lung cancer in such workers certainly have been detected, but it is associated with the breathing of high concentrations of radon in confined spaces.  The contribution of DU to radon gas concentrations in the atmosphere in Iraq is utterly insignificant compared to natural seepage from the earth and release by coal plant pollution.  Meanwhile, massive use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, the sabotage and burning of hundreds of oil wells after the first Gulf War, and the release of a host of carcinogenic chemicals in the process of oil production are somehow never considered as possible contributors to illness and birth defects, unless, of course, they happen to fit another narrative.

In a word, the DU propaganda is nonsense, but that doesn’t keep it from being effective.  Other than that, because of DU’s potential value as a fuel in future breeder reactors that will be available to us without the environmental and health hazards of mining new uranium, we are almost literally shooting silver bullets.  Under the circumstances, one wonders what possible justification there can be for the claim that the advantages of continued use of DU munitions outweigh the drawbacks.  Why are we working so hard to confirm the familiar claim that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron?

Of Environmentalists Crying Wolf

Another day, another UN report. It’s an old familiar tune: The world’s eco-systems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse.” Unless “swift, radical and creative action” is taken “massive further loss is increasingly likely.” Wolf! Wolf!

The scary thing is that, just like in the fable, the wolf really is out there. With the world’s population nearing 7 billion and counting, he will eventually turn up at our doorstep in one form or another. No doubt when he does, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will cry “wolf!” once again, but no one will listen. They will have heard it all too many times before. For that matter, in a world of nanny states, all up to their ears in debt, what could anyone do about it? Print more money, perhaps? It may be that the only really effective solution will be to launch World War III, but that doesn’t seem like a very attractive option.


Japan Restarts the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor

It’s encouraging to learn that Japan has decided to restart its Monju fast breeder reactor. Among other things it will supply electricity to many Japanese households without releasing greenhouse gases in the process. If global warming is really a terrible threat to all mankind, one would think we would be building such energy sources as quickly as possible. One would, however, be wrong.

For global warming alarmists, the pose is everything and the reality nothing. You can tell because they have no interest in solutions to the problem that happen to be unfashionable. Fast breeder reactors are an excellent example. They produce electricity without releasing greenhouse gases, and without releasing the particulates that kill tens of thousands of people every year, while representing a smaller radioactive hazard than coal fired plants. In that respect the pathologically pious saviors of the environment are more or less as irrational as our military. After all, the Lone Ranger only shot silver bullets. They shoot depleted uranium bullets that are worth their weight in gold as potential sources of energy. Allow me to explain.

Imagine dropping an iron ball into a deep well. What happens when it hits the bottom? It releases energy, right?  If the bottom of the well were a sheet of glass, that energy would probably cause it to shatter.  The ball releases the energy because it has been accelerated by a force. In this case, it is the force of gravity. However, there are other forces in nature. One of them is the strong nuclear force. It is vastly more powerful than gravity, but is only effective at distances on the order of the size of an atomic nucleus. At that distance, however, when an “iron ball” in the form of a neutron happens along, it can make the nucleus of a heavy element such as uranium look like a very deep well indeed. Just like a real iron ball, when the neutron falls into the well, it releases energy. If you think of the nucleus as a drop of water, that energy can cause the drop to start jiggling and stretching, just like a real drop. If the neutron releases enough energy, it can even cause the “drop of water” to break into two, smaller drops, releasing more neutrons in the process. That’s what happens in nuclear fission. The neutrons released in the process can drop into other “wells,” resulting in more fission, leading to a self-sustaining chain reaction, which can be used in controlled form to power a reactor, or in uncontrolled form to cause an atomic explosion.

When a neutron falls into a nuclear well, the energy released is only large enough to actually split certain very heavy atoms.  One of them is uranium 235, or U235 for short, which occurs in nature as 0.7% of natural uranium.  The rest is mainly uranium 238, which generally doesn’t split unless the neutron is going very fast to begin with, and therefore has some of its own energy to contribute when it falls into the well.  Another of the “fissile” heavy atoms that can split even when a slow neutron falls into its well is plutonium 239.  It can also be used to power nuclear reactors.  It doesn’t occur in any significant amounts in nature.  However, it is produced in nuclear reactors.  Interestingly enough, the “raw material” for its production is the  U238 which makes up the lion’s share of natural uranium.  When a neutron falls into a U238 “well,” the nucleus usually doesn’t split, but can capture the neutron, becoming U239.  This nucleus then releases an electron, resulting in its transmutation into neptunium 239. The neptunium nucleus, in turn, releases another electron, leaving Pu239. 

Now, if we’ve produced Pu239, and Pu239 is the fuel for nuclear reactors, we should simply be able to keep the reactor running, gradually converting the U238 to Pu239 and “burning” it right along with the naturally occurring U235, right?  Wrong!  In order to change to Pu239, U238 has to capture a neutron, but neutrons are what’s necessary to keep the nuclear chain reaction going.  Take away too many neutrons and the chain reaction stops, shutting down the reactor.  That’s where “fast breeders” come in.

Recall that, if the neutron that falls into the well is going very fast, then it can add a substantial amount of its own energy to that which is released when it falls to the bottom of the nuclear well.  In some cases that can cause even U238 to split, or fission.  More importantly, however, when such a fast neutron causes an atom of “fissile” material, such as U235 or Pu239, to split, the number of neutrons released in the process goes up.  If enough extra neutrons are released, the chain reaction can keep going even if many of them are captured by U238 to produce Pu239.  This is what makes it possible for a fast breeder reactor to produce more fuel than it consumes.  In the process, it gives us access to the massive amounts of energy locked away in the U238.  Instead of wastefully burning up the U235 in natural uranium and throwing away the rest by, say, shooting it out of gatling guns, we can now burn a large proportion of the U238 as well. 

Under the circumstances, does it make much sense for the military to be turning this potentially invaluable material into projectiles?  Apart from being a grotesque waste of a potentially valuable resource, it also releases radiation into the environment.  Granted, the amount of radiation will be very low.  It takes over four billion years for half of the atoms in a chunk of U238 to decay, and since there are many other natural sources of radiation in the environment, it is generally difficult to detect its presence above the background noise.  That fact, however, has hardly prevented legions of freeloaders and their professionally virtuous advocates from pretending that any number of ills from hangnails to heart disease are all directly caused by that radiation, and getting gullible politicians to believe it.  Apart from the waste, is it worth the grief?  I think not.

If fast breeder reactors can vastly increase the amount of energy available from the limited quantities of uranium available to us, what is the point of building more conventional reactors that waste most of the available fuel?  If global warming is really such a terrible threat to mankind, and the environmental alarmists are really more concerned about actually doing something to address the threat than in striking heroic poses from the moral high ground and pretending to do something about it, why aren’t they on board as well?  Whatever the severity of the threat of global warming, fast breeder reactors, along with solar, wind, hydroelectric, and other sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gases could substantially end that threat.  Why, then, aren’t we building them?

Japan's Monju Fast Breeder
Japan's Monju Fast Breeder

Cherrypicking Pacific Hurricanes

Apropos cherrypicking data, long before I started this blog, I happened to read a story in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine back in 2005 with the alarming headline, “Number of Dangerous Hurricanes Doubles.” According to the blurb following the headline, “The strength of tropical cyclones has increased dramatically since the 70’s. The number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled. A possible result of the greenhouse effect?” I had just read Bjorn Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” with its many accounts of environmentalists crying “wolf,” so the story had an eerily familiar ring to it. I decided to do some fact checking of my own.

The article on which the Spiegel account was based was entitled “Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment.” It had appeared in the prestigious journal “Science,” where its authors were listed as P. J. Webster, G. J. Holland, J. A. Curry, H.-R. Chang. Apparently the source of Spiegel’s “doubling of dangerous hurricanes” claim was included in the paragraph,

Examination of hurricane intensity (Fig. 4) shows a substantial change in the intensity distribution of hurricanes globally. The number of category 1 hurricanes has remained approximately constant (Fig. 4A) but has decreased monotonically as a percentage of the total number of hurricanes throughout the 35-year period (Fig. 4B). The trend of the sum of hurricane categories 2 and 3 is small also both in number and percentage. In contrast, hurricanes in the strongest categories (4 + 5) have almost doubled in number (50 per pentad in the 1970s to near 90 per pentad during the past decade) and in proportion (from around 20% to around 35% during the same period).

The articles basic conclusions can be found in the last two paragraphs:

We deliberately limited this study to the satellite era because of the known biases before this period, which means that a comprehensive analysis of longer-period oscillations and trends has not been attempted. There is evidence of a minimum of intense cyclones occurring in the 1970s, which could indicate that our observed trend toward more intense cyclones is a reflection of a long-period oscillation. However, the sustained increase over a period of 30 years in the proportion of category 4 and 5 hurricanes indicates that the related oscillation would have to be on a period substantially longer than that observed in previous studies.

We conclude that global data indicate a 30-year trend toward more frequent and intense hurricanes, corroborated by the results of the recent regional assessment. This trend is not inconsistent with recent climate model simulations that a doubling of CO2 may increase the frequency of the most intense cyclones, although attribution of the 30-year trends to global warming would require a longer global data record and, especially, a deeper understanding of the role of hurricanes in the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, even in the present climate state.

The authors have included all tropical hurricanes in their conclusions.  However, as I have a day job and can’t do climatology full time, I will focus on the largest single region studied; the west Pacific Ocean.  This seems reasonable to me, as it had 201 hurricanes during the period studied compared to 85 in the region with the second largest number of occurrences.  Anyone who cares to do so is welcome to check the other regions as well.  I will gladly post the results if they are substantially different from mine.

First, let’s consider the “doubling of powerful hurricanes” claim.  It is based on a comparison of five year periods, or pentads, in the 1970’s versus the decade 1995 to 2005.  And, sure enough, if one compares the 19 cat 4 and 5 hurricanes in the pentad 1974 to 1978 with the 44 in the pentad 2001 to 2005, we can go the Science article one better.  The number has more than doubled! 

But wait!  The authors limited themselves to the “satellite era,” beginning in 1975, because, as they put it, “because of the known biases before this period.”  The nature of these biases are made clear in a book by Jack Williams of USA Today, who writes,

Until weather satellites began “seeing” eastern Pacific hurricanes in the 1970s, meteorologists had underestimated how many occur because many storms never come near land and fewer ships sail the eastern Pacific than the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 through Nov. 30.

Assuming a similar bias applies to the western Pacific, then it resulted in under- and not overestimation of the frequency of storms.  How very odd, then, that if we push our study back another fifteen years and include the decade of the 1960’s, the “pentads” tell an entirely different story.  The largest number of storms in any five year period in that decade was 48, from 1961 to 1965!  If pentads are really a compelling argument for a “doubling of powerful hurricanes,” as the authors and the editors of Spiegel claim, than they can all rest easy.  The data from the 1960’s “proves” we have nothing to worry about.

According to the authors, they deliberately limited their study to the satellite era, which began in 1975, to avoid the bias referred to above.  How very convenient, then, that according to a report of the Naval Pacific Meteorology and Oceanography Center, “1975 saw a sharp decrease in tropical cyclone activity from last season.”  How very convenient as well that 2004, the last year cited in their study, had 12 powerful storms in the western Pacific, matching the highest number ever recorded in a given year.  Can you say “cherrypicking?”  Interestingly, since 2004, the numbers have begun to drop off.  For the pentad 2005 to 2009 they are 9, 9, 8, 5 and 7.  Presumably the authors, who put such faith in pentads, must be forced to conclude that their conclusions were wrong, and the trend for powerful storms is actually on the decline. 

In fact, the pentad numbers that inspired Spiegel’s alarmist headline demonstrate nothing, one way or the other.  As anyone can see who cares to actually check the data for the last 50 years, they are dominated by statistical noise. 

Let’s take a look at the number of powerful storms in the western Pacific during those years, including the “under-respresented” ones before the satellite era.  They are:

1960 to 1969:  7, 9, 8, 10, 9, 12, 5, 7, 8, 3

1970 to 1979:  8, 8, 6, 3, 2, 4, 8, 3, 2, 4

1980 to 1989:  4, 4, 6, 4, 7, 1, 4, 8, 6, 8

1990 to 1999:  7, 9, 10, 6, 11, 6, 8, 12, 4, 2

2000 to 2009:  7, 5, 9, 9, 12, 9, 9, 8, 5, 7

Pretty bumpy data, isn’t it?  According to the authors, “There is evidence of a minimum of intense cyclones occurring in the 1970s.”  That’s certainly an understatement, and one that the editors of Spiegel predictably didn’t even bother to mention.  Include the data from the 1960’s and early 70’s, and the “long term trend” starts fading into the mist.

Tell me, who peer reviews stuff like this, and how does it get published in a journal like “Science?”  Here’s what I think:  It is likely that global warming is real, and it represents a significant threat.  Under the circumstances, scientific integrity is essential to establish the credibility of the danger, and certainly outweighs the need of professors X, Y and Z to pad the list of publications in their CV’s with junk science like this.  Surely the authors of the paper were aware of the data from the 1960’s.  Was it too much to ask that they at least mention it?  Was it too much to ask for them to give a more convincing reason than “the beginning of the satellite era” for cherrypicking a minimum and maximum for their starting and ending dates in accordance with what has now apparently become, as Voltaire put it, “a mere matter of tradition” among environmental scientists?   

What can I say?  Chalk up one more data point for Bjorn Lomborg. Let’s lighten this post up a bit with a bit of humor in the form of psychobabble from the pages of The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  Here’s the abstract:

Despite extensive evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, polls continue to reveal widespread denial and resistance to helping the environment. It is posited here that these responses are linked to the motivational tendency to defend and justify the societal status quo in the face of the threat posed by environmental problems. The present research finds that system justification tendencies are associated with greater denial of environmental realities and less commitment to pro-environmental action. Moreover, the effects of political conservatism, national identification, and gender on denial of environmental problems are explained by variability in system justification tendencies. However, this research finds that it is possible to eliminate the negative effect of system justification on environmentalism by encouraging people to regard pro-environmental change as patriotic and consistent with protecting the status quo (i.e., as a case of “system-sanctioned change”). Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

There you go, Luboš.  Any time you’re in the market for more psychoanalysis, just slip a nickel in my tip jar

Of Environmental Science and Credibility

A while back, cranky Czech physicist Luboš Motl played a little joke on the proponents of global warming with a back-of-the-envelope calculation on his blog purporting to show that there was no statistically significant global warming during the period 1995 to 2010.  Apparently Roger Harrabin of the BBC saw the post, and he brought it up a couple of months later in an interview with Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) that has been at the center of the “Climategate” affair, about the matter.  Jones agreed that warming during the period did not quite rise to the level of statistical significance, correctly pointing out at the same time that this did not rule out the possibility that real warming exists.  Motl would certainly agree, but that didn’t prevent Foxnews from claiming that Jones had “dropped a bombshell” by “admitting” that “global warming in the last 15 years was insignicant.”  At this, ideologues on the left cried foul, claiming that Motl had cherrypicked the year 1995 as his starting point, and that if the period were extended a year by including 1994, voila!, statistical significance was back.  At this point, Motl reacted in a way that is starkly atypical of environmental scientists in general.  He admitted he had cherrypicked the year 1995, and explained the reasons why.  Quoting Motl,

So was it cherry-picking when we chose 1995? Of course that in some sense, it was. The goal was to find the maximum period of time for which even the 95% statistical significance test fails. For the UAH data, the answer turns out to be 15 years. For periods longer than 15 years, we can see some glimpses of statistically significant trends. We can show that the white noise doesn’t explain the data well if the intervals are longer than 15 years.

and later in his post,

After periods longer than 15 years, it’s conceivable that the annual global mean temperatures will deviate in one way or another in such a way that can’t be explained as a “white noise” deviation from the conditions that exist today. But even if that’s the case, it is still very far from having a dangerous change. A change that you can barely observe – with the best thermometers and the most accurate methods how to calculate the global averages – is usually not yet dangerous.

And of course, none of these changes – even if you picked longer intervals where trends could be seen – would include evidence that there is an important man-made component of the “trends”. In fact, we have seen lots of data from Central England, Central Prague, and others that make it completely clear that the rate of warming or cooling has been matched or surpassed many times in the last 360 years.

The difference between Motl’s reaction and that of any number of so-called environmental scientists will become immediately evident to anyone who takes the trouble to read Bjorn Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist.”  Lomborg documented numerous instances of similar cherrypicking, all purporting to confirm what he called the “litany”; the alarmist message that, whether one is speaking of air pollution, soil erosion, polar melting, or whatever, we are faced with imminent environmental disaster.  Apparently, Lomborg’s claims were true.  If not, the “scientists” he referred to were singularly inept at pointing out his errors.  Instead, a board of worthies who should be ashamed to claim the name of “scientists” convened in Denmark and “convicted” Lomborg of “scientific dishonesty.” 

The degree to which Lomborg was “dishonest” can be inferred by anyone who takes the trouble to look at the source data relating to the claims in his book.  The fact that his opponents failed to find any substantial discrepancies is amply demonstrated by their blustering attempts to villify him.  By their clumsy attempts to silence and demonize an opponent, the self-appointed guardians of environmental orthodoxy only succeeded in destroying their own credibility.  They continue to do so today.   Instead of simply refuting the claims of critics like Motl, they attempt to villify them, pretending that, for some strange reason apparent only to them, their opponents are all deliberate evildoers bent on destroying the planet.  Unfortunately, their opponents are credible, and they are well able to push back.

In fact, with a population approaching 7 billion and counting, our planet faces any number of environmental threats, including the very real one of global warming.  We may soon find to our cost that the best way to deal with those threats is not to invent new ideological orthodoxies and launch a holy war against “heretics.”  The world does not need environmental scientists who strike mighty blows against global warming deniers, or who exchange insult for insult with climate change truthers.  It needs environmental scientists who act like scientists.

Morality and “Hardwired Behavior”

“Hardwired Behavior” is one of the many books dealing with innate human behavioral traits that have been popping up like mushrooms lately. Like many of the others, it focuses on morality and moral behavior. Perhaps the most interesting thing about all these books is not that so many of them are being published, but that they are being published at all. Three or four decades ago, the authors of books like this would have been vilified as “fascists,” scorned as “pop ethologists,” and dismissed as delusional right wingers. Marxists and other ideologues would have shouted “Not in our Genes,” determined that no truth that contradicted their narratives would ever see the light of day. In the intervening years those shouts have been drowned by a deluge of facts, thanks in large part to the rapid advance of brain imaging technology. The ideologues who sought to rearrange reality to conform to their preconceived notions have gone the way of the Intelligent Design crowd, who would alter the speed of light, shorten the age of the earth to 6000 years, and redefine the word “firmament” to make the “truth” fit the Book of Genesis. The basic fact of innate human behavior has been obvious to anyone with an open mind since at least the days of Darwin. Now it is a fact that can no longer be denied, or at least not by anyone interested in maintaining some semblance of intellectual credibility.

“Hardwired Behavior” stands out somewhat from the rest of the pack in that the author, Laurence Tancredi, is both a lawyer and a psychiatrist, with expertise in neuroscience thrown in for good measure, and so approaches the subject as one who has seen some of the extremes of human behavior, and has devoted a great deal of thought to the interesting ramifications of our new insights into the workings of the human mind as they relate to our system of justice. Take, for example, the question of moral culpability. Tancredi describes cases in which heinous crimes were committed by people who do not fit the legal definition of criminal insanity, and yet whose actions, at least in his opinion, were motivated by emotional impulses that “trumped rational control.”   He describes the notion that moral choices may be biologically driven as a “revolutionary concept,” which it decidedly is not, at least in terms of the length of time the idea has been around.  Be that as it may, what Tancredi calls the “mad versus bad” distinction inherent in current legal theory is becoming increasingly blurred in the light of our expanding understanding of the mind.  In fact, the very distinction between good and evil has always been a subjective one.  That, however, doesn’t alter the fact that we perceive the distinction as absolute, and, given our nature, have no alternative but to act within the context of moral rules.  Under the circumstances, the notion of moral culpability, whether fiction or not, may be one we cannot dispense with from a legal point of view.

Tancredi is apparently aware of the earlier suppression of the very ideas he presents as such commonplaces.  See, for example, the discussion on pages 21 to 24 of his book under the subheading, “From Mind to Brain:  Completing the Circuit.”  He begins by defining the term “physicalism” in the broad sense of characteristics that are “innate to humankind,” and describes its long intellectual history.  He then suggests that the scientific revolution of the 19th century, with its insistence on intellectual rigor and the scientific method, “…brought about major changes in our perception of morality.  Natural law, or anything resembling a naturally endowed moral sense was discarded as fundamentally wrong.”  This is an absurd yarn, but an interesting one nonetheless.  It amounts to a rationalization of the ideologically motivated suppression of theories of innate behavior, including moral behavior, as something that was done in the name of “science.”  The reality, apparent enough to anyone who cares to go back and look at the source material, amply documented in the books of Robert Ardrey, is that these theories were immediately plausible to a host of scientists, including Darwin himself, that they have actually been not only plausible but obvious, at least since his time, and that they were suppressed, not for any “scientific” reason, but because they flew in the face of preferred ideological narratives that required humans to be other than they actually are.  Look at the nature of the opposition to such ideas 40 or 50 years ago.  That opposition, in the case of Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and many others did not take the form of dispassionate scientific debate.  Almost invariably, it was accompanied by demonization, vilification and ridicule.

That deep lacunae exist in Tancredi’s perception of the nature of this debate is apparent from the statement, “The idea that biology was basic to human behavior and the workings of social groups didn’t reappear in a major way until E. O. Wilson published his book “Sociobiology” in the mid-1970s.”  Thus, with a wave of the hand, the works of the likes of Ardrey and Lorenz are brushed aside as if they never existed.  In fact, as a work of popular science, “Sociobiology” was a mere afterthought to such works as “African Genesis,” “The Territorial Imperative,” and “On Aggression.”  The idea that it was somehow more significant than these earlier works in opening people’s minds could only be taken seriously by navel gazers in the ivory towers of academia.  Wilson is a brilliant thinker whose work has enlightened many.  Ardrey, however, playwright, statistician, and “pop ethologist” that he was, was a greater still.  He took little trouble to jump through all the hoops that would have made him socially acceptable in the hallowed halls of academia, but the man was a genius, with a rare gift for seeing the big picture and revealing it to others.  “African Genesis,” published in 1961, already contained most of his fundamental worldview, and his works are full of accounts of the work of other brilliant scientists, including a host of animal behaviorists whose elegant work can only inspire wonder that so many of the modern workers in the field can somehow never trouble themselves to mention them.  To the extent that Ardrey is mentioned at all today, his work is usually distorted and bowdlerized as the “Killer Ape Theory.”  Here, in a nutshell, is what Ardrey said:  “Innate predispositions have a profound influence on human behavior.”  Here, in a nutshell, is what his many academic opponents said:  “Human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture, and is “Not in our Genes.”  Ardrey was right, and they were wrong.  Obviously, academia is still having a very hard time swallowing that unpleasant fact.  As a result, instead of having the simple decency and intellectual honesty to admit that he was right, they ignore him.

Well, those of us who lived through those times know the truth, and, in any case, a man like Ardrey would surely have welcomed the victory of his ideas more than his personal vindication.  It’s unfortunate he couldn’t live to see that victory.  We are left to contemplate the implications of this whole affair for the advance of human knowledge.  Once again, we have seen the limitations of our intelligence.  Once again, we have witnessed our uncanny ability to deny the world as it is when it doesn’t conform to the world the way we want it to be.  We have learned little from the experience.  Now we see the ideological battle lines being drawn once again over the issue of global warming.  Ideological in-groups that would surely have been familiar to Ardrey dominate the debate on both sides of the issue.  They have already convinced themselves that they are bearers of ultimate truth, and that their opponents are criminals or fools.  They will filter the facts accordingly until a bludgeon in the form of another ice age or sea levels up to our necks comes along to knock them back to their senses.  Meanwhile, let us cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Morality, Survival, and the Carbon Footprint of Children

According to an article that appeared recently in the New York Times, “having children is the surest way to send your carbon footprint soaring.” The basis for this claim is a study by statisticians at Oregon State University, who “concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives – things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.” Lisa Hymas of appeared on MSNBC (see below) to spell out the implications of the study for those dimmer bulbs not in the habit of reading the grey lady. In a word, they should follow her good example and commit genetic suicide in order to save the planet.

As I have occasionally pointed out, morality is a behavioral trait that exists only because it has promoted our survival in the past. The good-in-itself does not exist. The Oregon Study and Ms. Hymas’ reaction to it are excellent illustrations of the reasons why failure to grasp these truths can be a liability. To the extent that morality does not promote our survival, not as a species, but as individuals, it is utterly and completely pointless. There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive. To the extent that the emotional predispositions hard-wired in our brains that express themselves as what we know as morality lead us to conclude, for example, that we should blow ourselves up so we can go to heaven, or drink poisoned Kool-aid with a similar end in view, or fail to have children in order to save the planet, they have become dysfunctional. They no longer serve the only conceivable end for moral behavior that can in any way be considered legitimate – they no longer promote our survival.

That said, I have no ax to grind with Ms. Hymas. I am entirely content that she should not have children. After all, my own children are more likely to thrive in a world uncluttered by her children’s messy carbon droppings.  As the good people at Oregon State point out, “Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth,… Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”  However, one doesn’t avoid “exponential population growth,” by failing to have one’s own children.  One accomplishes such things by, for example, publishing studies that convince large numbers of other people that it is virtuous not to have children, taking care that one’s own children don’t read the studies.  One then proceeds to have as many children as possible, aware that, final links in an unbroken chain of life going back billions of years that we all are, it would be rather absurd, not to mention ungenerous to those life forms that have kept the chain unbroken all those years, to end their existence and ours after a pointless life by fading into oblivion for a reason as frivolous as leaving a reduced carbon footprint.

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James Lovelock, Democracy, and Human Fate

James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory, drew a baleful stare from Instapundit this morning for claiming, as Glenn put it, that “We need to get rid of ‘obstructions’ like democracy to deal with global warming,” in an interview for the Guardian.  Dr. Lovelock’s actual remarks weren’t quite so blunt:

Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.

In fact, the Guardian article left me with a rather favorable impression.  I don’t take Lovelock’s Gaia theory seriously, but it’s really more an expression of the man’s “spirituality” than an attempt at rigorous science.  Apparently he was grasping for some kind of straw to fill his need for something “greater than himself,” but that’s not an uncommon human foible, even among people as intelligent as Lovelock.  And he is intelligent.  One can tell that by the fact that he thinks outside of the box.  He’s not wearing any of the usual ideological straightjackets.  Consider, for example, the last three paragraphs of the article:

Lovelock says the events of the recent months have seen him warming to the efforts of the “good” climate sceptics: “What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think: ‘Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?’ If you don’t have that continuously, you really are up the creek. The good sceptics have done a good service, but some of the mad ones I think have not done anyone any favours. You need sceptics, especially when the science gets very big and monolithic.”

Lovelock, who 40 years ago originated the idea that the planet is a giant, self-regulating organism – the so-called Gaia Theory – added that he has little sympathy for the climate scientists caught up in the UEA email scandal. He said he had not read the original emails – “I felt reluctant to pry” – but that their reported content had left him feeling “utterly disgusted”.

“Fudging the data in any way whatsoever is quite literally a sin against the holy ghost of science,” he said. “I’m not religious, but I put it that way because I feel so strongly. It’s the one thing you do not ever do. You’ve got to have standards.”

Obviously, he’s not a hidebound ideologue busily embellishing his “climate denier” demon.  Rather, he’s apparently made a conscientious attempt to think a few things through without balking at the preconceived shibboleths he encountered along the way.  As we gather from Instapundit’s stern disapproval, one such shibboleth was democracy.

It’s difficult to deny that democracy has its faults.  As Winston Churchill put it, ” No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  In the end, it may turn out to be a self-annihilating form of government.  In our own day we see it incapable of resisting infiltration by people whose culture may be hostile to its existence, or of resisting the rise of a bloated state power whose coexistence with Liberty is out of the question. 

Other than that, it is also true that, as Lovelock claims, democracies are in the habit of setting aside their political ideals in time of war.  If the effects of global warming become as severe as a major war, the overriding imperative of survival may, indeed, require that “democracy be put on hold.”  If so, the question will become, “Who gets to play dictator?”  I personally would prefer the CEO of some oil company to a coalition of Greenpeace, PETA, and Code Pink, but that’s just a matter of personal taste. 

Lovelock makes another comment in the article that I find spot on:

I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change. The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.

His interviewer bowdlerizes this to ” Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change from radically impacting on our lives over the coming decades,” in typical journalistic fashion, but the statement is, nonetheless, true.  We are not intelligent enough to avoid the chaos and catastrophe that will surely be our future lot in one form or another if we remain as we are.  We can try to avoid the worst by taking control of our own evolution, or we can sit and wait.  Evolution will not stand still, regardless.  Perhaps the result will be the same.  Assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves completely, above average intelligence will surely be a factor in deciding who will survive the wrath to come.  If we prove incapable of making ourselves smarter, nature will do it for us.  It will just be a great deal more painful.


On the Smartness of Liberalism and Vegetarianism

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias had an interesting post on intelligence yesterday.  He quotes an article in the Social Psychology Quarterly that claims, among other things, that

Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women), while intelligence is not associated with the adult espousal of evolutionarily familiar values on children, marriage, family, and friends. … Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.

Where to begin?  Perhaps with the obvious observation that the psychologists have lost none of their ancient skill in doublethink.  They are perfectly familiar with the meaning of the term “intelligence,” and consider it a “well known fact” that it can be measured using reliable tests when associated with, for example, liberalism, vegetarianism, and atheism.  At the same time they are just as certain that “intelligence” is a highly ambiguous complex that it is hopeless to even attempt to measure when associated with, for example, sex or race.  

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the first of these “truths” of the psychologists really is true.  In other words, let us assume that Mr. Kanazawa really does know what he’s talking about when he speaks of intelligence, and that this intelligence really is measurable.  What, then, are we to make of its association with such “value-loaded” categories as liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention a tendency to have fewer children?

To begin, allow me to enlighten Mr. Kanazawa on a matter touching on this discussion, but about which he seems somewhat confused.  In his abstract we read, “The origin of values and preferences is an unresolved theoretical question in behavioral and social sciences.”  I have no doubt that it is an unresolved theoretical question in the behavioral and social sciences.  For those of us who don’t move in such high intellectual circles, however, the answer is obvious enough.  Values and preferences reflect mental traits of various animals, one species of which happens to be Homo sapiens.  Mental traits originate in the brain, and the human brain exists in its current form because all of its essential features have, at one time or another in the past, promoted our genetic survival. 

Values and preferences such as liberalism and vegetarianism have not, of course, evolved in their perfect modern incarnations, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.  Rather, they correspond to responses of the human brain to conditions quite different from those that prevailed during the long process of its evolution, moderated by cultural influences.  As values and preferences, they are morally loaded.  In other words, one doesn’t embrace liberalism and vegetarianism by virtue of a purely rational evaluation of whether they will promote one’s genetic survival or not.  Rather, they are adopted by virtue of emotional responses associated with those innate mental characteristics we associate with morality.  In other words, they are perceived as “good,” and not just good from a utilitarian point of view,  but “good in themselves.”  That’s how human morality works, no matter how smart one happens to be.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an objective “good in itself.”  Liberalism and vegetarianism certainly have a real existence as “goods,” but only as subjective, or perceived goods.  In other words, they do have a genuine existence as goods, but that genuine existence is in the form of a figment of our imaginations.

Liberalism and vegetarianism, then, can be considered artifacts of innate human mental characteristics interacting with an environment utterly different from that in which they evolved to begin with.  Those mental traits could not possibly have evolved fast enough to keep up with the profound changes in the human environment that have occurred over, say the last 10,000 years.  Furthermore, they are not perfectly malleable and adaptable to those changes, as the inventors of the New Soviet Man discovered to their cost.  Under the circumstances, it seems rather risky to assume that complex behavioral traits that have emerged as ancient human mental characteristics interact with the modern environment will continue to promote our survival. 

In the case of liberalism and vegetarianism, I would claim that they certainly do not.  According to the article,

Liberalism … [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others. Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel. Humans … are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or exchange with. … There is no evidence that people in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands freely share resources with members of other tribes. …

True enough.  However, as we often hear, the world has shrunk.  We are no more capable of altruistic behavior towards strangers and “other tribes” than we ever were.  However, thanks to modern means of transportation and communication, it has become possible for us to perceive a far greater number of others as belonging to “our tribe.”  “We” is no longer constrained by the environment to a small group of people who are likely to be genetically related to us.  “We” can now correspond to much larger social constructs, such as fellow citizens in a modern state, fellow members of huge political organizations, or fellow believers in massive religious denominations.  “We” can be such entities as “the proletariat,” or “the German people,” or “the oppressed masses.”  “We” can even include other species.  Liberalism and vegetarianism are only “evolutionarily novel” in the sense that they represent the response of a relatively unchanged human brain to massive and transformational environmental and perceptual changes.

Unfortunately, such modern “goods” no longer promote our survival.  In the case of liberalism, the result is the handing over of resources to those from whom the chances that we will ever receive any corresponding benefit in return are vanishingly small.  In the case of vegetarianism, it is the establishment of artificial taboos against certain foods that one can dispense with in certain developed countries that happen not to be at war, but which may be essential to survival elsewhere, or in those same countries in the event of war or one of the other types of social breakdown that occurred with such alarming frequency in the 20th century.  To the extent that a “good” no longer promotes our survival, it is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, a serious threat.  Morality exists, like everything else about us, because, and only because, at some time in the past, it promoted our survival.  That being the case, nothing can be more immoral than failing to survive.  To anyone who would claim otherwise, I can only say, to borrow a phrase from E.O. Wilson, please “lay your cards on the table,” and explain why.

What, then, can we say about the association of higher levels of human intelligence with such survival threatening “goods” as modern liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention with such behavioral tendencies as having fewer children.  Apparently, we are forced to conclude that, as things now stand, human beings with above average intelligence represent a biological dead end.  Eventually they must either become more stupid, or more intelligent.  My personal preference is for the latter.  I have a hunch it will more effectively promote our long term survival.

UPDATE:  Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy has more on the Kanazawa article.  From his take:

I suspect that much of the public interest in Kanazawa’s study is driven by a perception that political views endorsed by more intelligent people are more likely to be true. This, however, is a dubious inference. Even intelligent people have incentives to be rationally ignorant about politics and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know. I do think that, other things equal, a political view is more likely to be correct if it is more likely to be endorsed by people with greater knowledge of the issue (controlling for other factors that may affect their answers). While knowledge and intelligence are likely to be correlated, they are not the same thing. Ultimately, the fact that a political ideology is more likely to be endorsed by more intelligent people is only a weak indicator of its validity.

Or, as Confucius once said, “Study without thought is vain; thought without study is dangerous.”

Interestingly, Kanazawa himself does not claim that intelligent people are more likely to endorse liberalism because it is true. Instead, he argues that the result is due to the fact that liberalism is more at odds with our genetic instincts than conservatism is, and intelligent people are more likely to endorse “novel” ideas.

Liberals are not different from conservatives because they are more rational, and therefore less subject to genetic instincts.  (“Genetic instincts” is imprecise, but we’ll use the vernacular for the time being).  Rather, liberalism and conservatism are manifestations of the same genetic instincts in the context of the modern world.  They differ only in such factors as identification of who belongs in the “in-group” and who belongs in the “out-group.”  These distinctions can have a major political impact, but, as far as human nature is concerned, they are peripheral.  They are both merely possible expressions of emotional responses whose fundamental origins in the brain are identical in both cases.

Fact Checking Russian Demographics

When I was a kid I remember looking at the Soviet Union on a big world wall map and wondering how we would ever survive if a country that big was our enemy. Evidently, a lot of people who grew up during the Cold War never got over the trauma. For them, Russia will always be the enemy. When she sent troops into South Ossetia in response to Georgia’s attack on that province’s capital city with area effect weapons, they took it as proof that she was only waiting for some flimsy pretext to send her hordes pouring forth over eastern Europe. For them, such childish provocations as planting batteries of useless missile defense systems just outside her borders “to defend against an attack from Iran” represented the apex of political sagacity. They will never change. One must resign oneself to waiting until they finally die, and are replaced by a new generation that will, perhaps, at least have the virtue of choosing a more reasonable enemy.

Meanwhile, they can count our ever-charming Vice President among their number. In an interview he gave to the Wall Street Journal he said:

Russians…have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

Her obituary has been proclaimed in similar terms by a host of pundits. They might do well to take a look at what Anatoly Karlin at Russia Blog has to say about the matter before leaping to conclusions. It may turn out that, in the words of Mark Twain, the reports of Russia’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. For example, as Anatoly points out,

As of 2008 there were 362,000 more deaths than births in Russia, down from 847,000 in 2005. Furthermore, adding in migration would give a total population loss of just 105,000 people in 2008, equivalent to -0.07% of the population, which is a massive improvement from the 721,000 fall in 2005. The situation continued improving in 2009 despite the economic crisis, with Russia seeing positive natural increase in August and September for the first time in 15 years.

Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR) has risen from a nadir of 1.16 children per women in 1999, to 1.49 children in 2008 (and thus also breaking the “lowest-low” fertility hypothesis that states that no society has ever recovered from a fertility collapse to below 1.30 children). The figures for 2009 will almost certainly show a TFR above 1.50.

(In response to the claim that the Russian far east is being overwhelmed by Chinese immigrants.) There are no more than 0.4-0.5mn Chinese in Russia (and probably a good deal less). The vast majority of them are temporary workers and seasonal traders who have no long-term plans of settling in Russia. Even though the Russia Far East depopulated much faster than the rest of Russia after the Soviet collapse, at more than 6mn today, Russian citizens remain ethnically dominant.

and so on. Karlin provides links for these and many other assertions about Russian demographics that counter the prevailing wisdom in the West. Read the whole thing.

If Russia’s population really does level off at something between 120 and 150 million, it seems to me history will have presented her with a golden opportunity. She has but to take advantage of it. If global warming becomes a reality, she may actually benefit from the change. That, and all the other potentially devastating environmental problems we face will be more or less severe depending on the size of human populations and their rate of increase. If Russia can somehow manage to avoid the suicidal tendency of the United States and the countries of western Europe to allow themselves to be inundated by waves of culturally alien immigrants, she can be one of the world’s big winners in the decades to come. Will it really be impossible for her to resist encroachment with such a relatively small population? I suspect that, with thousands of weapons in her nuclear arsenal, she will have a fighting chance.

I, for one, wish her well. She did, after all, absorb the blows of the Mongol hordes, and helped to break the back of the Turkish advance into Europe. She stopped Napoleon and Hitler, and then shed an ocean of blood to demonstrate to the western inventors of Communism that their brilliant idea didn’t work. Surely no one will begrudge her a little peace and quiet for a while, and perhaps, to stretch a point, even a measure of prosperity.