Monday, December 28, 2009

Toddler Car Seats Debunked

Shocking result reported in the book SuperFreakonomics. Perfectly installed and fitted car seats for 3 and 6 year olds are no more effective in a crash in protecting children than the poorly fitting built-in lap belt. Hear the authors talk about it in segment 7 of this talk.

Other interesting comments from that segment, though I don't know if all of these are actually backed up by the research or if they are merely conclusions based on the new intuition informed by the study:
  • The passenger seat is the least safe seat in the car.
  • A child would fare better than an adult in the front seat because they are smaller and less likely to get squashed by something.
  • The safest place for an infant would be on the floor of the backseat.
  • Crash testing companies had never done comparative testing of regular seat belts and child seats. The authors were turned down several times. The engineer who finally did the test was certain they were going to destroy his crash test dummy and made them promise to replace it if it got destroyed in the tests using only a plain seat belt.
  • Using a seat belt of any sort makes an enormous difference in the survivability of a crash.
  • Babe-in-arms in the front seat is the worst possible place for an infant.
  • The authors note that other people disagree with their conclusions.
Legislators, will you take action to further investigate this and remedy the situation if further study bears this out?

I feel more oppressed by child safety seat regulation than any other government regulation I can think of because it affects me nearly every day as a father of four children under the age of 7. We switched to a minivan from a sedan when our third child was born because fitting three car seats in the back seat was problematic. (It was hard to close the back doors.)

Now that we have a minivan, I'm still concerned about adding the fifth child to this car because I'm not sure how easy it will be to access the built in seat belt when three booster seats or child seats are squeezed onto that back bench. Perversely, the cumbersome nature of child safety seats makes me less inclined to buckle my kids for trips of three blocks or less. I'm sure that isn't the safety result the legislators were hoping for.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thoughts on Humanitarian Aid

Rick Steves, the famous travel guide author, gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club. At the very end of his recorded speech, he riffed for a minute about the differences in European and American approaches to helping the poor and about the obligation that we have to reach out.

You see beautiful kids in your travels that are every bit as precious as our kids. And when I look at these girls on a garbage dump in El Salvador, I see every bit as much deserving beauty there as my own daughter.

I know my daughter's got $5000 for straight teeth and money left over for whitener. And I looked around her class and apparently every girl has $5000 for straight teeth and money left over for whitener. That's not a bad thing. I don't apologize for that. We have a winning society. I work hard; my daughter gets straight teeth.

But that doesn't negate the fact that in this village, the moms are not home because they're out walking for water. And for the cost of two sets of braces, we could drill a well in that thirsty community to parents could stay home and take care of their kids. That's not a guilt trip. That's an opportunity.

I share Rick's desire to improve the world. I also recently heard a bit of wisdom from Sharon Eubank on this topic in a recent lecture at the BYU Kennedy Center. Sharon shared some of her experiences in dealing with international humanitarian aid. Her talk was explicitly about the vital importance of keeping LDS humanitarian aid and LDS proselyting strictly separate to ensure our continued ability to do humanitarian work. I want to highlight a different point from her talk, however.

Sharon is involved in the wheelchair distribution effort for the LDS Humanitarian Services division. For a while, they would find the cheapest wheelchairs to distribute to poor people around the world. This gave them the largest number of wheelchairs for their limited humanitarian dollars. However, they discovered that when the wheelchairs inevitably broke down, there were no local resources to repair or replace the chairs and the recipients were eventually just as bad off as they'd been before. Lesson: Pay more to purchase chairs locally and strengthen the local market to ensure that the chairs and suppliers will have longevity.

Sharon has seen humanitarian projects with big plaques on the wall (see her talk about that about 34 minutes into the video) that stroke the ego of the donor who made it possible. But something perverse happens. The community doesn't feel ownership of the well that was dug or the clinic that was built. Eventually, it decays, along with the sign, and the donor's name emblazoned on the plaque becomes a symbol of neglect and abandonment rather than a symbol of hope and empowerment. Lesson: emphasize community ownership and maintenance. The local people must learn to build and maintain the project and have the resources to carry it forward.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Will Reason Fail?

After a debate, which argument is more persuasive? Will conservative viewpoints convince more people, or will liberal viewpoints win the day?

I've been listening to the Intelligence Squared US debates. "Oxford style debate on America's shores." By the rules of the game, the winner is declared based on how many people switched rather than just the predisposition of the crowd that purchased tickets. Given that the events are hosted in New York, it comes as no surprise to me that the liberal point of view on each question usual starts and finishes with a greater majority of the vote. But which point of view causes more people to change their opinion?

The following charts summarize the results of the debates currently available online that had a political angle. (I skipped the debates that didn't seem to highlight a left/right divide such as "Good Riddance to the Mainstream Media" and "The Art Market is Less Ethical than the Stock Market.") Click the chart to see the date of the debate the the info about the participants.

Is it surprising that you find such a high number of people that pay $35-$45 to attend a debate and leave without picking a side?

Do these results mean that conservatives are more likely to hear the arguments before making a decision? Or does it mean that, after a full hearing of both sides of an issue, people are more likely to agree with conservatives? Do you think people, particularly conservatives, are going in with the intention of misstating their original belief so that their side will garner more "switch" points?

Should we expect more people to be persuaded by arguments? In an "enlightened" society, shouldn't we see a large majority switching to the side with the more "reasonable" arguments? Why don't we see that?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thanks for the Memories

How good is your memory? I seem to be blessed with a particularly faulty memory, including a shockingly poor ability to remember if I've seen a face before.

Do you remember the famous Hillary Clinton whopper where she talked about her mortal peril in Bosina? She said, “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

Her account is at odds with the facts (we have video), but the question remains, was she lying? We'll never know, but there is a remarkable amount of scientific research demonstrating the malleability of our memories. It is entirely consistent with scientific research to suppose that Hillary actually believed the Bosnia account as she told it.

Elizabeth Loftus used Clinton as an example in a lecture where she recounted lots of other juicy info about memory. Here are some tidbits:
  • There is no evidence for "repressed memories" as popularly understood.
  • Researchers have been able to "encourage" people to remember childhood incidents like getting lost in the mall or getting sick after eating an egg salad sandwich--that never happened.
  • People can convincingly recount their memories of seeing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, after reading a key piece of bogus advertising as a seed for the impossible memory. (They don't have Bugs at Disneyland, as you probably know.)
  • That false memory of the egg salad sandwich made those who were susceptible to the memory less likely to eat egg salad sandwiches up to four months later.
  • False positive memories about asparagus made people more likely to claim they would order asparagus at a fancy restaurant.
Isn't it crazy how changeable our memories are? I recounted the following information to a colleague. A few days later she included the material in a training exercise and got all the numbers wrong. Apparently, our memories about memory research is also susceptible to corruption. (Hence this post.) Ginger Campbell is summarizing the research presented in the book "On Being Certain" by Robert Burton. Here is an excerpt that will probably surprise you. Emphasis mine.

So within a day of the Challenger explosion he interviewed 106 students and he had them write down exactly how they heard about it, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. Two and a half years later, he interviewed them again and he found that for 25% of them their second account was significantly different from their original journal entries. In fact, more than half the people had some degree of error and less than 10% gave all the details exactly the same as they had originally.

Even so, before they saw their original journals, most of them were certain that their memories were absolutely correct. In fact many of them, when confronted with what they had originally wrote down, still had a high degree of confidence in their false recollections- even when faced with journals in their own handwriting, because they just felt that their current memories were correct. In fact, there was one student who said, "That's my handwriting but that's not what happened."
The moral of this story? Give people the benefit of the doubt and trust their sincerity until you have solid reason to believe otherwise. Thanks for the lesson, Secretary Clinton.

Friday, October 09, 2009

A Few Nobel Suggestions

The game is over for this year's Nobel Peace Prize competition. President Obama beat out contenders like Piedad Cordoba (Colombian senator that has helped free hostages), Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad (Jordanian professor who has fostered interfaith tolerance and dialog), Sima Samar (Afghan human rights activists), and 202 other nominees.

If the prize committee isn't aware of enough people with previous accomplishments, perhaps I can name a few for their consideration for next year. This list is just off the top of my head; surely with a little pondering you can augment the list with other worthies.

  • Bill Clinton. He didn't do so well as president, but since then he seems to be working hard with his Clinton Global Initiative. I'll bet there are a raft of accomplishments there we can cite in the nomination letter.
  • Bono. He's invested his fame heavily into promoting good causes.
  • Bill and Melinda Gates. Their work against malaria has been particularly noteworthy.
  • WWII veterans. Go with the large group concept that Time pioneered with their Person of the Year award in 2006. These soldiers sacrificed a lot to bring peace to the world. Sure it hasn't been perfect, but it was no small thing. Before the rest of them die off, let's give them this final honor.
  • Napoleon Dzombe. Yeah, you've never heard of him, but the stuff he's accomplished is remarkable.
  • George W. Bush. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that having Saddam off the world stage is a good step in the cause of peace.
  • Margaret Thatcher. Her health is failing, but she is the last of the trio, including Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, who did so much to resist the march of communism and help bring it down.
If none of those are good enough, and you need something more aspirational, perhaps you can select my kids. They bring such a huge smile to my face that perhaps they could bring world peace if I just shared them with the world.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Hypocrisy

I made a comment elsewhere quite a while ago that I wanted to capture here so I could find it more easily. It is something that has been bothering me for a while: charges of hypocrisy against conservative politicians who have affairs.


There is a more subtle point to be made here. Hypocrisy is frequently expressed as the divergence of one’s words with one’s actions. I’d alter that traditional definition a bit. I would say that hypocrisy is the divergence of one’s words from one’s true beliefs.

Let me give two examples. Joe is a public campaigner against overeating. Joe is 400 lbs. Joe may not be a hypocrite. He may merely be weak, a much less damning offense. He knows what a trap food has become for him and he wants to help others avoid his fate.

John is a public campaigner against overeating. John’s primary business is selling deep fried Twinkies at parties. John is more likely to be a hypocrite. We can more easily believe that he really doesn’t have a problem with people who have bad eating habits but that he merely says those things publicly because he thinks they will make him more popular.

I must admit that I haven’t read much about Ensign’s affair and the aftermath. Nor do I know anything about him as a person. So instead, let me speak to a hypothetical politician in his same situation. We’ll call him Fred.

Fred actually believes the things that he spoke publicly about morality and marriage. He recognized the weakness in himself that tempted him to violate his marriage vows. He recognized the damage breaking those vows would do to his family and to society at large. Thus, he took public positions that sought to encourage others to uphold those vows and virtues. Eventually, however, Fred succumbed to temptation and did what he knew he shouldn’t do. He still believes that what he did was wrong and is willing to publicly admit the same.

So far, Fred is not a hypocrite. He may be unfit for public office, but that is a separate question of trustworthiness and judgment.

Now suppose that Fred had frequently called for other politicians who strayed to step aside and relinquish their posts. But when his own failing comes, he decides not to step aside. Now I would say that Fred is a hypocrite. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Sanford.) He believes that what is right for him is different that what he’s been saying all along.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Coarse Politics

Tony Blankley offered quite a zinger on the most recent episode of "Left, Right & Center." Obviously, he went a bit over the top, but the point was dead on. The subject was the "coarsening of our politics."
Initially, the Democrats called the demonstrators who opposed health care “demonstrators”, then they call them a “mob”. Then the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, called them “evil”. Then the House Democratic leader, Steny Hoyer, called them “un-American”. Then the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called them “Nazis”. Then the president, on Labor Day, called them “liars”. Then the former Democratic President of United States, Jimmy Carter, called them “racists”. And then the Speaker of the House called them “encouraging assassins” a la Harvey Milk’s murder in San Francisco.

And then the president laments the coarsening of political dialogue. And he does it in an accusatory rather than a concessionary tone. That is an extraordinary list of statements made by the senior elected leadership of the Democratic party against the people who have been making nothing but policy arguments. So yes, there’s been a coarsening, but who’s doing the coarsening?
There were a few other comments, and then Tony had 15 more seconds for his "rant" at the end of the show and said this.

It is interesting that in order to find some rude or outrageous statements on the opposition side they have to look for signs in a crowd of 200,000 people. And for me to find rude and outrageous statements, I go to the senior elected Democratic leaders of the nation. I think that’s an interesting comparison.
Interesting, indeed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Second Guessing the Doctor

It is challenging as a parent to get medical advice from doctors that you don't believe you need to follow. Not that you believe it would be harmful to follow the advice, just wasteful. How can you avoid feeling like a terrible parent if you choose to ignore the physician's advice? What if the improbable occurs? It will be all my fault!

That psychology costs us a lot of money in health care. I've felt it many times in dealing with my own children.

My third child has spina bifida. This health condition carries a lot of risks. On the spectrum of spina bifida kids, my child is very blessed and is in excellent condition. When therapists tell us we should engage or this or that treatment or should have visits on a weekly basis, my wife and I look at each other and shake our heads. We suspect that some of the treatments are unnecessary, but we don't dare say no since we aren't experts. What if we're wrong?!

My fourth child was affected by jaundice after he was born. That is a high level of bilirubin in the blood that causes the skin to turn yellow and can result in brain damage. Yikes! Fortunately, the treatment is well known and simple. The child is placed under special blue lights that break down the substance in the blood and keeps him safe. In nearly all cases, the condition is temporary.

However, the hospital only had these lights in the ICU. That meant that the cost of his hospital stay was through the roof. ICU isn't cheap. And they gave him the attention that a baby in the ICU should receive! But he didn't need it. We would have been just fine in taking the lights home (as they eventually allowed us to do) and brought him in for daily blood tests. But the doctors had to be excessively cautious and so they ran a lot of tests that, in hindsight, didn't provide any value.

How could I tell them no, even though my wife and I agreed that the situation was absurd? We didn't dare! What if something DID go wrong? Would they sue us for being bad parents and take away our children? We had good insurance and so we just rode it out, bit the bullet, and paid our share. In the end, though, a lot of money was spent providing medical care that didn't enhance or prolong life.

How can we empower patients to say no? Unless we address this psychological challenge, we can't.

Monday, September 07, 2009

That Cost Me What?

I'm in the IT field, so I can readily appreciate that the value I provide is not only in pressing buttons on a keyboard, a task which any monkey can do, but in knowing which buttons to press and when. Likewise, I expect to pay a neurosurgeon a lot of money for the knowledge that he brings to the operating table in addition to the physical task that he performs.

Even with that caveat, I'm astonished at some of the prices I've been charged for health care procedures. Here is a sampling of some of the costs that blew my mind. I don't want to come across as ungrateful since I literally owe my child's life to the people who have cared for him.
  • $2,693: U of U Neonatal ICU room: My son was born with spina bifida. That meant that part of his spinal cord was poking out of his back in a little bubble when he was born. Obviously a touchy situation right after birth. After he was born, they passed him through a window from the delivery room into the neonatal ICU room. (We knew about the condition before his birth and were in the right place to be prepared to deal with it.) He stayed there for 90 minutes. They kept his back clean and safe in preparation for transport to Primary Children's Medical Center (PCMC).
  • $237: IHC Life Flight Service: This was the cost to roll my son through a hallway/tunnel that connects the U of U hospital (where he was born) into PCMC. Sure the gurney was like a space capsule, but it was obvious that it was massive lawsuit-avoidance overkill in transporting him between the two facilities. The task took about 15 minutes with two attendants. There was no helicopter involved. My part of the monthly premium (though my employer pays the lion's share) for health insurance is $277. If this tiny part of the care for my child is consumed with a pretty mundane task, how can we hope that I'll ever pay in enough to cover all the rest of this stuff?
  • $5,291: Neurosurgeon's bill. The surgery took a couple of hours. The quality of this surgery will affect the rest of my son's life. From what I can tell, it was done flawlessly. I list the price here for comparison with the neonatal room above. Sure, the surgeon made more in two hours than I earned in the month, but some things are worth paying for. I think this was one of them.
  • $161: Pediatrician visit in hospital. The doctor moves from room to room, checking on each child and answering questions from the parents. Each time he visited us for 5-8 minutes, they billed the same $161. I realize that I'm paying something for his availability and skill, but for a visit that was so brief, the price seems exorbitant. For an 8 minute visit, that works out to $20/minute. Most people feel good about making that much per hour.
  • $3,966: Neurosurgeon's bill. This was a shunt placement a few weeks after birth. It was literally brain surgery that inserted a tube into the middle of my boy's head and then down his body, underneath the skin, into his abdomen. I don't remember how this one compared in time to the previous surgery on his spine. This one will probably be performed a few times in his life as these tubes frequently fail. Remember that this is just the surgeon's bill. The hospital, drugs, anesthesia, and so on are all billed separately. (My wife reminds me that the plastic shunt valve itself also cost a small fortune... and has since been recalled. Does that mean we should get a refund?) I don't know why the price of this surgery was different from the previous one. It was the same surgeon, though obviously a very different procedure. I suspect both were equally complex, but I wouldn't really know.
The above list also proves that I have a very poor ability to gauge the value of the service that is being provided to me. Because the prices are so hidden at the time of service, we haven't developed any intuition for them like we have with other items we spend so much money on.

Would health care be different if we all knew the price up front? Would that necessarily be a good thing in every case? Would it even matter? I should note that nobody ever asked me whether we should do anything for my child. It was only a question of when, if even that. More on that in a future post.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Let's Start With the Price

Price is a market signal that should reflect, over time, all the cumulative cost of the components of a product or service. As we ponder the health care system, it seems like the first thing we need to do is break down the prices we are paying to understand why they are so high. Once we understand the thing that drives the price up, we can work to address those areas with market solutions.

Royce Flippin wrote an article that I've been meaning to write for a long time. Titled "The Price is Right: How Greater Transparency Can Help Fix Our Health Care System," the article makes the case that consumers must know what the price of service is before it is rendered so that they can make an informed choice.

One of the reasons people pay so much for health care is that average people are not told what their fees will be at the time of service. And even if a patient takes it upon himself to ask, getting the full answer is far from easy: He can usually find out the basic charge for an office visit--but what about a scan or a lab test? And how about the cost of those prescription medications being swiftly scribbled down? Most likely, the doctor or his or her staff will tell the inquisitive patient he has to wait for his insurance statement--or worse, the bill--to arrive in the mail.

This is so true. I never know what something will cost before I get it in health care with the partial exception of my dentist. When he tells me how much work I need, I do get a predicted bill for the service. The dentist is forced to do this because he doesn't want to perform work that people can't pay for. It is in his interest to give me advance disclosure, so he does. Why doesn't this apply to all doctors?

In a future post, I want to post some examples of prices I've been charged for medical care that astonished me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Speechless (well, not quite)

Governor Mark Sanford (R, S.C.) has admitted to an extramarital affair. And he disappeared--with apparently no one knowing where he was, and with no way to contact him, either by his family (he has four young boys with his wife) or by his staff--for five or six days. Over Father's Day weekend. To visit his mistress. In Argentina.

Wow. Just wow.

I think he needs to resign as governor. (Not that it is really any of my business, never having ever set foot in South Carolina before.) Oh, sure, he has resigned as the chair of the Republican Governor's Association. It's a start, but not good enough. Governor Sanford allowed his tawdry situation come between him and his duty to the citizens of his state. He allegedly was totally incommunicado for five+ days! I'm pretty sure I would be steamed if President Obama did that. Or if my governor did it. When you become a chief executive, that kind of thing is a luxury you don't get.

Senator John Ensign (R, NV) admitted to an affair about a week ago. Senator Ensign resigned as chair of the Republican Policy Committee, but won't be resigning from his senate seat. I think he should resign, too. (If he doesn't, I hope that the voters will take care of that for him. I know my mother vows never to vote for him again, even if she agrees with his politics.) My feelings are slightly less strong about this situation, though. At least when fallout from the affair threatened his ability to do his job (reportedly blackmail), he stepped up and admitted to the affair. (Still, I think: Resign, sir!)

These two politicians are following in the footsteps of far too many. (John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich come to mind.) Why does it seem that the majority of politicians have extramarital affairs? Is it just because we hear about them more, because they are in the public eye? Or is it a result of the power they get in office? Or are men with the tendency to stray more likely to become politicians?

Whatever it is, it ISN'T all right. We shouldn't turn a blind eye to it, or excuse it because the "other" side does it, too. I want men and women of strong moral character to represent me in the government. If someone can be tempted to break his/her marriage vows, what's to stop him/her from accepting a little bribe here, a little pay-for-play there?

Throw the bums out.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Flu Frustrations

I am seriously perplexed by the swine flu--not the flu itself, but information about the flu. You all know information is my bread-and-butter; I thrive on it. (Okay, yes, I thrive on knowing things other people don't know, in particular. It helps me feel superior and all that. Sad but true.)

For example: Why are we worried about a fall outbreak? Why is it possible it will be worse, scary, or catastrophic? I know I don't have the medical/chemical/biological background to really understand all the details about viral shifts and what-have-you, but reporters are usually pretty good at broadly explaining important stuff to us laypeople. We are told that we have to be on the alert for a fall outbreak, but not why it might happen. Does it just get passed around to just a few people here and there until we're all indoors again with the cold weather, and then SWOOP! it gets us all? And does that mean that in the Southern Hemisphere they should get it really bad now, and then not as bad starting in September?

And speaking of the public being told things, why, exactly, is the public being told to prepare for a fall outbreak? What, exactly, are we supposed to do? I can see telling public health officials about it, and I certainly don't mind reporting about meetings and what goes on during them, but there is little to no information/advice for the public on this subject. Okay, then, we're supposed to be alert for a fall outbreak. That's nice. So we should eat, drink, and be merry this summer, because in the autumn we die? Or maybe we should just be making sure we get our bunkers finished.

I'm frustrated because I feel like I am lacking the tools to deal with this crisis, whether real or imaginary. Anybody got any better information?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Notre Dame Should Welcome Obama

BYU took a lot of flack for inviting Vice President Cheney to speak at a commencement. I strongly disagreed with those who protested Mr. Cheney's appearance. Whether you agree or disagree with him personally, as a holder of high political office, he represents not only himself, but our country. If you can't agree with his politics or policies, you can at least celebrate the chair he sits in.

My view about Obama speaking at a commencement at Notre Dame is the same. I disagree with President Obama's position on abortion. But the ideals that he stands for as the president of our country are far greater than the several policy issues where we differ. I would be proud to hear Mr. Obama speak at any event and to honor his as our president.

In writing this post, I had to ask myself if I would have taken the same position on President Clinton. I'll admit that I would have had a harder time supporting him speaking at some BYU event. I understand that a similar sense of revulsion drives those who oppose Mr. Cheney. But I would hope that the principle of open dialogue would prevail and that we would be willing to hear those who are our elected leaders and honor the great traditions of our country.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Giving Helps the Giver

I listened to a terrific forum address at BYU by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. His intriguing thesis is this: people who give of their means to others end up receiving more than they give. In other words, being philanthropic leads to being more wealthy rather than vice versa. You can hear audio of the speech or you can watch the video. I can't provide a direct link to the video, but click here and then click "Conferences and Addresses" and then find the forum address from 2/24/2009.

He sets forth four myths that he rebuts during the presentation:
  1. Giving makes us poorer.
  2. People are naturally selfish.
  3. Giving is a luxury.
  4. Our nation can afford to substitute government for private giving.
As a Mormon, I particularly enjoyed his story about the "magic briefcase" near the end of his talk. He talks about a BYU briefcase he was given as a gift and the reactions from others and from himself when he--a Roman Catholic--carried it around when his regular briefcase broke.

On his website, he has a bunch of interesting statistics pulled from his book on this subject that you might find interesting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Moral Foil: Stem Cell and Torture

I recently posted one scientist's defense of the Bush administration's record on science. Will Saletan over at Slate just provided another very thought-provoking piece to the moral puzzle that surrounds one of the hottest scientific debates of the Bush presidency: embryonic stem cell research.

Though Saletan incorrectly describes President Obama's action as "lifting a ban" on stem cell research (the research wasn't banned; it was funded with severe limitations), he goes on to offer a word of caution to the proponents of embryonic stem cell research. He notes that they face a moral peril.

The best way to understand this peril is to look at an issue that has become the mirror image of the stem-cell fight. That issue is torture. On Jan. 22, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting interrogation methods used by the Bush administration to extract information from accused terrorists. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need," the president declared. "We are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard."

Did you catch the comparison? Apply that argument against torture to the stem cell debate. Ask yourself if your logic works when you switch topics using the same argument. It is a very probing question.

You don't have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don't—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

If you have trouble taking this question seriously—if you think it's just the hypersensitivity of fetus-lovers—try shifting the context from stem cells to torture. There, the question is: How much ruthless violence should we use to defeat ruthless violence? The paradox and the dilemma are easy to recognize. Creating and destroying embryos to save lives presents a similar, though not equal, dilemma.

Thanks for making me think, Will. That's why I keep coming back.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bush Science Record Defended by Liberal Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who describes himself as "left of liberal," takes some questions from the audience during an event while he talks about his book The Pluto Files. The questioner referred to the Bush administration as "the dark years" and asked for some comment from Dr. Tyson about President Obama's claim the he "is restoring science to its proper place in our society."

Dr. Tyson notes that the Bush administration was not "the black hole of science some said it was" and noted that science was treated with higher budgets during the Bush years--the only measure that matters in his view. He cited the example that the NASA budget was cut 25% during the Clinton administration and raised by 20% during the Bush administration.

This five minute clip is only part of a very entertaining presentation that is mostly about the planets and science. It is a fun watch for anybody who still has pride that they can name all the planets in order and cared when Pluto got the boot. If you want to watch the full ten-minute answer to this question (including the original question), go to the full version of this video and check out chapter 18.

UPDATE: The embedded video seems to be ignoring the internal place mark, so click the link above to see the segment in question.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Elementary Education Accreditation

Universities go through a rigorous process of accreditation each decade. BYU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities which is one of the major regional accreditation bodies. This body, while recognized by the government, is not a government agency.

I wonder if a similar process of accreditation wouldn't be healthy for our K-12 system.

According to one source, 20% of the US population relocates each year. That results in a lot of children moving from school to school. In some lower income areas, as many as one third of the student body will change over the course of the school year.

Given this shifting population of students, we should seriously reconsider the level at which curricula should be designated. I'm wondering if it wouldn't be healthy to have various accrediting bodies that endorse a particular curriculum. Local schools that favor that curriculum can sign on with that accrediting board to certify that they adhere to that plan of instruction.

Such an accreditation would allow migrating families to find schools which would provide the most seamless transition for the children. It would also preserve a measure of local self-determination for schools. The school could choose the philosophy it thinks is best, parents would have rough guides to the sort of school they are selecting, and children will have an opportunity for easier transition between schools.

I do not favor having the national government setting curriculum or enforcing standards. I think that the federal government should be largely uninvolved in education.