North Korea: Feel the Shame

The Boston Globe reports on the brand new UN panel report on human rights violations in North Korea:

It has been known for years that North Korea is a totalitarian hellhole ruled by megalomaniacs who have turned the country into a vast concentration camp. Millions of North Koreans have died from starvation caused by their government’s deranged policies; millions more have been victimized by its fanatical efforts to repress any hint of independent thought, and by its merciless assaults on human dignity. But the report issued by the UN panel this month, after a year-long investigation that gathered evidence from more than 320 victims and witnesses, paints such an extensive and meticulous portrait of evil that it compares in significance, as the Washington Post observed, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s devastating history of the Soviet labor camps, “The Gulag Archipelago.”

…“These crimes against humanity,” the report concludes, “entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

North Korean concentration camps have “lasted twice as long as the Soviet gulag did, and 12 times as long as the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and people the world over rallied for his freedom…Who rallies for the freedom of North Korea’s martyrs?”

“We should be ashamed,” says Justice Kirby, “if we do not act on this report.”

Yes, we should.

Slavery and African-American Christianity

Christianity Today has an excellent article that explores “The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity.” It turns out that “Presbyterian theology and Anglican liturgy…held little appeal to most blacks. Not until Methodists and Baptists arrived—with their emphasis on conversion as a spiritual experience—did black Christianity begin to take off…The Great Awakening, then, planted the seed of a more experiential type of Christianity that blossomed suddenly late in the eighteenth century. Black Methodism in the U. S. grew from 3,800 in 1786 to nearly 32,000 by 1809. Membership in black Baptist congregations increased as well, from 18,000 in 1793 to 40,000 in 1813.”

The abolition movement “prompted increasingly more slave owners to take the Great Commission seriously. Slave owners wanted to prove that slaveholding could be a positive good for both owners and slaves. In 1829, the South Carolina Methodist Conference appointed William Capers to superintend a special department for plantation missions—the first official and concerted effort of the sort.” Charles Jones, “the apostle to the negro slaves” and a slave owner himself, “began a ministry to evangelize slaves and to convince others to do likewise” four years later. “Southern whites were eager to show northerners that a gentle, Christian society—slave and free—could flourish in the South.”

Despite the intentions of slave owners, slaves were nonetheless “struck by something that transcended their culture. Many of them described how they were seized by the Spirit, struck dead (so to speak), and raised to a new life. Such conversions took place in the fields, in the woods, at camp meetings, in the slave quarters, or at services conducted by the blacks themselves.” While “some of the success must be credited to white missionaries—both slave owners and abolitionists—who insisted that slaves hear at least the rudiments of the Christian message,” ultimately “the Christianity that finally took hold of black souls, that grew and blossomed in its own distinct way, and that comforted and gave hope to a sorely oppressed people, was a different thing altogether than what whites had imagined. It was in some sense created and nurtured by blacks themselves, who refused to let whites frame their faith.”

A moving read. Check it out.

What Do Americans Think About Abortion?

Will Saletan, the national correspondent at Slate, is a smart and independent thinker on the abortion issue. He even wrote a controversial but highly regarded book called Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, said that the book “will make activists on both sides of the debate uncomfortable,” and that “there’s no smarter political commentator in Washington today.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the editor of National Review Rich Lowry, called Saletan “one of America’s shrewdest political writers,” and added “If you care about the issue of abortion, you must read this book.”

So when Saletan weighed in on the question of Do Most Americans Think Most Abortions Should Be Illegal? for the 41st commemoration of Roe v. Wade, I was intrigued to read his perspective.

The statistics on public opinion of abortion are pretty complex and very controversial. Saletan took an immediate dislike to a poll paid for by the National Right to Life Committee that provided unusually granular survey responses to a question about when abortion should be legal.

01 NRLC Poll Results

The poll (above) found that 53% of Americans fell within the broadly pro-life categories of opposing abortion at any time during a pregnancy with exceptions for the life of the mother as well as for rape and incest.

The NRLC also published the results of a poll from Gallup (a poll that they didn’t choose the questions for), and that poll confirmed the findings of the NRLC poll:

03 Gallup Poll Results

Based on these polls, one would conclude that most Americans are against most abortions, but Saletan thinks we should ignore these polls, and instead we should pay attention to a different collection of polls (also from reputable sources) that broke down abortion into the following cases: legal in all cases / legal in most cases / illegal in most cases / illegal in all cases.

02 Meta Results

As you can see, the NRLC and Gallup polls shows Americans opposed to most abortions. The polls provided by Saletan show the opposite. Who to believe?

Saletan argues that we should disregard the NRLC poll, but his reasoning is actually quite poor. According to him, the NRLC stacked the deck by picking 3 questions that are broadly pro-life and 3 that are broadly pro-choice, thus creating the false sense of equality between the two sides. Additionally, he suggests that with so many choice, folks will just opt for the middle.

This argument makes no sense, primary because both the polls Selatan disbelieves and the polls he likes are identical in terms of his alleged shenanigans. Three of the six NRLC options are more or less pro-life, but so are two of the four options in Saletan’s preferred polls. Additionally, it makes no sense to talk about driving people towards the middle when there are six choices. Six is an even number. If there was a strong central tendency for poll responses (Saletan provides no evidence of this assertion, and I couldn’t find any either), then wouldn’t the NRLC have picked five options instead of 6? (Or seven?) And, once again, the polls are identical in this since both have an even number of choices with half being pro-life and half being pro-choice. In short: Saletan has offered zero credible evidence to prefer one set of polls to the other.

The simplest explanation is the most reasonable, both polls are correct. In fact, Saletan implicitly argued for this in a follow-up piece (published the very next day) called The Political Peril of Second-Trimester Abortions. He wrote, “Poll numbers are usually meaningful, even when they don’t mean exactly what the sponsors claim.” In other words: respect that the answers people give to the actual poll questions are the best you’re gonna get, and be suspicious of what people extrapolate from there. That means we should prefer a theory that accommodates both sets of polls rather than one that forces us to try and explain away either set. (This is especially true because the NRLC’s poll is backed by a poll from Gallup and another one from CNN/ORC).

I took the trouble of looking through all of the polls that Saletan compiled to see if I could find a pattern. And I did. I found a very, very strong pattern that Saletan didn’t pick up on, and it is this: poll respondents react very strongly to the way the words “illegal” and “legal” are used. Here’s the Gallup poll that backed up the NRLC results:

Legal under any circumstances 26%
Legal under most circumstances 13%
Legal only in a few circumstances 38%
Illegal in all circumstances 20%

the CNN/ORC poll (scroll down a bit):

Always legal 25%
Legal in most circumstances 11%
Legal in a few circumstances 42%
Always illegal 20%

Note that the third option doesn’t contain the word “illegal”. That is different from the four options that Saletan mentioned: legal in all cases / legal in most cases / illegal in most cases / illegal in all cases. To see what ones of those examples looks like, take a look at the AP/GfK poll:

Always legal 34%
Legal in most circumstances 19%
Ilegal in most circumstances 13%
Always illegal 29%

Now the third option includes the word “illegal”. That’s it, that’s pretty much the sole difference between both sets of polls. If the pro-life position is described without the word “illegal”, then Americans are pro-life. If the pro-life position is described using the word “illegal”, then Americans are pro-choice. Take a look at those polls again, when the third option uses the word “legal” it is the most popular response (in both polls). When the third option uses the word “illegal” it is the least popular response. The swing is truly enormous: support for the same option drops by about 67% when the word choice shifts from “legal” to “illegal”.

Unlike Saletan’s theory, the observation about the effect of word-choice is actually strongly supported by empirically verified theory and also consistent with all of the results. That’s good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually make the answer to the question much more clear. So if you want the simplest answer to the question, it is this: Americans do not know if they want most abortions to be illegal or not.

I’ll go a little farther, however, and make two observations.

First, I’m inclined to think that the NRLC poll is actually the best poll of the bunch because it doesn’t switch between “legal” and “illegal”. It uses only “legal” throughout. (What I’d really like, however, is a comparison to the NRLC poll that asked the exact same questions but rephrased them to use “illegal” throughout”.) My hunch (and I admit it is just an informed hunch), is that this probably takes some of the emphasis off of the emotional punch of the change from “illegal” to “legal” and gets closer to Americans policy preferences.

Second, I think that in some ways the most important finding is being obscured by all this discussion. We may not know exactly what Americans think about abortion, but we do know with certainty that the policy the American people want is a policy that is incompatible with Roe v. Wade. This becomes really clear in Saletan’s second piece (The Political Peril of Second-Trimester Abortions). In it, he used additional data from a poll funded by the Knight of Columbus and found significant erosion of support for abortion rights during the 2nd trimester even among the population that self-identified as strongly pro-choice. The decline in support was constant regardless of how the questions were asked. He concluded:

This doesn’t mean that most Americans think most abortions should be illegal. According to the most recent government data, 92 percent of abortions are performed in the first trimester. Beyond that point, abortions are much rarer and much harder to defend, both morally and politically. Without the protection of the courts, it’s difficult to see how they’d stay legal. [emphasis added]

In other words, the only thing standing between the will of the people and pro-life reform of abortion is the Roe v. Wade decision. This is one of the common themes of the entire abortion debate: Roe v. Wade was such an absolutist ruling that it gave the pro-choice side everything it could possibly have wanted. Despite a thin veneer of moderate rhetoric it is, when combined with the Doe v. Bolton decision handed down the same day, a truly extreme position. As a result of getting everything they could have wanted, the pro-choice side has had nothing to win and everything to lose since 1973.

In contrast to the Roe v. Wade ruling, the American people are anything but extreme and absolutist. It’s clear that any abortion after the first trimester is outside the mainstream of public opinion. Within the first trimester, it’s harder to say where Americans draw the line.

In a sense, though, it doesn’t matter where they draw the line today. Right now that’s an academic question because—until Roe is overturned or modified in some way—there’s no way to touch first-trimester abortions. Or second trimester abortions, for that matter. This makes pro-life strategy obvious: focus on using the unpopularity of 2nd trimester abortions to erode Roe v. Wade. Support for Roe is still deep and strong, but only because so few Americans understand what the ruling actually does. By name? Roe v. Wade is popular. By effect? It’s toxic. The key is to make defenders own the toxicity. (Related: It’s also important to help Americans realize how many of them already oppose abortion, because media bias causes us to significantly over-estimate the popularity of the pro-choice movement.)

And that’s really all you need to know about American opinion on abortion. When they see the facts, Americans still make the right choice. It’s true of Roe today, and I believe one day it will be true of elective abortions, regardless of trimester.

(Note: This post has  been reprinted with permission by Secular Pro-Life and also by LifeSiteNews.)

Times And Seasons Post: Thanking God’s Advocates

2014-02-23 John_Martin_-_Sodom_and_Gomorrah

My post to Times And Seasons this morning is called Thanking God’s Advocates, the Promoters of the Cause. A God’s advocate (also known as “Promoter of the Cause”) is the opposite of a Devil’s advocate (“Promoter of the Faith”). One quote that folks seem to like is this one:

It’s become something of a fashion these days to talk about doubt, and I believe that recognition of our uncertainties and limitations is of vital importance. But so is a willingness to risk being wrong in the interests of trying to say or do or believe something true. Doubt is a part of the larger experience of faith, but it is not the whole experience. Someone needs to play the role of promoter of the cause.

The entire post is online at Times And Seasons.

The War on Reason

Paul Bloom
Paul Bloom

Psychologist Paul Bloom has a fantastic article in The Atlantic exploring the fields of neuroscience and social psychology and how the general public tends to draw the wrong conclusions from them. Bloom explains,

Everybody loves nonintuitive findings, so researchers are motivated to explore the strange and nonrational ways in which the mind works. It’s striking to discover that when assigning punishment to criminals, people are influenced by factors they consciously believe to be irrelevant, such as how the attractive criminals are, and the color of their skin. This finding will get published in the top journals, and might make its way into the Science section of The New York Times. But nobody will care if you discover that people’s feelings about punishments are influenced by the severity of the crimes or the criminals’ past record. This is just common sense.

Whether this bias in what people find interesting is reasonable is a topic for another day. What’s important to remember is that some scholars and journalists fall into the trap of thinking that what they see in journals provides a representative picture of how we think and act.

Or, put another way,

Statistically significant…doesn’t mean actually significant. Just because something has an effect in a controlled situation doesn’t mean that it’s important in real life. Your impression of a résumé might be subtly affected by its being presented to you on a heavy clipboard, and this tells us something about how we draw inferences from physical experience when making social evaluations. Very interesting stuff. But this doesn’t imply that your real-world judgments of job candidates have much to do with what you’re holding when you make those judgments. What will probably matter much more are such boringly relevant considerations as the candidate’s experience and qualifications.

Bloom concludes, “Yes, we are physical beings, and yes, we are continually swayed by factors beyond our control. But as Aristotle recognized long ago, what’s so interesting about us is our capacity for reason, which reigns over all. If you miss this, you miss almost everything that matters.”

Worth the read.

The European Union (Europe) or Eurasian Union (Moscow): The Ukrainian Protests

Protest rally in Maidan square, Kiev, Dec. 2013
Protest rally in Maidan square, Kiev, Dec. 2013

President Viktor Yanu­kovych apparently “signed a deal with opposition leaders to dilute his powers, form a caretaker government and hold early elections” according to The Washington Post. I know it is easy to get behind on international news and politics, so the Post had a wonderful piece that answers some of the most basic questions regarding the Ukrainian situation and the protests involved. The protests revolve around Yanukovych’s rejection of greater economic integration with the European Union. But why? As a recent article in The New York Review of Books explains, this integration was

an aspiration that for many Ukrainians means something like the rule of law, the absence of fear, the end of corruption, the social welfare state, and free markets without intimidation from syndicates controlled by the president.

The course of the protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights.

The most interesting bit, however, was the following about the claim that these protestors are Nazis:

Why exactly do people with such views think they can call other people fascists? And why does anyone on the Western left take them seriously? One line of reasoning seems to run like this: the Russians won World War II, and therefore can be trusted to spot Nazis. Much is wrong with this. World War II on the eastern front was fought chiefly in what was then Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus, not in Soviet Russia. Five percent of Russia was occupied by the Germans; all of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. Apart from the Jews, whose suffering was by far the worst, the main victims of Nazi policies were not Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians. There was no Russian army fighting in World War II, but rather a Soviet Red Army. Its soldiers were disproportionately Ukrainian, since it took so many losses in Ukraine and recruited from the local population. The army group that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front.

There is much, much more. With Russia’s recent barring of journalist and former Moscow correspondent David Satter just prior to the Sochi Olympics, it might be worth taking a look at this troubled country and the people who suffer because of it.

Double-dipping, The Verizon Way


Ars Technica has an article with responses from two sides, Cogent Communications vs. Verizon, of an increasingly-relevant corporate backroom debate involving multiple players that has already begun to affect the everyday life of a huge swath of internet subscribers in the US and has ties to the growing debate over net neutrality. The argument breaks down as follows. Let’s use the roads analogy I used in my earlier post about net neutrality and stretch it into absurdity:

Imagine that Verizon owns all the roads from you to halfway to the nearest Netflix distribution center, and another company, Cogent, owns all the roads from that point and the rest of the way to the Netflix distribution center. Verizon and Cogent have an implicit arrangement to allow traffic to pass unmolested at the switch point from one road network to the other. You have an explicit contract with Verizon that every month you can receive unlimited shipments from anywhere in the world but at a maximum of twenty per day, and each time you or anyone else wants a shipment they have to dispatch a messenger on a bicycle, creating a small but steady stream of outflowing traffic.

Netflix is sending at least a million shipments a month to everyone in your neighborhood and surroundings and the number is growing. Eventually, the incoming Verizon road starts to become clogged with shipments, many of them Netflix’s big trucks, and people start to miss their shipments from both Netflix and elsewhere and instead of being able to get twenty shipments per day per their contract with Verizon, they can only get ten or fifteen. Meanwhile, Verizon, instead of using money from their existing business to upgrade their roads to handle a higher volume of traffic, simply allows the road to remain gridlocked unless Cogent or Netflix pays them money to finance the upgrades, and the price they are demanding is many times higher than a typical equivalent construction project requires.

This is essentially what is happening right now. In a sense, Verizon is leveraging their stranglehold on huge parts of the US ISP market to hold both customers and content providers hostage from each other, separating customers from the content they have requested and content providers from their subscribers unless someone ponies up to their satisfaction. Their complaints about traffic disparity aren’t necessarily unjustified, but punishing their customers and reneging on their agreements is wrong. What they’re doing is tantamount to extortion, and it only works because there is no recourse for anyone, and they know it. The problem will only get worse so long as Verizon, Comcast, et al face little or no competition in their markets. Traffic will degrade, it will be discriminated against, and we’ll pay more for it.

This is what happens when we let the government bestow superpowers on rich corporations and not take seriously their mandate to regulate anti-consumer behavior.

New Study: Science v. Religion War is Overblown

2014-02-21 Science and Religion

I’ve written before about the supposed conflict between religion and science. Spoiler alert: there isn’t one. Reasonable people, whether or not they are scientists and whether or not they are religious, see no particular need for religion and science to be opposed. The impression persists, however, because the vocal minorities on either end of the spectrum find it in their best interest to keep the issue alive and because of occasional surveys that appear, at first glance, to validate the divide.

One example, which this article from The Economist cites, dates from 2010 when

Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University, caused a stir with a survey of 1,700 scientists at Harvard, MIT and other elite colleges. About a third were atheists (as opposed to fewer than one-in-20 ordinary Americans), just under a third were agnostics, and the rest reported varying degrees of belief.

Well, Ecklund is back with a newer and much bigger survey (more than 5x the size of the last one). The results? Quoting from The Economist again:

At the annual meeting of the AAAS in Chicago on February 16th Dr Ecklund unveiled the first results of a still-larger study into science and religion… This new survey sought out “rank-and-file” scientists: researchers in company labs, engineers, dentists and so on. To her surprise, Main Street scientists are only a bit less religious than the average American. Perhaps Ivy League scientists are ultra-secular because they are Ivy League, not because they are scientists?

I didn’t find any comprehensive guide to the results, and early press reports are just starting to come out a few days after the fact, but this article from Science and Religion Today had some initial findings. Among them:

  • 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict—and of this group, 52 percent side with religion.
  • Nearly 20 percent of Americans perceive religion as hostile to science, while about 22 percent think scientists are hostile toward religion.

It makes me wonder, how much of these three groups (the 27 percent who see science and religion in conflict, the 20 percent who perceive religion as hostile to science, and the 22 percent who think scientists are hostile to religion) is overlap? At a guess, it looks like we really do just have too polar extremes (about 15% to a side) who are busy shouting at each other about some never-ending conflict between science and religion while the rest of us wish they would both just shut up.

The important thing, I think, is to remember that the crazies may have us surrounded, but we’ve got them outnumbered.

The Dalai Lama and…Capitalism?

The American Enterprise Institute hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama for an event titled “Happiness, Free Enterprise, and Human Flourishing.” The two panels were “Moral Free Enterprise: Economic Perspectives in Business and Politics” and “Unlocking the Mind and Human Happiness.” The speakers (besides the Dalai Lama) included Arthur C. Brooks (AEI), Jonathan Haidt (New York University), Glenn Hubbard (Columbia University), Daniel S. Loeb (Third Point LLC), Diana Chapman Walsh (MIT), Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin), Otto Scharmer (MIT), and Arthur Zajonc (Mind & Life Institute). “This is such a wonderful day when a religious leader particularly loved on the left comes to a free market think tank,” said Jonathan Haidt (as quoted in a Yahoo News piece). “It makes me think we can break out of the rut we’ve been in for so many years in our arguments about business and government.”

Check it out.