Archive for March, 2011

At her blog, hbdchick has a discussion of the north-south division in Spain where she asks if there are any differences in IQ that show up.  I suggested looking through the 2009 PISA results, which she did.  To follow up, I decided to map out the results for Spain and Italy.  For each map, the pure black is 400 and pure white is 525 (a scale I came up with before I realized that Lombardy had a 526 average science score).  To start, here are the maps for Reading scores:
It is worth noting that PISA did not release the scores for three autonomous communities in Spain: Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha, and Valencia, which form a band immediately to the north of Andalusia and Murcia. I’ve made those three mostly transparent.

Nuclear Scare!

In the wake of the 9.0 Mw earthquake that took place off the coast of Japan and its associated tsunami, an area that has caught the attention of the news media, particularly in the West has been the condition of the reactors at the Fuskushima I Nuclear Power Plant.  Because of the public sensitivity and ignorance with regard to nuclear issues, a point well-illustrated by the fact that MRI machines are so-named despite employing essentially the same technology as nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, the reporting of the story has generated a sense of hysteria among the public, who are frightened by talk of explosions and meltdown and by pictures of technicians in protective suits scanning locals in Fukushima province for radiation exposure.

In the wake of this, I want to point out a few sources that take a sober look at the problem.  The first is from Mutant Frog Travelogue, which presents the situation with the necessary caveats to those currently in Japan.  The second is the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub, which provides periodic updates as well as background on the mechanics.  The third is the following video conversation between science journalist John Horgan and nuclear engineer Rod Adams:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To be fair, Adam’s is an adamant pro-nuclear advocate, so his instinct to downplay the dangers of this incident may be overly strong, but his background gives him a sense of proportion that is sorely lacking in many of the reporters and consumers of information that have clamored around this story.

I do wish the best to the people of Japan as they begin the long process of rebuilding their country and reestablishing normality, and I do think that this is a grave and serious matter that deserves the attention of the relevant authorities and that necessary precautions should and are being taken.  However, it seems clear to me that most of the attitudes concerning the Fukushima I plant have bordered on hysteria, including ridiculous moves by some foreign governments and one of the responsibilities of both providers and consumers of information is to obtain a proper context for what is happening and that is happening it too few places.

Update: Steve Hsu points to an interview with the UK government’s Chief Scientific Officer John Beddington on the website of the British embassy in Tokyo.  Hsu highlights the following passage regarding what a meltdown would mean:

If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown.” But what does that actually mean? What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials that is likely.

Remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 meters up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area. It’s not serious for elsewhere, even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 meters.

If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation, i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down, do we have a problem? The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue.

The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavor for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 meters but to 30,000 feet; it was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometers. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation.

The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really reemphasize is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometers, it’s really not an issue for health.

Again, this is very serious, but a sense of proportion is warranted here.

On NPR’s Scandal

Yesterday, NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller resigned as did VP Ron Schiller over a video released by conservative activist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas showing a collection of embarrassing statements made by the latter Schiller:


As can be seen in the video, two men acted as members of a fake organization claiming to be an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood looking to make a donation to NPR and met with Ron Schiller and Betsy Liley to discuss the topic.  While conservative sites and libertarian ones paraded the video around, some liberal commentators showed surprising tone-deafness to its contents.

Overall, I have to agree with Heather Mac Donald that this is a dog bites man story in that NPR’s liberal bias is well-known and NPR is not responsible for the opinions of its individual employees.  However, I do think that the O’Keefe video provides a more concrete view of the issue.  What Ron Schiller’s comments (as well as Xeni Jardin’s reaction to the story) show is the extent to which ideologies affect a person’s view of reality and the blind spots incurred as a result and ultimately, that is the cause of NPR’s bias issues.

The issue is not that Ron Schiller has the views that he has, but rather that his views are likely not far from the norm for NPR employees, regardless of whether the journalists and editors there admit them aloud.  Heather discusses how this plays into some of her pet issues of urban crime and poverty, but more generally, even if a reporter seeks to be fair and neutral as possible in reporting a story, often ideology helps determine what is an important focus and helps fram the issues involved in the reporters mind, which leads to a liberal worldview presented in neutral wrapping.

Ultimately, O’Keefe’s video is a political gimmick aimed at forwarding what is a generally laudable goal of stripping the public broadcasting companies of their federal funding.  The stations will survive, as there is certainly a market for them to exist, but the federal government doesn’t need to be subsidizing the tastes of urban liberals.

Last night Republicans in the Wisconsin State Senate passed a bill that enacted the most contentious element of their proposed budget, the stripping of many of the state’s public unions’ collective bargaining rights through a procedural measure by stripping the element from the budget and ensuring that it contained no language of direct fiscal effect, allowing them to pass the bill without the three-fifths quorum necessary to pass any bill with fiscal impact.

While it does seem that this standoff will be politically costly for the GOP in the near term, I don’t think that it’s been particularly edifying for the unions or Democrats who are now complaining of the unfairness of passing the measure through a procedural technicality which they blocked using a procedural technicality.  While in the short term, the public sector unions have garnered some public sympathy, the erosion of their power means that less state money will be funneled into liberal activist outlets, which will curtail some of the Democratic Party’s power, as James Kirkpatrick points out at Alternative Right.

In the long run, however, it’s hard to see where this will lead.  If Democrats manage to win back both houses and the governorship at some point, which is a likelihood, given Wisconsin’s recent role as a Democratic-leaning swing state, they will be sure to restore the powers that this year’s Republicans are managing to curtail.  While I don’t think that public sector unions are justified entities, it seems that my view is a minority one for now and I doubt that we’ll see Republicans flee across the border when the tables are turned.

For now, Wisconsin has won a respite from the rent-seeking powers of public employee cartels.

Superstitious Competition

Ron Guhname recently posted an excerpt from What Americans Really Believe by Rodney Stark as a counterpoint to the notion that belief runs along a continuum from religion to skepticism.  It showed that a higher proportion of those who don’t attend church regularly buy into superstitions like Bigfoot, UFOs, and Astrology.

This point reminded me of the results of the 2005 Eurobarometer poll on the topic of Europeans’ beliefs regarding the existence of the divine.  Here’s a map of Europe where the brighter the country, the higher the rate of belief in God (a country where 100% professed belief in God would be white, whereas a country where 0% did would be black).  Translucent areas weren’t included in the poll:

Clearly there’s a wide range of opinions on the topic of God’s existence throughout Europe.  Interestingly enough, most of the countries that have the low rates of belief are in Western Europe rather than in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe.

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While the attempt to trivialize human differences by using cosmic comparisons is largely non sequitur, an attempt to distract from matters close at hand with others far more distant, that does not mean that the motivation for doing so is not a noble one.  Returning to Jill Tarter’s quote, there is a clear double entendre in the bolded section:

As Carl Sagan said, we are all made out of stardust. You are actually made out of the remnants of that star that blew up billions of years ago, and the connectedness of life to the Cosmos and the idea of thinking about, maybe, life somewhere else, I think has the opportunity to trivialize the differences among humans on this planet that we find so troublesome.

Taken literally, it seems that she is arguing to trivialize the differing characteristics of humans.  Certainly this interpretation makes a good deal of sense, particularly since she emphasizes the fact that “we are all made of stardust”, thus highlighting a shared characteristic.  However, at the same time, “differences” can also refer to conflict, and interpretation suggested by the descriptor “that we find so troublesome”.  The second interpretation also jibes with the passage of The Pale Blue Dot that I referenced in my last post.


Here is a sample of the collection of facial averages generated by Dragon Horse.  The ones below are from left to right: West African, English, and Taiwanese.

The contrasts are stark, not just between different geographic locales but also between the sexes.  It is true that all of the individuals whose pictures went into creating these averages consist of roughly the same balance of elements, which were in turn formed in the same collection of stars and supernovae, but it is clear that they are different.  Even when the features of any one individual is lost in an average of co-ethnic peers, strong differences remain.

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