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Updated: 2016-10-28T00:00:00-04:00


How Political Extremism Sways Presidential Elections and Public Policy


"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," Barry Goldwater famously declared as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. I have never really understood why some people thought those words were beyond the pale. Yet some more anxious and thoughtful souls worry that such "extremism" might possibly provoke people to engage in murderous mayhem. So how does political extremism play out in American politics? One new study shows that extremist arguments can be effective in shifting public policy debates. Another reports that voters do not penalize more ideologically extreme presidential candidates. "Exposing people to extreme conservative policies makes them more likely to prefer moderate conservative policies relative to liberal ones, and vice versa," reports the New York University political scientist Gary Simonovits. Simonovits' study, which was published in the journal Political Behavior, is basically an empirical confirmation of how the "Overton Window of Political Possibilities" works. As Simonovits explains, Joseph Overton was a libertarian policy analyst at the Mackinac Center who "argued that the range of policies or opinions deemed acceptable by the public is in a constant flux and can be shifted by introducing and defending ideas not yet 'on the table.'" Or as Daily Kos blogger David Atkins once summarized it: "You win policy debates by crafting arguments for extreme positions—and then shifting the entire window of debate." Simonovits tested this claim by deploying surveys that make statements about various policy proposals along the standard left-right political spectrum. Some were designed to be more centrist and others are more extreme. (He defines extreme positions as "those far from the policies that mainstream political actors stand for in a given time and place.") The goal was to see how exposure to the extreme policy proposals affects the participants' views. In one survey, participants read centrist liberal and conservative policy statements saying it should be made somewhat easier or harder to immigrate. Extreme liberal and conservative versions stated that immigration should not be limited at all or should be banned, respectively. In another survey, the centrist policy statements proposed slight increases or decreases in welfare; the extreme ones said welfare should be radically increased or entirely abolished. In another, the centrist statements argued that abortion should be legal in most cases or illegal in most cases; the extreme positions held that it should be either always legal or entirely banned. In the last one, the centrist arguments held that the federal minimum wage should be increased to $10.10 or kept at $7.25; the policy extremes involved increasing it to $15.10 or reducing it to $5.10. After running these surveys on about 4,000 participants, Simonovits reports, "Moderate conservative polices were perceived as more centrist when an extremely conservative alternative was introduced; likewise, respondents rated moderate liberal alternatives as significantly more centrist when an extremely liberal policy was added to the choice set." For example, respondents exposed to the proposal that welfare be abolished were more likely to see the idea of somewhat reducing welfare spending as more centrist than the idea that it should be increased somewhat. Simonovits found the same effect for each of the policy statements he surveyed. The relatively small effects in these one-off surveys suggest that political entrepreneurs do have a real hope that by continuously hammering their issues they can eventually get them "on the table" of mainstream policy discourse. Received wisdom of the pundit class is that American presidential candidates must run to the center in order to win, because wary voters punish candidates who are perceived as extremists. The landslide losses of Goldwater and Democrat George McGovern are supposed to be the prime examples of this phenomenon. The Holy Cross College political scientist Donald Brand expressed this conventional view when he wrote i[...]

Trump's 'Rigged Election' Talk May Backfire


"We've been busing people in to deal with you fucking assholes for 50 years, and we're not going to stop now," the Wisconsin Democratic operative Scott Foval declares in Rigging the Election, a video released this week by the conservative undercover-media activist James O'Keefe. In the video, Foval drunkenly discusses how to pull off a voter impersonation fraud scheme by sending folks with fake IDs to vote in neighboring states. The indiscreet Foval has since lost his job. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump invited O'Keefe to attend the third major party presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas. During the debate, Trump refused to say whether or not he would concede if he lost the vote the November, insinuating that there is a conspiracy to rig the election against him. "The O'Keefe videos will add some evidence to Trump's claims about a rigged election," says Joe Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. "They will give him some red meat to throw around." When asked how he thinks the public will respond to the O'Keefe videos, the Western Washington University political scientist Todd Donovan replied in an email, "My guess is that the viewers will respond to it through their partisan perspectives. It reinforces pre-existing Republican attitudes; Democrats will see the source and assume it's a hack job of editing." In a prepublication study, "The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in Election Fraud," Uscinski and his colleagues point out that significant proportions of both major parties believe that electoral fraud is common. "Republicans are especially prone to believing that people are casting ballots they should not, whereas Democrats are more concerned that they are not able to cast ballots," they write. As evidence they cite a national poll taken in July 2012 in which 54 percent of Democrats believed that voter suppression was a major problem compared to 27 percent of Republicans who thought so. On the other hand, 57 percent of Republicans believed that casting illegal ballots was a major problem compared to 38 percent of Democrats who did. "Electoral fraud is a form of conspiracy theory," Uscinski tells me. "And like any other conspiracy theory it is hard to disprove. Evidence that the plot didn't happen actually works in favor of the conspiracy theory: 'Look how hard they're working to cover it up.'" How common is electoral fraud? As Uscinski notes, since the would-be perpetrators do not want their schemes to be detected, voter fraud is by definition hard to measure. Nevertheless, most scholars have concluded that voter fraud, especially voter impersonation fraud of the sort that Foval appeared to be discussing, is rare in American elections. Uscinski thinks scholars probably undercount instances of voter fraud because the undetected successful instances don't get tallied. But he also thinks such frauds are vastly overestimated in the popular imagination. Keeping a national electoral fraud scheme hidden would be exceedingly hard to do, Uscinski points out: It would be a huge coordination problem involving lots of people in very uncertain circumstances with many opportunities for blunders. Donovan agrees. In an email, he writes: "Even if we take at face value the 'description' on the edited video of how to commit fraud, the execution wouldn't be possible. It would require thousands of voters per state (tens of thousands?) to affect these elections. Renting cars in dozens of tates to move voters to dozens of Republican controlled states, where they would have fake addresses to vote under, would require 20,000 people or 200,000 people or even more people with rental cars (or each in a car bought at an auction?) and just as many fake addresses. You would need to convince 200,000 people or more to commit a crime and assume not one would be caught." The video should be treated with due skepticism considering that Foval could be a lying braggart seeking to impress a novice politico with deeds of nefarious derring-do o[...]

There’s Never Been A Better Time to Be Alive


Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, by Johan Norberg, Oneworld Publications, 256 pp. $27.99 Johan Norberg wrote his excellent new book Progress for three reasons. First, because something important happened. Second, because no one believes it. And third, because it's dangerous that they don't believe it. Norberg's book comprehensively documents the myriad ways the state of humanity has vastly improved over the past couple of centuries. Global life expectancy was just 31 years in 1900. Now it has risen to over 71 years. In 1800, no country on earth had a life expectancy greater than 40 years. Now no country has a life expectancy under 40 years. And people aren't just living longer; they're living longer with fewer disabilities. The World Bank has defined the level of abject poverty at the equivalent of $2 per day. In 1800, when world population was around one billion, 94 percent of our ancestors lived in abject poverty. In 1990, some 37 percent of people still lived below the abject poverty line. Since then, the percentage of people on earth living in abject poverty has fallen below 10 percent. Global GDP increased as much in the past 30 years as it did in the previous 30,000 years. In 1986, global GDP stood (in inflation-adjusted terms) at $33 trillion. It now exceeds $73 trillion. Thirty years ago, global per capita GDP was $6,600. It is $10,000 today. Being healthier has gotten cheaper. In 1900, for example, the infant mortality rate in countries with a per capita income of $1,000 was 20 per 100 live births. Today, in a country with exactly the same per capita income, the infant mortality rate is 7 per 100 births. "So even if a country had not experienced any economic growth in a 100 years, infant mortality would have been reduced by two-thirds," he writes. Spillovers in sanitation and medical knowledge help even the very poorest live longer and healthier lives. We probably live at the most peaceful time in recorded history; your chances of being killed by another human being are far lower than in the past. For example, the annual homicide rate in medieval Europe was 32 people per 100,000. In the late 20th century, that rate dropped to about 1 per 100,000. The death rates of people being killed in wars have also fallen steeply, dropping from 195 people per million in 1950 to 8 per million in 2013. The environments in which people live, especially as countries become wealthy, have dramatically improved. Thanks for modern farming, the world is approaching peak farmland, which means that millions of acres of land will be reverting to nature over the course of this century. Composite air pollution levels in the U.S. are 63 percent lower than they were in 1980. In a recent talk at the Cato Institute, Norberg presented a graph that showed the global progress made on hunger, poverty, illiteracy, child mortality, and U.S. pollution since 1990: Norberg also writes intelligently about tradeoffs in the environmental arena. For example, he points out that spending $10 billion to build natural gas electric generation plants could help lift 90 million people out of poverty. Spending the same amount on renewable sources of electricity would help only 20 to 27 million people, leaving more than 60 million still living and dying in poverty. Norberg also celebrated the progress made on boosting education. In 1800, only 12 percent of adults could read. As late as 1950, the global literacy rate was just 40 percent. It is now 86 percent. The literacy differential between men and women is also shrinking. Among those aged 15 to 24, the international female literacy rate is almost 96 percent of the male rate. Educating women is key to even faster progress. Study after study finds that enabling girls and women to complete secondary education cuts the number of children they bear by between one-third and one-half. Basically, the desired number of children that couples want to have falls as women gain greater control over their fertility and participate in the wa[...]

Actively Open-Minded Thinking About Climate Change


Americans remain deeply divided along partisan lines on the issue of climate change, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. Seven in 10 liberal Democrats trust climate scientists to give full and accurate information on the causes of climate change, whereas only 15 percent of conservative Republicans do. In addition, 54 percent of liberal Democrats believe that climate scientists have a good understanding of the causes of climate change, compared to only 11 percent of conservative Republicans. Liberal Democrats also believe that climate research reflects that best available evidence most of the time. Only 9 percent of conservative Republicans agree. Why this partisan difference over what is essentially an empirical question? Some researchers have concluded that conservatives are less likely than liberals to be open-minded or to engage in effortful cognition when evaluating scientific evidence, especially when accepting those data means undermining their faith in free markets. But research from the Yale Cultural Cognition Project supports a different notion: This polarization tends to occur when accepting or rejecting a scientific thesis becomes a signal to your fellow partisans that you're on their side. For example, research by the Yale law professor Dan Kahan finds that as scientific literacy goes up, so too does partisan polarization on the issue of climate change. In other words, the more science people know, the more they are able to seek out and find information justifying their beliefs. In a new study, Kahan and his colleagues assess the relationship between accepting the evidence for man-made global warming with a measure for actively open-minded thinking and attitudes toward climate change. Actively open-minded thinking is defined as the "willingness to search actively for evidence against one's favored beliefs, plans or goals and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available." In a survey, some 1,600 Americans were sorted by political orientation and their propensity toward actively open-minded thinking. Psychologists have devised various questionnaires that aim to measure an individual's propensity to engage in such salutary cognition; Kahan's survey used a seven-item scale that asked participants to rate their agreement with such statements as "allowing yourself to be convinced by an opposing argument is a sign of good character," and "changing your mind is a sign of weakness." In the past, many researchers have argued that political conservatives tend to be deficient with regard to actively open-minded thinking. Consequently, they contend that if for some odd reason a conservative did have such a disposition, he would be more likely to accept the scientific evidence in favor of climate change. In fact, the opposite occurred. Since most liberals in the survey already believed that there is solid evidence of recent global warming due mostly to human activity, their probability that that they would accept that conclusion rose only modestly with higher actively open-minded thinking scores. On the other hand, the higher conservatives scored on actively open-minded thinking, the lower the probability they would agree that there is solid evidence for man-made global warming. The gap between liberals and conservatives on beliefs about climate change widens the more that both engaged in actively open-minded thinking. What is going on? The researchers argue that "actively open-minded thinking in fact enhances the proficiency of reasoning aimed at forming identity-congruent beliefs." Actively open-minded thinkers are "simply better at screening information for identity-congruent inferences." In other words, sophisticated reasoning skills enable people to more easily find and espouse information that indicates their loyalty to their political affinity groups. That doesn't actually seem very open-minded. Kahan and his colleagues conclude that sophisticated reasoning skills have "become tragically entangled in the soci[...]

Welcoming Our New Algorithmic Overlords?


Algorithms are everywhere. You can't see them, but these procedures or formulas for solving problems help computers sift through enormous databases to reveal compatible lovers, products that please, faster commutes, news of interest, stocks to buy, and answers to queries. Dud dates or boring book recommendations are no big deal. But John Danaher, a lecturer in the law school at the National University of Ireland, warns that algorithms take on a very different profile when they're employed to guide government behavior. He worries that encroaching algorithmic governance, or what he calls algocracy, could "create problems for the moral or political legitimacy of our public decision making processes." And employ them government agencies do. The Social Security Administration uses the tool to aid its agents in evaluating benefits claims; the Internal Revenue Service uses it to select taxpayers for audit; the Food and Drug Administration uses algorithms to study patterns of foodborne illness; the Securities and Exchange Commission uses them to detect trading misconduct; and local police departments employ their insights to predict the emergence of crime hotspots. Conventional algorithms are rule-based systems constructed by programmers to make automated decisions. Because each rule is explicit, it is possible to understand how and why the algorithm produces its outputs, although the continual addition of rules and exceptions over time can make keeping track of what the system is doing difficult in practice. Alternatively, so-called machine-learning algorithms (which are increasingly being deployed to deal with the growing flood and complexity of data that needs crunching) are a type of artificial intelligence that gives computers the ability to discover rules for themselves—without being explicitly programmed. These algorithms are usually trained to organize and extract information after being exposed to relevant data sets. It's often hard to discern exactly how the algorithm is devising the rules it's using to make predictions. While machine learning is highly efficient at digesting data, the answers it supplies can be skewed. In a recent New York Times op-ed titled "Artificial Intelligence's White Guy Problem," Kate Crawford, a researcher at Microsoft who serves as co-chairwoman of the White House Symposium on Society and Artificial Intelligence, cited several instances of these algorithms getting something badly wrong. In 2015 Google Photo's facial recognition app tagged snapshots of a couple of black guys as gorillas, for example, and in 2010, Nikon's camera software made headlines for misreading images of some Asian people as blinking. "This is fundamentally a data problem. Algorithms learn by being fed certain images," Crawford noted. "If a system is trained on photos of people who are overwhelmingly white, it will have a harder time recognizing nonwhite faces." But algorithmic misfires can have much more dire consequences when they're used to guide government decisions. It's easy to imagine the civil liberties implications that could arise from, say, using such imperfect algorithms to try to identify would-be terrorists before they act. Crawford cites the results of a May investigation by ProPublica into how the COMPAS recidivism risk assessment system evaluates the likelihood that a criminal defendant will reoffend. Although judges often take COMPAS risk scores into consideration when making sentencing decisions, ProPublica found that the algorithms were "particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants." In addition, "white defendants were mislabeled as low risk more often than black defendants." (Northpointe, the company that developed COMPAS, has plausibly asserted that ProPublica mangled its technical analysis and says that when the correct statistics are used, "the data do not substantiate the[...]

Live Long & Prosper


U.S. life expectancy now averages 78.8 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even better, a June 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research report finds that since 1992, the number of years of healthful life expectancy that Americans over age 65 can expect to enjoy has increased by 1.8. The latter study also found that disabled life expectancy had declined by 0.5 years.

This achievement—longer and healthier lives for most people—is largely the result of improved medical care. Cataract surgery and prophylactic treatments that prevent heart disease, such as medications to lower blood pressure, have significantly reduced the incidence of disabilities at younger ages.

"We identify the medical conditions that contribute the most to changes in healthy life expectancy," the Harvard-based researchers write. "The largest improvements in healthy life expectancy come from reduced incidence and improved functioning for those with cardiovascular disease and vision problems. Together, these conditions account for 63 percent of the improvement in disability-free life expectancy."

Burn-It-All-Down Political Antinomianism Is Not Libertarian


"With Donald Trump, you're either going to get something very good or very bad," former Democratic presidential hopeful Jim Webb said back in March. "But with Hillary Clinton were going to get more of the same thing. Do you want the same thing?" Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel had a similar thought in a Washington Post op-ed this month: Supporting Trump, is a way to say "to the incompetent elites who feel entitled to govern: 'You're fired.'" Rifle through the internet and you'll find the sentiment—even among some* frustrated Reason commenters—distilled crudely to "burn it all down." The burn-it-all-down Trump supporter (or potential supporter, in Webb's case) is engaged in what I call political antinomianism. In Christian theology, an antinomian is a person who believes the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation. In the current electoral context, voters disgusted with how corrupted our political system has become are attracted to the lawlessness at the heart of Trump's personalized theory of governance. "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," declared Trump at the Republican National Convention. Supporters have faith in Trump the Great Man and therefore are political antinomians. Yet the rule of law is the bulwark of liberty, as Friedrich Hayek argued. The rule of law is embodied in the principles of generality, equality, certainty, and justice. That is, laws must apply to all, including government officials; they should be equally applied, so legal privileges are prohibited; they should be clear and consistent and not arbitrarily changed; and they should aim solely to prevent the infringement of individuals' protected domains. Trump embodies the spirit of lawlessness. He showed how little respect he has for the First Amendment when he suggested he'd like to "open up" the libel laws to make it easier for aggrieved celebrities and politicians to sue the media. Even more egregiously, Trump threatened to use the IRS to go after Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, because he disliked what the paper had reported about him. With regard to Fourth Amendment guarantees of privacy, Trump has said that "security is going to rule" and that therefore "we're going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago." Trump has also said he'd be "fine" with restoring the NSA's authority to bulk-collect telecommunications data on to whom every American speaks, when, where, and for how long; back in 2013, he called NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a "traitor" and hinted that he should be executed. The Fifth Amendment provides that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. Yet Trump is a huge fan of using government eminent domain power to take private property and then turn it over to developers like him. He hailed the infamous Kelo decision, in which a Connecticut woman was forced out of her house so the city could turn her property over to Pfizer to build a business campus for the company. "I happen to agree with it 100%," Trump declared. "If you have a person living in an area that's not even necessarily a good area, and...government wants to build a tremendous economic development, where a lot of people are going to be put to work and...create thousands upon thousands of jobs and beautification and lots of other things, I think it happens to be good." Indeed, he tried to do the same thing to a woman in Atlantic City whose property he wanted for building a limousine parking lot. And this week he bemoaned the fact that the accused New York City bomber has, like all U.S. citizens, a right to an attorney. Apparently Trump would junk the Sixth Amendment too. Beyond the Bill of Rights, a parsing of Trump's policy proposals finds that, to the degree that anything he says can be believed, he has no intention of minim[...]

Why Is Socialism So Damned Attractive?


What is the attraction of socialism? The Cato Institute held a policy forum Wednesday to consider that question, featuring talks from the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. One problem they quickly encountered was how to define socialism in the first place. Is it pervasive, state-directed central planning? A Scandinavian-style safety net? Something else? Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who pursued the Democratic presidential nomination while describing himself as a socialist, attracted a big following among voters under age 30. But most of those voters actually rejected the idea of the government running businesses or owning the means of production; they tended to be safety-net redistributionists who want to tax the rich to pay for health care and college education. And this was, in fact, the platform Sanders was running on. Cosmides suggested the contemporary left/right divide rests on the question of whether people are inherently good or bad. The liberal thinks people are good but are ruined by exploitation; the conservative thinks people are bad and their selfish impulses must be reined in by cultural norms and controls. In fact, she continued, evolutionary psychology shows that human nature is composed of an extensive set of neural programs that are triggered by different experiences. Human beings evolved to handle the social challenges encountered in small bands of 50 to 200 people. Globe-spanning market economies strain our brains. Cosmides than critiqued the Marxist belief that early hunter-gatherers practiced primitive communism—that all labor was collective, and the products of that labor were distributed on the rule of from each according to his ability to each according to his need. Cosmides cited a classic study by the University of Utah anthropologists Hillard Kaplan and Kim Hill, who looked at how Ache foragers shared food. They reported that rarer, high-yield, hunted foods like game were more extensively shared than more common gathered plant foods. Finding game depends a lot on luck whereas finding plant foods depends more on effort. Such behavior reemerged in a 2012 experiment conducted by the Nobel-winning economist Vernon Smith, Cosmides noted. The study, which was published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, had modern college students hunt and gather in a virtual environment. In one patch, resources were highly valuable but hard to find—in economic lingo, they were high-variance. In another patch, the resources were more common and less valuable: low-variance. Since acquiring high-variance resources depends a lot on luck, sharing emerged quickly among participants who foraged in that patch; they recognized that otherwise they could easily go home with nothing. In low-variance situations, by contrast, how much you earned depended chiefly on how hard you worked. Sharing was almost non-existent among the low-variance foragers. Cosmides then turned to a fascinating 2014 study in The Journal of Politics by the Danish political scientists Lene Aarøe and Michael Bang Petersen. Aarøe and Petersen found that certain cues could turn supposedly individualistic Americans into purportedly welfare-state loving Danes, and vice versa. In that experiment, researchers asked 2,000 Danes and Americans to react to three cases involving a person on welfare. In one, they had no background information on the welfare client. In the second, he lost his job due to an injury and was actively looking for new work. In the third, he has never looked for a job at all. The Danes turned out to be slightly more likely than the Americans to assume that the person they knew nothing about was on welfare because of bad luck. But both Americans and Danes were no different in opposing welfare for the lazy guy and strongly favoring it for the unlucky worker. "When [...]

Transhumanism Is Inevitable


Beyond Human: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Extending Our Lives, by Eve Herold, St. Martin's Press, 291 pages, $26.99 "Transhumanism is becoming more respectable, and transhumanism, with a small t, is rapidly emerging through conventional mainstream avenues," Eve Herold reports in her astute new book, Beyond Human. While big-T Transhumanism is the activist movement that advocates the use of technology to expand human capacities, small-t transhumanism is the belief or theory that the human race will evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of deliberate technological interventions. As the director of public policy research and education at the Genetics Policy Institute, Herold knows these scientific, medical, and bioethical territories well. Movements attract countermovements, and Herold covers the opponents of transhuman transformation too. These bioconservatives range from moralizing neocons to egalitarian liberals who fear the new technologies somehow threaten human dignity and human equality. "I began this book committed to exploring all the arguments, both for and against human enhancement," she writes. "In the process I have found time and again that the bioconservative arguments are less than persuasive." (Herold cites some of my own critiques of bioconservatism in her book.) Herold opens with a tale of Victor Saurez, a man living a couple of centuries from now who at age 250 looks and feels like a 30-year-old. Back in dark ages of the 21st century, Victor was ideologically set against any newfangled technologies that would artificially extend his life. But after experiencing early onset heart failure, he agreed have a permanent artificial heart implanted because he wanted to know his grandchildren. Next, in order not to be a burden to his daughter, he decided to have vision chips installed in his eyes to correct blindness from macular degeneration. Eventually he agreed to smart guided nanoparticle treatments that reversed the aging process by correcting the relentlessly accumulating DNA errors that cause most physical and mental deterioration. Science fiction? For now. "Those of us living today stand a good chance of someday being the beneficiaries of such advances," Herold argues Consider artificial hearts. In 2012 Stacie Sumandig, a 40-year-old mother of four, was told that she would be dead within days due to heart failure caused by a viral infection. Since no donor heart was available, so she opted to have the Syncardia Total Artificial Heart (TAH) installed instead. The TAH completely replaces the natural heart and is powered by batteries carried in backpack. It enabled Sumandig to live, work, and take care of her kids for 196 days before a donor heart became available. As of this month, 1,625 TAHs have been implanted; one person lived with one for 4 years before receiving a donor heart. In 2015, an ongoing clinical trial began in which 19 patients received permanent TAHs. Herold goes on to describe pioneering research on artificial kidneys, livers, lungs, and pancreases. "Artificial organs will soon be designed that are more durable and perhaps more powerful than natural ones, leading them to become not only curative but enhancing," she argues. In the future, people will be loaded up with technologies working to keep them healthy and alive. (One troubling issue this raises: What do we do when someone using such biomedical technologies chooses to die? Who would be actually be in charge of deactivating those technologies? Would the law treat deactivation by a third party as tantamount to murder? In such cases, something akin to today's legalized physician-assisted dying may have to be sanctioned.) Artificial organs have considerable competition too. Herold, unfortunately, does not report on the remarkable prospects for growing transplantable human [...]

Hacking the Vote


Lots of voters, especially Republicans, are worried about voter fraud. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump stoked those fears when he warned supporters, "I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest." These fears and not-so-subtle efforts to skew voter registration in partisan directions have prompted strict voter ID requirements in several states with the purported aim of preventing the almost non-existent crime of voter impersonation fraud. But a recent Federal Bureau of Investigation "flash alert" suggests that the real threat of voter fraud might come from abroad. Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the FBI has warned election officials in Illinois and Arizona that their voter databases had been penetrated by intruders linked to IP addresses associated with Russian hackers. The hackers managed to download personal data on 200,000 Illinois voters and posted online the username and password of a user with access to the Arizona voter registration database. This cyber-intrusion followed on the now notorious hacks of the Democratic National Committee's dossier on Trump and later its email system. The release of those emails by WikiLeaks showed that DNC officials favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders and led to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's resignation as Democratic Party chair. The reports of voter registration database hacking provoked Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to send a letter to FBI Director James Comey that claimed "Russia's intent to influence the outcome of our presidential election has been well-documented by numerous news organizations." Reid also suggested that the Russian government might try to target American voting systems to throw the election to Trump. "The prospect of a hostile government actively seeking to undermine our free and fair elections," he wrote, "represents one of the gravest threats to our democracy since the Cold War." There is, of course, more than one way to interfere in an election. It isn't paranoid to worry about a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at confusing Americans. A fascinating and disquieting Rand Corporation review, titled "The Russian 'Firehose of Falsehood' Propaganda Model," finds that "the Russian propaganda model is high-volume and multichannel, and it disseminates messages without regard for the truth. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency." Recent Russian disinformation ranges from hacking an official Ukrainian website to claim a far-right candidate had won that country's 2014 presidential election to a social-media hijack trying to panic Louisiana residents with reports of a chemical plant explosion. But is it actually possible for Russian agents to stuff American ballot boxes? Probably not. America's decentralized electoral system is a significant bulwark against hacking the vote. There are some 8,000 jurisdictions in the U.S., and they use a mix of disparate electronic and paper balloting systems. Hackers trying to influence a national election would have to attack a whole bunch of individual machines, each with different software. On top of that, 75 percent of Americans will vote this year using paper ballots. (Of course, erasing voter registration rolls in key states just before the election would be disruptive, to say the least.) For years, many researchers have been warning that our electronic voting machines are vulnerable. Only last year were the "worst voting machines" in America decertified by the board of elections in my home state of Virginia. (The machines left no paper trail and were so insecure that they could be hacked from the parking lot of the polling place.) Still, there is no evidence that those machines were in fact tampered with during any election. And even if they were, that in it[...]

Most Scientific Findings Are Wrong or Useless


"Science, the pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble." So begins "Saving Science," an incisive and deeply disturbing essay by Daniel Sarewitz at The New Atlantis. As evidence, Sarewitz, a professor at Arizona State University's School for Future Innovation and Society, points to reams of mistaken or simply useless research findings that have been generated over the past decades. Sarewitz cites several examples of bad science that I reported in my February article "Broken Science." These include a major biotech company's finding in 2012 that only six out of 53 landmark published preclinical cancer studies could be replicated. Researchers at a leading pharmaceutical company reported that they could not replicate 43 of the 67 published preclinical studies that the company had been relying on to develop cancer and cardiovascular treatments and diagnostics. In 2015, only about a third of 100 psychological studies published in three leading psychology journals could be adequately replicated. A 2015 editorial in The Lancet observed that "much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue." A 2015 British Academy of Medical Sciences report suggested that the false discovery rate in some areas of biomedicine could be as high as 69 percent. In an email exchange with me, the Stanford biostatistician John Ioannidis estimated that the non-replication rates in biomedical observational and preclinical studies could be as high as 90 percent. Sarewitz also notes that 1,000 peer-reviewed and published breast cancer research studies turned out to be using a skin cancer cell line instead. Furthermore, when amyotrophic lateral sclerosis researchers tested more than 100 potential drugs reported to slow disease progression in mouse models, none were found to be beneficial when tested on the same mouse strains. A 2016 article suggested that fMRI brain imaging studies suffered from a 70 percent false positive rate. Sarewitz also notes that decades of nutritional dogma about the alleged health dangers of salt, fats, and red meat appears to be wrong. And then there is the huge problem of epidemiology, which manufactures false positives by the hundreds of thousands. In the last decade of the 20th century, some 80,000 observational studies were published, but the numbers more than tripled to nearly 264,000 between 2001 and 2011. S. Stanley Young of the U.S. National Institute of Statistical Sciences has estimated that only 5 to 10 percent of those observational studies can be replicated. "Within a culture that pressures scientists to produce rather than discover, the outcome is a biased and impoverished science in which most published results are either unconfirmed genuine discoveries or unchallenged fallacies," four British neuroscientists bleakly concluded in a 2014 editorial for the journal AIMS Neuroscience. Some alarmed researchers refer to this situation as the "reproducibility crisis," but Sarewitz convincingly argues that they are not getting to the real source of the rot. The problem starts with the notion, propounded in the MIT technologist Vannevar Bush's famous 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier, that scientific progress "results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown." Sarewitz calls this a "beautiful lie." Why it is a lie? Because it makes "it easy to believe that scientific imagination gives birth to technological progress, when in reality technology sets the agenda for science, guiding it in its most productive directions and providing continual tests of its validity, progress, and value." He adds, "Technology keeps science honest." Basically, research detached from trying to s[...]

Mandated Biofuels = More Greenhouse Gases


Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump agree on at least one thing. Both support the federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), which mandates the production of billions of gallons of biofuels. When asked at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet if he supported it, Trump replied, "Yes, and a very strong yes. There is no reason not to. We need it. We need every form we can get. Ethanol is terrific, especially with the new process. And I am totally in favor of ethanol 100-percent and I will support it." In a 2015 Cedar Rapids Gazette op-ed, Clinton declared, "The United States should also continue supporting—and improving—the Renewable Fuel Standard and other federal incentives that have been a success for Iowa and much of rural America." Trump is more interested in biofuels as replacements for imported oil, but Clinton notes that they "can also play an important role in reducing carbon emissions." (Clinton may now be backtracking on her support of the RFS.) The RFS was passed as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and it mandates the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that substituting biofuels for gasoline and diesel will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 138 million metric tons by that time. Not so fast, a group of University of Minnesota researchers say in a new study for the journal Energy Policy. They argue that the biofuels mandate is more likely to increase than reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. transportation sector. Why? The rebound effect. The rebound effect can be illustrated by a consumer who buys a more fuel-efficient car, sees that the fuel costs of driving have been reduced, and thus drives more, partly negating the energy and greenhouse reductions that are supposed to result from fuel-efficiency mandates. In some cases, the rebound is greater than the initial energy savings, so consumers end up using more energy and emitting more greenhouse gases than before. This phenomenon is known as "backfire." The Minnesota researchers' study calculates that that is what will happen with the RFS—that it will backfire and result in more rather than less greenhouse gas emissions. "The amount of fossil fuel displaced by a low-carbon fuel is determined by the economic forces of supply and demand," the authors observe. "In general, an increase in fuel supply causes a decrease in fuel prices, which in turn encourages greater fuel consumption." The authors conservatively estimate, based on an extensive survey of previous research, that about a half-gallon of gasoline is displaced by the energy equivalent of a gallon of biofuel. In other words, they assume a 50 percent gasoline displacement rate. The RFS has different tiers of biofuels. Conventional biofuels, such as corn ethanol, are supposed to emit 20 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline. The advanced biofuels used to replace diesel are supposed to emit 50 percent less, and cellulosic biofuels 60 percent less, than burning gasoline. The researchers first calculate what the effect on greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 would be if each gallon of biofuel fully replaced a gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel. In other words, no rebound effect. They get a reduction of 110 metric tons of greenhouse gases, which is pretty close to the EPA's estimate. After crunching the numbers this means that the biodiesel mandate in which the fuels are supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent of the fossil fuel equivalent is a wash—no increase in emissions, but no reductions either. Focusing on the biofuels that aim to substitute for gasoline by 2022, the researchers find that the cellulosic biofuels s[...]

Voter ID and Rigged Elections


"If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised," Donald Trump told The Washington Post on August 2. "The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times." Trump was reacting to recent federal court decisions that threw out strict voter identification laws in North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. The main source of contention in the cases had been the requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID before being permitted to cast their ballots. Proponents of strict voter ID laws say that they are necessary to prevent voter impersonation, a form of fraud in which individuals cast more than one ballot. Opponents counter that the demand for photo identification is meant to suppress the turnout of minority and poor voters, who are less likely to have such documents. In other words, they say voter ID laws are an attempt to rig elections against those candidates who are more likely to be supported by minorities and poor people. Voter impersonation fraud appears to be almost non-existent. In the wake of 2000's ballot-counting fiasco, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to improve voting systems and voter access. In 2007, the commission issued its Election Crimes report, which reviewed what data there was and analyzed numerous anecdotes about voter fraud. The report noted that many experts "asserted that impersonation of voters is probably the least frequent type of fraud because it is the most likely type of fraud to be discovered, there are stiff penalties associated with this type of fraud, and it is an inefficient method of influencing an election." The penalties include $10,000 in fines and up to five years in prison. The New York Times reported in 2007 that a five-year Department of Justice crackdown on voter fraud had yielded just 86 convictions. In 2014, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, reported finding just 31 cases of voter impersonation fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. Politifact calculated in 2015 that you are 13 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to stumble across an instance of in-person voter fraud in Texas. In other words, Trump's allegation is a hallucination. What happens if you look at the question from the other direction? Do strict voter ID laws significantly skew electoral results? The evidence is mixed. For example, a 2013 study by Indiana University law professor Michael Pitts looked at the total number of ballots cast in the 2008 and 2012 Indiana primaries. He also counted the total number of provisional ballots cast and the total number of provisional ballots counted. Ultimately, Pitts finds that provisional ballots resulting from ID problems amounted to a minuscule 0.026 and 0.012 percent of all ballots cast in the 2012 and 2008 primaries respectively. "With the lack of evidence of actual instances of in-person voter fraud, it's quite possible that even though the actual disfranchisement caused by photo identification on the overall electorate is slight, the actual disfranchisement is vastly higher than the amount of in-person voter fraud that would occur," Pitts argues. "From this perspective, one could easily conclude that a photo identification law does much more harm than good." By triggering grassroots anger, strict voter ID requirements may actually mobilize voters among the ethnic and demographic groups allegedly targeted by the new rules, according to a 2016 study in Political Psychology. This argument is bolstered by a 2007 University of Missouri study that found that Indiana's photo ID laws appear to have actually increased Democratic turnout by 2 percent in the 2006 [...]

The Nuclear War Over Climate Change


If you're concerned about climate change, it would be perverse to fight a technology that can supply copious quantities of no-carbon energy 24 hours a day—right? Well, when it comes to nuclear power, lots of leading environmental activists are indulging in just such perversion. For orthodox greens, the only untainted electrons are those jiggled free by sunlight or stirred by wind. One battle in this intra-green war just played out in New York State this week. The good news is that the eco-modernist supporters of nuclear power were strong enough to win. The bad news is that the plan they were fighting for will lead to more government meddling in energy markets. What happened? Unable to compete with heavily subsidized wind and solar power or electricity generated using cheap natural gas, the operators of four upstate New York nuclear reactors were planning to shut them down. Closing the plants would be a significant setback for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's ambitious plan to reduce the state's carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector. Currently the state gets 32 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, 19 percent from hydropower, 3 percent from wind, and 0.1 percent from solar. Burning natural gas currently generates about 41 percent of the state's electricity with the remainder from coal and oil. In order to forestall these nuclear shut-downs, state regulators decided this week to subsidize nuclear power plants at a rate of $500 million per year. The deal was announced by the state's Public Service Commission when it adopted a plan to mandate that 50 percent of the state's electricity be produced using renewable energy by 2030. Under the new Clean Energy Standards, each nuclear plant will be allocated zero emissions credits, which utilities must purchase when buying power from them. It is estimated that the credits will sell for about $17.48 per megawatt-hour of electricity. That money will go to the bottom lines of the plant's owners, Entergy and Exelon. Now everybody's a subsidized rent-seeker. The idea of subsidizing nuclear power plants sparked a furious round of recriminations among various environmental groups. For example, the Sierra Club opposed what it characterized as "massive ratepayer-funded subsidies to the nuclear power industry." The Alliance for a Green Economy organized a coalition of 112 activist groups, including Greenpeace, Food & Water Watch, Frack Action, and Upstate New York for Bernie Sanders, to sign an open letter arguing against the proposed nuclear subsidies. Spearheading the pro-nuclear green campaign was a new group, Environmental Progress. Founded by eco-modernist Michael Shellenbeger, Environmental Progress, unlike most dogmatic green groups, fully understands that poverty is the biggest threat to the integrity of the natural world. In its open letter to the Public Service Commission, Environmental Progress argued that the subsidies "embody a fair and equitable standard in treating nuclear power on a similar footing with other low-carbon sources." The letter added that the subsidies were "critical to safeguarding New York's low-carbon nuclear power, ensuring the security of the electricity supply, and meeting the state's decarbonization goals." New York State's electric power sector currently emits 30 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. If the four upstate nuclear power plants were to be replaced by natural gas plants, the state's annual carbon dioxide emissions would jump by 15.5 million tons, a 50 percent increase. The Environmental Progress letter was signed by several environmental heavy-hitters, including Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, climate change crusader James Hansen, and a former president [...]

Border Backfire


Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump promises that he would deport all 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. But why did so many come and then choose to stay?

A March study in the American Journal of Sociology, "Why Border Enforcement Backfired," finds that ever-greater efforts to close down the border led to the decision by many of those who made it here to remain in America rather than risk returning to their home countries. From 1986 to 2010, the U.S. government spent $35 billion on border enforcement. The result was to essentially militarize the boundary line with Mexico, making it harder for migrants to travel safely back and forth. Crossers were more frequently caught and forced to choose more dangerous routes to slip back into the U.S.

As one of the researchers, the Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, explained at, "As the costs and risks rose, migrants naturally minimized border crossing—not by remaining in Mexico but by staying in the United States." And under those circumstances, migrants were more likely to bring their families with them. The researchers conclude that greater border enforcement unintentionally transformed "undocumented Mexican migration from a circular flow of male workers going to three states into an 11 million person population of settled families living in 50 states."