Can critical thinking actually be taught?

February 27th, 2017

Can critical thinking actually be taught?

Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

This can unsurprisingly rub their hosts the wrong way

February 26th, 2017

If our first impulse is to call immigrant-skeptics bigots, we would do well to step back and take a fuller look at the data, M.G. Miles suggests. After presenting many, many graphs of the data, he shares these conclusions:

On the contrary, as we have seen, there is a real civilizational divide between what we think and what Muslims in their homelands think about the proper place of government, women, religion, and morality in public life. They also show far lower levels of out-group trust than we do in the West.

And when they come to our countries, it is often with the hope that we change our habits and customs, not the other way round. This can unsurprisingly rub their hosts the wrong way.

And despite a bourgeois class who both adopt western values and obey the law, there are a great many who fall prey to social dysfunction. The latter tend to commit more crime, use more welfare, and do less well in school than their hosts. This patchwork of anti-social behavior and rejection of Western values has made Muslims undesirable immigrants in the eyes of many.

[...]

Whatever the ingredients in the cake may be, the evidence is stacking up that Muslim immigrants to the West, even the ‘moderates,’ feel deeply uncomfortable here. Even as they walk among us, they seem to remain stuck on the far side of a civilizational gulf.

So if our first impulse is to call immigrant-skeptics ‘bigots,’ we would do well to step back and take a fuller look at the data. The discomfort our Muslim newcomers feel is palpable, it is measurable, and it is long-lasting. As its destabilizing effects are becoming more intense, it should come as no surprise that many of us are reluctant to usher even more, refugees or not, into our rapidly fraying societies.

Terrorism Denial

February 25th, 2017

It’s become increasingly apparent that some proportion of the left is engaged in a kind of terrorism denial:

They cite the relatively modest fatalities in the US and other western countries from terrorist attacks since September 11 — and it’s always ‘since’ — as evidence of this apparent lack of threat.

These numbers are misleading for a number of reasons. Simply adding up the body count from various causes of death doesn’t reflect why terrorism should concern us — how and why these deaths occurred is also important. Accidental deaths should be less concerning to us than deaths caused on purpose. Lawnmowers and armed toddlers may indeed do us harm, but they don’t intend to do it. More importantly, they don’t seek to do more harm than they actually do. In contrast, the ambition of a terrorist is rarely modest. In almost all cases, the goal is to create as many casualties as possible in any given attack. As a matter of public interest and public policy, those who have no upper limit in the amount of harm they want to cause are more of an existential threat than those who do. As Sam Harris argues, jihadist inspired terrorism ‘takes the guard rails off of civilisation’ in a way that these more mundane causes of death don’t.

But what is most spurious about these numbers is that they ignore the deaths prevented from security and counter-terrorism measures that managed to thwart attacks before they occur. Every day the US and other Western countries are fighting the war on terrorism. They are saving lives before it becomes apparent to the rest of us that they ever needed saving. This may sound dramatic, but it needs to be understood if people believe that the war on terror is a fantasy, or less of a threat than bathtubs. The relatively low death tolls from terrorism in the West are, in part, due to the success in thwarting attacks, not because there is no threat in the first place.

In this respect, terrorism denial commits the same faulty reasoning that the anti-vaxx movement uses to deny the reality of the threat posed by infectious diseases and pandemics. Anti-vaxxers argue that the small number of deaths caused by infectious diseases in recent times is evidence of them posing no threat. However, those who understand the underlying science recognise the nature and scale of the threat, and the critical role that vaccination and pandemic prevention play in neutralising it. Were we to stop vaccinations — or counter-terrorism — it’s clear that the death toll from both these threats would rise significantly.

They can fight off a wolf and then come home and be polite

February 24th, 2017

In the highland steppes of Sivas province in central Turkey, the Kangal dog is a local icon:

The huge, sand-colored breed is named after a town in the southern Sivas province, where Kangals emerged as a distinct breed about 6,000 years ago. Kangals can grow to about 145 pounds and up to 33 inches tall, surpassing most other massive dog breeds like Great Danes. Today, in Turkey and increasingly in the United States, the viciously protective dogs are known and celebrated as wolf fighters.

[...]

The dogs boast an intimidating size, a thick coat that protects against bites, and fearlessness—they’re capable of killing a wolf but sometimes the sight of a Kangal alone is enough to scare large predators away.

Kangal Dogs

The shepherds whistle and shout all the time at the sheep, directing them this way and that, but it’s not common for the Kangals to face anywhere in the direction of the flock. Their heads are always pointed towards the horizon or the nearest hillside; they are always on watch. When we load into an SUV at the end of a bitterly cold day, they’re still looking out into the distance with no desire to turn in.

Ranchers in the U.S. are now starting to take interest in Kangals. Breeders in western Montana have imported the dogs since 2009, and 20 Kangals were imported from Turkey in 2014 for a joint research program on wolf predation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jan Dohner, the vice president of the Kangal Dog Club of America, says there’s been substantial interest in the dogs recently, “especially as livestock raisers search for nonlethal methods of large predator control.”

The dogs have been paired with farmers since they can guard against bears and wolves, but they get along with people. And they’re tough, too—able to work through windy winters and dry, hot summers. For Vose Babcock, whose cattle ranch is situated outside Missoula, Kangals are the perfect dog for rural living. “They’re good with house guests and baby livestock, but don’t like thieves.”

The sight of the huge, watchful dogs may become more common on American ranches in the coming years—the USDA will continue to breed the dogs imported in 2014. Babcock sees no downside: “They can fight off a wolf, mountain lion, or bear and then come home and be polite with grandparents and grandchildren.”

The Vengeance of Edward Said

February 23rd, 2017

Steve Sailer explains how the vengeance of Edward Said has played out:

I’ve been thinking about this tendency for white liberalism to encourage nonwhite reactionaries as I’ve been reading perhaps the most influential left-wing book by a Middle Eastern immigrant in American academic history, Edward Said’s 1978 tome Orientalism.

Said was a superbly cultured man. But his legacy has been to make Americans dumber — and smugger over being dumber — about the Arab world.

And that was not an unintended consequence.

Born in Jerusalem in 1935, Said was the wealthy son of a Palestinian Christian father with U.S. citizenship and a Lebanese Christian mother. He used the word “Orient” not in the American fashion of referring to the Far East, but in the European manner of referencing the Middle East and North Africa.

Reading Orientalism almost four decades later, it’s striking how useless it has been for helping anyone understand the Middle East.

That was Said’s intention. Knowledge is power, he believed, so he wanted Westerners to be more ignorant about his homeland in order that they would have less power over it.

No one ever expended more brainpower to encourage stupidity than Said did in Orientalism. He achieved his goal of increasing obliviousness by promoting anti-intellectual ploys, such as castigating pattern recognition as stereotyping the Other, that are now used by even the dimmest social justice jihadi, but which seemed relatively novel in 1978.

What’s more interesting than Said’s means were his motivations.

He was much celebrated in academia before his death in 2003 as a radical advocate of the Third World (for example, he broke with Yasser Arafat because Said thought the PLO too moderate).

But it’s worth attempting to think about Said instead as a conservative with natural, healthy concentric loyalties to his clan and race, a man who successfully did subtle but substantial damage to the traditional enemies of the Arabs by undermining the self-confidence of Western scholars and students and deconstructing our tools for understanding.

It can be helpful to think of Said as one of those “natural aristocrats” that the American founding fathers saw as rightfully destined to rule. He was a brilliant literary critic, a near professional-level classical pianist, and almost movie-star handsome. His many friends considered him a superior individual.

But cruel accidents of history deprived Said of a nation to govern and sent him into exile in the capital of his enemy, New York, where he became a professor of European literature at Columbia.

[...]

Said intensely resented that some Western scholars, writers, and artists had devoted so much attention to what he called the “Arab-Muslim world.” He pejoratively labeled these Western intellectuals as “Orientalists” and blamed them for assembling the vast amounts of knowledge that made possible the Western political ascendancy over his homeland (which had culminated in the Zionist confiscation of his family’s house in Jerusalem).

My suspicion is that, shocking as it may sound to his fans, Said had normal, masculine, conservative affections for his blood and soil.

In particular, Said complained about Western Orientalists depicting the Middle East as feminine and alluring.

This was not just a literary metaphor for Said. For many years, adventurous European artists and writers like Flaubert had engaged in sex tourism in Muslim lands and come back to whip up spicy works for the European market.

Just as the men of Europe are finally starting to object to the sex tourism hegira now running from the Middle East to the blonder lands, Said, as a racial loyalist, resented men of a different ancestry defiling his people’s womenfolk…and, perhaps especially, his people’s boyfolk.

The cover illustration of Orientalism, which was chosen to highlight the evils of Westerners taking any interest in the Middle East, is the vaguely sinister 1879 painting The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme of a naked boy posing with a snake before a group of staring men in a Muslim palace. The painting is basically high-gloss pedophilic gay porn. It gets across the disgust Said felt for boy-bothering Orientalists.

Few people have thought more deeply about the nature of war than McMaster

February 22nd, 2017

There are few people in the world for whom Max Boot has more respect than Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the newly named national security adviser:

A man of integrity and intellect, he is a rare combination of soldier and scholar.

A history Ph.D., he is known as the author of the best-selling book Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, which critiqued the failure of military brass to challenge the disastrous course upon which the Johnson administration embarked in Vietnam. As one might expect, he is known as a fearless truth-teller who is not afraid to offend to make his points, regardless of the personal consequences to his own career.

He is also known, however, for his combat exploits: As a young captain in the Gulf War, he helped defeat a larger Iraqi force in the well-known Battle of 73 Easting (named after a map coordinate). Later, as a colonel in command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he pacified the city of Tal Afar in northern Iraq in 2005, thus pioneering the counterinsurgency tactics that would later be applied across the country by General David Petraeus during the surge.

In more recent years, McMaster has become known for his prescient critique of the technological utopianism that gripped much of the armed forces starting in the 1990s. McMaster has consistently warned that no technological fix will ensure American battlefield dominance and that the lessons of the past have not been rendered obsolete by computer innovations. Few people have thought more deeply about the nature of war based both on extensive reading and personal experience.

It is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to become national security adviser.

Smallpox, Salmonella, and Cocoliztli

February 21st, 2017

When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they conquered great empires through a combination of Guns, Germs, and Steel — but mainly germs:

In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.

The largest of these disease outbreaks were known as cocoliztli (from the word for ‘pestilence’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec language). Two major cocoliztli, beginning in 1545 and 1576, killed an estimated 7 million to 18 million people living in Mexico’s highland regions.

“In the cities and large towns, big ditches were dug, and from morning to sunset the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches,” noted a Franciscan historian who witnessed the 1576 outbreak.

There has been little consensus on the cause of cocoliztli — although measles, smallpox and typhus have all been mooted. In 2002, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City proposed that a viral haemorrhagic fever, exacerbated by a catastrophic drought, was behind the carnage2. They compared the magnitude of the 1545 outbreak to that of the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe.

A couple new studies point to salmonella:

In an attempt to settle the question, a team led by evolutionary geneticist Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, extracted and sequenced DNA from the teeth of 29 people buried in the Oaxacan highlands of southern Mexico. All but five were linked to a cocoliztli that researchers think ran from 1545 to 1550.

Ancient bacterial DNA recovered from several of the people matched that of Salmonella, based on comparisons with a database of more than 2,700 modern bacterial genomes.

Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.

It’s perfectly reasonable that the bacterium could have caused this epidemic, says Schroeder. “They make a really good case.” But María Ávila-Arcos, an evolutionary geneticist at UNAM, isn’t convinced. She notes that some people suggest that a virus caused the cocoliztli, and that wouldn’t have been picked up by the team’s method.

Krause and his colleagues’ proposal is helped by another study posted on bioRxiv last week, which raises the possibility that Salmonella Paratyphi C arrived in Mexico from Europe.

A team led by Mark Achtman, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, collected and sequenced the genome of the bacterial strain from the remains of a young woman buried around 1200 in a cemetery in Trondheim, Norway. It is the earliest evidence for the now-rare Salmonella strain, and proof that it was circulating in Europe, according to the study.

If you read the firsthand account of The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico by Bernal Diaz Del Castillo — and I highly recommend that you do! — he mentions smallpox specifically five separate times:

Xicotencatl made various other offers of his services in the name of his country. This Xicotencatl was a tall man, broad shouldered, and well built, with a large fresh coloured face, full of scars, as if pitted with the smallpox. He may have been about thirty-five years of age, and was earnest and dignified in his deportment. Cortes thanked him most sincerely, saying, ” he would acknowledge them as vassals of our emperor, and would, for the future, look upon them as our friends.

[...]

But to return to Narvaez. He happened to have a negro servant with him ill with the smallpox, through whom this terrific disease, which, according to the accounts of the inhabitants, was previously unknown in the country, spread itself through New Spain, where it created the greater devastation, from the poor Indians, in their ignorance, solely applying cold water as a remedy, with which they constantly bathed themselves; so that vast numbers were cut off before they had the blessing of being received into the bosom of the Christian church.

[...]

About this time another king had been raised to the throne of Mexico, as the former, who beat us out of the town, had died of the smallpox. The new monarch was a nephew, or, at least, a very near relative of Motecusuma, and was called Quauhtemoctzin. He was about twenty-five years of age, and a very well-bred man for an Indian. He was likewise a person of great courage, and soon made himself so greatly feared among his people that they trembled in his presence. His wife was one of Motecusuma’s daughters, and passed for a great beauty among her countrywomen.

[...]

This expedition was attended by many beneficial results ; for the whole country was thereby tranquilized, while it spread a vast idea of Cortes’ justice and bravery throughout the whole of New Spain; so that every one feared him, and particularly Quauhtemoctzin, the new king of Mexico. Indeed Cortes’ authority rose at once to so great a height, that the inhabitants came from the most distant parts to lay their disputes before him, particularly respecting the election of caziques, right of tenure, and division of property and subjects. About this time thousands of people were carried off by the smallpox, and among them numbers of caziques ; and Cortes, as though he had been lord of the whole country, appointed the new caziques, but made a point of nominating those who had the best claim.

[...]

On our arrival in Tlascalla, we found that our old friend Maxixcatzin, one of his majesty’s most faithful vassals, was no more, he having died of the smallpox. We were all sorely grieved at this loss, and Cortes himself, as he assured us, felt it as much as if he had lost his own father. We put on black cloaks in mourning for him, and paid the last honours to the remains of our departed friend, in conjunction with his sons and relations.

My reaction to that book, by the way, was, Why didn’t we read this in school?

Real history is nothing like school history. Oddly, real history is more like a swords-and-sorcery novel: evil priests, hair matted with blood, commit human sacrifices atop pyramids amidst a city built on a lake inside a volcanic crater; frenzied fighting ensues.

Tempted to walk down the dark path of the AltRight

February 20th, 2017

Rosie Gray seems to have a sense of humor about Neoreaction, closing her Atlantic piece with this:

Kantbot warned that I might also be tempted by “the forbidden fruit” of these ideas. “Be careful or you too may be tempted to walk down the dark path of the altright,” he wrote. “This is what thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest. This is the dark intellectual center.”

A Hotel California for Apex Predators

February 20th, 2017

P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male mountain lion:

After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little — a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.

Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak — “the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”

Mountain Lion P-45

The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks — a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.

The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.

As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation — in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.

From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”

P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers — mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them — he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.

“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”

Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California — between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks — it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason — they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”

The Benedict Option

February 19th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal discusses the Benedict Option:

When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.

Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass — conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago — and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics.

There aren’t many jobs nearby. The nearest bank, grocery store and coffee shop are nearly an hour’s drive on country roads. Yet many residents choosing to live near Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey say it is worth the sacrifice.

“Our goal in moving here was to form our children’s conscience and intellect in a particular way, without society taking that authority from us,” said Mark Wheeler, one of the first to settle on the outskirts of the monastery more than a decade ago.

The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages — some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant—have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families.

As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness.

[...]

They attend Mass daily and home-school their children. They seldom use their TV, except to check for tornado warnings, but they do use the internet to order supplies, such as cultures for the goat cheese that they sell. Mr. Wheeler, 52, helped with construction at the monastery.

Last year, they allowed their children — three of whom are old enough to vote — to listen to the presidential debates on the radio for the first time, and then to watch the last few on TV.

“The larger populated areas seem to have rejected the Christian culture and the Christian message,” Mr. Wheeler said. “If I don’t have to re-immerse myself in that, I’m not going to.”

If you pull your kids out of public school and “cut the cord,” I think you get most of the way there, without the economic cost of isolation.

The Billy Beane of Murder

February 19th, 2017

Thomas Hargrove, a 61-year-old retired news reporter from Virginia, was always the numbers guy at his paper:

In 2004, Hargrove’s editors asked him to look into statistics surrounding prostitution. The only way to study that was to get a copy of the nation’s most comprehensive repository of criminal statistics: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, or UCR. When Hargrove called up a copy of the report from the database library at the University of Missouri, attached to it was something he didn’t expect: the Supplementary Homicide Report. “I opened it up, and it was a record I’d never seen before,” he says. “Line by line, every murder that was reported to the FBI.”

[...]

Every year he downloaded and crunched the most recent data set. What really shocked him was the number of murder cases that had never been cleared. (In law enforcement, a case is cleared when a suspect is arrested, whatever the eventual outcome.) Hargrove counted 211,487, more than a third of the homicides recorded from 1980 to 2010. Why, he wondered, wasn’t the public up in arms about such a large number of unsolved murders?

To make matters worse, Hargrove saw that despite a generation’s worth of innovation in the science of crime fighting, including DNA analysis, the rate of cleared cases wasn’t increasing but decreasing — plummeting, even. The average homicide clearance rate in the 1960s was close to 90 percent; by 2010 it was solidly in the mid-’60s. It has fallen further since.

[...]

His innovation was to teach a computer to spot trends in unsolved murders, using publicly available information that no one, including anyone in law enforcement, had used before. This makes him, in a manner of speaking, the Billy Beane of murder. His work shines light on a question that’s gone unanswered for too long: Why, exactly, aren’t the police getting any better at solving murder? And how can we even dream of reversing any upticks in the homicide rate while so many killers remain out on the streets?

It took a few years for Hargrove’s editors at Scripps to agree to give him enough time to lose himself in the FBI’s homicide data. With help from a University of Missouri grad student, Hargrove first dumped the homicide report into statistics software in 2008. He spent months trying to develop an algorithm that would identify unsolved cases with enough commonalities to suggest the same murderer. Eventually, he decided to reverse-engineer the algorithm by testing his ideas against one well-known case, that of Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, who confessed to killing 48 women over two decades in the Seattle area. Hargrove thought that if he could devise an algorithm that turned up the Green River Killer’s victims, he’d know he was on the right track.

“We found a hundred things that didn’t work,” he recalls. Finally, he settled on four characteristics for what’s called a cluster analysis: geography, sex, age group, and method of killing. For gender, he stuck with women, since they make up the vast majority of multiple-murder victims who aren’t connected to gang-related activity. When he used women between the ages of 20 and 50 — the cohort most commonly targeted by serial killers — the algorithm lit up like a slot machine. “It became clear that this thing was working,” he says. “In fact, it was working too well.”

The Green River Killer came up right away in this algorithm. That was good news. Hargrove’s algorithm also pulled up 77 unsolved murders in Los Angeles, which he learned were attributed to several different killers the police were pursuing (including the so-called Southside Slayer and, most recently, the Grim Sleeper), and 64 unsolved murders of women in Phoenix.

Then there was a second group of possible serial killers, those unrecognized by local police. “The whole point of the algorithm was to find the low-hanging fruit, the obvious clusters,” Hargrove says. “But there were dozens and dozens of them all over the country.”

In 2015, Scripps spun off the last of its newspapers, and Hargrove and the other print reporters lost their jobs. “The only guy who left with a skip was me,” he says. Hargrove, who was 59 at the time and had worked at the company for 37 years, qualified for a large severance and a nice pension, leaving him well-covered. Now he had enough time to go all in on his data project. He founded the Murder Accountability Project, or MAP, a tiny nonprofit seeking to make FBI murder data more widely and easily available.

Using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, MAP has tried to chase down data from the many municipalities and counties that weren’t supplying their murder data to the FBI, out of bureaucratic laziness, a lack of manpower, or perhaps just rank incompetence. MAP has already assembled case details on 638,454 homicides from 1980 through 2014, including 23,219 cases that hadn’t been reported to the FBI. This is the most complete list of case-level details of U.S. murders available anywhere, and the group’s website has open-sourced all of it. Anyone with statistical analysis software, available for free online, can start looking, across jurisdictions, for serial killers. Anyone can compare convicted killers’ timelines against the timing of unsolved murders to determine if a connection is plausible. “You can call up your hometown and look and see if you see anything suspicious,” Hargrove says. “If you’re the father of a murdered daughter, you can call up her record, and you can see if there might be other records that match. We wanted to be able to crowdsource murder.”

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019

February 18th, 2017

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019:

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” Harvard’s George Church told The Guardian. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

The key word there is embryo. Church’s team — the Wooly Mammoth Revival project — is using CRISPR gene-editing technology to put genetic traits collected from frozen mammoth corpses into Asian elephant DNA.

So far, they’ve managed to incorporate traits of the mammoth’s ears, fat, and hair into elephant DNA. In a few years they hope to make an embryo, but that’s a long way from creating a viable embryo. A viable embryo would have to be able to survive long enough to move from a Petri dish to some kind of womb — and then it would have to grow into a healthy calf that the team could successfully deliver and raise.

Artificial gestation is considered the most likely option for any viable embryo, because Asian elephants, the closest living relatives of mammoths, are currently endangered. Church has created an artificial womb capable of gestating a mouse embryo for 10 days but that’s a far cry from the 660-day gestation period of an elephant calf.

So while an embryo may indeed be possible by 2019, there’s no telling how many years would stretch between that milestone and the actual reintroduction of the woolly mammoth. Researchers have already created embryos of chickens with dinosaur snouts, for example, and those dino-chickens aren’t clucking around a co-op. The first attempts to make a living mammoth are many more years away.

Independence and diversity have always been the enemy of progress

February 18th, 2017

History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers, Mark Zuckerberg says, from tribes to cities to nations. As we all know, independence and diversity have always been the enemy of progress:

For example, that’s why Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Dependence submitting the American colonies to the British Empire.

Similarly, the father of history, Herodotus, wrote to celebrate the mighty Persian Empire’s reduction of the various Greek city-states to a satrapy ruled from Babylon.

Likewise, every year Jews gather to admit that their stiff-neckedness provoked the Roman Empire into, rightfully, smashing the Temple in Jerusalem on the holy day of We-Had-It-Coming.

And, of course, who can forget Shakespeare’s plays, such as Philip II and Admiral-Duke of Medina Sidonia, lauding the Spanish Armada for conquering the impudent English and restoring to Canterbury the One True Faith?

Similarly, Oswald Mosley’s prime ministership (1940-1980) of das englische Reich is justly admired for subordinating England’s traditional piratical turbulence to the greater good of Europe.

Likewise, who can not look at the 49 nations currently united by their adherence to the universalist faith of Islam and not see that submission is the road to peace, prosperity, and progress? If only unity had prevailed at Tours in 732 instead of divisiveness. May that great historical wrong be swiftly rectified in the decades to come!

Disrupters of the world unite!

February 17th, 2017

Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class suggests that America lost its taste for risk, and Edward Luce opens his review by poking a bit of fun at innovative start-ups:

Walk into any start-up company in America and you will likely see an almost identical decor: the walls will have been dutifully stripped of paint; the workplace will be littered with the same multicoloured pouffes; and most of its denizens will be wearing a variation on the casual hipster uniform. In an age of hyper-individualism, entrepreneurs strike a remarkably similar pose. The same applies to those who have refurbished their university common areas, set up corporate “chill-out zones”, or stripped their downtown apartments to look like a Silicon Valley unicorn. Everyone wants that creative energy to rub off on them. Disrupters of the world unite!

Flag Football Is More Dangerous

February 17th, 2017

Flag football is more dangerous than tackle football:

The study, which examined 3,794 players in grades 2-7 in two tackle football leagues and one flag football league, is one of the largest to compare injury rates in the different types of football. It was published online last week in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

[...]

All injuries that resulted in loss of playing time were recorded. An injury was considered severe if it resulted in a concussion, fracture or ligament tear. All other injuries were considered nonsevere.

Across all leagues, 128 injuries were reported out of 46,416 exposures—that is, a practice or a game. The overall injury rate was 2.76 injuries per 1,000 exposures, which Dr. Peterson notes is similar to the injury rate in high school football.

Tackle football players in the study reported 2.6 injuries per 1,000 exposures, compared with 5.77 injuries per 1,000 exposures in flag football. While tackle football players reported concussions at a slightly higher rate, the difference with flag players wasn’t statistically significant.

Dr. Peterson theorizes that tackle football players suffer concussions individually, whereas in flag football, concussions often result from two people running into each other. Looking at the injury logs, he noticed, “concussions seemed to come in pairs in the flag league.”