It’s the Epistemology, Comrade

In recent posts, I’ve argued that it is not only ineffective but undesirable for the state to compel all children to be taught evolution. [Standard disclaimer: my personal views on human origins are essentially those of Richard Dawkins.]

This opposition to government-mandated instruction in evolution does not sit well with many of my fellow evolutionists, and there have been several lengthy and thoughtful dissents. I’d been planning to dedicate this current post to a point-by-point response to evolutionary biology grad student Joshua Rosenau, but after thinking about it a little more, and looking at some of the other responses to my earlier essay, I think there may be a way to short-circuit the debate and get right to the nub of the issue.

The arguments for imposing evolution instruction by government fiat often boil down to an idea presented here by Rosenau:

Teaching [read “imposing”] empirical results of our shared reality is different from imposing untestable beliefs on others. Teaching [imposing] empirical results of the scientific method does not prevent anyone from having beliefs in the supernatural, and the only liberty it takes away is the liberty to believe things that are false, or to treat nonscience as science. In short, to lie.

Note that I had to correct Rosenau’s language. We’re not debating the merits of teaching evolution, we’re debating the merits of using the government’s monopoly on the use of force to compel its teaching.

You have to pay taxes to support the public schools. If you don’t, you go to jail. The public schools, because they are constitutionally prohibited from proselytizing students, cannot teach anything but a naturalistic view of evolution. Hence, all American taxpayers are compelled to fund the teaching of a non-theistic account of human origins, at least to the extent human origins are taught at all.

So Rosenau is arguing that it’s okay to impose instruction in the scientific consensus view of evolution, because science is true.

In other words, Rosenau is saying that the government is in possession of absolute truth, acquired through science, and that it is the proper role of government to spread the Good Word. This is a government establishment of rational empiricist epistemology.

There are a host of problems with this view of the role of government, but the one that many of my fellow evolutionists have the greatest difficulty grasping is that not everyone shares our epistemology, and that establishing an official government epistemology is every bit as harmful as establishing an official government religion.

When parents teach their children the Biblical creation story as literal truth, they are not “lying” to them as Rosenau imagines. They are passing along the “truth,” as they think it should be acquired, on the subject of human origins. Their epistemology, when it comes to this particular issue, is an epistemology of religious faith. As a result, they do not want their children taught an account of human origins based purely on science because they think science is the wrong epistemological tool for that job — any more than Richard Dawkins would want his children taught creationism.

Ramming an official epistemology down the public’s throat has the same effect as establishing an official religion. It leads to never-ending conflict. Even if this kind of indoctrination were consistent with America’s political ideals (which it most certainly is not), and even if it actually resulted in the widespread understanding of evolution (which it does not), there is no justification for doing it that could outweigh the costs in social Balkanization and animosity.

A related point that many rational empiricists seem unable to internalize is that their official epistemology can be hijacked by people with differing views on what the evidence shows. Proponents of “Intelligent Design” maintain that their views are more scientific than those of the consensus of biologists.

The mandate-evolution crowd thinks that their ideas are safe because they are in the majority among scientists. But we live in a democracy, not a scientocracy. Any government-mandated epistemology, and its fleshing out in the form of government curricula, will likely reflect the views of the majority of the people, not the majority of scientists. And, as the polling data I’ve previously cited show, the majority of the people do not see eye-to-eye with the scientific consensus on the subject of evolution. That is why evolution is taught so sporadically, and poorly, in so many public schools around this country.

Paduda Cuts (Closer) to the Heart of the Matter…

…when he responds to my post thus:

I think this is because libertarians don’t believe in health insurance as a means to help people with health conditions pay their bills.

I would put it this way:

Insurance is a voluntary arrangement where consumers agree to subsidize each other. By definition, sick people have higher medical expenses. Thus, some seek to charge healthy people more than they cost to insure, so that insurers can reduce the premiums they charge to the sick.

There are lots of reasons why healthy people may agree to that. They may be very risk-averse, and so they are willing to pay more than they cost to insure. They may be altruistic, deriving satisfaction from knowing that their higher premiums are making coverage more affordable for others. Or they may precommit to such subsidies before it is known who in the insurance pool will develop a chronic illness (read: guaranteed renewable insurance).

As a libertarian, I have no problem with the healthy subsidizing the sick via private health insurance — so long as the arrangement is voluntary. But problems arise when public policy tries to get healthy consumers to provide, shall we say, “extra-voluntary” subsidies:

  • The healthy people eventually figure out that they are being over-charged, and they bolt. That makes the risk pool less-healthy, premiums rise, and more healthy people leave. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you’ve got your very own adverse selection death spiral.
  • The insurers realize they can’t make money off the sick people, so they avoid diabetics and such as if they had the plague. 
  • And it doesn’t help the situation that forced subsidies lead to greater moral hazard among the very people who already use lots of medical care. That just fuels the first two responses.

So to tweak Paduda’s characterization, libertarians think private insurance is a wonderful vehicle for voluntary subsidies and a lousy vehicle for forced subsidies.

In a world without such forced subsidies, Paduda is correct that we would purchase a lot less health insurance. And I find this comment instructive:

[I]nsurance would not be available at any kind of affordable price for anyone who really needs it if Cannon’s prescription becomes reality” [emphasis in original].

Sick people don’t need insurance. Insurance doesn’t make sick people healthy. They need medical care. They may even need subsidies. So why not try to provide them those things, rather than wreck the markets for both health insurance and health care?

Many equate insurance with subsidy. In fact, one is a subset of the other.

Aqua Teen Overreaction Force?

Boston officials investigating this week’s marketing campaign gone awry should be sure to include themselves in the scrutiny, asking if they overreacted to the incident.

A In case you missed the story, Cartoon Network, a division of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, recently launched a “guerrilla marketing campaign” to promote its new adult-audience cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. As part of the campaign, the network hired New York marketing firm Interference Inc. to place notepad-sized, electronically lit signs of the show’s “mooninite” characters in unusual locations around urban areas.

The campaign received little notice in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas. But in Boston, public officials treated the signs as a possible terrorist threat, closing bridges, subway stations, roadways, and even part of the Charles River while bomb squads removed the signs.

Once the nature of the signs became known, Boston mayor Thomas Menino issued a press release blasting the campaign:

It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme. I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.

Estimates for those expenses have already topped $1 million.

Boston officials’ initial concern is understandable and appropriate. Seeing an out-of-place object containing batteries, circuitry, and glowing lights is unsettling in these times and it should be investigated. But at what point should Boston officials have realized that the signs posed no threat, and called off the bomb squads?

This raises an issue that we often discuss here at Cato, and that has become especially important in the post-9/11 era: should we be more concerned about Type-1 errors (false positives) or Type-2 errors (false negatives)?

Detection systems, whether mechanical (burglar alarms, ultrasounds) or human (analysts, emergency services workers) are rarely error-free. Often, we have to decide whether we want a very sensitive detection system that likely will detect any real problem but also subjects us to Type-1 errors, or else a less sensitive system that likely won’t give us many false alarms but may also miss a real problem.

Boston officials’ bomb-squad response to the mooninite signs is a perfect example of a Type-1 error produced by a highly sensitive detection system. I suspect that government officials would defend the high sensitivity, saying “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

But Type-1 errors can end up making us feel very sorry. The current Iraq War can be considered a Type-1 error resulting from the Bush administration’s high sensitivity to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Or consider the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, during which local schools publicized that they were in “lockdown mode” and keeping schoolchildren indoors — that is, they went into “better safe than sorry” mode. The snipers later told police that the schools’ pronouncements enticed the snipers to try to kill a child, and they ultimately wounded a 13-year-old as he arrived at his Bowie, Md., middle school.

For an excellent discussion of why 9/11 should not lead us to be too accepting of Type-1 errors, read Ohio State University national security professor John Mueller’s article “A False Sense of Insecurity?

Facts, Lies, Statistics and NIEs

The big news on the defense and foreign policy front is the release earlier today of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, an unclassified summary of which is now available online (.pdf). Congressional staff are poring over a much longer (90-page), classified version. President Bush was presented with a copy of the full report yesterday.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley discussed the NIE with reporters, characterizing the report as “a good statement about the risks if we do not succeed in Iraq, for Iraqis, for the region, and for Americans here at home.” (Count this as Exhibit A for the defense.) 

Bloggers immediately pounced on the report to make the counterpoint, namely that the Bush administration’s escalation plan — by the NIE’s own admission — couldn’t possibly work (Exhibit B for the prosecution).

The near-instantaneous interpretation of a key intelligence assessment is hardly a new phenomenon. As I explain in my book John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap, the selective leaking and politically motivated interpretation of intelligence muddied the water on the nature of the Soviet threat in the late 1950s. (A more digestible paper I wrote for the Princeton Project on National Security that discusses these 1950s-era debates, as well as a discussion of the “Team B” controversy of the 1970s, can be found here.)

The response to the latest Iraq NIE fits a similar pattern. Each side is fixing on a few relevant passages to prove its case or, failing that, to engender doubt about the other side’s arguments.

For example, advocates for an expeditious withdrawal (of which I am one) can point to the NIE’s statement that “Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate,” and conclude that the likelihood of success is extremely small.

On the other side, opponents of withdrawal can point to the NIEs discussion of what might ensue if and when U.S. forces withdraw. These are the passages that Hadley highlighted in his press briefing.

No NIE could ever hope to resolve such disputes. However, from my perspective, the key to interpreting NIEs lies in the probabilities assigned to various predictions. The likelihood that a particular event will play out is never expressed in numerical terms. But this NIE includes a useful tutorial for NIE naifs that tries to explain how different words (“likely,” “unlikely,” “probably,” “may be,” etc.) should be interpreted along a probability continuum, from remote to almost certain.

So, returning to the passage pertaining to a U.S. withdrawal, pay close attention to the qualifiers (in my italics, with my impertinent questions in brackets):

If coalition forces were withdrawn [ever? in less than 18 months?], if such a rapid [how rapid?] withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the Iraqi security forces would be unlikely to survive as a nonsectarian national institution. Neighboring countries, invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally, might intervene openly in the conflict. Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable. AQI, or al Qaeda in Iraq would attempt to use parts of the country, particularly al Anbar Province, to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq. [attempt, perhaps; but how likely is it that they would succeed in establishing a comfortable safe haven. My guess? Not likely. See here and here.] And spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.

No one disputes that conditions in Iraq are dire. What remains of a debate in this country is between those who believe that we must pay any price, and bear any burden, to succeed in Iraq, because failure would spell the “beginning of the end” of Western civilization (hat tip to Justin Logan). On the other side are those who believe that the price that we have paid in Iraq is already too great, and that there is a no reasonable likelihood that the Bush administration’s stated goals in the country can be achieved at anything approaching a reasonable cost. This is a debate between the believers and the non-believers, if you will.

It would be unreasonable to expect, therefore, that this NIE will resolve the debate one way or the other. Ultimately, policymakers must make a judgment, on the basis of imperfect information, and be prepared to explain and defend that position to the people that elected them to office.

Utah House Passes Nation’s First Universal School Voucher Bill

A couple of hours ago, the Utah House of Representatives passed the nation’s first universal school voucher bill (HB 148) in a nail-biting 38-37 vote. From what I hear coming out of Utah, it’s going to pass the Senate next week as well, and be signed by the governor. 

If it is signed into law, it will be an unprecedented step forward for educational freedom in this country. The media, as well as school choice advocates and critics, will be watching Utah intently to see what happens, and there are some caveats that I think are very important for everyone to keep in mind. 

First, dramatic results should not be expected overnight. In other nations that have adopted similar school choice programs (e.g., Chile, Sweden), it has taken five or 10 years for large numbers of new schools to be created, and for the good ones to be weeded out from the bad. Competition and consumer choice work wonderfully well in education, but their effects are not instantaneous. Part of the reason for that lag is that potential school founders have to be convinced that a newly passed school choice law is on firm legal and political ground, and not likely to be overturned by the courts or repealed by a subsequent legislature. And you can bet this law will be challenged.

Second, the maximum value of Utah’s school vouchers would be $3,000, only about half of what Utah spends per pupil in its public schools. So Bill 148 would still leave private schools at a considerable financial disadvantage compared to their state-run counterparts, and that would inhibit competition between the public and private sectors and retard innovation. 

Those caveats aside, this is a momentous day not just for Utah families, but for our entire nation. What Utah’s legislature has figured out is that school choice is a much better way of fulfilling the promise of public education than is the one-size-fits-all factory school system we inherited from the 19th century.

A Man’s House Is His Castle?

A guy sits down to watch the World Series, drink beer, and clean his World War II-era firearms. A quiet, relaxing evening in his own home. He could not fathom that the “Mobile Emergency Response Group and Equipment Team” would soon be on the scene to “neutralize the threat” he is posing to the community. The ”Team” forces him out of his apartment with flash bang grenades, chemical gas canisters, and rubber bullets.

The details are set forth in this recent judicial ruling.

Yet another example of the disturbing militaristic mind-set that pervades too many of our police agencies. Unnecessary provocation and violence. Unfortunately, the judiciary essentially approves, even lauds, the police work, but nevertheless issues a tiny $1 rebuke because the agents failed to obtain an arrest warrant during this “standoff.”  

Now the city has a budget of $3 billion, but it decides to appeal instead of paying out a measly four quarters. From the point of view of the government attorneys, it was apparently crucial to spend who-knows-how-many-taxpayer-dollars to defend police power and to keep the warrant requirement precedent off the books.

The Constitution is supposed to be “the supreme law of the land,” but consider how much regard the police showed to the right to keep and bear arms and the right to be secure in our homes against unreasonable searches and seizures. Anyone who thinks this is an “isolated incident” should study this, this, and this.

EU vs. Gas-guzzlers

The commissioners of the European Union endlessly preach about the need for carbon taxes and costly regulations that will reduce the quality of life for regular people. But those same commissioners get driven around in low-mileage vehicles. Fortunately, they are getting attacked for this hypocritical attitude.

Sadly, the embarrassment will have little impact. American politicians — including President Bush — want to force Americans into smaller (and more dangerous) cars, yet periodic efforts to require them to live by the same rules have proved fruitless.

The EU Observer reports on the controversy in Brussels: 

EU commissioners are finding themselves under scrutiny to see if they are putting into practice the green values that Brussels is increasingly preaching, with most of the 120-strong fleet of officials cars comprising gas-guzzling, C02-emitting giants.

…[T]he vast majority of the 27 commissioners use the standard-issue vehicles such as Audis or Mercedes — high on security features but rather lower on environment friendliness — to be ferried here and there across Brussels; sometimes even the few hundred metres between commission buildings.

…A commission spokesperson said, “It’s an individual decision for commissioners what their service car should be but as a general rule, the commissioners choose cars that are functional and safe for what they are doing.”