Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It ought to be possible to measure whether the death penalty actually makes victims' families feel better

You often hear it argued that the families of victims will not "find peace" until the murderer/rapist/etc. is executed. Certainly, victims' families feel an intense burning desire for retribution. I would too, I am sure! But does it actually make them feel better? As one who does not really believe in the idea of "closure", I am skeptical... But it just occurred to me while reading the recent Hitchens piece on the topic that we ought to be able to measure this.

One problem might be getting a large enough sample size, since there are only so many people executed per year, and you need to get the families to agree to do a series of questionnaires. And you need to have the first questionnaire administered before anybody's been executed, and you don't know for sure whether the execution will be granted, etc.

Anyway, I figure you want to have three cohorts (and two of them are indistinguishable before the end of the study, so it's tricky). One is families of murder victims where the perpetrator will certainly not be executed because the state does not have the death penalty. Another is families of murder victims where the death penalty was sought and granted, and the third is families of murder victims where the death penalty was sought but ultimately denied. You take various measurements of their psychological state at the outset of the study, then at various intervals later (e.g. 1 year later, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, or something), and also immediately after the execution for families in the relevant cohort.

In this fashion, we could see whether seeking and getting the death penalty actually does make victims' families feel better. My hypothesis would be that we'd expect to see a short-term bump immediately after the execution, but no long term differences -- and I would not be surprised if families in the cohort where execution was sought but denied might do worse even in the long term. I would love to see it measured...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mr. Neutrino, I'd like you to meet Mr. Bayes

A lot of people who want to believe the faster-than-light neutrino result (and count me as one who would love it to be true!) are displaying a tendency to get quite pissy at those of us who remain skeptical, e.g. see this comment over at Bad Astronomy, which is actually one of the more mild ones. There are accusations of dogmatism, that a "true" skeptic should just follow the results.

That is true as far as it goes, but in my never-humble opinion, if you want to "follow the results" properly, you must be a Bayesian.

The prior probability, based on everything we know about physics, that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, is vanishingly small. The results of countless past experiments would have to be either dismissed, or given a completely different explanation. Anything is possible, of course, but as somebody else said (can't remember where, sorry, no credit), this is "possible" on the order of saying, "Oops, turns out gravity doesn't attract, it repels!"

And Bayes tells us then, that even what would be very solid experimental support for this result in another context is totally unconvincing in this context. Bayes Theorem doesn't quite work this way, but to just simplify it: Let's say last week I gave you trillion-to-one odds that neutrinos could travel faster than light. Then we come up with an explanation for how this result could be an error, but unfortunately it requires a series of coincidences that are a billion-to-one against. I'd still believe it was the billion-to-one error before I'll believe FTL neutrinos were a real thing.

It's probably something much more mundane, of course. Or perhaps it will turn out to reveal some weird new physics where the neutrinos can appear to some observers to exceeding light speed, but in a way that doesn't screw up causality and relativity; that would be neat. But if you're a Bayesian (and you should be), then you can be virtually certain that it's not really FTL. Sorry, sci-fi fans. No galactic empires for you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Drawing Lines on Star Trek-Based Discrimination

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches has a thoughtful piece up titled Drawing Lines on Religion-Based Discrimination, which takes as a jumping-off point the example of a gay couple in Illinois suing a bed-and-breakfast that refused to host their wedding, and goes on to examine the complex relationship between religious freedom and religious discrimination, and attempts to explore in which contexts religious-based discrimination is acceptable. It's a balanced and well-written piece which comes to some very reasonable (though tentative) conclusions... but while reading, I just couldn't stop shaking my head. All this, to prevent conflicts over what seems to me to be obviously made-up bullshit! Explicit protections for religious freedom are crucial, of course, but it's not because there is some critical benefit to diverse religious beliefs; rather, it's because without those protections, religion becomes a tool of oppression. Establishment of a state religion is no better or worse than the state establishing a mandated preference for Star Trek: The Next Generation over Star Trek: The Original Series, it's just that the latter issue tends not to arise because people don't get nearly as stupid-crazy over Star Trek as they do over religion.

But that got me thinking... What if people did get that crazy over Star Trek? And so without further ado, I present Ed's piece, rewritten as if we lived in an alternate universe where countless wars were fought to settle the age-old question: Who would win in a fight, Kirk or Picard?

The Chicago Tribune reports that a Picardian couple is suing two bed and breakfasts for refusing to rent facilities to them for a Borg-themed civil union ceremony.

The Beall Mansion in Alton told the Wathens via email that it “will just be doing traditional weddings.” The owner of the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton wrote in an email to the couple: “We will never host Borg-themed civil unions. We will never host Borg-themed weddings even if they become legal in Illinois. We believe the Borg are not canon and are mere fiction based on what The Original Series fails to say about them. If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate.”

Here’s the legal situation:

The couple filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, which investigated and found “substantial evidence” that a civil rights violation had been committed.

The August finding allows the Wathens 90 days to file a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission or take civil action in Circuit Court. The Wathens’ attorney, Betty Tsamis of Chicago, told the Tribune that her clients have chosen the latter path and will file lawsuits against both businesses as early as next week.

This action, should it proceed, could bring to the courtroom a debate over the boundary lines between Trekkian freedom and discrimination in Illinois.

Steven Amjad, an attorney representing Timber Creek, said the state constitution guarantees Trekkian freedoms.

“These are business owners that have strong Star Trek-based convictions. The Legislature has created this (conflict), and the courts will have to sort this out,” he said.

Andrew Koppelman, a professor of political science and law at Northwestern University, said the question is whether the state’s Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act — which protects Trekkian freedoms from government intrusion — can trump the state’s Human Rights Act, which includes the protection of people based on whether they are into the Borg or not.

“The hotels seem pretty clearly in violation of the Human Rights Act,” Koppelman said. “And if you’re going to say that somebody is exempted from the human rights law under the Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act, that would mean that people could discriminate based on Trekkian views. It’s a slippery slope.”

I’ve written recently about the billboard put up in Grand Rapids by my friends at the Center for Inquiry – Michigan. They had a billboard company refuse to put up their sign before finding one that would. After last week’s CFI meeting, I had an interesting conversation with the director of that group, Jeff Seaver, about whether that was illegal discrimination or not. He had actually been asked about that by a local TV reporter and had said something like, “And that’s okay, they’re a private company and they can turn down our business if they want to.” But since then, he’d been thinking about it and he wasn’t so sure that was true.

Interest in the Borg is not covered by the anti-discrimination statutes in Michigan, or at the federal level, though it is covered by some states. But Star Trek series preference is covered nationally and in every state and it does cover private businesses. A Kirkian restaurant could not refuse to serve someone because they’re Picardian— or atrekist, for that matter. This is well established law and enjoys overwhelming public support, so it’s pretty well settled. So what’s the difference?

On the other hand, a Star Trek club can, of course, limit its hiring to only those who prefer the same captain. This is known in legal terms as the nerdisterial exception. And this is a crucial principle. Freedom of Star Trek would mean nothing if the state could force a Kirkian club to hire a Picardian as its treasurer. But what are the limits of such an exception? What about a Star Trek school? Could the government force a Picardian school to hire an atrekist teacher? I think the vast majority of people, even atrekists, would say no.

But what about a Star Trek club-operated day care center? Or a homeless shelter? Or a restaurant set up by a Star Trek club to fund some charitable activity? Jeff offered this possible distinction: If the activity is explicitly Star Trek-related, then the exception should apply, but if it’s a service that is not inherently Trekkian in nature and is open to the public, they should be required to accept all takers both in terms of employment and servicing the public. And that seems reasonable, though not a perfect solution.

Some Kirkians claim that requiring them to serve Borg-loving customers in any context is a violation of their Trekkian freedom. But if it is, it is exactly the same as requiring them to serve customers of every race or gender. Discrimination on the basis of race can be and historically has been based on various TV series as well, yet almost no one seriously argues today that any business should be able to turn away a black person. Who is going to stand up and say that a business should be allowed to refuse to hire women because their sincerely-held Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire-based beliefs tell them that women should stay at home and not work?

Even if someone would make that argument, it’s not going to work, either legally or politically. It’s simply a non-starter. And there is no difference between those situations and discrimination against Borg-loving people or atrekists. If it is a violation of Trekkian freedom to force businesses to serve or hire Borg fans and atrekists, it is just as much a violation of television-based freedom to force them to serve or hire black people or women.

But Prof. Koppelman is right to point out that, legally, the Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act and its many state versions does complicate this. That law requires that Trekkian groups and individuals be given exemptions from generally applicable laws unless the government can show a compelling state interest in enforcing the law on them specifically in that particular context. And those laws are used everyday to exempt Star Trek clubs from zoning regulations and lots of other laws.

It may be that STFRA and other such laws should simply be done away with, that there should be no exemption for Trekkian groups or individuals, period. But then we go back to that nerdisterial exception, which I think even the most hardened atrekist would agree with — no one thinks we should force Star Trek clubs to hire people who are fans of the other show. So perhaps Jeff’s solution is ultimately necessary, a narrowly drawn exception for Star Trek clubs and probably Star Trek club-run schools, but not for businesses that just happen to be owned by Kirkians who feel the need to discriminate.


Update: I swear to God, I had not seen this before I wrote this. 2:10 is most relevant.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Times (of London) says something weird

The Times has a great article about Richard Dawkins' new book, The Magic of Reality (behind a paywall, but reproduced here), but right in the middle of it they have a couple of paragraphs that leave me scratching my head a bit:

Pitting religion against science, at least in enlightened cultures, is to formalise a dichotomy that need not exist. While [Dawkins] may not agree, many would argue that religion has provided mankind with a moral framework possessed of a strength and clarity that, without God, thinkers since the time of Socrates have struggled to replicate...

The argument that creation requires a sentient creator — the teleological argument — had been ably sunk long before Professor Dawkins’ hero Charles Darwin began to fret whether a benevolent deity would have wilfully created a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs inside the body of a living caterpillar. David Hume perhaps scuttled it best, pointing out that if something as complex as the Universe required a creator, then that creator, being more complex, must have required one, too.

Losing our belief in a creator, though, should not entail we lose our wonder too.

Huh. If I might glibly paraphrase, what I'm hearing here is, "Religion is totally AWESOME! But you know, there's obviously no God, and educated people have known this for centuries..."

(I realize the passage leaves room for a God that is a part of the universe rather than its creator, but... for a lot of people that wouldn't really be God.)

I know what they are trying to do. They are trying to play the usual condescending game of "belief in belief": "I know a lot of you are turned off to Dawkins because he's always hating on religion -- but we don't hate on religion, and we liked this book!" I don't want to get too hung up on this point, it's otherwise a great article. I just feel like the inherent condescension of this position is really on display here. I mean, if I believed in God, I think I'd find that passage a bit off-putting. "I don't believe in that rubbish, but I think it's totally awesome that you are deluded in that way!" Blech. Heh, oh well.