2008 June 20 Too little and too late Senator McCain has just proposed that the U.S. build 45 nuclear power reactors by the year 2032. That is too few by a factor of at least 10 and maybe 100. 10 is required to generate our electricity by nuclear energy, and 100 may be required if we are to replace natural gas for home heating and replace gasoline by hydrogen obtained by splitting water with nuclear energy. At 2 billion dollars per plant the cost is either 900 billion or 9 trillion, which our ten trillion dollar per year economy can afford.

Fri Oct 26 17:00:03 2007 Summers and Watson
It's unfortunate that Lawrence Summers and James Watson surrendered to pressure. However, it provides evidence that many currently accepted beliefs are maintained by bullying.

Here's a defense of Watson by Jason Malloy.

Wed May 2 18:03:54 2007 Note on reductionism
This just a note, i.e. I could say more.

Does biology reduce to physics? Assume, as most of us do, that living organisms are physical systems. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that physics permits life organized in quite a different way than life is organized on earth, i.e. with organs, tissues, cells, DNA, and proteins. Our particular way is likely not predicted by physics but may depend on accidents of evolution.

The point is much sharper with computer science than with biology. Computers have been built with quite a variety of physical phenomena, e.g. gears and levers, relays, vacuum tubes, discrete transistors of several kinds, and integrated circuits. There have also been oddities like acoustic computers. Regardless of the physical manifestation, computer science is the same. Indeed computer science, including artificial intelligence, can be studied abstractly with no commitment to a physical realization.

For these reasons, computer science and biology should not be considered to be reduced to physics. The chemistry of small molecules, say with fewer than (say) 20 atoms is another matter. It is possible to write down all that are physically possible and deduce their properties from physics. On the other hand, only a tiny fraction of the possible large molecules exist in nature, and our knowledge of which of them do exist is not derived from physics alone.

Wed Mar 7 11:12, 2007: Religion as a theory
In the New York Times magazine this week, Robin Marantz Henig wrote "In the world of evolutionary biology, the question is not whether God exists but why we believe in him. Is belief a helpful adaptation or an evolutionary accident?"

She's not exactly a specialist in this subject. Two of her previous articles covered lie detection and incurable diseases. Professional writers do get around.

My opinion is that religion is neither a helpful adaptation nor an evolutionary accident (if by evolution one means by natural selection). Religions are theories and social phenomena, i.e. not biological phenomena.

By the way I'm an atheist. I don't claim to have a proof that God cannot exist. It's just that I consider the state of the evidence on the God question to be similar to that on the werewolf question.

Religions at the the time of the Greeks, Romans, and Norse had a substantial would-be scientific component. For example, it is plausible that lightning is the stroke of a god's hammer. This suggests obtaining the god's favor by sacrifices and prayer. priesthoods offer to help. Variants of this theory of lightning lasted till 1757 when Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning is an electric discharge and invented the lightning rod. It is appropriate to call this ancient theory a superstition, and there were skeptics even among the ancient Greeks.

Associated with this would-be science is a would-be engineering - prayer and sacrifice to obtain the god's favor or mitigate his anger.

Alas, superstitions are not easily overcome, even when they lack evidence, and especially if they have a moral component, i.e. it is said to be immoral to disbelieve. Even without a moral component, superstitions persist until someone makes an objective test and successfully pounds the table about it. Consider the theory that bleeding a patient was an appropriate medical remedy. This persisted among otherwise scientifically inclined doctors. I don't know what finally killed it, but I doubt it was a double blind test. The key social phenomenon is the way failures to confirm an entrenched theory can be explained away.

Theories that religion is biological in origin are applied to modern religions. These religions have socially evolved in the last few centuries in an environment in which science has taken over explanation of many phenomena even among the most religious. The classical example is Franklin's electrical explanation of lightning and the associated technology of the lightning rod. It took 100 years before some American denominations gave up the theory that lightning struck their churches when God disapproved of the congregation's behavior, and used lightning rods to replace (or supplement) prayer as the relevant technology. See "The warfare of science with theology in Christendom" by A.D. White, the first president of Cornell University, published in 1896. It's available on the web.

New superstitions arise all the time. I'll cite organic food and the associated rejection of genetic engineering and radiation sterilization, the anti-nuclear energy superstition that associates nuclear power with nuclear weapons, and the repeated anti-immunization movements. Even the scientific community is subject to the "madness of crowds", e.g. the belief that global warming is a major threat to humanity.

Notes on the rising tide of superstition Sat Jan 20, 2007: I see that Starbucks has given in (again) to superstition in agreeing not to use milk from cows treated with rBST, an artificially produced natural hormone. As SAFEWAY has courageously put on their milk cartons, there is no significant difference in the milk. Oh well, I guess I can find a competing coffee shop.

It seems I'm not cut out for boycotts. The Starbucks I went to is just more conveniently located for me than its competitors. I still go there, sometimes because I forget my disapproval, and sometimes I'm just lazy.


Today the media and the politicians are just as excited about dangers to the U.S. as they were during WWII when Naziism was a danger to the world or during the cold war when nuclear war might have substantially destroyed the country. Compared to those times, the dangers are minor.

The danger of epidemic diseases is also much less. Consider how carefully the spread of the H5N1 influenza virus in birds is being monitored and the enormous efforts going into developing a vaccine in case it should mutate into a form transmissable among humans. In contrast the 1918 flu virus was not noticed until the epidemic happened.

Terrorism in the Western countries has also killed few people compared to the populations verbally threatened by the terrorists.

There has been no postwar economic disaster in the West remotely comparable to the great depression of the 1930s.

Alarmism about the environment has stimulated many laws, all of them costly and some actually harmful.

Alarmism about racism has stimulated unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of speech by educational institutions. At least the courts have often found them unconstitutional or otherwise illegal. In many states, including California, the legislatures have been more protective of freedom of speech than the educational bureaucracies, e.g. that of Stanford University where I am located.

There are more, but I'll spare you. Nevertheless, the media and the politicians express just as much anxiety as they expressed when the dangers were greater.

So what? Doesn't media attention stimulate us to take protective measures? It does, but some of the protective measures have been a nuisance and some actually harmful. However, the main danger of alarmism is that it favors grabs for power. Maybe that's what we should be alarmed about.


2005 November 5 - The intelligent design advocates seem not to be presenting alternative theories to evolution. My opinion is based on looking at the web site of the Discovery Institute, generally said to be the main intelligent design advocate. All I see there are newspaper level polemics and no links to anything beyond that.

What would be a serious attempt to make intelligent design theories?

First it would list which events in the evolution of life required intelligent design and which could be explained by Darwinian natural selection. Twenty candidates for intelligent intervention would be required.

Second it would study the nature of the intervention. For example, would it involve the addition of specific genes, i.e. sequences of DNA to the germ plasm of the organism?

Third it would attempt to develop theories as to why the intelligent designer made its (His) interventions at specific times.

The intelligent design advocates would have their own Journal of Intelligent Design Studies that would present theories of such matters. It would not primarily consist of polemics with Darwinians. Starting their movement by influencing school boards is quite a different matter from making studies of how intelligent design works.

The lack of activity aimed at developing their ideas scientifically leads me to the opinion that the intelligent design people are not serious.

I'm a Darwinian.

Remark: Polls show that a majority of Americans claim belief in the biblical account of the origin of life. On the other hand, in the one town where the school board decided to put intelligent design on the same level as evolution, the school board was voted (2005 November) out of office. I don't know, but it seems to me that many people manage to believe in the biblical account and evolution simultaneously. At least they have enough respect for science to want it taught in the way advocated by the scientific community. A puzzle.


I don't suppose that all advocates of intelligent design will give the same answers to all these questions. Moreover, this questionnaire may be redundant. Perhaps they are answered in some web source I haven't seen.

  1. DNA. Do you agree that the structure of an animal, plant, or micro-organism is encoded in its DNA?
  2. If yes to the previous item, does this include humans? Partly or wholly?
  3. Does evolution occur among micro-organisms? Specifically, does resistance to antibiotics sometimes arise by the natural selection of random mutations? [The point of this question to us Darwinians is that such evolution seems to occur in times of a few years and is entirely observable.]
  4. Are species immutable as most pre-Darwinians thought? [I suppose most intelligent design advocates will answer no to this question, but I want to be sure.]
  5. Do you think intelligent intervention occurs all the time - or rarely?
  6. What changes in life are your leading candidates for intelligent intervention?
  7. What can be inferred about the motivations of the intervener from these particular interventions?
  8. Which of the changes in the minds of hominids over the last five million years are the results of intervention?

I'd welcome email answers to the questions. If I get enough answers, I'll summarize them. If the previous questions seem ill-posed or to presume a particular answer, please send me email about it. John McCarthy, jmc@cs.stanford.edu. Maybe I'll change them.

As of Wed May 2 18:33:59 2007 I have received no email about this.

2006 Jan 18 note:


We opponents of intelligent design are an overwhelming majority among scientists, and a majority in the academic world, in the legal profession, and in education. According to some polls we are not a majority in the population. Some school boards want to have intelligent design taught in high school.

How far should we go in using the courts to prevent this?

It makes me nervous to win an intellectual dispute by legal or administrative means. I think it's ok to legally prevent putting intelligent design in science courses, but it's going too far to use the courts to prevent there being a philosophy course devoted to intelligent design, as is currently being attempted.

It might be interesting to organize some debates between intelligent design advocates and ourselves who believe in evolution. We beat them in the late 19th century when they were administratively entrenched and should be able to beat them easily now.

Don't cheer men, those poor devils are dying.
- Rear Admiral John Woodward Philip, battle of Santiago, 1898

2005 July 8 - Terrorist attacks in Western countries are a very minor cause of death, and fear of terrorism should not affect people's actions. As of this date, 50 people are known to have died in the British attack, and the number is likely to increase somewhat. Compare this with other causes of death in the US (I don't know the British statistics but would expect them to be proportional to the British population, which is 1/4 that of the US.) The US has about 40,000 killed per year in automobile accidents, 20,000 per year murdered, and 20,000 per year suicides. Even during worst of the terror in Israel, the number killed by terrorists was less than the number killed in automobile accidents.

Yet many people's behavior is mistakenly affected by news of terrorism. Responding to a CNN poll about half the respondents said their travel plans would be affected by the news of the terrorist attack in London. Why?

I suppose it is mainly the fault of journalism. News of terrorism makes the journalists feel important, and most of them are ignorant of statistics published in their own newspapers, perhaps as a matter of principle. Politicians are also innumerate and perhaps fear being regarded as unfeeling if they advise the public to ignore terrorism.

Every country has created a security establishment, and these establishments keep creating more and more bureaucratic obstacles, mainly to travel, and never withdraw a "security" measure once it is implemented.

The Israelis seem to be the most nearly rational about security. I noticed recently that El Al has not gone to plastic knives.

2005 March 21 - In entertaining and then voting no confidence in Summers after his remarks at the NBER meeting, the Harvard faculty has taken a strong stand against academic freedom. The intolerance of the 1960s is with us in ever more blatant forms. March 25. It is a hopeful sign for the future that the graduate students are less opposed to academic freedom than the professors. They voted down the no confidence measure - by a small margin.

2005 January 25 - What a pity that Summers chickened out. But maybe he hasn't quite. Will Harvard have a quota system like M.I.T.'s for female tenured appointments?

There's an interesting piece of research by Claude Steele of Stanford, featured in the 2005 February Scientific American. Its conclusion is that honesty about differences in talent between groups, male-female, black-white, is harmful to the lower rated group. The individuals score lower if they belong to a group rated lower and they know they are taking a test. That honesty is harmful would be very bad news.


I'm motivated to explain this, because the great majority of my fellow academics voted the other way. I don't know to what extent my reasons correspond to the reasons why the majority of American voters chose Bush.

1. I was motivated by policy, not by personality. The accusations that Bush is dumb, too religious or too stubborn didn't affect me. I didn't watch the debates nor do I watch TV. Whether Bush came up with the policies I prefer out of his own head or through the influence of his advisers is irrelevant to me.

2. I agreed with his decisions to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan and to attack the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. So far, destroying the Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan seems to have helped us avoid another 9/11. It's been three years. A point of dissent: the repeated warnings that we were just about to be attacked again must have been based on some wrong methodology, since nothing has materialized and no 9/11 magnitude plot has been uncovered. These warnings have come from both the left and the right, although they disagree about the correct policy for avoiding terror.

3. The number and magnitude of the crimes of the Saddam Hussein regime are important to me. First there are the aggressive wars against Iran and Kuwait. Our direct national interest required that we liberate Kuwait, given Hussein's threat to the world's oil supply in Kuwait itself and the expected threat to Saudi Arabia. Second there are the crimes against the Iraqi people - repeated massacres, as well as Hussein's Stalin-like behavior towards his own entourage.

4. Saddam's program to develop nuclear weapons was an important menace. It was already under way when the Israelis bombed his reactor in 1982 - 22 years ago. After that check, it was well under way by the time of the 1990 Gulf War. Present evidence is that it stopped in the 1990s but was ready to resume as soon as the US let up on overflights.

5. The US made a serious effort to intimidate Hussein short of war by moving substantial military force to the area. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell made an all out but ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the UN Security Council to authorize military action if Hussein didn't give up his weapons programs. It was finally clear that the French and Russians would not vote for military action under any circumstances. Hussein was assured of that. He may have thought his bribery of French and Russian officials by letting them resell Iraqi oil contributed to their defense of his regime.

6. The US could not maintain the military forces surrounding Iraq indefinitely. If we didn't attack we would have to withdraw them, and it would be politically impossible to bring them back almost regardless of the provocation. Therefore, I think we had to attack about when we did if we were to prevent Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons. Of course, when he got them, we probably could have deterred him from using them against us, just as we deterred the Soviet Union. The resulting new cold war would have been much worse than the current situation.

7. Of course, the US made mistakes in carrying out the Iraq war, although Rumsfeld proved correct that a much smaller force than was used in the first Gulf war and no preliminary air attack would suffice to take Baghdad. We didn't even need the Fourth Infantry Division, whose arrival in Iraq was delayed by the Turkish parliament's refusal to let it attack from Turkey.

8. The big mistake may have been not to go after the arms with a high priority, perhaps even at the cost of delaying the capture of Baghdad. We might also have taken the Iraqi Army as POWs rather than just dismissing the soldiers. I don't see that Bush's opponents, e.g. the Clinton security team, would have done better.

9. Kerry promised to win in Iraq, but I think the people he would have appointed to high office would not have pursued victory vigorously. In any case, his election would have encouraged the insurgency in Iraq, whereas Bush's re-election has discouraged it.

2005 January 25 note: Should we consider Kerry's joining Barbara Boxer in voting against the confirmation of Condaleeza Rice as Secretary of State as evidence of a return to strong leftism and as evidence that a Kerry victory would have led to losing in Iraq?

10. I agree with the Republicans about not signing and ratifying the Kyoto treaty. Unlike the situation in other countries, a ratified treaty in the US is a law, and if Kyoto would be ratified, there would be lawsuits and its final interpretation would be decided by judges. Here are some considerations.

a. The warming so far hasn't harmed humanity. Maybe more warming will.

b. It is unlikely that any countries will do much about warming until actual significant harm occurs, no matter whether they have signed Kyoto or not. In particular, China will burn more and more coal, already exceeding the US.

c. If and when warming becomes harmful or other sources of energy run out, nuclear energy is available in arbitrary amounts. The people who warn about global warming but don't mention nuclear energy strike me as insincere.

11. There are important issues on which I disagree with Bush. He wants to make the US more religious, whereas I am an atheist. I'd fear him if I thought he had the intention and ability to persecute us. The present situation is the other way around; the religious are being persecuted to a small but significant extent.

I don't agree with him about abortion, but I don't see that the legality of abortion is likely to change much in the forseeable future.

I don't agree with him about stem cells, but California has come to the rescue.

While I voted for Bush, I did not feel desperate about the matter. I think the country would have survived a Kerry victory perfectly well. Politicians running for office, the media, and the professors in the social sciences always tend to exaggerate the criticality of the present situation. This is true both on the left and on the right.

Let's make some comparisons.

If the Germans had got the atomic bomb before we did, the survival of Britain and ultimately the US would have been seriously threatened.

During the Cold War, the Soviets could have destroyed the US, and the instabilities of a system based on one man rule always presented a risk of war.

In 1945, 55 percent of the US GDP went to the war effort. In 1960 defense got 10 percent of the GDP. The Iraq war is costing one percent of the GDP, and overall military expenditures are 3.3 percent as of 2004 February. The commentators who say the US can't afford the Iraq war are deluding themselves.

If we are successful in Iraq, I can imagine voting for the Democrats in 2008, because their support of science might be better. Bush will have served his purpose - or rather my purpose in voting for him. Maybe the Democrats would have to get better on nuclear energy. Daschle was bad, but he's out.

Al Qaeda victory in Spain - 2004 March 16

Moslem fascists, both religious and secular, now have learned two important lessons.

1. Kill 3,000 Americans, and you lose two countries.

2. Kill 200 Spaniards, and you win an election.

Before the train bombings the party favoring keeping Spanish troops in Iraq was ahead in polls. After the bombings, enough switched to give power to the party pledged to remove the troops. That party has renewed the pledge.

I think Al Qaeda and other terrorists will be encouraged to see if the enough voters in other European countries and Japan are just as cowardly as the Spaniards who switched.

The US and Britain should not count on the Western Europeans or the UN to do anything significant.

Reactions to the asteroid menace - 2004 March 13

This is a reaction to a lecture by former astronaut Rusty Schweickart on 2004 March 12 sponsored by Stewart Brand's Long Now Foundation. I am putting my reaction here because of some opinions and attitudes he expressed that seem to be mistaken and prevalent in a large part of the scientific community

Most of the lecture was an excellent description of the menace asteroids present to humanity. Schweickart was proposing a project to mount rockets on an asteroid and experimentally deflect it. He hopes NASA will adopt the proposal with pressure from Congress. It is based on NASA's existing plan to develop nuclear reactors to power ion rockets - an excellent plan.

Here are some points.

1. I agree that the present NASA survey of earth crossing asteroids is a good thing. I don't know if the ability to predict 100 years ahead is based just on computing a solar orbit or if it takes into account perturbations from Jupiter and possibly other planets. Taking them into account should permit much longer predictions.

2. I agree that his proposed asteroid mission and test of deflection by rockets is a good thing.

3. I do not agree that there is an either-or decision between deflection by rockets and deflection by nuclear explosions. Both need to be explored. I understand that the first is easier to get support for with the present attitude of the scientific community, though not necessarily with the present attitude of Congress.

4. Deflection by mounting rockets on the asteroid will work if there is plenty of time before the asteroid's orbit would hit the earth. The nuclear option will be important for asteroids or comets for which there is very short warning. According to an astronomer I asked, about 20 percent of earth orbit crossing events come from objects from too far out to have predictions of their orbits until they are detected heading for us. For them large deflections on a short time scale will be necessary.

5. There are substantial unknowns about which asteroids can be usefully deflected by nuclear explosions and how to do it. Therefore, testing is necessary. I do not regard the test ban as a sacred commitment binding humanity for all time. Indeed I'm glad the US Senate has not ratified it. My opinion is quite independent of considerations of national defense. I have an article on nuclear explosions.

6. Schweickart (and I believe many scientists) and I have a big disagreement on the ability of humanity to survive catastrophic events by action on a large scale.

First of all panic: Predictions of destructive mass panics are unwarranted and contrary to experience with previous catastrophes, e.g. wars. In WWII the neutral Dutch and Belgians were suddenly bombed by the Germans with big destruction. No panic occurred of a magnitude that significantly added to the damage inflicted by the Germans.

Schweickart regards humanity as delicate, perhaps because of the interdependence of aspects of our society. Experience, wars again, have shown that while human society is readily annoyed, it is very resistant to serious damage, and the advance of technology makes it more rugged with every generation. I discuss this point at length in my web page Menaces to humanity.

Schweickart and I had a short specific disagreement about whether a Chixculub event would wipe out humanity. [Most scientists agree that the mass extinctions 65 million years ago between the Cretaceous and Tertiary eras were caused by an asteroid striking near Chixculub in Mexico. This includes the extinction of dinosaurs.] Schweickart was sure another Chixculub would wipe out humanity. Here's why it probably wouldn't. Even one in a million surviving, i.e. 6,000 would lead to humanity surviving. Actually, the fraction surviving would be much larger, maybe more than half.

First assume no warning.

1. At any given time hundreds of thousands of people in the world are underground and therefore would not be immediately killed by the high temperature of the sky the calculations suggest. However, most places don't have much food. The places that probably have enough food for quite a time are the national command centers of the US and Russia and some other countries.

2. Schweickart said that some animals survived Chixculub by being in "refugia". Some humans would find themselves in such places, whatever they may be.

3. The fires would destroy all above ground plants in a few days. After some time, small plants would begin to grow, but it would be a long time before enough plants for animals like us would grow. However, we have grain silos, large concrete structures. Likely some of them would survive and give us something eat and to plant.

Assume some days warning.

We work on getting people, food, seeds, and equipment underground.

That will do for now, but it is only what I have been able to think of in less than an hour as means for survival. More and smarter people thinking longer, either as advance preparation or at the time of the emergency would think of much more to do.

Of course, another Chixculub is only one of the disasters that have been written about. Another is another ice age, or, on a smaller scale, a failure of Atlantic circulation that would make Western Europe as cold as Labrador or Siberia. Towards each of these disasters, the dominant attitude in the scientific community is one of hopelessness. The imagination runs to more things that may cause death rather than to inventing ways of making humanity survive.

Of course, not everyone thinks this way, but we who don't seem to be a minority. It might be worthwhile to hold a conference entitled "Surviving catastrophes" or maybe just "Surviving another Chixculub". The object is not so much as to advocate specific preparations of low probability, distant disasters as to influence the gloomy state of mind.

In an email, Schweickart admitted he knew of no study of how many humans would survive a Chixculub event. I infer that he carelessly thought we wouldn't survive, because it adds importance to his project of surveying potentially dangerous asteroids.

For now, these comments will be on one file in reverse chronological order. If anyone wants to link to a specific commentary rather than to the site as a whole, each comment is preceded by a link target whose name is the same as the first word of the title. Thus you would link to the essay Defending science and technology as http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/commentary.html#Defending.

You say the only alternative to nuclear war is world government. There is only one possibility worse than nuclear war for the survival of modern civilization, and that is world government. Civilization might recover from the damage of a nuclear war, but judging by past static empires in Egypt and China, it might never recover from world government, there being no chance of external intervention. As it is, present governments are only prevented from becoming dominated by crazy ideas that will suppress all opposition by the existence of other governments. The only way a people can be sure that their government is substandard is that it does worse than those of other countries.

Teller on Heisenberg's mistake

What Edward Teller told me about Heisenberg's mistake may be of some general interest.

Genetic engineering may suffer the fate of nuclear energy.

1. At first almost all physicists would speak up for nuclear energy. However, the most eloquent were the oldest. Norman Borlaug has been most eloquent for genetic engineering in agriculture, but he has been working in improving crops for 56 years.

2. Afterwards the attacks continued but the defenses slacked off, perhaps because scientists couldn't bring themelves to say again and again what they had already said several times.

3. Eventually governments were gradually worn down, and it became politically incorrect for scientists doing studies on energy to even mention nuclear energy. The recent special issue of Science on energy didn't mention nuclear energy in any of the articles even though nuclear energy provides 20 percent of the electricity in the US and worldwide. A few readers worked themselves up to letters of protest, and Science duly published two of them.

4. The organizations attacking genetic engineering are the same ones that attacked nuclear energy. Once having taken a position they cannot be mollified by more testing. No amount of testing will be enough. No amount of saying things more tactfully will help.

5. Very likely most agricultural biologists won't see the analogy. They won't have studied nuclear energy, and will have more or less vague doubts about it, i.e. they will have been influenced by the same kind of propaganda now applied against genetic engineering. What is likely to happen is that the public and scientists outside the field will end up with similar vague doubts about biotechnology.

6. Maybe the only chance is a continued campaign supported by scientists but mainly carried out by people who are professional campaigners and who don't mind saying the same thing again and again, because it's their job.

2000 April 22
Elian Gonzalez
I was glad to read that the Federal Court has suggested that his own opinion about going back to Cuba be listened to. His mother died in getting him to the U.S., and maybe this is important to him.


Is mankind the gardener of the earth or an intruder?
1997 April 24

The traditional view of the earth is that it is humanity's garden. We can make it as we wish - to the extent that we can agree. Fortunately, it is big enough so that some parts of it can be organized in one way and other parts in other ways.

The view that humanity is an intruder on the earth and that human changes are always, or almost always, bad seems to be more recent.

I agree with the traditional view, and I expect that the earth will be rearranged a fair amount in the future. Our distant descendants may even be able to meddle with plate tectonics.

As we learn more about the past, we discover events that would be catastrophes to humanity if they occurred today. We will learn how to prevent such events as ice ages and asteroid collisions.

Melissa virus: Microsoft at fault: 1999 March 27

The just discovered Melissa virus relies on defects in Microsoft Word 1997 and Word 2000. The user receives email headed "The document you requested" or "Subject: Important message from x", where x is the name of the owner of the machine from which the virus was last sent. If the message containing the virus is opened in Word it uses the victims list of email correspondents to send more copies of itself.

There is no good reason why the Microsoft mail reading system should allow opened email to have any access to files or to be able to send email. However, this may have been not a bug but a feature from the point of view of Microsoft itself. Microsoft can, and prosecutors should ask whether it did, send email to users of Word that reports some information back to Microsoft.

Defending science and technology: 1999 March 27

The scientific establishment, e.g. the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has been active in defending the scientific theory of evolution from the attacks of the creationists. This is good, but the creationists aren't going to get power in the U.S. Even if they achieved their goal of getting all high school biology texts to present evolution as "just a theory", the harm would be limited. Anyway they are an easy target, because attacking them doesn't interfere with the political and intellectual alliances of parts of the scientific community.

Another worthwhile but easy target is ordinary medical quackery. It probably does much more harm than creationism. However, the quackery of claims that organic food is healthier than conventionally grown food has been ignored.

However, the scientific establishment has neglected its duty to defend genetic engineering, the use of pesticides and nuclear energy. The attack on nuclear energy did great harm, and the attack on genetic engineering is doing great harm. Many have died from avoidable coal smoke, and many may die from disease exacerbated by malnourishment for lack of more productive crops.

Of course, there have been National Research Council studies on carcinogens in diet, nuclear energy and studies on aspects of genetic engineering. These are good but not enough. By analogy, suppose the National Academy of Sciences had contented itself with an NRC study that eventually came to the conclusion that evolution was true and maybe even including the conclusion that it should be taught in school biology. The report would gather dust on the shelves, and there would be very few links to the web version. [Actually, come to think of it, a good popular argument for the truth of evolution, posted on the web might do quite a bit of good.]

Attacks on genetic engineering and its scientific basis

The attack on genetic engineering by Greenpeace and its allies is not just a claim that some particular product of genetic engineering is harmful or has been inadequately tested. Their claim is that genetic engineering in general is a bad idea promoted by bad people. The bad people are in the first instance the corporations, e.g. Monsanto, that market products of genetic engineering. However, the attacks extend to the scientists who do the research, calling them tools of the corporations. There is criticism of specific new plants on whatever grounds, specious or otherwise, that seem effective, but the specific criticisms are primarily support for the general goal of outlawing genetic engineering. The spearhead of the attack is destroying experimental plots in various countries, including Ireland, India and some European continental countries.

A few scientists have lent themselves to the attack, mainly by criticizing the adequacy of the testing of specific products. This is ok, but some have also supported general propositions about genetic engineering being unnatural.

The pseudo-scientific character of the attack is intellectually similar in many ways to creation science.

It is just as much the duty of the scientific establishment to defend scientific basis of genetic engineering as it is to defend the theory of evolution.

The pseudo-science of organic food

The Federal Government has undertaken to set standards for organic food. From the commercial standpoint of the organic food industry such standards are clearly desirable, because there is no clear line where conventionally grown food leaves off and organically grown food begins. Other quackeries would also benefit from Federal standards. Distinguishing well trained astrologers from mere amateurs would reduce excessive competition in that industry.

Unlike many Federal standard for food, the organic standard is unaccompanied by any claim that food meeting the standard is healthier than food that doesn't. It is merely a certification that the food conforms to an ideological criterion. For example, the recent demand that the standard exclude any food derived from a genetically engineered plant and any food preserved by irradiation was not accompanied by any health argument. 2000 June note: Apparently the recently adopted wording of the standard suggests, but does not actually assert, that organic food is good for you. This has resulted in protests that the claim is undocumented.

Indeed it seems to me that a Federal organic standard may constitute a violation of the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion. Many of the organic advocates refer to their doctrine as a religion.

The scientific establishment owes it to the American people to call organic food quackery even if it will offend some nice people. We need a new Huxley.

Nuclear energy

Here the default is quite an old one, and many thousands of deaths from coal smoke and much CO2 in the atmosphere may be ascribed to it. However, there are reasons why the establishment didn't and doesn't defend nuclear energy that may partly carry over to the other issues.

A large part, perhaps a majority, of the scientific community opposed the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons. The anti-nuclear movement, however, equally opposed U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Attacking nuclear weapons and defending nuclear power simultaneously was too hard for almost all scientific activists. The most they managed was an occasional mutter in favor of nuclear power.

The environmental movement, parts of which supported nuclear power as cleaner than fossil fuel, switched early to opposition. For example, the Sierra Club switched in 1975, four years before the Three Mile Island accident. It was too hard to remain pro-establishment on one issue while being anti-establishment on others. There is just a hint of change on the nuclear power issue because of concern about global warming. In Kyoto, 58 organizations declared that nuclear energy could be no part of the response to global warming. However, several important organizations didn't sign the declaration, e.g. the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Maybe it's a tiny hint.

It seems to me that some of the alliances formed in the days of the anti-nuclear weapons campaigns have persisted, at least psychologically, to this very day.

Also environmentalist causes in general often regard corporations as the enemy, and this has created alliances that prevent open disagreement with organizations like Greenpeace.

I suspect many readers who agree on the substantive issues will regret that I have commented on ideological-political matters. However, thinking about policy without taking ideological history into account is like studying magnetism and ignoring hysteresis. The analogy is close.

Pinochet: 1999 March 27

It was a big mistake to arrest Pinochet in England, and for a reason that I haven't seen in the press. Pinochet gave up power peacefully as part of a deal that made him a Senator for life. He may now be thinking that it would have been better to fight to the death. Well, who cares what Pinochet thinks?

De Klerk gave up power peacefully in South Africa. Is he in danger of being indicted in some random European country and arrested if he visits Europe? The possibility may give him second thoughts about the wisdom of having peacefully given up power. Well, who cares what De Klerk thinks?

Wouldn't it be nice if Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Khadafi and Kim Jong Il were to give up power peacefully? Doubtless none of these tyrants feels threatened enough at present to contemplate giving up power, but their times may come. An important factor in the decision of any of these men to give up power peacefully is believing that the deal they make will be honored.

Pinochet's troubles are a good reason why any of them might decide to fight to the death.

But what are a few hundred thousand killed compared to losing the moral satisfaction of punishing the tyrant?

Up to: Main McCarthy page

Send comments to