aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Monday, October 17, 2005
The Blog Interviews
Harvard Law has brought on three professors that are ”generally considered to be conservative.”
I’m all for it. But then I favor affirmative action. And I was inclined to believe that most professors tend to be socially liberal and vote Democratic even before David Horowitz’s much ballyhooed study found that at the University of Chicago Law School, Democrats outnumber Republicans 55 to 8, out of the 100 full-time professors surveyed.
My strong reaction is where the heck did all these Chicago law professors come from? The study claims to exclude clinical faculty and adjunct faculty, but still manages to find 100 full-time law professors at the University Chicago, or 67 more professors than our own web site indicates we have (show “full-time faculty"). According to the table on page five of Horowitz and Light’s paper, Chicago has a larger faculty than Harvard, Columbia, and NYU!
...it does make a certain degree of sense that softy, idealistic liberals may want to go into teaching and sacrifice the allure of money and power, while hardheaded, realistic conservatives would either enter the private sector or think tanks where they can make more cash and influence authority.
Cass Sunstein (dare I wonder, another Dem?) explains why it is we need them:
As decades of social science research have shown, like-minded people, engaged in discussion with one another, tend to go to extremes… Deliberating groups, after deliberation, usually adopt a more extreme position in the same direction as the median of their predeliberation views. This is the phenomenon known as group polarization.
Why does group polarization occur? Several factors appear to be at work. 1) If a group’s members are predisposed to think that X is true, group members will hear many arguments in favor of X, and few the other way. Exposed to more arguments in favor of X, people tend to become more convinced of X. 2) If a group’s members are predisposed in favor of X, those who are skeptical of X might well silence themselves, so as not to seem obtuse or to risk their reputations. Both individuals and groups as a whole are likely to shift as a result. 3) People tend to moderate their opinions when they don’t know what others think. If they’re surrounded by like-minded others, their initial inclinations are confirmed, and they tend to become more confident—and probably more extreme as a result.
Here’s the upshot: When a college or university is skewed in one direction, group polarization is highly likely.
And see, Sunstein sees that as a problem. I of course do too. In the following example, I’m sure George Bush would too:
Of course group polarization occurs within countless groups; left-leaning organizations have no monopoly on it. The conservative furor over the appointment of Harriet Miers, for example, seems to be a case study in group polarization. (This is simply a point about social dynamics, not at all about the merits.) There’s no simple “cure” for group polarization, but awareness of the phenomenon can provide at least a degree of inoculation.
Wouldn’t it be good to see an argument like this succeed where all others have failed: as a justification for a truly diverse student body.
In case you missed it
From the October 8 NYTimes:
A plan developed by the Bush administration to deal with any possible outbreak of pandemic flu shows that the United States is woefully unprepared for what could become the worst disaster in the nation’s history.
A draft of the final plan, which has been years in the making and is expected to be released later this month, says a large outbreak that began in Asia would be likely, because of modern travel patterns, to reach the United States within ‘’a few months or even weeks.’’
If such an outbreak occurred, hospitals would become overwhelmed, riots would engulf vaccination clinics, and even power and food would be in short supply, according to the plan, which was obtained by The New York Times.
The limits of democracy
Dean and I disagree on how to handle the bird flu threat. Dean says it’s “a lesson in the difference between ‘what could happen’ and ‘what we think will happen;’” I say it, like New Orleans and global warming, is a lesson in the limits of democracy.
Slate’s David Dobbs parses the flu issue nicely. Who gets the vaccine?
More than 10 million older Americans traveled last year, often in lousy weather, to stand in long lines and get poked in the arm with a flu shot. They made the trip in response to recommendations by the federal government that gave priority for flu vaccines to the elderly and the ailing. This, it turns out, is probably a bad idea. A Harvard study published last week adds to mounting evidence that the best way to ward off the flu’s ravages is to target transmission (meaning a disease’s main carriers, which in this case are kids) rather than risk (meaning the population at risk of death or serious illness, which with the flu is the old, the ailing, and infants). All signs are that giving children quick, painless nasal-spray vaccines while they’re already gathered at school could spare the elderly from standing in long lines for flu shots-and better protect them and everyone else.
Kids don’t vote. Old people do. And the argument is counter-intuitive so not easily sold. 60,000 people die in the United States each year from flu. And what we’re doing is ALLOWING THINGS TO GET WORSE:
Because the human immune system weakens with age, only 28 percent of elderly people who get vaccinated develop immunity. The low rate of protection means that 84 percent of all elderly (the 72 percent whose vaccinations don’t take, along with those who don’t get vaccinated) remain prey to a flu virus that runs otherwise largely unchecked.
This vulnerability, combined with the aging of the population, has caused the nation’s overall flu death rate to rise 400 percent even as we vaccinate more of the elderly.
Here’s the argument for vaccinating kids:
Their immune systems respond wonderfully to flu vaccine. A whopping 90 percent are successfully immunized by a flu shot, compared to the 28 percent figure for the elderly and 60 percent for middle-aged adults. Kids’ 90 percent success rate has been used to set up viral roadblocks high and wide enough to increase protection for whole populations. In the late 1960s, for instance, University of Michigan researchers vaccinated 85 percent of the schoolchildren in Tecumseh, Mich. The program reduced flu cases by two-thirds. In the late 1990s, a Baylor College of Medicine study vaccinated just 25 percent of 18-month to 18-year-olds in Temple, Texas, every year for three years. Adult flu cases dropped 8 percent to 18 percent.
Computer models...show that as child-age vaccination rates pass 50 percent, a community increasingly gains overall resistance to disease-what epidemiologists call “herd health"-which protects even those most at risk. Specifically, vaccinating 30 percent of preschool and schoolchildren would reduce a community’s chance of flu epidemic from 90 percent to 65 percent. Vaccinating 50 percent of kids would cut the chance to 36 percent. And vaccinating 70 percent of them would shrink the risk of epidemic to 4 percent. Any of those scenarios would prevent more elderly deaths than giving flu shots to 90 percent of seniors.
Dean says, Bird Flu “has so far struck down far less than 100 people.”
I say, if not that one there will be another. We’re not doing right by the flu we got; I don’t want to be around for the one that may be. Let’s get this one right.
But my topic is the limits of democracy. We’re watching this thing spread around the globe. It looks something like slow motion suicide to me. And what are we doing about it?
It’s not just conservatives who applaud the benefits of democratic delay. In times of war and pestilence, I just don’t see how that works for us.
The limits of openness
Kurzweil and Joy argue that the 1918 flu shot genome should NOT have been published:
AFTER a decade of painstaking research, federal and university scientists have reconstructed the 1918 influenza virus that killed 50 million people worldwide. Like the flu viruses now raising alarm bells in Asia, the 1918 virus was a bird flu that jumped directly to humans, the scientists reported. To shed light on how the virus evolved, the United States Department of Health and Human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank database.
This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.
We urgently need international agreements by scientific organizations to limit such publications and an international dialogue on the best approach to preventing recipes for weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands. Part of that discussion should concern the appropriate role of governments, scientists and their scientific societies, and industry.
We also need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.