The Unknowable Becomes Known

There are certain dangers of speculating on the limits of science. From  What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, by  Jonathan Marks, referring to the possibility of humans inbreeding with Neandertals:

Could an extinct form of near-humans have interbred with us? Not only don’t we know, but we cannot know. Things we cannot know are outside the domain of science.

Strong word, that “cannot.” Unfortunately, Marks wrote this only 3 years before the Neandertal genome was sequenced, and 7 years before humans and Neandertals were proven to have interbred. From a summary of the findings:

  • A newly mapped Neanderthal genome provides strong evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred.
  • Between 1-4 percent of the DNA of many humans living today likely came from Neanderthals.
  • People of European and Asian heritage are most likely to carry the Neanderthal genes.

There is no shame in being wrong, but in Science, you should be circumspect about making absolute statements, and for Marks, this level of unreasonable certainty is troublesome. Marks frequently makes statements that lack scientific and logical rigor, and the critique of those statements is for another post.

I’d hope that someone writing a book about genetics would be able to imagine the possibility of finding similar genetic markers between two separate lineages of humanity, but Marks is only able to conceive of actual, present-day observations of productive mating as the  proof that Humans and Neandertals could interbreed. But honestly, I no longer expect that sort of intelectual expression from anthropologists.

The Suburb Versus the Nation

The United Nations recently released its 2010 Human Development Report, ranking Norway as the most developed country in the world, and inviting a week of comparisons between the enlightened Norway and the dysmal, fourth-ranked United States.

Such comparisons are an abuse of statistics; the US and Norway are incomparable because of the vast differences in size, social structure, demographics and natural resources.

The first, and most glaring problem of comparison is the size of the countries. The US population is 64 times bigger. Norway is about the same population as Alabama, with a smaller population than 22 US states, and  its GDP is smaller than 13 US states.  If you dropped Norway into California, we’d refer to it as a suburb.

The difference in size is important because of the other big difference, diversity. Norway is very homogeneous, which is possible because it is so small. The US is one of the most diverse countries in the world — just the US Black population is 9 times larger than the whole country of Norway. High diversity has the statistical effect of pushing the country closer to world averages, while the very small Norway can be a statistical outlier.

A much more correct comparison would be to compare Norway to individual US states. Top US states rank very well relative to Norway, and on the TIMSS test of science and math, the two us states that participated, Massachusetts and Minnesota, outranked Norway by more than 20%.  Social programs that work well with a cohesive set of Scandinavians would probably work in Minnesota, but fail completely among the clannish descendants of the Ulster-Scots of the US south. Culture matters, and where Norway has one predominant culture, the US has dozens.

( As a data point on the power of culture and ethnicity, note that the states that compare best to Norway, like Minnesota, are also the states with the most northern Europeans. )

The high taxes and generous social programs in Norway are possible in part because of the country’s  oil revenue — Norway is the world’s third largest oil exporter.  Oil added about $14B to the state’s revenues in 2004, a nice cushion for their social programs. Oil doesn’t explain all of Norway’s success of course, but it is a part of it that few other countries in the world have.

The downside of the high taxes is that is has crushed innovation. Have a look at the list of Norway’s largest companies and follow the links through to see the date the companies were founded. For all of the links I followed, the company was either founded before 1940, or was created by a merger of companies that were founded before 1940. As far as I can tell, Norway ( and Scandinavia in general )  has no Microsofts, no Googles, no Silicon valley. Tandberg, the “Silicon Valley company of Norway” was founded in 1933. A lot of the companies were founded before 1900. The landscape of the Norwegian economy does not show any evidence of the “creative destruction” that characterizes the US economy.

Doubtlessly, Norway is a wonderful place to live, if the character of Norway fits your personality.  But regardless of its success and charm, there few lessons to be learned from the completely inappropriate comparison of the US to Norway.

The Vast Both Wing Conspiracy

Alternet is showing itself to be a master of self promotion by brethlessly hyping the pivotal impact of its investigation into the latest Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, a group of conservative Digg users who set up a mailing lists to encourage members to “bury” stories on Digg. The group of a 100 Digg users were able to alter the Digg rankings of left-wing stories, driving Digg to have a more rightward slant. Outrage! Lefties, fair and open that they are, would never do that!

Or at least they would never do it on a private list, like JournoList. No, when they manipulate the media, they do it in the open, in DailyKos blog articles about Google Bombing the Election.  Same play, different actors.

I find this sort of sniping exhausting. For every Vast Conspiracy on one side, there is an equivalent Vast Conspiracy on the other side. People are hypocritical. They forgive in their friends what they condemn in their enemies. They are tribal. They  easily deluded by confirmation bias. These issues have nothing to do with Right or Left; they are entirely artifacts of  humanity.

But at the same time, I think most people, or at least the people I am exposed to, politically active Americans, have a genuine concern for our country and our quality of life. We all want to make our world a better place, but we don’t agree on how to do it. I think a lot of our political turmoil would be eliminated if we all ignored both wings, accepted that the other guy wants a better world just as much as I do, and quit with the name calling.

Where is US Healthcare Headed?

Donald M Berwick is the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, appointed by president Obama a few months ago.  He’s a fan of Brittian’s National Health Service, one of the “astounding human endeavours of modern times“:

Cynics beware, I am romantic about the National Health Service; I love it. All I need to do to rediscover the romance is to look at health care in my own country

If we can expect Mr. Berwick to model US Medicare and Medicaid on the NHS, we might check in on the NHS for a glimpse of where US healthcare is headed. From the Telegraph,

Axe falls on NHS services

NHS bosses have drawn up secret plans for sweeping cuts to services, with restrictions on the most basic treatments for the sick and injured.

Since our new direction in healthcare is even more financially unsustainable than the old one, the US is likely to face similar problems, except that instead of the poor not being able to get health insurance, they won’t be able to get health care.

Immigration Enforcement, Federal And Local

The US Justice Department is suing the state of Arizona over SB 1070, because “The Individual Sections of S.B. 1070 are Prempted by Federal Law“.  The theory, as I understand it, is that the Feds assert that only the Feds should be enforcing Federal Immigration law.  The irony ( actually, one of many ) is that for the last 15 years, the Federal Homeland Security department has been running the ICE 287(g) program, in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement trains local police to enforce federal law. The program has 9 signed Memorandums with Arizona police departments. So, it appears that one federal department is suing Arizona for doing what another federal department is training them to do.