Sunday, February 23, 2014

When conspiracy theories go from sad to evil.

(Trigger warning*: This post involves violence against a small child and an infuriating lack of humility. You should not continue if you don't want to read about violence against children.)
*(Edit: Sigh. I know. See my post on "trigger warning.")

I try very hard to have a sympathetic view of conspiracy theorists. I understand that the people who look for patterns, for "the real story," for "what they're not telling us," etc. are trying to deal with feelings of helplessness and self-doubt. I understand just wanting to have someone agree with you, the rose-coloured glasses that can follow when it finally happens, and a tendency to accept what you might normally turn away from. I understand how skepticism can run amok. Normally conspiracy theories, while sad for those who believe them, are harmless to others - a feeling of "knowing" that the Olympics, or a political scandal on the front page is really a cover-up, for instance, doesn't do much more than support the idea of a pattern where there isn't one.

But sometimes conspiracy theorists go beyond simple narcissism, turning tragedies away from victims and recovery toward self-serving stories about the world. Examples are the crying of "false flag" at the Boston Marathon bombings and Sandy Hook shooting.

Founded on personal tragedy, a misunderstanding of medical science, and a story that sounds an awful lot like the cover-ups conspiracy theorists pride themselves on busting, the anti-vaccination movement is probably the conspiracy theory that's done the most widespread harm. Its proponents actively work to convince parents to boycott childhood vaccines with devastating results. Frightened people looking for patterns inflict the cost of their beliefs on their kids and other medically vulnerable people. Pairing this malignant movement with new tragedy is a recipe for disaster.

In their intervention in the case of the murder of 12-week old Ja'Nayjah Sanders by her non-custodial father, the anti-vaccination movement has crossed a new line.

Ja'Nayjah was beaten to death by her father, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. Ja'Navjah's mother, Shamarrie Kittle, in her grief, was vulnerable to activists the anti-vaccination site VacTruth, who claim that Ja'Navjah's skull fractures were the result of routine two-month vaccinations. Kittle became convinced of VacTruth's claims and is now lobbying to have the murderer of her daughter acquitted and freed.

You can read the details of the case, compiled here. They're horrifying. Her surgeons have no doubt that John Sanders beat his daughter with or against something to inflict the brain injuries she sustained. That anyone would try to pardon someone who would act like this goes beyond the boundaries of what's acceptable. To convince her mother to pardon him is horrifying. To do it in order to prop up, knowingly or not, a self-serving belief system is simply evil.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The curious case of the Copenhagen giraffe

In case you missed it, this week a zoo in Copenhagen killed a healthy, young giraffe named Marius, dissected him in front of children, and then fed him to lions. The outcry was pretty bad.

Why Marius wasn't given a new home? The Copenhagen zoo has voluntarily subscribed to association standards that prohibit the sale of their animals outside of the association and manages the genetic population of their giraffes to prevent inbreeding. Allowing him to join a new herd could put the future population in danger.

Why was he cut up in front of children? His dissection represented an educational experience - which is great, not only for the biology but also because he was being prepared as food. Shielding children from frank education about where meat comes from contributes to squeamishness about using the whole animal and indifference about the conditions animals endure on factory farms.

Why was Marius fed to the lions? Because the alternative was to throw away his body and kill another animal (a cow) to take his place.

There are reasons for all of it. But when we talk about beautiful animals like giraffes, we get emotional. The reporter interviewing the head of the Copenhagen zoo is not unusual (and the interview gives a lot of back story about what happened and why):

Marius may be meat in the wild, but he was born in a zoo, and so he should have been safe so long as he was healthy - or so the argument goes. But Marius was also born in the real world, and not a fairy tale, and so things are not quite so simple.

Zoos come under attack because they exist for entertainment and profit and not solely for preservation of species. Zoos cannot make their decisions based on conservation alone or they will lose the resources that pay for it, and they are the most significant organizations who can own and preserve wild animals. A general prohibition on private ownership takes a broader incentive (and more diverse models) to breed and care for them off the table.

I'm a big fan of legalizing the ownership of wild animals. Not just as pets, but also for farming (especially in the case of Chinese medicine - rhinos can have their horns harvested without killing them, and the biggest threat to tigers is the destruction of the wild population). In addition to creating an incentive to breed them in captivity and spare wild populations, this would shift resources away from enforcing rules against ownership to those aimed at preventing cruelty and negligence.

People may not like the idea of raising (some*) animals for money, but there's no way around the fact that they will be killed for it. We can't wish away poaching and smuggling any more than we can drug use.

We might feel good about refusing to tie (some*) animals to profit, but it's at their expense, not ours. When we make emotional policy decisions about species preservation, we take important options with serious benefits off the table because we don't want to weigh them against the costs.

It is easy to say that we want to save animals. It is harder to bear the cost and actually do it.

*Dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, hamsters, parrots, fish, turtles, geckos, etc. There are lots of exceptions.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Forbes: Everything you know (about the minimum wage) is wrong

This piece in Forbes is pretty well done. The main points:
  • There are certainly working poor people supporting families on the minimum wage, but they are the minority of minimum wage workers. If the point is to help these people, increasing the minimum wage is a poorly targeted and expensive way of doing it, even if there weren't adverse effects (and there's a lot to suggest that there would be).
  • You can't talk about general labour productivity to draw insights about the appropriateness of specific wage rates. Average labour productivity has gone up, but there's evidence that the productivity of minimum wage workers has actually been dragging down that average - the minimum wage may have risen five or six times faster than minimum wage-earners' productivity, not so slowly that it's nearly $15 lower than it should be.
The author takes a rather dim view of minimum wage proponents, which is too bad. I don't think that this is a sneaky way to get at class warfare hatched in the mind of left-wing conspirators, I think that minimum wage proponents genuinely believe that raising it would be helpful, and that the statistics they're presenting are sufficient evidence of that. It's unfortunate that policy makers are not demanding better information before starting the debate.