Climate change and social collapse

Now that even the Koch brothers’ personal scientists have conceded the reality of climate change, it’s time to move on from the rather silly question of whether it’s happening to the very real question of what might it do to us?

One way to answer the question is to investigate what climate change has done to civilizations in the past. The results of this approach were the subject of an article published online by New Scientist on August 6th (and due to be paywalled next week).

“Climate change: the great civilization destroyer?” summarizes recent research into the relationship between sustained climate change and the decline of civilizations both ancient and modern. From the collapse of the Akkadians in 2200 BC to the frequency of wars in Europe in recent centuries, the evidence suggests, societies put under pressure by climate change (or by neighbouring societies feeling climate stress) were liable to catastrophic failure.
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The one percent’s solution

A growing chorus of economists has lately been trumpeting the undeniable truth that, badly expressed, got President Obama into trouble with the right-wing media last week.

What Obama said was that no one builds a successful business alone. There’s a necessary infrastructure of roads and bridges and schools and hospitals, of banking and trade and tax regulations, and much more.

While Obama’s “No, you didn’t” was willfully transferred from building the roads and bridges that he was talking about into a cynically inaccurate claim that the President doesn’t give any credit to individual initiative, at least some of the media spent a little of their time discussing what he’d actually meant.

I’ve dealt in this space with both The Self-Made Myth (reviewed and Robert Reich’s Aftershock.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz appeared recently on The Daily Show, promoting his latest book, The Price of Inequality. Stiglitz outlined the main ideas of the book in “The 1 Percent’s Problem,” published by Vanity Fair in May.

Stiglitz’s article caused quite a stir for arguing that it’s in the selfish interest of the super-rich to make sure that the not-rich get a bigger piece of the pie.
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Brain states trump abuse as criminal excuse?

It’s hard to imagine a case that could bring the questions about moral and legal responsibility that are raised by neuroscience any more front and centre than the upcoming investigation of the motives and culpability of Aurora mass murderer James Holmes.

We now know that Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist before his rampage. And his dazed behaviour during his first court appearance suggests that he may be so seriously unhinged that it will be very difficult to hold him criminally responsible for his actions.

Many people suspect that the neuroscience student’s “insanity” is a carefully and cynically planned “get out of jail free” card. They worry that he’ll get away with it, avoiding the harshest versions of the retribution that his crime deserves.

There have been several posts here on whether and to what extent neuroscience should mitigate criminal responsibility, most recently “But it’s the other guy in my brain who’s guilty.”

Many experts, among them Michael Gazzaniga (article here), have argued that brain science is nowhere near complete nor definitive enough to inform decisions about criminal guilt. One of the most recent forays into this contentious legal arena is a New York Times piece by psychologists John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz.
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Sure it’s a tragedy, but in America freedom = guns

Part of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s initial reaction to the Aurora theatre massacre was to assure citizens that the act of a “deranged” individual would not be allowed to take away Americans’ freedom to lock and load with private arsenals of assault weapons.

Boy, am I relieved. For a moment there, I thought that yet another slaughter of the innocents might threaten Bubba’s right to own enough weaponry to wage a small civil war.

No one is talking at the moment about the squirrel gun in the barn, or even the .38 Special in the nightstand. Maybe some places have too many squirrels, and maybe some neighbourhoods have too many thugs.

But when Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin responded to the immediate calls for a little gun control by suggesting that a well-armed “responsible citizen” in the movie theatre might have prevented some of the carnage by cutting loose with his own weapon(s), you really had to wonder just what planet these people inhabit.
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It’s all the fault of the leftist elite!

What’s wrong with society?

According to some on the intellectual right, it’s everyone on the intellectual left.

According to Russell Jacoby, that claim is yet another sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary conservative thought.

In “Dreaming of a World without Intellectuals,” published on July 12th by The Chronicle Review as a response to David Gelernter’s America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats), Jacoby takes on the idea that America was just fine, thank you, until the 60’s, when campus radicals began the deadly revolution that continues to poison society.

I have no intention of reading Gelernter’s book — the title gives away its core biases without the bother of reading the rest of it. But I’ll gladly take any chance I can get to share vicariously in Jacoby’s evisceration of yet another right-wing champion.
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But it’s the other guy in my brain who’s guilty

When a personality that’s not me commits a crime, is it a fair punishment to incarcerate the body we share?

And if it’s not, then doesn’t a part of me that I don’t even know get away with it, even get away with murder?

These are the kinds of brain-twisting questions that loom over criminal justice thanks to advances in neuropsychology. And these are the questions that give nightmares to the many who worry about a science-induced end to criminal justice as we know it.

In “Split personality crime: who is guilty?” — a soon to be “paywalled” article published by New Scientist on July 5th — Jessica Hamzelou reports on a study of patients diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), also known as multiple personality disorder.
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Monkey study can be viewed through a multilevel lens

Individual selection or group selection? More reasonably, how about multilevel selection?

Is evolution driven entirely by selection at the level of the gene, by competition between individuals?

Or is evolution also driven in appropriate circumstances by selection at the level of the society (family to empire), by competition between groups?

If we shouldn’t, or can’t, explain all of our social behaviours as being solely aspects of culture, if social selection occurs in nature as well as in theory, shouldn’t there be empirical evidence of its operation? Specifically, shouldn’t we be able to point to examples of multlevel selection?

In a modest way, a modest study reported last week presents one such example.
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Reading me, reading you

In an attic room in a cheap part of town, the writer sits at a battered desk. Two years of solitary effort, and the book is finally finished. Into the brown envelope, off to the post office. Maybe this one will be published. And maybe, against all the odds, this one will be a best-seller. Only time will tell.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. So familiar that it’s a painful cliché — the struggling author, hoping against hope to strike a chord that resonates with the reading public.

And if the book is a hit, what then? Can the magic formula repeat itself? Will the second book be as well received as the first? What was it about the first that made it work?

Who knows. The only thing we can say for sure is that, for some reason, it sold well. All the writer can do is hope for the same kind of luck, or the same unconscious artistry, the next time.

The only thing wrong with this story is that it’s completely, irrevocably passé. And it’s not just that quaint part about the post office. Continue reading

Confirming the coupling of money and power

Much of this week’s American political news has been dominated by two high-profile and highly-anticipated Supreme Court decisions.

The first decision struck down much of Arizona’s intrusion into immigration law, on the grounds not that the law violates individual rights but on the narrower legal grounds that immigration is a federal concern. The second, even more prominent decision gave Barack Obama a win (and Mitt Romney a campaign issue) on medical care.

But it’s neither of these decisions about which I want to write.

Instead, I’m motivated by the less-trumpeted and more predictable Supreme Court decision that upheld the Republican Wyoming legislature’s repeal of a law banning large third-party campaign contributions. This decision was along the same 5-4 ideological lines that had previously removed campaign contribution limits from federal elections.
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