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How Much Credit Does the US Deserve?

November 17, 2011 5 comments

In a recent debate Glenn Greenwald had with former drug czar John Walters on drug prohibition, Walters claimed the US should be proud for helping bring democracy to Egypt. Greenwald was visibly disgusted by such a suggestion. But I had no way of knowing, objectively, who was right about the Arab Spring uprising. Amazingly, I found this graph that answers just that question. Below the fold:

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200 Years Later: Luddites Still Wrong

New research further damages the arguments of our modern bioLuddites who worry about Frankenfoods and all things genetically modified. James McWilliams writing in The Atlantic summarizes the National Research Council’s findings:

1. Farmers globally have applied less insecticide per acre as they’ve increased their use of Bt seed (seed engineered for insect resistance). Beyond the obvious health benefits, reduction in insecticide application has saved substantial aviation fuel, water (to make insecticides), and plastic containers.  

2. Farmers and their families have been safer from chemical exposure as a result of less harsh pesticides and less time spent out in the fields spraying. The authors of the report hypothesize that farmers pay more for GE seeds in part to protect their families and employees from exposure to harsh chemicals.  

3. The greatest environmental benefit of adopting GE crops may turn out to be the rate at which water is retained as a result of conservation tillage, which herbicide tolerant (HT) crops directly foster. No-till methods also improve soil health, something conventional farming is often accused of ignoring. 


4. Economically, the savings gained from GE adoption generally outweighed the expense, and the economic benefits gained by adopting farmers also extend to non-adopters as well. In controlling so effectively for the corn borer, for example, Bt corn indirectly protects neighboring crops. (A very similar thing happened in Hawaii when GE papaya was introduced to save the crop from a devastating outbreak of ringspot in the 1990s.)

5. The drift of pollen from GE to non-GE plants—a phenomenon that anti-GE advocates often highlight as a chronic problem—turns out to be relatively rare, or at least “not a concern for most non-GE crops.” This is not to say that it doesn’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter, but only that drift is hardly a first-order concern when it comes to GE pollen.


Genetic Engineering opponents continue to commit the naturalistic fallacy. GE is really just a more advanced practice of what we’ve been doing to nature since the beginning of agriculture. Guess what? Modern oranges and bananas (even the non-GM ones) aren’t original to nature. Through cross-breeding we’ve changed their genetics and created new fruits. Of course it is important to be careful and continue to monitor the changes we make to nature. This study also pointed out potential problems that can now be better addressed. Everyone should agree that we should continue performing scientific studies like the NRC’s most recent, but to salt the field of Genetic Engineering would destroy one of the potentially great revolutions in human history. 


[update 5/7]: Foreign Policy features an excellent piece on why modern farming is the key to helping the world’s poorest and hungriest.  

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished. 

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

Photos of War

Foreign Policy magazine collects war photos from acclaimed photographers.

“life just goes on in Baghdad”

Click on photo for better resolution… better yet view them at FP’s site.

Sam Responds

January 6, 2010 Leave a comment

I previously linked to Karen Armstrong’s religious whitewash in Foreign Policy. In it she makes absurd arguments against the “new atheists” like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Well, Sam Harris responds with a must-read piece. It is not a very long piece so I’m not going to quote any of it. It is really worth reading the whole thing… it’s also hilarious.

Karen Armstrong writes a brief response to attempt to stop the blood but really it’s no use. She basically just complains that he isn’t deferential enough to her and religion. Oh well.

More Wrong from Wright

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

After Foreign Policy published Karen Armstrong’s error riddled piece, they have decided to commission more of the same from Robert Wright. In his newest piece, he takes on the “new atheists,” which has become his favorite topic recently.

Even on the secular left, the alarming implications of the “crusade against religion” are becoming apparent: Though the New Atheists claim to be a progressive force, they often abet fundamentalists and reactionaries, from the heartland of America to the Middle East.

If you’re a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won’t turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world’s most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world’s most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

I posted some of my thoughts in the comment section at FP so I’ll just reproduce them here.

Of course, we’re all adult enough to read these silly perspectives and dismiss them, but I wish FP would print someone who differs on this “new atheist” issue. Didn’t they just publish Karen Armstrong’s awful piece? What did Wright offer that was different? Although it wouldn’t be very useful, I could stand hearing the same arguments if they were at least more well reasoned.

Similar to Armstrong, Wright just makes assertions without backing them up. “But the New Atheists’ main short-term goal wasn’t to turn believers into atheists, it was to turn atheists into New Atheists” Oh? Where and when was that decided? Also, yes, keeping creationism out of schools is important to each of the new atheists, but what they each stress is valuing reason over faith in all cases. He misses the point; their common attitudes converge on shifting the popular notion that faith offers a useful path to knowledge. So their “goals” are bigger than any specific science versus religion fight. No worries though, Wright provides no evidence that new atheists are actually hurting the case for evolution over creationism.

Finally, can he and Armstrong just quit equating atheists with “divisive fundamentalism” or the militantly religious? Anyone who thinks that strongly criticizing unsupported beliefs is on the same level as burning girls with acid, suicide murder, or supporting, say, anti-gay legislation in Uganda which could lead to genocide should not be taken seriously. I expect more from Foreign Policy.

I also responded to a fellow commenter who claimed that atheists ignore secular ideologies. It is a familiar and annoying argument to which I responded:

None argue that secular ideologies are fine and only religious ones are a problem. That’s the whole problem that Sam Harris pinpointed when he argued it is a mistake to identify mainly as atheists. The problem is not just religion. It is faith. Faith in secular political ideologies as well as faith in any religion. Religion just happens to be a particularly deep well of dangerous faith-based thinking – and one that is often taboo to criticize.

Karen Armstrong needs to Think Clearer

October 20, 2009 Leave a comment
In a sloppy “Think Again” article in Foreign Policy, obscurantist Karen Armstrong leads the way in making excuses for religion. Not inspiring much confidence in the rest of her piece she begins with an error. “By the time The Economist did its famous “God Is Dead” cover in 1999″ Well, sorry Karen, The Economist never did a “God is Dead” cover. Are you thinking of Time’s “Is God Dead” cover? Or maybe she blended that with The Economist’s obituary of God.

She also uses the point to imply that the “new atheists” such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris argue that religion is on its way out. Wrong. I’m not 100% sure about Dawkins but Hitchens thinks that religion is ineradicable and Harris is worried that his battle against faith is possibly quixotic.

Her critique of secularism is a bizarre one. She concedes that “in the West, secularism has been a success” and is “essential”, but goes on to blame “overly aggressive secularization” as having potential to cause a rise in religious extremism. First of all, in those cases, religion is still the problem not secularism. Furthermore, Sam Harris remarks on many occasions that he probably isn’t the best messenger for secularism in Islamic countries and religious moderates probably play an important role for that. But that doesn’t mean his critiques of religion are somehow incorrect.

In the next section of her defense of religion she makes excuses for the role religion plays in causing violence while celebrating it for the good it does. Not really a sober dispassionate judgement. Religion doesn’t breed violence , she writes, but violence itself. Seems like a satisfying answer only for someone that doesn’t understand the problem of infinite regress. She also notes that human nature helps cause violent behavior… really? You don’t say? Who would argue otherwise? She lies, of course, and writes, “In claiming that God is the source of all human cruelty, Hitchens and Dawkins ignore some of the darker facets of modern secular society.” [my emphasis] If anyone can find EVEN ONE instance where either one does so I’ll send the Catholic League a check for $1000.

She then goes on to make excuses for terrorism (not condoning it of course) by arguing it’s always in response to perceived threats by outsiders on their traditions: “History shows that when these groups are attacked, militarily or verbally, they almost invariably become more extreme.”

Setting up another straw man she argues that God is not for the poor and ignorant as she suggests the new atheists insist. They don’t. Sam Harris has been particularly strong proving otherwise when he consistently points out the 9/11 hijackers where highly educated and NOT from poor backgrounds. Also, in his critique of Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, Harris argues that even highly intelligent men like Collins can partition their minds holding contradictory beliefs. She goes on to defend God against a charge no one serious is making.

Armstrong acknowledges religion has been bad for women. This can’t last of course, she has to blame too critical views on the patriarchal Islamic veil. That to her, of course, causes a drive toward fundamentalism. There is a pattern that no matter what problems religion causes secular attempts to combat them draw her critical attention. What is that if not excuse making and obscurantism?

After making some common arguments against science and religion not having to be in conflict she makes the odd claim that an anti-science attitude is less common in Islam. That is basically self-evidently false. I don’t know where she gets any evidence for that – modern Islamic countries aren’t really known for there scientific discoveries, premier commitment to science education, or high acceptance levels for evolution.

She ends, unsurprisingly, by defending sharia law! In that section she writes “Religion may not be the cause of the world’s political problems, but we still need to understand it if we are to solve them.” I don’t know how she excuses religion in one breath than admits it plays a huge role in the world’s problems. To her it’s all about not “giving unnecessary offense.” In other words, “Think Again” atheist, keep your mouth shut.
[update]: The Reason Project printed my introduction to the FP article.

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