October 9, 2015

Recalculating the impact of carbon dioxide in the climate models

Filed under: Environment, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

A few people sent me a link to this article, which may be of interest to those following the ongoing climate debates:

It turns out the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has over-estimated future global warming by as much as 10 times, [Dr David Evans] says.

“Yes, CO2 has an effect, but it’s about a fifth or tenth of what the IPCC says it is. CO2 is not driving the climate; it caused less than 20 per cent of the global warming in the last few decades”.

Dr Evans says his discovery “ought to change the world”.

“But the political obstacles are massive,” he said.

His discovery explains why none of the climate models used by the IPCC reflect the evidence of recorded temperatures. The models have failed to predict the pause in global warming which has been going on for 18 years and counting.

“The model architecture was wrong,” he says. “Carbon dioxide causes only minor warming. The climate is largely driven by factors outside our control.”

There is another problem with the original climate model, which has been around since 1896.

While climate scientists have been predicting since the 1990s that changes in temperature would follow changes in carbon dioxide, the records over the past half million years show that not to be the case.

So, the new improved climate model shows CO2 is not the culprit in recent global warming. But what is?

Dr Evans has a theory: solar activity. What he calls “albedo modulation”, the waxing and waning of reflected radiation from the Sun, is the likely cause of global warming.

He predicts global temperatures, which have plateaued, will begin to cool significantly, beginning between 2017 and 2021. The cooling will be about 0.3C in the 2020s. Some scientists have even forecast a mini ice age in the 2030s.

October 8, 2015

“[P]harmaceutical companies … make out like bandits from the existence of the patent system”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Health, Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

The current US patent system is set up to create and maintain — for a limited time — monopolies that can be exploited by pharmaceutical companies:

The Wall Street Journal has a puzzling piece complaining about how the pharmaceutical companies seem to make out like bandits from the existence of the patent system. What puzzles is that the entire point and purpose of the patent system, in an economic sense, is so that inventors of things can make out like bandits. The background problem is that of public goods, something I’ll explain in a moment. That problem leads us to thinking that a pure free market in things which are public goods isn’t going to work as well as something a little different. So, we design something a little different. And the point and purpose of our design is so that people who innovate can make vast mountains of cash out of having done so.

It’s then more than a bit odd to point out that our system enables people who innovate to make vast mountains of cash.


Which brings us to the subtlety of those pricing decisions. With drugs, pharmaceuticals, close enough the cost of manufacturing a dose is zero. All of the costs go in the original research, the clinical testing (the lion’s share) and getting it through the FDA. Profit is therefore determined, since marginal production costs are zero (they’re not, accurately, but close enough for this comparison), by gross revenue. And we want to maximise the incentive for people to innovate, that’s the very reason we’ve got this patent system in the first place, and thus we would rather like the pharma companies to be maximising revenue.

And thus, from this economic point of view, we should be quite happy with people raising their prices. Demand does fall as they do so, yes, but as long as gross revenue increases, the price rises more than compensating for the fall in unit demand, then we should be happy with the way the system is working. Gross revenue is being maximised, profits are being maximised, incentives to innovate are being maximised. That’s what we want our system to do after all.

Far from being worried about this price gouging we should be welcoming it. Because, obviously, someone making bajillions out of having innovated a drug to cure a disease increases the incentives for many other people to go and invest bajillions of their own to cure other diseases. Far from complaining about it we should be celebrating the system working.

Science as horse racing

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Wired, Sarah Zhang handicaps the horses in this year’s highly competitive Nobel Sweepstakes:

Nobel prize speculation, gossip, and betting pools kick off every fall around the time Thomson Reuters releases its predictions for science’s most prestigious prize. This year, one prediction was unusual: a genome-editing tool so hyped that it even got on the cover of WIRED.

(No, seriously, how often does molecular biology get to occupy the same space as Star Wars or Rashida Jones?)

The tool, Crispr/Cas9, is essentially a pair of molecular scissors for editing DNA, so precise and easy to use that it has taken biology by storm. Hundreds if not thousands of labs now use Crispr/Cas9 to do everything from making super-muscled pigs to snipping HIV genes out of infected cells to creating transgenic monkeys for neuroscience research. But the Nobel prediction stands out for two reasons: First, the highly-cited paper describing Crispr/Cas9 came out a mere three years ago, a blip in the timescale of science. Second, the technique is currently at the heart of a bitter patent fight.

Thomson Reuters bases its predictions on how often key papers get cited by other scientists. Here, the paper in question has as its authors Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist at UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. Missing is Feng Zhang (no relation to this writer), a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute and MIT, who actually owns the patents for CRISPR/Cas9 and says that he came up with the idea independently. So let’s say Thomson Reuters gets it right. Could the patent for a discovery go to one scientist, and the Nobel prize for the discovery to someone else?

The two groups — or their patent lawyers, really — are in fact fighting over credit for CRISPR/Cas9. At stake are millions of dollars already poured into rival companies that have licensed patents from the two different groups.

But putting aside all the lawyers and all the money for a moment, obsessing over finding the one true origin of Crispr/Cas9 gets science all wrong. Casting the narrative as Doudna versus Zhang or Berkeley versus MIT is a misapprehension of history, creativity, and innovation. Discovery comes not from a singular stroke of genius, but an incremental body of research. “I’m not a great believer in the flash-of-genius theory. If you are a historian —” says Mario Biagioli, who is in fact a historian of science at UC Davis — “you quickly will realize exactly how many times there are independent discoveries of the same thing.” The dispute over credit for CRISPR/Cas9 is not the result of exceptional coincidence and disagreement. In fact, it illuminates how science always works.

October 7, 2015

A Deeper Look at Tradeable Allowances

Filed under: Economics, Environment — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

Since the passage of the Clean Air Act, SO2 emissions have decreased by 35%. Part of this is due to tradable allowances, which created a market solution to the external costs of SO2 emissions. In this video, we look at the lessons of tradable allowances for SO2 and see if a similar market-based solution could work to decrease other pollutants, such as CO2.


Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Everyone who knows musicians has heard at least a few drummer jokes. Open Culture attempts to put a bit of science into the casual abuse drummers have been subjected to over the years:

An old musician’s joke goes “there are three kinds of drummers in the world — those who can count and those who can’t.” But perhaps there is an even more global divide. Perhaps there are three kinds of people in the world — those who can drum and those who can’t. Perhaps, as the promotional video above from GE suggests, drummers have fundamentally different brains than the rest of us. Today we highlight the scientific research into drummers’ brains, an expanding area of neuroscience and psychology that disproves a host of dumb drummer jokes.

“Drummers,” writes Jordan Taylor Sloan at Mic, “can actually be smarter than their less rhythmically-focused bandmates.” This according to the findings of a Swedish study (Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm) which shows “a link between intelligence, good timing and the part of the brain used for problem-solving.” As Gary Cleland puts it in The Telegraph, drummers “might actually be natural intellectuals.”

Neuroscientist David Eagleman, a renaissance researcher The New Yorker calls “a man obsessed with time,” found this out in an experiment he conducted with various professional drummers at Brian Eno’s studio. It was Eno who theorized that drummers have a unique mental makeup, and it turns out “Eno was right: drummers do have different brains from the rest.” Eagleman’s test showed “a huge statistical difference between the drummers’ timing and that of test subjects.” Says Eagleman, “Now we know that there is something anatomically different about them.” Their ability to keep time gives them an intuitive understanding of the rhythmic patterns they perceive all around them.

October 6, 2015

Your daily recommended minimum intake of water

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I’m sure you’ve heard variations on the notion that we’re all effectively dehydrated and should drink more water … where “more” is defined as a minimum of 64 ounces of water. It’s pseudo-scientific bullshit, as you may have already decided for yourself:

If there is one health myth that will not die, it is this: You should drink eight glasses of water a day.

It’s just not true. There is no science behind it.

And yet every summer we are inundated with news media reports warning that dehydration is dangerous and also ubiquitous.

These reports work up a fear that otherwise healthy adults and children are walking around dehydrated, even that dehydration has reached epidemic proportions.

Let’s put these claims under scrutiny.

I was a co-author of a paper back in 2007 in the BMJ on medical myths. The first myth was that people should drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. This paper got more media attention (even in The Times) than pretty much any other research I’ve ever done.

It made no difference. When, two years later, we published a book on medical myths that once again debunked the idea that we need eight glasses of water a day, I thought it would persuade people to stop worrying. I was wrong again.

Many people believe that the source of this myth was a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board recommendation that said people need about 2.5 liters of water a day. But they ignored the sentence that followed closely behind. It read, “Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.”

QotD: Real science

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The easy way to tell real religion from fake religion is that real religion doesn’t make you feel good. It doesn’t assure you that everything you’re doing is right and that you ought to keep on doing it.

The same holds true for science. Real science doesn’t make you feel smart. Fake science does.

No matter how smart you think you are, real science will make you feel stupid far more often than it will make you feel smart. Real science not only tells us how much more we don’t know than we know, a state of affairs that will continue for all of human history, but it tells us how fragile the knowledge that we have gained is, how prone we are to making childish mistakes and allowing our biases to think for us.

Science is a rigorous way of making fewer mistakes. It’s not very useful to people who already know everything. Science is for stupid people who know how much they don’t know.

A look back at the march of science doesn’t show an even line of progress led by smooth-talking popularizers who are never wrong. Instead the cabinets of science are full of oddballs, unqualified, jealous, obsessed and eccentric, whose pivotal discoveries sometimes came about by accident. Science, like so much of human accomplishment, often depended on lucky accidents to provide a result that could then be isolated and systematized into a useful understanding of the process.

Daniel Greenfield, “Science is for Stupid People”, Sultan Knish, 2014-09-30.

October 5, 2015

Trading Pollution: How Pollution Permits Paradoxically Reduce Emissions

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In an effort to reduce pollution, the government tried two policy prescriptions under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The first — command and control—mandated that each power plant lower its pollution by a determined amount. However, different firms face different cost curves and, because information is dispersed, policymakers don’t always know those costs. The second policy prescription — tradable pollution permits — empowered firms to use knowledge of their cost curves to buy or sell pollution permits as needed. Under this policy, the invisible hand of the market helped discover the lowest cost way of reducing pollution.

Why are women under-represented in STEM?

Filed under: Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Yet another link I meant to post a while back, but it got lost in the shuffle:

Readers of the higher education press and literature may be forgiven for supposing that there is more research on why there are not more women in STEM fields than there is actual research in the STEM fields themselves. The latest addition to this growing pile of studies appeared a few months ago in Science, and now Science has just published a new study refuting the earlier one.

In the earlier study, “Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions Across Academic Disciplines,” Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosophy professor at Princeton, and several co-authors surveyed more than 1800 academics across 30 disciplines — graduate students, postdocs, junior and senior faculty — to determine the extent of their agreement with such statements as, “Being a top scholar of [your field] requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” and whether “men are more often suited than women to do high-level work in [your field.]”

Fields that believe innate brilliance is essential to high success, such as physics and philosophy, have a significantly smaller proportion of women than fields that don’t, such as Psychology and Molecular Biology.


What Ginther and Kahn found, in short, is that it was not “expectations of brilliance” that predicted the representation of women in various fields “but mathematical ability, especially relative to verbal ability…. While field-specific ability beliefs were negatively correlated with the percentage of female Ph.D.s in a field, this correlation is likely explained by women being less likely than men to study these math-intensive fields.”

Ginther’s and Kahn’s argument was anticipated and developed even beyond theirs by psychiatrist Scott Alexander in a brilliant long entry on his widely read Slate Codex blog, “Perceptions of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap.” His criticism of Leslie et al. is even more devastating:

    Imagine a study with the following methodology. You survey a bunch of people to get their perceptions of who is a smoker (“97% of his close friends agree Bob smokes.”) Then you correlate those numbers with who gets lung cancer. Your statistics program lights up like a Christmas tree with a bunch of super-strong correlations. You conclude, “Perception of being a smoker causes lung cancer,” and make up a theory about how negative stereotypes of smokers cause stress which depresses the immune system. The media reports that as “Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer, Stereotypes Do.”

    This is the basic principle behind Leslie et al.

Like Ginther and Kahn, who did not cite his work, Alexander disaggregated the quantitative from the verbal GRE scores and found that the correlation between quantitative GRE score and percent of women in a discipline to be “among the strongest correlations I have ever seen in social science data. It is much larger than Leslie et al’s correlation with perceived innate ability. Alexander’s piece, and in fact his entire blog, should be required reading.

Much of the recycling you do is sheer wasted effort – or even worse

Filed under: Economics, Environment, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Everyone is in favour of recycling, right? It’s good for the earth, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for everyone! Except, as John Tierney points out, that’s pretty much all nonsense:

If you live in the United States, you probably do some form of recycling. It’s likely that you separate paper from plastic and glass and metal. You rinse the bottles and cans, and you might put food scraps in a container destined for a composting facility. As you sort everything into the right bins, you probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment. But is it? Are you in fact wasting your time?

In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. Noting that the modern recycling movement had really just begun just a few years earlier, they predicted it would flourish as the industry matured and the public learned how to recycle properly.

So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies. The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!


The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. “If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

October 4, 2015

The federal NDP and the triumph of the “Tommunist Manifesto”

Filed under: Cancon, Environment, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the Regina Leader-Post, Christine Whitaker talks about “life without fossil fuels” and what it might mean for Western Canada:

Author Naomi Klein and her supporters, promoting their Leap Manifesto (otherwise known as the “Tommunist Manifesto”), proudly assert that they now have 10,000 signatures to this document, most of which are “celebrities” and left-wing politicians, including, of course, David Suzuki.

This document starts from the premise that Canada is facing the deepest crisis in recent memory. The basic concept is that we must put an end to the use of fossil fuels; that we could live in a country powered only by renewable energy; that we could get 100 per cent of our electricity from renewable resources within the next two decades.

I wonder if these people realize that, to achieve this goal, there would need to be hundreds of thousands of wind turbines across the land. There would not be a single acre of rural Canada free of those monstrosities. Someone would also need to invent commercial airliners powered by clean energy, and there would no longer be any trucks to deliver food to the city stores. The whole manifesto is ridiculous.

So this is my counter-manifesto. It is equally silly, but I make no apologies. This is how Klein and company want our children and grandchildren to live.

Article 1: All persons who sign the Leap Manifesto, including Suzuki, should be immediately placed on an international no-fly list. They must never again be allowed to travel on planes powered by fossil fuels.

Article 2: All signatories will immediately have all their gasoline-powered vehicles confiscated.

Article 3: All public utilities (power, natural gas, water, telephone lines) will be disconnected from their homes.

As they say, read the whole thing.

October 3, 2015

“A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian”

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Another older article that I neglected to blog when it was still fresh and green on the … shelf. Here’s a few less-than-appetizing facts about salad vegetables:

Salad vegetables are pitifully low in nutrition. The biggest thing wrong with salads is lettuce, and the biggest thing wrong with lettuce is that it’s a leafy-green waste of resources.

In July, when I wrote a piece defending corn on the calories-per-acre metric, a number of people wrote to tell me I was ignoring nutrition. Which I was. Not because nutrition isn’t important, but because we get all the nutrition we need in a fraction of our recommended daily calories, and filling in the rest of the day’s food is a job for crops like corn. But if you think nutrition is the most important metric, don’t direct your ire at corn. Turn instead to lettuce.

One of the people I heard from about nutrition is researcher Charles Benbrook. He and colleague Donald Davis developed a nutrient quality index — a way to rate foods based on how much of 27 nutrients they contain. Four of the five lowest-ranking vegetables (by serving size) are salad ingredients: cucumbers, radishes, iceberg lettuce and celery. (The fifth is eggplant.)

Those foods’ nutritional profile can be partly explained by one simple fact: They’re almost all water. Although water figures prominently in just about every vegetable (the sweet potato, one of the least watery, is 77 percent), those four salad vegetables top the list at 95 to 97 percent water. A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious.

Take collard greens. They are 90 percent water, which still sounds like a lot. But it means that, compared with lettuce, every pound of collard greens contains about twice as much stuff that isn’t water, which, of course, is where the nutrition lives. But you’re also likely to eat much more of them, because you cook them. A large serving of lettuce feels like a bona fide vegetable, but when you saute it (not that I’m recommending that), you’ll see that two cups of romaine cooks down to a bite or two.

The corollary to the nutrition problem is the expense problem. The makings of a green salad — say, a head of lettuce, a cucumber and a bunch of radishes — cost about $3 at my supermarket. For that, I could buy more than two pounds of broccoli, sweet potatoes or just about any frozen vegetable going, any of which would make for a much more nutritious side dish to my roast chicken.

Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table. When we switch to vegetables that are twice as nutritious — like those collards or tomatoes or green beans — not only do we free up half the acres now growing lettuce, we cut back on the fossil fuels and other resources needed for transport and storage.

Save the planet, skip the salad.

October 2, 2015

Something to worry about – chances of a Kessler cascade

Filed under: Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

If you’re the worrying type, Charles Stross has a bit more for you to fit into your nightmares:

Today, the commercial exploitation of outer space appears to be a growth area. Barely a week goes by without a satellite launch somewhere on the planet. SpaceX has a gigantic order book and a contract to ferry astronauts to the ISS, probably starting in 2018; United Launch Alliance have a similar manned space taxi under development, and there are multiple competing projects under way to fill low earth orbit with constellations of hundreds of small data relay satellites to bring internet connectivity to the entire planet. For the first time since the 1960s it’s beginning to look as if human activity beyond low earth orbit is a distinct possibility within the next decade.

But there’s a fly in the ointment.

Kessler Syndrome, or collisional cascading, is a nightmare scenario for space activity. Proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, it proposes that at a certain critical density, orbiting debris shed by satellites and launch vehicles will begin to impact on and shatter other satellites, producing a cascade of more debris, so that the probability of any given satellite being hit rises, leading to a chain reaction that effectively renders access to low earth orbit unacceptably hazardous.

This isn’t just fantasy. There are an estimated 300,000 pieces of debris already in orbit; a satellite is destroyed every year by an impact event. Even a fleck of shed paint a tenth of a millimeter across carries as much kinetic energy as a rifle bullet when it’s traveling at orbital velocity, and the majority of this crud is clustered in low orbit, with a secondary belt of bits in geosychronous orbit as well. The ISS carries patch kits in case of a micro-particle impact and periodically has to expend fuel to dodge dead satellites drifting into its orbit; on occasion the US space shuttles suffered windscreen impacts that necessitated ground repairs.

If a Kessler cascade erupts in low earth orbit, launching new satellites or manned spacecraft will become very hazardous, equivalent to running across a field under beaten fire from a machine gun with an infinite ammunition supply. Sooner or later you’ll be hit. And the debris stays in orbit for a very long time, typically years to decades (centuries or millennia for the particles in higher orbits).

How about a kickstarter campaign for laser-equipped orbit-cleaning satellites? Sweep up our orbital trash before it becomes a huge problem. If you’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, you’ve already got the image of a really extreme result of too much space junk (in the case of the novel, it was shattered pieces of the moon creating the Kessler cascade).

September 30, 2015

Helicopter parents have raised a generation of needy, emotionally fragile young adults

Filed under: Health, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Psychology Today, Peter Gray looks at how universities are unequipped to handle the anxieties and emotional neediness of today’s students:

A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services to join other faculty and administrators, at the university I’m associated with, for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.

Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when in comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively. Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?

Two weeks ago, the head of Counseling (who has now moved up to another position in the University) sent us all a follow-up email, announcing a new set of meetings. His email included this sobering paragraph: “I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”


In my next essay in this series I’ll examine the research evidence suggesting that so-called “helicopter parenting” really is at the core of the problem. But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents. Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in the society — victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”

If we want to prepare our kids for college — or for anything else in life! — we have to counter all these social forces. We have to give our children the freedom, which children have always enjoyed in the past, to get away from adults so they can practice being adults, that is, practice taking responsibility for themselves.

September 29, 2015

Universities, alcohol, women, and consent

Filed under: Health, Law, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield includes a poster from Southeast Missouri State University that nicely summarizes both the institutional infantilization of university students and the current double standard on booze and consent rules:

University students, booze and consent

There is universal agreement that any female (though not male) who has passed out is incapable of giving consent to sex. But as the spectrum of reaction to alcohol or drugs comes closer to the sober end, it becomes increasingly problematic. The word used to describe a woman who cannot consent is “incapacitation.”

What is incapacitation? That’s impossible to say. It usually described by either specific instances of conduct (“if she’s puking her guts out, that means she’s incapacitated”), which offers no guidance when she’s not puking her guts out, or when she’s done puking her guts out, or before she’s puking her guts out.

The underlying rationale is that a woman who is so drunk that she cannot formulate knowing, intentional and voluntary consent, cannot consent to sex. This is a dubious standard, as the incapacity to consent doesn’t mean she would not consent, but that she cannot consent.

To put this in context, consider a person who fully consents, enthusiastically desires to engage in conduct, but wasn’t specifically asked beforehand. This person can truthfully assert that it was non-consensual under the Affirmative Consent standard, because she never overtly expressed consent.* The objective standard is not met, although the subjective standard is fully met.

The problem is reminiscent of drunk driving, which was determined by the objective inability to perform the tasks necessary to safely drive a car before the law turned to Blood Alcohol Content as a proxy, an inadequate measure but a convenient one for law enforcement to prove. Sexual incapacitation suffers from a lack of definition and no objective basis.

What is clear about incapacitation is that it’s not when there is “liquor in the cup,” or when “she has touched alcohol,” any more than it would be a crime for her to thereafter get behind the wheel of a car. Yet, the notion that any alcohol (or drugs, which don’t seem to find their way onto posters or flyers as much) per se vitiates consent is spreading and being used as the hard and fast line.

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