JuriSnippet: Feynman Rolling in his Grave

Last week, the journal Science published a paper that considers the age-old question:  If our actions are the preordained result of a deterministic universe, should we hold those who commit crimes morally responsible for their actions?  The answer given by the nascent discipline of “experimental philosophy” is ambivalent:  when respondents were asked to consider the problem in the abstract, most said “no,” they should not be morally responsible; but when given concrete examples of heinous crimes, the answer became “yes,” with most saying they are still responsible.  Experimental philosophers grapple with the apparent inconsistency, trying to understand the psychological reasons for the different responses. 

I cannot help but think of Nobel-prize winner Richard Feynman, who openly scorned philosophy as a discipline and who broke step with many who latched onto the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as a way to explain unpredictability in the universe.  Feynman intuitively understood the nature of chaos before it was mathematically developed:  even in a completely deterministic world, we cannot predict everything accurately.  So is it really much of a surprise that we, as products of the universe, innately sense that moral culpability for crimes should exist even if we are told such crimes were inevitable?

A copy of the paper can be found here  (subscription required).

JuriSnippet: Judges should not attempt to predict the course of science

In determining the sentence of a man convicted of possession of child pornography, the judge rejected two separate psychological evaluations that he was at “low to moderate risk to re-offend.”  Noting that he did not “have a lot of faith in that profession [psychology] in the first place,” the judge instead relied on his own theory that some fifty years from now, the defendant’s conduct would be discovered to be caused by “a gene you were born with … and can[not] get rid of.”  The Appellate court vacates the sentence, taking the unusual step of remanding to a different judge, while noting that it “is undisputed that it would be impermissible for the court to base its decision of recidivism on its unsupported theory of genetics.”  The opinion can be read here.

Of Hares and Lions

Alarmed at sound of fallen fruit
A hare once ran away
The other beasts all followed suit
Moved by that hare’s dismay.

They hastened not to view the scene,
But lent a willing ear
To idle gossip, and were clean
Distraught with foolish fear.

The quotation is a translation from The Jataka, a body of Indian literature that relates to previous births of the Buddha, and dates to somewhere around the third or fourth century BC.  The story is perhaps the origin of the more modern story of Chicken Little, and tells the parable of a hare that lived at the base of a vilva tree.  While idly wondering what would become of him should the earth be destroyed, a vilva fruit made a sound when it fell on a palm leaf, causing the hare to conclude that the earth was collapsing.  He spread his worry to other hares, then to larger mammals, all of them fleeing in panic that the Earth was coming to an end. 

When radiation is discussed in the news, I often think of the story of the hare and vilva tree.  It seems that we are perpetually confronted with calls to overregulate radiation based on irrational fears of its effects on the human body.  Here I mentioned the persistent fears about radiation from cell phones and the passing of legislation in San Francisco last year requiring that retailers display radiation-level information when selling such devices, but there are many others that appear repeatedly in the news:  radiation from power lines, from computer screens, from cell-phone towers, and from any number of common household devices have at times been alleged to be responsible for causing cancer.  All of these allegations have uniformly been discredited in thousands of scientific publications over the last decades because they do not produce radiation at energies sufficient to break chemical bonds, a factor that is critical in the mechanism by which cancer is caused. 

Most recently, of course, there have been widespread reports of radiation being emitted from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi power plants.  There have been demands for governments to suspend the use of nuclear reactors in generating power and at least the German government appears to be acceding, with Chancellor Angela Merkel using absurd hyperbole in characterizing what is happening in Fukushima as a “catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions.” 

There are legitimate concerns about radiation.  It does cause cancer in human beings.  Regulating our exposure to harmful radiation is an important and necessary role for governments.  But at the same time, rationality must surely prevail based on accurate scientific understanding of the mechanisms by which radiation causes cancer. 

There are a number of simple facts relevant to the debate. 

First, human beings have evolved in an environment in which we are continually exposed to radiation  — from cosmic rays, the Sun, and the ground all around us — and our bodies are adapted to exist with certain levels of radiation.  Indeed, the biological mechanisms by which we evolved as human beings are intimately related to that radiation exposure.  A wonderful graphic produced by Randall Munroe at xkcd illustrates different exposure levels and can be seen here.  One amusing fact shown in the chart is that consumption of a banana exposes a person to more radiation than living within fifty miles of a nuclear power plant for a year — and is dramatically less than the exposure from the natural potassium that exists in the human body. 

Second, there are only a limited number of viable options to produce energy at the levels demanded by modern society.  These are basically through the use of coal power generation and the use of nuclear power generation.  Other “clean” technologies that are frequently pointed to, such as wind and solar power generation, are wonderful technologies that are worth pursuing and which may one day be efficient enough to provide adequate levels of energy to replace coal and nuclear methods.  But that day is not here yet.  Those technologies are simply incapable of producing energy at the levels needed to support modern society and, in any event, have their own environmental concerns that need to be considered and addressed.  I commented, for example, on some environmental concerns associated with wind power generation here

Third, with the particular safety mechanisms that are in place, nuclear power generation is safer than coal generation, its only realistically viable alternative.  The xkcd chart cited above notes, for instance, that there is greater radiation exposure from living within 50 miles of a coal power plant for a year than living within the same distance from a nuclear power plant for a year.  The Clear Air Task Force, an organization that has been monitoring the health effects of energy sources since 1996, released a report last year finding that pollution from existing coal plants is expected to cause about 13,200 deaths per year, in addition to about 9700 hospitalizations and 20,000 heart attacks.  A copy of the report can be read here.  Nuclear power generation is also more environmentally responsible since it does not release climate-changing greenhouse gases in the way that coal power generation does.  When considering policy to reduce or eliminate the use of nuclear power — driven largely because the smaller number of deaths from nuclear power result from isolated high-profile events instead of the greater number of deaths that result from the persistent low-level effects of coal power generation — it is important to take these comparisons into account. 

I want to offer a final comment about radiation hormesis, which was recently raised most prominently by political commentator Ann Coulter in the context of the Fukushima event, although it has also been raised by other, more scientifically reliable, sources.  For example, Bob Park, a respected physicist who comments regularly on science and government policy, raised it in the context of a recent study that he interprets as showing that “Chernobyl survivors today suffer cancer at about the same rate as others their age [and that t]he same is true of Hiroshima survivors.”  His remarks can be found here.   Radiation hormesis is an effect in which low-level exposure to radiation produces beneficial effects and that has apparently been observed in laboratory settings.  It has not been convincingly confirmed in human beings and the exposure rates to produce the effect are, in any event, low.  My own view is that pointing to radiation hormesis as a positive argument for the use of nuclear power is counterproductive.  The effect is too speculative and there are too many other — stronger — arguments in its favor. 

The Jataka tells us that when the panicked masses led by the timid hare met a lion, it was he who restored their sensibility.  He brought them to their senses by looking coldly at the facts and determining that the earth was not breaking apart; it was only the misunderstood sound of a vilva fruit.  Let’s be lions, not hares. 

As Water Inures Its Strokes on the Stone (Part 2)

The standoff at Kennedy International Airport in July 2010 was not unexpected, but it did make a point.  The twenty-three members of the Iroquois Lacrosse team presented themselves, planning to take a flight from New York to London so they could participate in the World Lacrosse Championship.  It sounds routine.  But there was one problem. 

The documents the team members presented were traditional, partially hand-written, Haudenosaunee passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy.  U.S. officials refused to recognize the passports and even after intervention by the U.S. Department of State to make a one-time exception, British officials refused to issue visas.  Compromises were rejected, with the team members refusing to travel on both U.S. and Iroquois documents because they viewed the suggestion as an affront to their claim of sovereignty. 

While the incident highlighted the issue that exists with Haudenosaunee passports, the reality is that they have been used for decades.  Indeed, in 1923, the Cayuga Chief Levi General, more commonly known at the time as Deskaheh, traveled to Geneva on such a passport to address the League of Nations about perceived violations of Iroquois rights by the Canadian government.  The League refused to hear him and a year later when the U.S passed a law to make the Iroquois within its borders citizens and when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police invaded the Iroquois to overthrow its traditional government, those two countries were notified that the Iroquois refused citizenship in any nation other than the Haudenosaunee.  But that has not stopped those countries from claiming those indigenous people as their citizens. 

The refusal by the League of Nations to hear Deskaheh remains iconically at the heart of what many indigenous peoples around the world protest:  the refusal to involve them in decisions that set forth their rights.  There has been some improvement, and the 2007 adoption by the United Nations of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is illustrative.  Drafting of the Declaration took more than 20 years, but involved representatives from indigenous people from different parts of the world.  When it passed, there were only four votes against:  by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, all of which have substantial indigenous populations.  Since then, each of those four countries has made moves to endorse the Declaration.  A copy of it can be read here.  

In Part 1 of this post earlier this week, I commented briefly on another standoff between indigenous people and a government:  the Rapa Nui of Easter Island and the country of Chile.  The conflict began in August 2010 when members of the Hito clan occupied the Hanga Roa Hotel, which has for years been a de facto symbol of Chilean encroachment on the Rapa Nui’s perception of their rights.  It was not until 1966 that Chile stopped leasing the island as a sheep farm and granted Chilean citizenship to the Rapa Nui, precipitating a series of land-rights disputes in the 1970’s.  In 1979, Chile passed the Ley de Pasqua (“Law of Easter”), one effect of which was to prohibit the sale of land owned by a Rapa Nui to a non-Rapa Nui.  But in a move whose origins remain unclear, the land where the Hanga Roa hotel sits was conveyed to the German Schiess family.  The Rapa Nui claim the transaction was illegal and in violation of the Ley de Pasqua. 

In the several months since the Hito clan has occupied the hotel, there have been a number of confrontations, culminating in the removal of the Hito clan from the site by the Chilean Carabineros on February 7.  Later in that same month saw an agreement between Chile and the Schiess family for the land to continue to be used by the Schiess family for the next thirty years and then to be conveyed to a private Rapa Nui Foundation.  The problem is the age-old one:  the indigenous Rapa Nui were not involved in the decision and they remain suspicious. 

During the dispute, The Rapa Nui have pointed frequently to Chile’s acceptance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly those sections dealing with land.  For example, Art. 8(1)(b) requires that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for … redress for … [a]ny action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”  Art. 26 goes further, stating that “[i]ndigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use” and that “States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands … with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.”  The reality is that the Declaration lacks legal force.  It is relevant only to the extent that indigenous groups are able to embarrass governments by pointing out perceived inconsistencies between their endorsement of it and their actions. 

Today is “Free Rapa Nui Day of Action,” marked by a march and protest at the Chilean Consulate in San Francisco.  It is clearly timed to precede President Obama’s two-day trip to Chile next week, although the issue of the Easter Island dispute is not currently on the agenda. 

It is difficult to know what the outcome will ultimately be of the Rapa Nui efforts.  Some assert that they opportunistically squatted on private land and are abusing the generous intent of efforts like those embodied by the U.N. Declaration.  Others are more sympathetic, seeing the actions as a peaceful attempt to regain control of land that was swindled from them in the course of Easter Island’s turbulent history.  It is certain that those countries that already viewed the U.N. Declaration with suspicion and reluctance are watching, keen to understand the impact its full acceptance could have on their own treatment of indigenous peoples. 


Easter Island is a wonderfully unique part of the world that presents mysteries that still fascinate social scientists.  So much of its history has already been irrevocably lost.  Whatever the outcome, I hope its scientific wonder remains preserved so that future generations can enjoy the privilege of experiencing its mystique as fully as I have.

As Water Inures Its Strokes on the Stone (Part 1)

Anyone who has gone through the painful task of cleaning a deceased parent’s home knows how strongly it resurrects countless emotions.  It is as though every item in the house has been imbued with the power of some memory or other that resurrects feelings thought to have been buried years before.  And sometimes there are surprises, pearls waiting patiently to be discovered within the collected sand of a life.  

When Eve Dray spent her evenings in 1961 going through her deceased father’s effects at his home in Cyprus, she surely did not expect to uncover a cache of field notes from an expedition to what has at times been described as the most remote place on earth.  It is not quite accurate, of course, but it can certainly seem so when standing at Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on Easter Island.  From there, one has a 360° view of the Pacific Ocean, extending endlessly in every direction.  Indeed, the indigenous people of Easter traditionally called the place where they lived Te pito o’ te henua — the navel of the world.  

Katherine Routledge (1866 - 1935)

It is almost easy to imagine the curious expression Eve must have worn as she reached into the cupboard under the large bookcase and pulled out a horde of papers that had been prepared decades before by Katherine Routledge.  Anyone who has done any scientific research regarding Easter Island — and there are so very many things to study there — knows the name of Routledge.  Her expedition to the island in 1914 – 15 with her husband William Scoresby Routledge has been described as being of “historic magnitude” in developing an understanding of the archaeology and ethnography of Easter Island.  She was the first woman archaeologist to work in Polynesia and part of the mystique of her expedition is the remarkable persistence she and her husband showed in making in happen:  unable to find a ship to take them from England to Easter Island, they had one built at their own expense and hired their own crew.  

When Routledge returned to England after her expedition, she published a book for a general readership called The Mystery of Easter Island:  The Story of an Expedition, promising that she would follow it with a “more scientific” account of her explorations.  That later book was never written, even though she would live for another 15 years or so, and there has been some suggestion that part of the reason is that she may have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.  Thinking her original notes had been lost, researchers relied for decades only on the accounts in her popularized book.  But they evidently followed her husband, who moved to Cyprus after she died and eventually bequeathed his house to Eve Dray’s father.  

Easter Island is a place of considerable scientific interest.  Its massive moai, whose construction occupied virtually all of the island for a period of time, have attracted the interest of archaeologists.  They have sought to understand not only their purpose but also how they were moved into place around the circumference of the island — and why the people of the island ultimately toppled every single one of them.  Its birdman competition, in which the ruler of the island was decided by a race to obtain the first tern egg of spring from one of the rocky islets off its coast, has fascinated ethnologists.  They identify it as an almost unique example in the world where political ascension was determined by an athletic competition.  Frustrated linguists have studied the rongorongo script, inscribed on wooden staffs and tablets in an unusual reverse boustrophedon format, and remain to this day unable to decipher it.  Environmentalists still point to the cautionary example of Easter Island as a lesson for us all, noting how its inhabitants overused its resources - they cut down every tree on the island for access to wood, and thereby precipitated a decimation of their population.  

The Rongorongo script

While almost a scientific playground, Easter Island has also sadly had a history of repeated exploitation by outsiders who were emboldened by the same remoteness that is paradoxically also responsible for much of the island’s unique interest.  There were the slaver raids by Peruvian blackbirders that resulted in the introduction of near-annihilating smallpox.  There was the effective conquest by Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, a French thug who swindled the preliterate population by “buying” their land with instruments they did not understand and using his rifle as motivation for those who may have been reluctant.  He would come to rule Easter Island for a time, more as a slaver than as the “governor” he fancied himself to be, being deposed only years later when he began to kidnap prepubescent girls for his personal pleasure and was consequently murdered.  His acquisition of the land in this way has affected its ownership for generations according to the application of the laws of property.  There was also the shocking incarceration – literally – of an entire people when a wall was built to enclose the Easter Island population within their small town, isolating them from their ancestral lands to prevent their interference with development of the island as a sheep ranch. 

All of this history is relevant to understand the events there of the last few months.  Its small size and remote location still to this day limit how much the rest of the world hears of Easter Island.  In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile in a political move that seems mostly motivated by Chilean desires at the time to have a place on the same stage as European nations by copying their imperialism.  Relations between Chileans and the native Rapa Nui of Easter Island have always been uneasy and tha friction came to a recent head in August 2010.  Members of the Hito clan occupied the Hanga Roa hotel, claiming an ancestral property right they claim supersedes that of the private Chilean owners.  In the six months or so since, the conflict has escalated, at times turning violent in confrontations between the squatters and the Chilean military.  

In the next part of this post, to be published in a couple of days, I want to discuss the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Chile is a signatory, to discuss the impact of the conflict on this scientifically important island.  A rally and protest are planned in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 16 before the Chilean Consulate.  Those wishing to read more about the conflict (from the perspective of the indigenous Rapa Nui) can do so here.