Reason on the Problem with Police Dogs

Radley Balko wrote a nice summary for Reason of studies demonstrating the routine misuse of explosive and drug-sniffing dogs by police. The problem is not that the dogs are not capable of finding drugs or explosives, but rather that their human companions are generally poor at distinguishing when the dogs are genuinely indicating drugs/explosives vs. when they’re just reflecting cues and prejudices they’re picking up from their human handlers.

For example, it is unlikely that dogs in Illinois are prejudices against Hispanics. Cops, on the other hand…

A recent Chicago Tribune survey of traffic stops by suburban police departments from 2007 to 2009, for example, found that searches turned up contraband in just 44 percent of the cases where police dogs alerted to the presence of narcotics. (An alert is a signal, such as barking or sitting, that dogs are trained to display when they detect the target scent.) In stops involving Hispanic drivers, the dogs’ success rate was just 27 percent.

Balko quotes from The Economist’s summary of a blinded study of police dogs that found such searches strongly contaminated by assumptions of the human handler,

The experimental searches took places in the rooms of a church, and each team of dog and human had five minutes allocated to each of the eight searches. Before the searches, the handlers were informed that some of the search areas might contain up to three target scents, and also that in two cases those scents would be marked by pieces of red paper.

What the handlers were not told was that two of the targets contained decoy scents, in the form of unwrapped, hidden sausages, to encourage the dogs’ interest in a false location. Moreover, none of the search areas contained the scents of either drugs or explosives. Any “detections” made by the teams thus had to be false. Recorders, who were blind to the study, noted where handlers indicated that their dogs had raised alerts.

The findings, which Dr Lit reports in Animal Cognition, reveal that of 144 searches, only 21 were clean (no alerts). All the others raised one alert or more. In total, the teams raised 225 alerts, all of them false. While the sheer number of false alerts struck Dr Lit as fascinating, it was where they took place that was of greatest interest.

Unfortunately, as Balko notes, the Supreme Court has chosen to give a sitting or barking dog the power to determine probable cause for a search,

The consequences of those mistakes are profound. As my colleague Jacob Sullum has explained, the U.S. Supreme Court says a dog sniff is not invasive enough to qualify as a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, so police do not need a warrant or probable cause to have a dog smell your luggage or your car. At the same time, however, the courts treat an alert by a drug-sniffing dog as probable cause for an actual, no-question-about-it search, the kind that involves going through your pockets, opening your luggage, looking in your trunk, and perusing your personal belongings. The problem is that a dog barking or sitting may be responding not to a smell but to his handler’s hunch about a suspect’s guilt. The reason we have a Fourth Amendment is precisely to prevent searches based on hunches.

Ron Bailey on Our Super-Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators

Ronald Bailey’s Attack of the Super-Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time that uses a bit of humor to expose the idiocy behind creationism, and especially the most unintentionally hilarious moment in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,

Near the end of the silly new anti-evolution film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed—in which fellow panelist Steve Meyer appeared—host Ben Stein asks Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the best-known living evolutionary biologist on the planet, if he could think of any circumstances under which intelligent design might have occurred. Incautiously, Dawkins brings up the idea that aliens might have seeded life on earth; so-called directed panspermia. This idea was suggested by biologists Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel back in the 1970s. In the film, Stein acts like this is a great “gotcha,” like it’s the silliest thing he’s ever heard. Of course, the irony is that this is precisely what proponents of intelligent design are claiming—that a higher intelligence has repeatedly created life on earth.

So, since our esteemed opponents are agnostic with regard to the “source of design,” and because intelligent design cannot rule out the hypothesis that super-intelligent purple space squids are not the “source of design” of life on earth, I will provisionally accept that hypothesis for the remainder of my talk.

I went and saw Expelled about a week after it came out, and happened to be the only person in the theater watching it — which was nice because I could use my Blackberry throughout the film to fact check it. Which, of course, was beside the point since the movie was so bad it was self-refuting, as in the moment with Dawkins where Stein and the filmmakers poke fun at the panspermia hypothesis. Of course the panspermia hypothesis is extremely unlikely — but it is orders of magnitude more likely than the god hypothesis which Stein and Expelled were pushing.

Anyway, from there Bailey indulges in heresy by questioning the wisdom of choices made by our super-intelligent purple space squid creators,

If that is the case, it would seem the record shows that the intelligent designers—which I am hypothesizing are super-intelligent purple space squids—evidently spent more than 2 billion years tinkering with single-cell algae and bacteria before they got around to creating multi-cellular species. Do intelligent design proponents have a theory to explain that? Were the space squid creators just lazy?

In addition, the record clearly shows that when more complex forms of life were created by super-intelligent purple space squids, they apparently arranged their creations in a specific order. Why did the purple space squids arrange the fossils in a sequence in which fish appear before amphibians which appear before reptiles which appear before mammals? And why did the purple space squids arrange 390 million years ago for the first amphibians to resemble Crossopterygian fish that were also alive at that time? These first amphibians had such characteristics as internal gills, fish-like skull bones, and—interestingly—eight digits just as the Crossopterygian fish did. Apparently our intelligent purple space squid creators (or whoever) found eight digits displeasing, and simply eliminated the extra three digits after they killed off the early amphibians and individually created thousands of later species of amphibians with only the now standard five digits.

It’s almost as if there weren’t any super-intelligent purple space squid creators at all, but rather the slow mindless operation of some natural process — lets call it natural selection for argument’s sake — that over billions of years led to gradual adaptive changes that explain the variety of life in both the fossil record and on our planet today.

Nah, that couldn’t be, could it?

Spencer for Hire

Writing in Reason Magazine, Damon Root attempts to rehabilitate the image of “social Darwinist” Herbert Spencer. Root’s article is based on a forthcoming article by Princeton University economist Tim Leonard who blames Spencer’s poor reputation on historian Douglas Hofstadter.

Hofstadter was a socialist, and so the free market capitalist Spencer was a perfect villain, especially when Spencer himself wrote in Social Statics, that

If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.

But, as Root/Leonard notes, this is followed quickly in Spencer by a paragraph in which Spencer wrote,

Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it be mitigated.

The thing to take away from Root/Leonard is not that Spencer had all the correct answers but that compared to the folks that Hofstadter admired and wrote nothing but praise for, Spence was a moral beacon,

Similarly, Hofstadter repeatedly points to Spencer’s famous phrase, “survival of the fittest,” a line that Charles Darwin added to the fifth edition of Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer meant something very different from brute force. In his view, human society had evolved from a “militant” state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an “industrial” one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus Spencer the “extreme conservative” supported labor unions (so long as they were voluntary) as a way to mitigate and reform the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers.

In fact, far from being the proto-eugenicist of Hofstadter’s account, Spencer was an early feminist, advocating the complete legal and social equality of the sexes (and he did so, it’s worth noting, nearly two decades before John Stuart Mill’s famous On the Subjection of Women first appeared). He was also an anti-imperialist, attacking European colonialists for their “deeds of blood and rapine” against “subjugated races.” To put it another way, Spencer was a thoroughgoing classical liberal, a principled champion of individual rights in all spheres of human life. Eugenics, which was based on racism, coercion, and collectivism, was alien to everything that Spencer believed.

The same can’t be said, however, for the progressive reformers who lined up against him. Take University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons, one of the crusading figures that Hofstadter praised for opposing laissez-faire and sharing “a common consciousness of society as a collective whole rather than a congeries of individual atoms.” In his book Races and Immigrants in America (1907), Commons described African Americans as “indolent and fickle” and endorsed protectionist labor laws since “competition has no respect for the superior races.”

Similarly, progressive darling Theodore Roosevelt held that the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, was “a mistake,” since the black race was “two hundred thousand years behind” the white. Yet despite these and countless other examples of racist pseudo-science being used by leading progressives, Leonard reports that Hofstadter “never applied the epithet ‘social Darwinist’ to a progressive, a practice that continues to this day.”

In other words, “social Darwinism” was simply an epithet designed to forestall any serious consideration of free market capitalism. And, it has to be admitted, an extremely successful strategem at that.

There’s one other oddity about the term “social Darwinist” that can best be captured by quoting from Robert Reich, who never fails to take the opportunity to demonstrate what an idiot he is. In a 2005 op-ed Reich wrote,

Social Darwinism was developed some thirty years after Darwin’s famous book by a social thinker named Herbert Spencer. Extending Darwin into a realm Darwin never intended, Spencer and his followers saw society as a competitive struggle where only those with the strongest moral character should survive, or else the society would weaken. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Aside from completely misunderstanding Spencer’s claims, the fact is that Spencer formulated his ideas before Darwin. Social Statics was published in 1852 — seven years prior to Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species. In fact, Spencer was never really a Darwinist at all since he believed that evolution was a constant march of progress and held to what appears to be some variant of Lamarckianism.

It’s interesting that Reich can blame Spencer for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest” but can’t bring himself to admit that Darwin himself found it useful enough to incorporate into the 5th edition of The Origin of Species writing,

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.

Ultimately, the tide has turned against the phrase with “natural selection” being almost universally favored today. But even when it was in its heyday, survival of the fittest doesn’t necessarily mean “whoever has the biggest club wins.” Natural selection doesn’t care if you’re a lover or a fighter as long as you manage to survive long enough to pass along your genes to your offspring.

It’s The End of the World As We Know It – Ronald Bailey on Existential Threats

In July, Ronald Bailey wrote several articles for Reason while attending the Global Catastrophic Risks Conference in Oxford. You can read Bailey’s dispatches here, here and here.

The conference was sponsored by Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute which is run by the always interesting Nick Bostrom. Bostrom opened the conference with perhaps the little bit of good news on existential threats — so far, none of them have come to pass,

The good news is that no existential catastrophe has happened. Not one. Yet.

On the other hand, depending on how far you want to go back to date the first homo sapien or homo sapien-like ancestor, the best explanation for this could be that we simply haven’t been around long enough to face an existential catastrophe. And, of course, the evidence supports the claim that at times the breeding population of our distant ancestors was reduced to extremely low levels.

Bostrom himself noted the debate surrounding the Toba super volcano eruption that some have speculated may reduced the human population to a few thousand people, though there is also some evidence that the reduction in population may not have been quite that severe.

According to Bailey, Bostrom argued the biggest existential threats facing humanity are self-induced,

Bostrom did note that people today are safer from small to medium threats than ever before. As evidence he cites increased life expectancy from 18 years in the Bronze Age to 64 years today (the World Health Organizations thinks it’s 66 years). And he urged the audience not to let future existential risks occlude our view of current disasters, such as 15 million people dying of infectious diseases every year, 3 million from HIV/AIDS, 18 million from cardiovascular diseases, and 8 million per year from cancer. Bostrom did note that, “All of the biggest risks, the existential risks are seen to be anthropogenic, that is, they originate from human beings.” The biggest risks include nuclear war, biotech plagues, and nanotechnology arms races. The good news is that the biggest existential risks are probably decades away, which means we have time to analyze them and develop countermeasures.

In his final dispatch from the conference, Bailey reported on Joseph Cirincione who spoke at the conference and noted how human civilization almost ended in 1995 due to, of all things, a Norwegian weather satellite,

With regard to the possibility of an accidental nuclear war, Cirincione pointed to the near miss that occurred in 1995 when Norway launched a weather satellite and Russian military officials mistook it as a submarine launched ballistic missile aimed at producing an electro-magnetic pulse to disable a Russian military response. Russian nuclear defense officials opened the Russian “football” in front of President Boris Yeltsin, urging him to order an immediate strike against the West. Fortunately, Yeltsin held off, arguing that it must be a mistake.

Cirincione noted that worldwide stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been reduced dramatically since the end of the Cold War, and the possibility for a worldwide disarmament of nuclear weapons is higher than at any time since 1945.

Bailey also reports on a few folks who presented the view that a strong AI and/or nanotechnology present serious existential risks, but the arguments presented there (at least as filtered through Bailey) seemed shallow,

In addition, an age of nanotech abundance would eliminate the majority of jobs, possibly leading to massive social disruptions. Social disruption creates the opportunity for a charismatic personality to take hold. “Nanotechnology could lead to some form of world dictatorship,” said [the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's Michael] Treder. “There is a global catastrophic risk that we could all be enslaved.”

Ok, but the reason jobs would be eliminated and this would be “an age of nanotech abudance” would be precisely that the little nanobots would be doing all the work. and the resulting goods would be essentially free. I guess if by “massive social disruptions” you mean everyone skiing and hanging out at the beach instead of working, then yeah, ok, but I doubt that’s going to lead to a worldwide dictator (who, as a reactionary, is probably going to want to force people to go back to work — about as attractive an offer as religious sects that demand celibacy).

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m worried about more abstract possibilites such as a devestating gamma ray burst which would wipe out all of humanity except for Bruce Banner. And there’s always that old standby, entropy.