Oct 29, 2009

OSD could learn from City of Olympia

Last year, in the middle of some of the toughest budget decisions in recent Olympia School District memory, the District publicized a list of potential cuts, allowing citizens an unprecedented level of transparency in the budget process. What was missing? Interactivity.

To fill in the gap, I took data from District PDF files and created a somewhat hurky spreadsheet, so you could play around with the figures and try to balance the budget on your own.

If I had any coding skills, I would've added something like the City of Olympia is offering now. "Constrained prioritization" is the name of the game: you rate services or priorities from 1-4, but you're forced to limit each rating to only 11 out of the 44 choices--in other words, you can't put everything as a "1" or a "4." It's hard. (Sorry, Parks and Recreation.)

It's not a perfect survey, but it's a step. Next time the OSD stares down another tough budget--and you can bet that's going to be soon--it would do well to collect its constituents' input in a similar fashion.

[Link via Mathias Eichler.]

Oct 27, 2009

car shopping

Today, while discussing argumentation structure and strategies with a group of rookie debaters, I used a sample claim: The Ford Focus is a reliable car. "What kind of evidence might you use to support that claim?" I asked.

"None," one shot back. "There isn't any."

"As debaters, we can always do better," I said, then gave my own (admittedly very fake) example of repair statistics. What if, for example, 86% of Ford Focuses (Foci?) are trouble-free after five years? And what if this compared favorably to the latest imports? And what's the best measure of reliability, anyway?

The discussion was cut short by the end of practice, but it continued in my mind throughout the rest of the evening, as I sat in the living room, watching college football on mute and surfing Edmunds.com and the NHSTA's recall / defect investigation database. The wife and I are about ready to replace my poor ol' Chevy Malibu, and we'd like something that's going to run for a long, long time--hopefully with fewer mishaps and brake jobs.

Some of the cars on my radar include the Honda Accord, the Ford Fusion / Mercury Milan, the Hyundai Sonata, the Hyundai Elantra Touring, and the Mazda5. (If you have strong feelings about any of 'em, feel free to share in the comments.) I've read every review and road test and recommendation, and driven all of them, so it doesn't surprise me that today, KOMO would offer the highlights of Consumer Reports' upcoming reliability ratings, and the makes and models I'm seriously considering are the makes and models that owners recommend.

I've had bad experiences with Chrysler and GM products, so I was curious to see if they've recently turned things around. Nope:
Chrysler had only one model that Consumer Reports recommended based on reliability and its staff test, and the Chrysler brand finished last out of 33 brands sold in the U.S. One third of Chrysler's models were much worse than average in reliability.

Six models from GM were recommended by the magazine, but it's still inconsistent. Only 21 of 48 models the magazine studied scored average or better in reliability.
Even fewer surprises if you compare it with CR's overall assessment published in April.

I'm finding that the surfeit of available information doesn't make our choice any easier. But at least we have five good choices. And none of them is a Malibu.

Oct 25, 2009

approaches for the affirmative for the immunization resolution

Regarding the November / December LD immunization resolution, a reader writes,
I'm having some trouble thinking of argumentation lines for the affirmative, insofar as a minority refusing a vaccine shouldn't affect the majority, because the majority has been vaccinated and is (of course, to a limited extent) immune. This is frustrating every brainstorm I have on affirmative argumentation lines. Some ideas?
Let me see if I can help you out of this self-imposed jam.

First, the "to a limited extent" is important. Vaccines don't provide 100% immunity. For some unlucky recipients, they provide no immunity at all; for others (and this number is most likely much larger), they merely reduce the severity of symptoms. So unimmunized persons are a danger even to the immunized.

Second, unimmunized persons are a danger to those who, for health reasons, simply cannot be immunized. (Of course, this also presents a dilemma for the affirmative; does "compulsory" allow any exceptions?)

Third, a minority refusing a vaccine can influence others to avoid the vaccine, decreasing "herd immunity" (which often requires a high threshold--90% or more). That's why, in recent years, outbreaks of dangerous contagious diseases have increased in areas where they were nearly a non-factor. Polio. Diphtheria. Whooping cough. All over the world, missed vaccinations are putting lives at risk.

Fourth, the risk of bioterrorism or a pandemic that might justify quarantine would probably also justify compulsory immunization in the interest of national security.

Fifth, children who would otherwise receive safe vaccinations risk dying due to their parents' unnecessary or even irrational concern.

Sixth, people who refuse vaccination are a danger to themselves; in a paternalistic political philosophy, this is grounds for intervention.

Seventh, unimmunized persons who lack insurance are a drain on public coffers.

Eighth... well, that's all I've got in ten minutes.

Readers: other ideas?

Oct 22, 2009

the expanding waistline of public health law

Another in a series of posts covering the Nov/Dec immunization resolution.

Public health law seems to want to gobble up more and more legal categories, if Mark Hall, a law professor at Wake Forest, is correct. In an article titled "The scope and limits of public health law," found in the Summer 2003 edition of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine,, Hall describes, through anecdote and argument, how public health law is perpetually expanding in influence.

First, Hall distinguishes health care law from public health law, and what makes the latter inherently power-hungry.
Public health law is about enforcing government efforts to promote health. It starts with the assumption that public authority is plenary* and sets restraints on this authority only it if invades fundamental interests or is demonstrably unbalanced or excessive. Under public health law, the presumptions are all in favor of intervention, whereas under health care law, the presumptions are all in favor of privacy. Public health law is not troubled by making vaccinations mandatory, despite possible harm from side effects that may greatly outweigh the benefits of vaccination to any one individual (due to an individual's ability to free ride on the "herd immunity" of the community), nor is public health law troubled by requiring that more potent and riskier forms of a vaccine be used, even though the enhanced benefits accrue to people other than those who take on the risk.
*Absolute, unqualified.

This is the obvious first prong of a potential Neg strategy: pointing out that "public health concerns" are coldly utilitarian, and woe betide the unfortunate soul who is forced to take one for the team.

Of course, the Aff will argue that not only are the rewards worth the risks, but that the very nature of the problem demands compulsion. Hall again:
The classic subjects of public health law are communicable diseases, personal hygiene, sanitary water and sewer systems, safe food, and injury prevention. These disparate situations all involve significant collective action problems, meaning that individuals acting in their own self-interest, even if fully informed and rational, will not effectively address the problem because they do not internalize some of the major costs or benefits of action or non-action, or for other reasons a centralized response is much more cost-effective.... Identifying and eliminating the source of contagion for a communicable disease requires more effort and cost than any one individual or small group is likely to undertake. A public agency is necessary to garner the resources needed for collective action and to wield the authority for coercive restrictions on liberty or property.
But the Negative isn't done yet; the second prong of the argument regards the larger risk of allowing public health advocates ever-increasing power, which has
...a pervasive effect on public health officials' sense of what they are entitled to do and of the tools that are available to address a public health problem. The uncompromising authoritarian and utilitarian public health perspective... is intensely ends-oriented, which tends to ingrain the following habit of thought: once having identified a causal connection to a widespread health problem, action is necessary to eradicate the cause and eliminate the problem at its source, and it falls within the authority of public health or other government officials to take the necessary actions. The necessary actions are those that produce the desired results. Public health officials may start with less intrusive, more innocuous measures, such as information, education, or taxation, but if these fail, then the case is even stronger for pursuing a panoply of more aggressive and coercive strategies, including mandates and bans, closures and seizures, quarantine, and criminal sanctions. The metaphors of public health strategy are war-like. Its rhetoric is to attack, conquer, and eradicate, rather than to exercise prudence, balance, and restraint.
As the saying goes, "desperate times demand desperate measures." The problem is the tendency to see desperation in any risk, and to trample over individual needs, desires, or rights in the process. As problems like crime or poverty are cast in terms of public health, we risk going beyond the Nanny State to a form of medicalized tyranny.

Oct 21, 2009

vaccines... for the children

Professor of epidemiology Tara Smith explains why she'll be getting her children vaccinated this year.
Taking a brief hiatus from my hiatus to discuss a question I've been asked a number of times in recent weeks by friends and family: what about flu shots? Are you getting one for yourself? Your kids? The answer is yes to both, with more explanation after the jump.
And the post-jump reasons are worth investigating.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Tatel asks, have you considered those with limited immunity?
Ordinarily I wouldn't question others' parenting choices. But the problem is literally one of live or don't live. While that parent chose not to vaccinate her child for what she likely considers well-founded reasons, she is putting other children at risk. In this instance, the child at risk was my son. He has leukemia.

What does any of this have to do with vaccinations? While the purpose of chemotherapy is to kill the cancer, it also kills the good cells—most notably the infection-fighting white blood cells. That means my son has limited ability to fight off anything. A single unimmunized child in an ordinary child care setting is the equivalent of a toddler time bomb to him.
For students of the November/December LD resolution--or for any parent of a youngster--something to think about.

Oct 20, 2009

the "point of order" in LD debate

We've all seen it happen: the LD round is wrapping up as the affirmative offers a breathless set of rebuttals and voting issues. The Neg, meanwhile, is doodling on the flow, pretending to be engaged and attentive. All of a sudden, the Neg's ears prick up. What's that? A new argument in the 2AR? This cannot be!

Frequent commentator oceanix asks,
...so in LD, if I'm the negative, is there any way I can say the Aff is out of order for making new points in his or her last speech that I can't refute? Thanks.
Yes there is. The rules specifically state:
The negative team shall not be denied the right to rise to a point of order after the closing affirmative rebuttal. However, if they argue the point instead of stating the point, they shall be heavily penalized on the point. In this contingency, final disposition of the matter shall rest entirely with the judge. In general, this practice is to be discouraged.
So, in other words, if you stand to protest, you do so at your own risk. And this is right: after all, you should trust that the judge understands the rules, and knows that new arguments in the 2AR are forbidden.

Do note that the rules call for a heavy penalty if you "argue the point." Suppose you decide to risk it and cry foul. How do you protest properly?
Bad Example
"The Affirmative made new arguments about [fill in the blank] in the 2AR. The Aff is a cheater! Cheater cheater pumpkin eater."

Good Example
"I rise for a point of order. The Affirmative has made a new argument in the 2AR."
That's it. Keep it short and sweet, and let the judge do the sorting-out. After all, it's her prerogative.

OEA recommends school board candidates

The Olympia Education Association's Candidate Interview Team recently interviewed the three candidates running for election to the Olympia School District Board of Directors: Allen Miller, Mark Campeau, and Eileen Thomson. In this unusual election season, all three are running for the first time after having previously served via appointment to their respective positions--and all three are running unopposed.

Allen Miller
The OEA Candidate Interview Team recommends Director Allen Miller for the Olympia School Board District 2 position. Director Miller expanded on his written responses during an interview on October 15th at the OEA office. He emphasized the importance of open communication, trust, respect and collaboration as key elements in his role as a Board member and across groups and interests in the district. Director Miller stated that he would use the District’s Strategic Plan to guide his decisions on policy and the district budget. In budget development, Director Miller listed his priorities as, first, keeping future cuts as far from the classroom as possible, and second, employing a transparent, inclusive process. Director Miller invited communication from teachers and suggested that email was the best way to contact him with questions or concerns. We encourage Director Miller to take a more proactive role in reaching out to faculty and staff across the District.

Mark Campeau
The OEA Candidate Interview Team recommends Director Mark Campeau for the Olympia School Board District 5 position. Director Campeau responded to questions during an interview on October 15th at the OEA office. He identified the importance of the Board’s role in providing clear, strong policy leadership as a key element in improving student learning. Director Campeau felt that the District’s Strategic Plan was a good guiding document for the Board to use in its decision-making processes for budget and policy issues. He emphasized the need for adequate resources to allow teachers to meet the needs of their current students. He stated that he had enjoyed visiting buildings and talking with teaching staff and emphasized the importance of hearing from a variety of sources about concerns and successes in the District. He plans to continue his visits. Director Campeau included maintaining class size and programs focused on improving student learning as key considerations in the budget development process. We applaud Director Campeau for his efforts to build relationships with faculty and staff across the District.

Eileen Thompson
The OEA Candidate Interview Team recommends Director Eileen Thompson for the Olympia School Board District 3 position. Director Thompson responded in writing to questions from the Candidate Interview Team. In her responses, she included open access, improved communication and improving student learning as critical elements to be addressed in her role as a member of the Board. Director Thompson felt that the District’s Strategic Plan should serve as the guiding document for her decisions on the Board. In the budget process, she emphasized maintaining an open, inclusive process and keeping future cuts away from the classroom as priorities. Director Thompson stated that she has enjoyed spending time in buildings and welcomes communication with staff members. We applaud Director Thomson for her efforts to include new voices in the District conversation.

For the second election running, the OEA Candidate Interview Team included myself, Sharyn Merrigan, and Dan McCartan.

chemiosmosis and the origin of life

Learned a new word today: chemiosmosis.
Before Mitchell, everyone assumed that cells got their energy using straightforward chemistry. The universal energy currency of life is a molecule called ATP. Split it and energy is released. ATP powers most of the energy-demanding processes in cells, from building proteins to making muscles move. ATP, in turn, was thought to be generated from food by a series of standard chemical reactions. Mitchell thought otherwise. Life, he argued, is powered not by the kind of chemistry that goes on in a test tube but by a kind of electricity.

The energy from food, he said, is used to pump positively charged hydrogen ions, or protons, through a membrane. As protons accumulate on one side, an electrochemical gradient builds up across the membrane. Given the chance, the protons will flow back across, releasing energy that can be harnessed to assemble ATP molecules. In energy terms, the process is analogous to filling a raised tank with buckets of water, then using the water to drive a waterwheel.

Mitchell dubbed his theory chemiosmosis, and it is not surprising that biologists found it hard to accept. Why would life generate energy in such a complicated and roundabout way, when simple chemical reactions would suffice? It just didn't make sense.
More, much more, at the link about how chemiosmosis might be the key to understanding the origin of life on earth.

Or read the snapshot version: from hydrothermal vents to full-fledged cells in ten increasingly plausible steps.

Oct 19, 2009

changes in Student Congress, Public Forum debate rules

Bill Nicolay, director of forensics at Snohomish High School, sends along word of NFL rule changes to Student Congress and Public Forum debate. The highlights, which I've edited only for formatting:
Public Forum
  • Final focus goes from one to two minutes
  • Ballots will be redesigned
  • No reading of evidence in Crossfire (this seems to mean that competitors should be discouraged from asking for cites during crossfire)
  • Will now be called “Congressional Debate” rather than Student Congress
  • Preferential ranking by judges becomes the preferred method of advancing students to either a super congress (if used) or straight to nationals (if no super congress).  However, ranking by judges could be used to produce a slate of candidates for student vote [via preferential ballot], should a district choose to do so.  Base and board vote are gone.
  • Standardized ballots for congress ranking will be provided to all districts
  • Both the authorship/sponsorship and first negation speeches will be followed by two-minute questioning periods.  I’m assuming all other speeches remain at one minute (not addressed).
  • Committee meetings may not be scored
  • This may be a big one, depending on current district procedure: A total of two three-hour sessions of debate is required to legitimize the congress, so congress moves from five to six hours (plus time for setting up), meaning that it may no longer be doable in a single day along with speech, since it all events have to end by 10:00 p.m.  There is language which says that “if a district offers a super session, it has the flexibility to have additional smaller preliminary chambers before advancing students to the super session.  I believe the key term here, “smaller,” refers to chamber size and not time, because...
  • Congress sessions are limited to 18-20 students, and for each student beyond 20 we have to add ten minutes to the session.
  • Presiding officers may be selected or an adult may serve.  No provision or language was given regarding scores received by presiding officers.
  • All nationals legislation will now be vetted by Nationals Office Staff and may be approved, rejected, or improved and resubmitted.  Each district can submit two items of legislation.
  • Affiliate chapters can now enter as many entries as charter chapters (based on the manual table).
I like the added minute in PuFo--that "final focus" has always been a waste of fevered breath. In Congressional Debate, I have mixed feelings about extending question time for the first speech in negation, if only because question time tends to turn into Thinly Disguised Speeches.

Mr. Nicolay also noted that a committee is exploring the use of laptops in LD (I'm not yet convinced) and in extemp (which needs to happen yesterday--otherwise, how many forests of magazine trees must die?).

football for nerds, and nerds for football

1. Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy High explains his team's no-kick approach to football. The short story: it's all about the numbers, and the numbers say keep possession.

2. In an excerpt from his book Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman explains why he loves football more at 37 than he ever did at 17. The short story: it's all about the game's radical/conservative duality.

Who says nerds can't love / rule sports?

Oct 18, 2009

the tensions inherent in public health law

The November/December resolution throws light on a growing area of legal interest: public health. In "Mapping the Scope and Opportunities for Public Health Law in Liberal Democracies," found in The Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, Winter 2007, Roger Magnusson, a law professor at the University of Sydney, notes (among other things) the tensions in contemporary public health law.

The first, as always, is the tension between proper government action and individual rights:
Lawrence Gostin points out that the protection of the public's health is necessarily a public function that should also be regarded as a duty of government. Discharge of that duty carries "intrinsic and instrumental value for individuals, communities, and entire nations." At the same time, public health law is that body of law which - in a liberal democracy - keeps the state on a short leash, and there is considerable resistance to lengthening it. At the same time, in one of many contradictions in American law, Nan Hunter argues that this is precisely what is occurring as public health and national security have moved closer together to meet the threat of bioterrorism and pandemic influenza.
The "national security" angle is one that affirmatives should explore. The resolution doesn't specify who would be receiving compulsory immunizations; the Negative, presumably, would have to defend the right of medical workers and soldiers (among others) to refuse immunization, even in a crisis.

However, an important Negative consideration is the tension between wider and narrower conceptions of just what constitutes "public health concerns"--and the propensity for the debate to expand into the international arena.
The health and human rights movement provides a further example of public health law expanding to embrace, in this case, global human rights norms and laws, exploring the potential for the promotion or neglect of global norms to enhance or harm the health of populations. The usual criticisms of these approaches is that they turn "life, the universe and everything" into a subdivision of health. In Mark Rothstein's words, "just because war, crime, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and human rights abuses interfere with the health of individuals and population does not mean that eliminating these conditions is part of the mission of public health."
The effect of such a broad definition is not only to increase government overreach, but to insulate the government from criticism, since "public health" is a powerful way to frame policies that might otherwise be seen as the normal risks of everyday life, accepted in a free society. Furthermore, globalization puts the drafting and enacting of such policies out of the reach of citizens within any given nation. Thus, from a social contract perspective, a widening "public health" definition is doubly a menace to individual rights and governmental legitimacy.

Oct 15, 2009

saved by the stimulus, or adventures in accounting

How has the stimulus affected public education?
Teachers appear to have benefited most from the effort to save jobs with the $787 billion recovery package, which sent billions of dollars to states that were on the verge of ordering heavy layoffs in education.

The national data on the impact of President Barack Obama's stimulus plan won't be available until later this month. But based on preliminary information obtained by The Associated Press from a handful of states, the stimulus spared tens of thousands of teachers from losing their jobs.
Not surprising. We saw this very scenario play out here in the Olympia School District earlier this year. A potentially heartbreaking RIF was avoided in large part due to a sudden influx of federal cash, mostly averting--or, perhaps more accurately, delaying--a crisis.

But the article is also a commentary on the government's new attempt to bring transparency to the doling-out process. The brutal honesty quote:
The White House says more than 1 million jobs have been saved or created so far, a figure that is so murky it can never be verified. That's because the White House estimate is based on economic models that try to calculate the effect of tax cuts and the ripple effect of government spending.
And the good news/bad news quote:
Officials have said the unprecedented accounting could become standard for government programs in the future, and this week's data release will offer the first indication of how it's working.
The good news: translucency bordering on transparency. The bad news: somehow this is a new idea.

the ugliest ugly building

No matter how aesthetically atrocious Olympia's Ugly Building is, repeat to yourself: it's no Portland Building. It's no Portland Building.

Oct 12, 2009

today's vaccination links

The Nov/Dec LD resolution, "Resolved: Public health concerns justify compulsory immunization," couldn't be more topical.

You're all over the CDC's website, right?

Swine flu vaccines are ready. But not everybody wants one--for themselves, or for their kids.

How distrust of swine flu vaccine unites right and left.

It doesn't help when journalists get the facts very, very wrong.

Something to think about: let's say smoking is a public health concern. Does that justify compulsory anti-smoking vaccinations?

Oct 11, 2009

value / criterion pairs for the immunization resolution

LD casewriters studying the November/December compulsory immunization resolution might consider the following value and criterion pairs. (Have your own ideas? Suggest them in the comments!)

See also: my guide to some useful philosophers, plus a way to consider the criterion in LD debate.

A work in progress.

V: Societal Welfare
C: Act or Rule Utilitarianism
As I've mentioned elsewhere, many affirmative cases will use either explicit or implicit utilitarian reasoning. It's easy to figure out why: compulsory immunization, from the state's perspective, violates autonomy in order to keep the herd immune, and reduce suffering and death. Of course, some may argue that Mill's nonpaternalistic utilitarian scheme, via the harm principle, supports the negative, but that's what makes it fun.

Note: a potentially fruitful line of argument might be an analogy based on the infamous Trolley Problem. Also, see here for a deeper look at utilitarianism as a moral criterion.

V: Governmental Legitimacy
C: Social Contract
Because the resolution concerns compulsory immunization, making the agent of action the State, social contract theory comes into play. Change your value to "societal welfare," and you can make arguments based on contractarian reasoning as well. (My initial thought is that Hobbes or Rousseau are your best bets here.)

V: Freedom
C: Reducing Biopower
Foucault, anyone?

V: Autonomy
C: Deliberation
Without autonomy, humans are slaves, robots, or worse. Autonomy is the core of human freedom, rights, and responsibilities. Compulsion is a direct affront to autonomy; deliberation (especially deliberative democracy) uses dialogue and education to create change. (As you can probably see, this is a Negative approach.) Potential philosophers: Arendt or Habermas.

V: Autonomy or Humanity
C: Kant's Categorical Imperative
The Neg might argue that compelling someone to take a (potentially risky) vaccine in order to protect the herd is a classic case of using someone as a mere means to an end. If so, Kant says no.

V: Life
C: Utilitarianism
A fairly straightforward setup.

V: Justice
C: Rawls' "Original Position" or "Veil of Ignorance"
Compulsion is always a matter of justice. But with competing rights claims--and competing visions of the right--how can societies agree on what justice means? John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" offers an interesting form of a moral criterion, especially given Rawls' biography. Does compulsory immunization in the service of public health meet this standard?

V: Societal Welfare or Life
C: Negative Utility


Oct 9, 2009

stretching the truth; sketching a lie

A clever little experiment was recently designed to determine whether liars could be discovered through drawing. How it turned out:
While many of the liars gave convincing verbal accounts to the agents, when their drawings were compared with those of truth-tellers, there were features that distinguished them (Applied Cognitive Psychology, DOI: 10.1002/acp.1627).

The first was who they drew: 2 out of 16 liars included the first agent in their drawing, whereas 12 out of 15 of the truth-tellers included that detail. Vrij suggests this is because the liars visualised a place they knew and simply drew this, neglecting to include the agent.

The second difference was perspective, with liars tending to draw the laptop handover from a bird's-eye perspective rather than a first-person one. Vrij suggests that while liars are adept at quickly coming up with a plausible verbal account, they find imagining spatial relationships between conjured-up objects more difficult from a first person perspective.
The technique isn't perfect, but as a supplement to existing interrogation techniques, it seems pretty useful. (And anything's got to be better than a polygraph.)

Of course, you can arrest veryone who asks if they can just draw stick figures. They're bound to be guilty of something.

Oct 5, 2009

what puzzles psychologists

When they're not helping you solve your (manifold) problems, what are they puzzling over?
The email edition of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest has reached the milestone of its 150th issue. That's over 900 quality, peer-reviewed psychology journal articles digested since 2003. To mark the occasion, the Digest editor has invited some of the world's leading psychologists to look inwards and share, in 150 words, one nagging thing they still don't understand about themselves. Their responses are by turns candid, witty and thought-provoking.
And, in the spirit of blogging, brief. Check 'em out.

[via Mark Frauenfelder]

Oct 4, 2009

definitions in the compulsory immunization resolution

The November / December NFL Lincoln-Douglas debate resolution...
Resolved: Public health concerns justify compulsory immunization.
...offers some interesting definitional possibilities.

(Unless otherwise noted, definitions from Dictionary.com, which uses the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.)

Public health
"Health services to improve and protect community health, esp. sanitation, immunization, and preventive medicine."
Note the largely preventive nature of public health. Immunization is meant to prevent unnecessary sickness, suffering, and death. Note also that the word "public" is important. The agent of action in this resolution is the government, which brings social contract reasoning into play.

"something that relates or pertains to a person; business; affair"
"a matter that engages a person's attention, interest, or care, or that affects a person's welfare or happiness"
This is a particularly prickly word for the affirmative. Although "concern" carries a connotation of anxiety or worry, negatives might argue that the term is vague, and (as a general principle) doesn't rise to the level, say, of an emergency. Affirmatives would do well to combine the above definition of "public health" with the first definition of "concern"--arguing that the very business of "public health" is that of prevention through, among other things, immunization. (Also, they should point out that governments rarely compel trivial immunizations, trying to block out negative arguments about wholesale rights-trampling.

The two major senses of justification may lead to completely different kinds of arguments. Those (especially on the negative) defining the argument in terms of rights will use the first sense: "to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right."

Those advocating a utilitarian approach might use the second definition: "to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded." This is much, much broader, and works with a wide array of criteria, including cost-benefit analyses.

Compulsory immunization
The resolution offers no bright line for how immunizations might be compelled: through fines or taxes? Through force? Affirmatives will want to look at the history of compulsory immunization for examples of how governments usually go about it.

Note: a phrase that isn't found in the resolution, but is critical for both sides to understand, is "herd immunity"--the idea that when enough members of a community are resistant to infection, it will effectively disappear in a population, protecting even those members (like conscientious objectors) who refuse to be vaccinated. The threshold is usually above 80%. The aff will argue that, historically, reaching the threshold has required government meddling, if not outright compulsion.

Oct 3, 2009

step away from the candy bowl

Jason Kuznicki on the semiotics and politics of office candy:
There were the little rituals. You’d come in, take a piece of candy, start a conversation, do business. But some people would wait until your office was empty, then sneak in without so much as turning on the light. Some of those people got caught. I was once told by a Hershey’s-Miniatures woman that the visitors dropped off when the Special Darks ran out. Once she realized it, she stopped offering an assortment. The visitors came back.

When you wanted candy without a conversation, you’d have to feign a certain socially appropriate amount of guilt. And the owner of the office would feign a certain socially appropriate amount of judgment. A slight wince; a raised eyebrow. And then: chocolate! So worth it.

Your smile may be wide, your handshake firm. But if your candy dish is suspect, so are you.

Oh, and keeping candy in sight, as Kuznicki's later anecdotal observation confirms, is scientifically proven to increase consumption.

Mmm. Candy.

Oct 2, 2009

throw more curveballs

Steven Levitt and Ken Kovash claim that pitchers, among other athletes, are too predictable:
They first analysed over 3 million pitches thrown in major-league baseball games between 2002 and 2006. For each type of pitch, they measured the batter's "OPS" – a number that represents how likely a batter is to reach a base or to make a big hit. They found, on average, that fastballs tended to give batters 20 per cent higher OPS than curveballs.

If pitchers played according to minimax, the OPS for curveballs and fastballs should be the same, but in fact pitchers gave batters a slight edge by throwing too many fastballs.

Levitt and Kovash then looked at whether or not pitchers chose their pitches as unpredictably as minimax theory says they should. They found that when a pitcher threw a fastball, his next pitch was 4 per cent less likely to be a fastball as well. If pitchers played truly rationally, there would be no such bias towards switching the type of pitch. "Pitchers are being just a little too cute on the mound when they're switching back and forth so often," says Kovash.
Read the entire thing for the (predictable) caveats and nay-saying. OPS isn't the be-all end-all of baseball stats, for one.

I wonder how a pitcher who dialed up pitches totally randomly would fare in the bigs. It could be pretty interesting: randomness means the possibility of, say, throwing five fastballs in a row, then a curve, then four more fastballs. There'd be no such thing as a "fastball count," and a batter who thought that a curveball was "due" would fall prey to the gambler's fallacy.

Oct 1, 2009


Update: The November/December Lincoln-Douglas debate resolution has been released:
Resolved: Public health concerns justify compulsory immunization.
Scientists and public health officials get frustrated, even angry, by vaccine dissenters, a small, but increasingly vocal minority. After all, the argument runs, vaccinations have undoubtedly saved millions of lives since their inception. The risks are minimal; the benefits massive. Besides, without compulsion--without the greatest possible protection of the population--those benefits aren't seen.

So, from an LD perspective, how might we approach the resolution?

Affirmatives will probably use broad-based utilitarian reasoning. If, on balance, compulsory vaccination saves more lives than it puts at risk, then the decision, societally speaking, is a no-brainer. Assemble a few statistics and expert quotes, value "life" and set your criterion to utility, and let logic do the work.

Negatives could respond by attacking the stats, or taking a more philosophical approach, citing the John Stuart Mill adage that "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." This is the classic argument against inoculation; go back to the 1907 anti-immunization book Vaccination by John Pitcairn to see an example.

The rejoinder to this sort of argument is to quote Mill against Mill, as the Washington State Board of Health does in this vaccination briefing [pdf].
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty wrote that “The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” This thesis has become known as the harm principle. The Immunization Advisory Committee endorsed the harm principle and interpreted it to mean that vaccine mandates are justifiable when without them:
• An individual’s decision could place others health in jeopardy
• The state’s economic interests could be threatened by the costs of care for vaccine preventable illness, related disability or death and for the cost of managing vaccine preventable disease outbreaks
• The state’s duty of educating children could be compromised
The crucial thing about communicable disease is that it requires no agency on the part of its victims. Innocents are vectors, too.

Since the recipients of vaccinations are most often children, the persons being harmed--or at least risking harm--aren't legally able to accept or refuse inoculation on their own. As the briefing shows, this adds an "it takes a village to raise a (healthy) child" dimension to the debate.

Returning to Pitcairn, at the close of his book, a diatribe against "man-made science" interfering with "God's handiwork" points to another classic argument: that vaccination tampers in God's domain. Updating this logic for the evolutionary era, some anti-vaccinationists will argue that inoculations destroy natural immunities or upset nature's balance. (Want to really go crazy here? Open to a page from the policy playbook, and argue that vaccination is responsible for overpopulation and its concomitant harms. Just don't be surprised if your judge finds you scary.)

Lastly, the Board's briefing cited above refers to allowable exemptions for religious reasons, another argument both sides must prepare for.

For a backgrounder, Wikipedia's page on anti-vaccination arguments is a great place to start. I also like Douglas Diekema's accessible intro to the ethical debate [pdf].

Added: An example of the practical effects of the contemporary debate on vaccination.

Added 10/1: For an accessible introduction to the vaccination controversy from a pediatrician's perspective, I highly recommend Jamie Loehr's The Vaccine Answer Book. It's clearly organized, scientifically minded, and humane.

Added 10/4: I survey some critical definitions.

Added 10/11: An initial list of value/criterion pairs.

Added 10/12: Some thought-provoking links, and a critical question. What if they had a vaccine for smoking cessation? Would public health concerns--which in the modern day certainly include smoking--justify compulsory anti-smoking vaccination?

Added 10/16: How far does the logic of immunization stretch? One blogger considers Gardasil as a paradigm for the question.

And read this NewScientist article on the potential for a "universal flu vaccine."

Added 10/18: An article discussing the tensions in public health law, with implications for the resolution.

Added 10/21: Two parents talk about why they're in favor of vaccination. Hint: it's for the children.

Added 10/22: Why public health law threatens us with "medicalized tyranny."

Added 10/25: Some lines of argument for the affirmative.

Added 11/14: An open thread: what good/bad arguments did you face this weekend?

Added 11/22: In which I tackle the dubious 98.5% statistic.

Added 11/24: The Siracusa Principles as a criterion for the Neg.

Added 12/7: The future brings us... personalized vaccines?

More links and analysis to follow. Add your questions and thoughts in the comments. (This post was updated and edited from a preview written during the summer.)