Public Opinion on Iraq

Yesterday's New York Times reported on a poll about public attitudes towards Iraq.  What was most interesting was some of the findings they did not report (courtesy of Greg Sargent at American Prospect). 

Do you think the United States should or shouldn't set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq?
Should: 56
Should not: 40

Do you think it is worth the loss of life and other costs for the
United States to remain in Iraq until there's a stable democracy there,
or is it not worth the loss of life and other costs, or are you unsure?
Worth it: 25
Not worth it: 42
Unsure: 32

How do you think the war with Iraq is affecting the United States'
image in the world? Is the war making the U.S. image in the world
better, making it worse, or is the war having no effect on the U.S.
image in the world?
Better: 10
Worse: 72
No effect: 12

Do you think the U.S. presence in Iraq is leading to greater
stability in the Middle East, less stability, or won't it have any
effect on the stability of the Middle East?
Greater: 25
Less: 41
No effect: 25

If the U.S. stays in Iraq for several more years, do you think that
will eventuallly make the United States more safe from terrorism, less
safe, or won't it make any difference?
More safe: 27
Less safe: 21
No effect: 50

Regardless of how you usually vote, do you think the Republican Party
or the Democratic Party is more likely to make the right decisions
about the war in Iraq?

Republican: 36

Democrat: 42

And yet Republicans are still planning to run on this issue in the Fall.  Either this is a huge miscalculation or the Democrats are truly hopeless.  I'm hoping for the former. 


“Waiting to get blown up”

In today's Washington Post, a story that takes a look at troop morale.  Some of the more interesting quotes from soldiers:

“Think of what you hate most about your job. Then think of doing what
you hate most for five straight hours, every single day, sometimes
twice a day, in 120-degree heat,” he said. “Then ask how morale is.”

“It sucks. Honestly, it just feels like we're driving around waiting to
get blown up. That's the most honest answer I could give you,”

“No one wants to be here, you know, no one is truly enthused about what
we do,” said Sgt. Christopher Dugger, the squad leader. “We were
excited, but then it just wears on you — there's only so much you can

I find the following war on drugs analogy quite interesting:

“At this point, it seems like the war on drugs in America,” added Spec.
David Fulcher, 22, a medic from Lynchburg, Va., who sat alongside
Steffey. “It's like this never-ending battle, like, we find one IED, if
we do find it before it hits us, so what? You know it's just like if
the cops make a big bust, next week the next higher-up puts more back
out there.”

For me, being pro-troops is trying harder to bring these poor guys home.

How to drive a person insane

Penology is one of my favorite topics, but I haven't gotten around to writing anything on it yet.  Now I've been inspired by a current NPR series on  the use of solitary confinement in prisons.  (You can even read the full text of the story).  As you may or may not know, solitary confinement is a great way to drive human beings (as well as many zoo animals) insane.  Of course, we've known this since we first experimented with the concept at Eastern State Penitentiary  in Philadelphia (from which I have a t-shirt and is worth a visit if you are in Philly) almost 200 years ago.  (NPR has a nice timeline).  The Quakers had the idea that by silently focusing on penitence, prisoners would be rehabilitated.  Alas, not so, rather large numbers of them went insane. 

You make think that driving prisoners insane is an appropriate form of punishment.  But ask yourself this, do you want people driven insane before they are released back into the general public?  Unfortunately, many of the prisoners who experience these conditions are not there for life, but will be reintroduced into society.   Presumably, this is not exactly what we want for persons who will be rejoining the general public.

On a quasi-related note, one of my favorite books of recent years is Newjack which is the first-hand account of a journalist who decides to spend a year working as a prison guard in Sing-Sing.  Well worth reading if you have any interest at all in the topic. 

Breeding pet foxes

I found this story about the power of selective breeding in domesticating animals to be hugely fascinating.   Scientists now theorize that a variety of animals were domesticated solely by selecting for the trait of tameness, i.e., tolerating human company.   In just 40 years of breeding pet foxes, Russian scientists managed to create animals as friendly as your average dog.  In another experiment with rats, they managed to create one group of super friendly rats and another group of rats that would happily tear your head off.   Interestingly, selecting for tameness brings along other qualities we associate with friendly animals:

“Belyaev?s hypothesis was that all domesticated species had been
selected for a single criterion: tameness. This quality, in his view,
had dragged along with it most of the other features that distinguish
domestic animals from their wild forebears, like droopy ears, patches
of white in the fur and changes in skull shape….”

“One possibility is that a handful of genes ? perhaps even just one ?
underlie all the changes seen in domestication. A structure in the
embryo of all vertebrates, known as the neural crest, is the source of
cells that constitute much of the face, skull and pigment cells, and
many parts of the peripheral nervous system and endocrine system.”

I saw a documentary once that suggested what we had done with domestication was create animals that are essentially frozen in a state of perpetual adolescence.  Anyway, pretty interesting stuff.  I just wish more effort had gone into selecting for tameness in the lineage of my late hamster, Avery.  That guy would just not let you pick him up.  He died in a tragic overheated bathroom accident. 

Equal time

The idea of “the liberal media” is largely a crock and mostly serves as a conservative version of “working the refs.”  But when I saw the headline: “Senate Removes Abortion Option for Young Girls” in today's New York Times in regard to new legislation that makes it illegal for a non-family member to transport a minor across state lines to receive an abortion, I was a little surprised.  To summarize the law in this way for the headline strikes me as misleading.  Of course, I could also find you plenty of headlines that would seem to help the conservative cause.  But I do enough complaining about conservatives.  

Maybe not the most hated woman in America

We all know that Hillary Clinton inspires passionate dislike from the political opposition, but perhaps that dislike is not as widespread as we've been led to believe.  In an analysis of polls over the entire course of her political career, Chris Cillizza finds:

 “In the 65 polls testing Hillary Clinton's favorability rating, just 7
(11 percent) had more people viewing her unfavorably than favorably…”

“While much was written at the time about Hillary Clinton as one of
the least popular — or most divisive — first ladies in history, in
the years since leaving the White House she has made the transition
from (semi) private life to elected office without any real dent in her
personal favorability ratings. Since taking office in the Senate in
2001, just two Gallup polls have given Sen. Clinton a net negative
score. Her favorability peaked in July 2004 when 56 percent viewed her
favorably while 38 percent saw her in an unfavorable light. In the four
Gallup polls conducted in 2005, Clinton's favorability rating
fluctuated between 53 percent and 55 percent while her unfavorable
score bounced between 39 percent and 43 percent.Since everything in life goes back to what we learned in high
school, we also did a quick check of which Clinton is more popular,
according to Gallup polls since 2000. In the 13 surveys in which the
personal favorability of both was tested, Hillary Clinton had the
healthier numbers in 10.”

I still think the Democratic party would be wise to nominate somebody other than Hillary in 2008, but this data would seem to refute the idea that she just cannot win the general election.

Are men naturally better at science?

Many of you probably remember when the former president of Harvard, Larry Summers, raised a firestorm by suggesting that biology may best explain why men seem to outperform women in the sciences.  Turns out, there is one science professor who has a truly unique perspective on the role that gender plays for scientists in academia.  Stanford neuroscience professor Ben Barres received his PhD from MIT back when he was Barbara Barres.  Having worked in the sciences as both a man and woman, he makes a pretty compelling case for the role of discrimination in holding women back.  I do not doubt Barres accounts of discrimination, but he is 51 and I would at least like to think that things are improved among the younger generation.  I have a lot more difficulty imagining a high school guidance counselor today steering away a top female science student from the sciences than may have been the case over 30 years ago. 

I've always found the idea of sex differences in the brain to be very interesting.  This week's Newsweek describes a provocative new book that argues that many of the differences between male and female behavior are based on brain chemistry.  It seems obvious to me that we are dealing with both biology and society.  I think the problem is that for so long, biology was used to justify an inferior social role for women that many persons reject any biological explanations out of ideology rather than evidence.  Modern neuroscientists do not argue that male brains are better than female brains, just different.  (Does it really make sense for men and women to be different only below the neck?).  Unfortunately, the long history of arguing that male brains are different and better has done a disservice to this very interesting and provocative research. 

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