Less than the Least

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October 2009 Archives

October 4, 2009

The Ardi Fossils--Skeel

I happened to be reading the transcript of the 1925 Scopes (“Monkey”) trial the other evening, then woke up to front page pictures of Ardi, who was described “a 4.4 million-year-old human forbear.” Scopes and Ardi prompted a swirl of competing thoughts and emotions, but two thoughts stood out.

The first is that a trial is the worst possible place to debate these issues. In a trial, the parties try to concede as little as possible, rather than acknowledging the strengths as well as weaknesses of the opposing position. Attacks on evolution tend to attack particular elements of evolutionary theory—pointing out limitations in the fossil record, for instance—and treat this as disproof of the theory as a whole. Evolutionists tend to point to difficult Biblical texts or bloodshed in the name of religion—and treat this as conclusive evidence that Christianity is not true. Linking a handful of problematic details and inviting a jury to draw a sweeping conclusion is a classic rhetorical strategy in trials.
Second is the issue of humility. In the Scopes trial, Darrow repeatedly referred to religious critics of evolution as “bigots and ignoramuses,” and was cheered on by the East Coast press. He wasn’t treated much better by William Jennings Bryan and the defenders of the anti-evolution law. This absence of humility has characterized the subsequent debate as well, and is reinforced by its judicial, point-counterpoint quality. (Think of a few of the best known books: Darwin on Trial; God is Not Great). Greater humility might mean more acknowledgment of the limitations of evolutionary theory by evolutionists, and more willingness by Christian critics to marvel at the mysteries reflected in the decoding of genome or the discovery of fossils like Ardi.
The stories about Ardi noted that her discoverer, Tim White, waited many years before finally going public, painstakingly piecing together a large number of fossils even as fellow scientists pushed him to announce his discoveries. I don’t know anything about Dr. White or his reasons, but I like to think he wasn’t interested in firing salvos into the science vs. religion debate as soon as he could. Instead, he wanted to be as careful as possible, and to pursue the best understanding of the significance of what he and his team had found, without paying attention to the battles playing out on the best seller lists.

October 6, 2009

DealBook Dialogue on the Financial Crisis--Skeel

The NY Times DealBook blog is hosting a dialogue on the financial crisis, with a variety of folks (I'm the least of them, by any yardstick) weighing in.  Several of the initial columns have been quite interesting; it's continuing all week here.

Stuntz on Suffering

Bill had an article called "Three Gifts for Hard Times" in the August issue of Christianity Today, which I suspect will be of particular interest to those who have followed his posts on his cancer treatment.  I just noticed that the article is now available electronically here

October 21, 2009

Health News, and the Cost of Cancer Treatment--Stuntz

I haven’t posted for far too long; sorry about that. I’ve been hunkered down, trying to manage chemo—which is harder this time around than it was last year—and also trying to make some progress on a book I’m writing.

So, a quick update: When I last posted, the docs had found a cluster of tumors in my abdomen, plus one tumor on my liver. I started chemo immediately. Three weeks ago, I received news of my latest set of films: the tumors haven’t shrunk, but they haven’t grown either. That’s good news—though, as always in Cancer World, news is double-edged: it means I’ll be on chemo for at least several months longer. When (I’m past the stage where it’s appropriate to say “if”) the tumors resume growing, the docs will try a modified chemo regimen. Whenever that fails, we will look either at clinical trials or palliative care.
Those films also turned up a blood clot in one of my lungs, which the doctors found worrisome. I’m giving myself daily injections of a blood thinner, a small piece of unpleasantness on top of cancer treatment.
As Americans debate reform of the health care system, I increasingly wonder at the cost of my own medical care. At this point, chemo can extend my life only modestly; there is only a slight chance I will live more than eighteen months. Less is more likely.  The tradeoff seems worth it to me, for now: I want to be around to pay more of our youngest child’s college tuition, so that Ruth need not pay those bills out of life insurance money she may need for herself. I’d also like to finish my book, and spend more time with family and friends. But while those desires are perfectly legitimate, it is also perfectly legitimate for others—my colleagues whose insurance premiums pay for my medical care or the taxpayers who would do so under a government-funded insurance plan—to conclude that my preferences do not merit the huge costs required to (possibly) extend my life a few months. How best to negotiate that gap between my preferences and the public interest, not just for me but for the many patients in circumstances like mine, is a mystery to me. But I doubt we will ever get control of health care costs if preferences like mine continue to govern in cases like mine. Which makes me wonder whether I have a moral obligation to cease chemo sometime in the near future, and let my cancer take its natural course. Not a pleasant thought, but not a foolish one either. At least, so it seems to me.

October 29, 2009

Bailouts and Preemptive Strikes--Skeel

One of many interesting questions I was asked while presenting a paper called “Bankruptcy or Bailouts?” at Professor Ted Janger’s bankruptcy seminar at Brooklyn Law School yesterday was whether there’s a connection between the ethos that led to the Bush adminstration’s preemptive strike policy and the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for bailouts. The question echoed a thought I’ve had often in the last few months. The Bush administration was criticized (fairly, in my view) for its secrecy and its “my way or the highway” attitude on foreign policy issues. Barack Obama campaigned against this ethos, and his administration has been far more transparent on foreign policy. Yet when it comes to economic issues, the Obama administration’s key financial regulators have been as high-handed and opaque as the Bush administration was on foreign policy.

 A preemptive strike is a little like a military version of a bailout.  And the ethos that produced that policy seems to have migrated, in the Obama administration, from military issues to economic ones.