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Published by David French -- Harvard Law grad, former lecturer at Cornell Law School, author of books no one reads, master of the three point shot, constant critic of Duke Basketball, Playstation2 addict, owner of a cool new Sony DCRTRV25 MiniDV Digital Handycam, father of two and husband of one extremely hot wife


The Culture Curve
Wednesday, July 17, 2002  
EVOLUTION AGAIN. My previous post about the recent skull discovery generated an enormous amount of e-mail from friends and from Curve readers. Opinions were all over the map, with at least one individual noting that my observation that "the age of this skull throws into further doubt the straight-line (knuckle-dragging to erect walking) evolutionary model that has been taught as gospel for more than a generation" was somewhat misleading. According to this reader (who teaches college biology), the straight-line model hasn't been taught for years. The conventional wisdom is now that the evolutionary lines are much more messy, more like a "complex bush" -- with different evolutionary offshoots sprouting up, then dying off.

Consequently, I read with great surprise the following paragraph in a Newsweek report on the skull discovery:

"By this theory [the "complex bush"], previous celebrated finds like Lucy (who walked upright but had a chimplike snout) or the 2 million-year-old Homo habilis (strong brow ridges and a flat face) can’t ever be placed in a serial progression, but were all candidates in the ultimate game of “Survivor.” Not everybody buys into this bushy theory. “It’s ‘X-Files’ paleontology” with no supporting evidence, says fossil hunter Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley."

"X-Files paleontology?" "No supporting evidence?" Strong words from a Berkeley fossil hunter. I think the thing that amazes me the most about the entire origin-of-life debate is how the level of certainty amongst the various participants often seems inversely related to the actual evidence supporting any given position. The evolution camp seems convinced that their model is correct and that (enormous) fossil gaps will be filled. In fact, their faith in the evolutionary model (at least to outsiders) seems every bit as fervent as the faith of the most literal creation scientist. Creation scientists (a term I'm uncomfortable with since many "creation scientists" are not scientists at all) persist in young-earth, six-day creation theories despite mountains of uncontroversial contradictory scientific evidence, while intelligent design theorists seem to sit smugly in the middle, often relying on ignorance (we don't know -- at our current level of scientific understanding -- how this could have happened, so it had to be God) as an argument.

It strikes me that all sides are in need of a serious dose of humility. When studying the origin of life and of the universe, we are dealing with perhaps the most complex scientific question imaginable. Not only is the science impossibly complex, but the religious and philosophical stakes are immense. Nothing less than the truth or falsity of religious faith itself is at stake. In such an atmosphere, truly dispassionate inquiry seems virtually impossible.

If scientists face obstacles to funding research into non-politically correct diets (see below) , what are the obstacles to bucking evolutionary conventional wisdom in the modern academy? On the other side, Christians who challenge the classic creation-science theory are routinely subjected to vicious personal attacks (just do a google search on Creation Science and Intelligent Design and read the vitriol). I remember once expressing doubt that the Genesis account was intended to be taken literally and heard a pastor's wife respond "I suppose you can be saved and still believe that, but I'm not sure."

Given these scientific, religious, philosophical and ideological realities, I am hereby proposing the following rule for understanding scientific and religious debate. I'll call it French's Law: The more complex the scientific system being researched -- and the higher the ideological/philosophical/religious stakes of that research -- the less likely that the scientific inquiry will a) be free, full and fair (for ideological reasons); and b) yield reliable and accurate results.

In other words, I'm not sure anyone actually knows the significance of this newly discovered skull, and I'm not sure that we'll ever truly grasp its significance (or lack thereof).

What is my own opinion about the actual historical events regarding origin of the universe and life on Earth? A loving God created the heavens and the Earth, He created them with a specific purpose, and He created us to enjoy His creation and (most importantly) to enjoy a relationship with Him. I base that conclusion on faith and the personal experience of a relationship with the Creator. Short of that conclusion, I am convinced of nothing else.

SIDE QUESTION ON BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION. Classical creation scientists are convinced that the Genesis creation story is intended to be taken as a literal, historical account -- with "day" meaning "24 hours" -- yet I doubt those same theorists who read books like Revelation are anticipating seeing an actual animal-like Beast at the End Times. Instead, millions of gallons of ink have been spilled trying to interpret who the "Beast" really represents. Why do we so firmly believe that Genesis describes an actual "day" but equally firmly believe that Revelation does not describe an actual "Beast?"

Just wondering.

8:47 AM

EXCELLENT COLUMN by Robert Samuelson in today's Washington Post. Samuelson attacks our current collective enthusiasm for "reform" and -- I believe -- correctly diagnoses the cause of the stock market's recent woes:

"The present inconvenience is that the stock market's weakness -- which everyone wants to cure -- isn't fundamentally caused by accounting lapses, which are the focus of the "reforms." Perhaps the opposite. Recall some familiar figures: The historic price-earnings ratio of the Standard & Poor's 500 is about 14, meaning that a dollar of corporate earnings (profits) results in an average stock price of about $14. At its peak, the recent market's P/E ratio rose to the mid-30s.

"When stocks reach unsustainable levels, their inevitable fall will create resentment. People who sold at or near the top will inspire envy, and if these include top corporate executives (as they do), there will naturally be suspicions that they knew things others didn't. Companies will also be tempted to take accounting shortcuts to shore up stock prices. But the main problem of the bull market was reckless investing, not reckless accounting. People made bad decisions because they were gullible or greedy, not because they had bad information.

"Although this is obvious, it is political poison to say so. After all, average investors vote. Even the press and pundits deemphasize the simple truths, because it seems ungracious to blame the market's victims for their own misfortune. Better to finger corporate greed and duplicity, which can be remedied by "reform."

Read the entire article. It introduces sanity and reason into a vitriolic and hysterical debate.

7:38 AM

ONE OF THE MOST AMUSING THINGS about the recent media hysteria over Bush's business past is the idea that any of the information that we are hearing is "new" or a "revelation" in any way. The fact is, Bush's business past was used against his father in the 1992 election, used by Ann Richards against W. in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race and extensively reported prior to the 2000 election. For those of you with time and patience, you can read this reprint of a 1999 article by Byron York, National Review's White House correspondent. The article details Bush's "crony capitalism" and even deals explicitly with the Harken stock sale:

"But first he had to get the money to pay off the loan he took to make his initial investment [in the Texas Rangers]. His largest single asset was the chunk of Harken stock he had received in the merger. Through the first half of 1990, the stock price was quite consistent, moving between $4 and $5 a share. In June 1990, Bush sold two-thirds of his stake — 212,000 shares — at $4 for a total price of $848, 000. At the time of the sale, Harken was moving into a period of financial difficulties. In the months following Bush's sale, the company announced a quarterly loss and the stock price went into a long, slow decline; by the end of 1990, it was $1.25 a share. Since Bush was not only a member of the board of directors but was also on a committee assigned to study Harken's financial situation, his decision to sell a few weeks before the slide began led to accusations that he used insider knowledge to get out when the getting was good.

"Bush denies any wrongdoing and has often said he was unaware of the difficulties within Harken. "He thought he was selling into good news," spokeswoman Karen Hughes told The American Spectator, adding that if Bush had waited to sell the stock he could have earned considerably more than he got. That would, however, have required his waiting at least a year; it was not until June 1991 that Harken got back up to $4 a share. By September 1991 it briefly hit $8 a share.

"In 1991 the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the sale and took no action against Bush or anyone else. "I don't remember a lot about it, other than there wasn't a lot about it," says William McLucas, who was the SEC enforcement chief at the time. "The facts just didn't support any judgment that this was something that would result in a serious enforcement proceeding." Nevertheless, Democrats brought the issue up in 1992, as President Bush was running for reelection; it became part of several news stories recounting alleged business improprieties by Bush family members. Texas governor Ann Richards revived the story during the 1994 gubernatorial campaign and also suggested, without evidence, that President Bush had rigged the SEC investigation, which commission officials denied."

York's ultimate conclusion was that there appeared to be a connection between Bush's rise in business and his father's rise in politics. At the very least, Bush used family connections to get ahead. At worst, those family connections insulated him from scrutiny and allowed him to get away with shady -- if not illegal -- business dealings. Thus far, the evidence points simply to shrewd (but perfectly legal) use of family connections. While these family advantages certainly separate Bush from the bulk of Americans who don't have comparable connections, they don't make him unethical or dishonorable.

That does not mean, however, that I am in any way against any further investigation into Bush's stock trades or other business dealings. Evangelicals and conservatives should hold Bush to the same standards that we did Clinton. If Bush is as honest and honorable as I think he is, then there is nothing to fear and everything to gain by allowing the Democrats to proceed on a financial witch-hunt in the midst of war.

7:22 AM

Monday, July 15, 2002  
CORPORATE CORRUPTION, REVISITED. The press is continuing to work itself in a frenzy about how the latest round of corporate scandals -- and Bush's own stock sales -- are somehow dealing Bush a serious political blow. However, I'm just not seeing this issue as politically significant over the long-term. I agree that the stock market's recent free-fall is a serious economic problem, but I also agree with William Safire that the recent losses are more a product of market melancholy than actual corporate performance. In fact, because the broad decline appears to be as unrelated to actual corporate losses as some of the spectacular gains of the mid to late Nineties were unrelated to actual profits, I expect that the market will rebound respectably in the next few months. This rebound will leave the Democrats focusing entirely on corporate wrongdoing as a campaign issue.

Yet, on that point, the facts really don't favor the Democrats. If you look at the four most spectacular corporate flame-outs in the last eight months -- Enron, Global Crossing, Adelphia and Worldcom -- their wrongdoing dates back well into the Clinton administration. In fact, the extent of the fraud reveals that at least some of the late Nineties economic ecstasy was built on a foundation of fraud -- and that fraud is now being exposed. While I won't go so far as some conservative columnists and say "fraud succeeded under Clinton and has been exposed under Bush" (the Bush SEC has not necessarily been the driving force in uncovering corporate wrongdoing), I do think that it is impossible for anyone to credibly argue that Bush created the conditions that encouraged corporate fraud or that his legendary closeness to big corporations ("Kenny-Boy" Lay) has cushioned their fall.

Worldcom, Enron, Global Crossing and Adelphia were going to collapse even under a Gore administration. ImClone's anti-cancer drug would have been rejected by a Gore FDA. There's just no argument that Bush is responsible for these corporate collapses. Deprived of this argument, Democrats are then left with stating that they are better equipped than Bush to prevent further abuse because Bush isn't "tough enough" and Bush is "tainted" by Harken.

On the "tough enough" point . . . do the Dems really think that voters will make their decisions in November based on the difference in proposed jail terms in the parties' respective corporate responsibility bills? Good luck with that argument. The President, using the bully pulpit, will speak ceaselessly about corporate responsibility (such talk dovetails nicely with his repeated admonition that we need to usher in a "responsibility era"). The Democrats will then be left arguing that he "doesn't really mean it" and that they'll be tougher on corporate corruption than the President. Given the Democrats own recent coziness with corporations (how many CEO's slept in the Lincoln bedroom during the Clinton administration?), they can't credibly claim to be the party of reform.

With respect to Harken, the Democrats are faced with the uncomfortable fact that the SEC failed to pursue Bush after an investigation where Bush opened the books so much that he even waived his own attorney-client privilege (something Clinton would never even dream of doing). Bush's message on the Harken mess is simple: the SEC already investigated this and (if he was really taking advantage of insider knowledge) why did he sell shortly before the stock doubled in price?

I promised myself -- after relentlessly pounding Clinton's ethics and honesty for eight years -- that I would be equally as hard on a duplicitous Republican president. As a result, I've been trying to look at the corporate corruption issue objectively. Yet no matter the angle I take, I fail to see how Bush is responsible for the corruption or that he is somehow corrupt himself. Until new facts come out, I continue to take the view that corporate corruption will not be a significant political problem for the President.

As Safire pointed out today, the market is in the process of correcting itself. When that correction is complete -- and when a corporate responsibility bill is passed -- we will be left with more accountable CEO's, more transparent accounting practices and a greater emphasis on honesty and integrity in business. In other words, our system will be better for the experience. Consequently, I expect that corporate corruption as a viable political issue will fade very quickly.

Unless, of course, another scandal is waiting in the wings.

7:18 AM

PROFILES IN CELEBRITY COURAGE. I was perusing's celebrity gossip page yesterday (it's my wife's fault -- we even subscribe to Entertainment Weekly magazine) when I came across this item:

"Candice Bergen's no Murphy Brown.

"The actress has told reporters she agreed with Dan Quayle lo those many years ago, when he accused her "Murphy Brown" TV character of eroding family values by bearing a child alone.

"I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless," Bergen told the Associated Press. "But his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did."

How nice of you to speak up, Candice. Where were you when it mattered? Concerned about ratings and your social position in liberal Hollywood, perhaps?

6:45 AM

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