Alito Versus Law And Science


Our legal system only works if we have impartial judges whose decisions are based on facts. Samuel Alito is not an impartial jurist. He doesn’t care about facts. In this, he is only the most obvious of the six right-wing members of SCOTUS.


Roe v. Wade, discussed here, stood as precedent for 50 years, until it was thrown out by the right-wingers. Each of the people who signed onto the opinion, and John Robert, who didn’t, swore that stare decisis is a crucial aspect of judicial legitimacy, and recognized that Roe was binding precedent. That was a deception.

One important goal of stare decisis is to create certainty and stability in social relations. The legal term is reliance. We don’t overturn precedent without good cause. We might overturn a precedent because it is doing more harm than good. Thus, reasonable people see the wisdom in overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld Jim Crow laws.

I do not think Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, but even if I did, that’s not enough. If overturning it causes more harm than leaving it in place, it should stand. Otherwise, we are not a government of laws, but a government by the feelings of five members of SCOTUS.

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Alito rips that principle to shreds in pursuit of his partisan ideology. He writes:

in this case, five factors weigh strongly in favor of overruling Roe and Casey: the nature of their error, the quality of their reasoning, the “workability” of the rules they imposed on the country, their disruptive effect on other areas of the law, and the absence of concrete reliance.

His justification for all these points is callous and absurd, but especially his rejection of reliance. In § III.E he explains that there are three kinds of reliance.

1. Areas of law requiring precise advance planning. This, of course, is not applicable.

2. Areas of concrete reliance. That’s not present in this case. The claims that women rely on Roe are “novel” and “intangible”, and it would be wrong to consider them.

That form of reliance depends on an empirical question that is hard for anyone—and in particular, for a court—to assess, namely, the effect of the abortion right on society and in particular on the lives of women.

That leads to impassioned arguments, he says, so who’s to say whether there’s any actual reliance. So what if there’s a hideous impact is on society and in particular on the lives of women? Those things are irrelevant in the austere legal world, lit by the incandescent power of the Judicial Intellect Of Sam Alito.

3. This ruling won’t affect other cases. He must think we’re stupid.


Alito uses the term “unborn human being” ten times in his opinion. Usually courts use neutral language, or the language of the parties. His choice of words is a signal about his beliefs. He thinks a human child, a separate person, is living in the womb, just waiting to be born. That’s not true. It’s a religious belief.

My thanks to commenter c-i-v-i-l for linking us to a peer-reviewed paper in Natural Sciences, Pseudo-embryology and personhood: How embryological pseudoscience helps structure the American abortion debate. The paper was written by a noted US embryologist, Scott Gilbert. I have the pleasure of knowing Professor Gilbert. The paper includes a review and explanation of six of the different views scientists hold regarding the onset of personhood.

1. Fertilization: the formation of a unique genome.

2. Gastrulation: the point of cellular division of the fertilized ovum at which the embryo can no longer form identical twins, but can only form one unique human person.

3. Emergence of the human EEG pattern pattern: the cerebral cortex begins to function.

4. Viability: the stage at which the embryo can survive outside the womb.

5. Birth.

In addition to these, Gilbert notes a sixth position taken by many scientists, that personhood is not a scientific category. The differences he describes between the state of the embryo at the five stages he lists show the problem.

Gilbert’s paper disposes of the notion that there is scientific consensus on the issue of personhood. He goes much farther in his analysis, explaining that the anti-abortion mob is creating a pseudo-science to justify their religious zealotry. He likens it to Eugenics which caused tremendous damage; it also seems like creationism.

He describes three myths that buttress this pseudo-science. One is th myth of the valiant sperm fighting its way on a perilous journey, racing to the waiting ovum, piercing it and filling it with new life. This is a story of masculine prowess: the male is the active force and the female is passive. It’s the myth of the journey of the hero as seen in the work of Joseph Campbell and others. He writes:

The female oviduct is not a passive racetrack, and the egg and its cumulus are active in attracting sperm and exciting them to swim faster. Although the sperm needs its propulsion to pass through the cumulus cells and extracellular covering that surround the egg, it does not bore through, drill through, or penetrate the egg, itself. Rather, when the sperm finds the egg, it lies next to it, spooning, and then the membranes of the sperm and egg melt together, and the two become one.

This is a beautiful and powerful picture: two human bodies working together to achieve new life. Alito deals with the beauty and complexity Gilbert outlines in his paper by claiming judges can’t solve the problem. His solution is to hand the decision to state governments. He knows full well that many of them don’t care about reality any more than he does, and that they will take away the liberty of the majority. He doesn’t care.

Partisan hackery

It’s easy to see that Alito is a partisan hack by reading his opinions and checking his voting record. In the face of his record, he refused to recuse from the Trump immunity case and the January 6 criminal case on the hilarious grounds that no one could think him anything but the soul of impartiality.

Journalist Lauren Windsor recorded Alito at a recent private event. The video reinforces the perception that he is a partisan, not an impartial judge. He has a Manichean view of US politics: the struggle between the forces of godliness and the secular left. In a rambling response, he describes it as a battle one side or the other must win, though possibly there are ways to live together in peace, but some matters cannot be compromised.

But there wasn’t a battle until a tiny minority funded by billionaires used the state to impose their religion on an unwilling majority. The majority was forced to defend its liberty. Alito thinks this is fine.

His wife, Martha-Ann, is a Fox News Grandma fulminating about the outrage of the day, and stewing in grudges for decades. This recording,  also captured by Windsor, is awesome. As Joan Walsh puts it in The Nation, she lets her freak flag fly.

Alito is a crank. Martha-Ann is a crank. They crank together.

What can we do?

1. Please read the Gilbert paper I linked. If nothing else, it will shore up your faith in intelligent observation of our shared reality.

2. Call Senator Durbin’s Judiciary Committee and ask them what they’re doing to protect us from biased judges. It isn’t just Alito and the other SCOTUS rogues. Trump put dozens of right-wing cranks on the bench, including Aileen Cannon, Matthew Kacsmaryk, and James Ho.

Socially Normative Agency

Index to posts in this series

In Chapter 6 of The Evolution Of Agency by Michael Tomasello we come to human beings. Tomasello says that we humans build on the agency of lizards, squirrels and great apes discussed in earlier posts.

Let’s start with an illustration. Occasionally a group of chimpanzees will hunt and kill monkeys. One chimpanzee will spot the opportunity and scream and start chasing it. Others join in the chase. If they kill the monkey they all try to grab as much as possible. They do not distinguish between those that hunted and free-riders. Only the strongest and wiliest eat.

On the other hand, children as young as three years old act differently. Confronted with a task that requires two actors, they will form an agreement to work together. If they succeed at the task, they split the reward evenly almost always. If one defects from the work or tries to grab the whole reward, the other complains and that is usually enough to bring the offender into compliance. Children who don’t participate in the work are rarely given a share of the reward.

Tomasello says this is a form of agency in humans not present in other species. He calls it socially normative agency.

Evolution of socially normative agency

Tomasello says that hominids, the predecessors of our species, split off from the great apes about six million years ago. They began hunting collaboratively about one million years ago. He suggests that collaboration might have begun with scavenging meat off carcasses. Hominids were smaller and weaker than other species competing for the carcass. They would have had a better chance of success if they worked together, some keeping other scavengers away and some gathering the spoils, then splitting it up among all of the group.

Later, two of our ancestors might agree to work together to hunt large game, agreement would be established, and the two would work together and share the rewards. Over time, collaborative hunting became necessary to meet the demands for food. By about 400,000 years ago collaborative hunting was an established practice. Our ancestors became interdependent, unable to survive on their own.

Psychological processes and feedback control mechanisms

Tomasello says the central mechanism of control in all species is the feedback loop. In the simple form, a lizard uses its perceptionto look for prey, moving on if there is none. In small mammals like squirrels, there is an additional level of psychological control, an executive tier, that enables the individual to keep track of its goals (foraging, burying nuts for the winter, staying ahead of predators etc. They can chanage their behavior if needed for safety or for a better chance of successful foraging. They can choose among alternative actions for reaching those goals.

In great apes, there is third tier, the reflective tier, that monitors the executive tier, and can interrupt the action of the individual to solve problems preventing the individual from reaching its goal, Doing this requires mental processes Tomasello calls rational because they are logically structured.

In the example of three-year olds cooperating in a task, the two reach agreement on joint action. That agreement creates a a new entity, the joint agency. There feedback control mechanism runs  each child to the other. Both are entitled to enforce the requirements of the joint agency. If one child stops working, leaves, or refuses to share, for example, the other remonstrates in normative terms. The other will say something like: we don’t do that, or you have to share, or that’s not fair. The offender recognizes that this is a legitimate complaint, and most ofteb changes behavior. Tomasello says this is because each child recognizes and accepts the demands of the joint agency and the right of each to enforce it.

In great apes, the feedback control mechanisms are internal to the individual. In socially normative agency, the feedback loop is in the “we” created by the agreement, and is exercised by both parties as the project proceeds. The feedback control also covers the efforts of the two to collaborate in the task.

Evolutionary changes

The evolution of agency in humans requires greatly increased complexity in the brain: more and better neurons with more and better connections, and a large increase in the pre-frontal cortex, which we think is the location of executive action.

These physical changes were needed for collaboration. Control by agreed normative rules required three new kinds of psychological processes: a) creation of the joint goal: b) allocation of roles; and c) collaboration in self-regulation during the action. Each of these in turn require a chunk of mental processing, This is something humans do automatically, and other creatures don’t.

Those who didn’t cooperate, who didn’t communicate, and who didn’t share were left behind, without mates, and without offspring. The mental processes that enable collaboration, including collaboration, became targets of natural selection, probably in a form of co-evolution.

Cultural groups differentiated by their norms

Collaborative hunting and reward sharing was very successful for our ancestors. By about 150,000 years ago, human population had grown to the point that we began to live in larger and larger groups. Successful hunting of larger game was just one part of survival. Others in the group foraged for plants and small game, some became adept at creating tools snd weapons, others at weaving and making clothes, others learned about curative herbs and healing and so on.

Tomassello says that our ancestors were living in bands loosely connected to each other by cultural norms related to diet, stone knapping, languages, foraging techniques and more. Membership in a cultural group became necessary for survival as these cultural groups competed for resources. Again, those who couldn’t manage the psychological processes necessary for participation in the cultural group were shunned and didn’t reproduce. Compliance with cultural norms became a target of natural selection.

Cultural groups survived by teaching their offspring proper, that is normative, behaviors and techniques. Long childhoods and adolescence were periods of training and learning the social norms of the cultural group. In operation, these cultural groups made cpllective decisions, and enforced them. Tomasello calls this cultural agency. The feedback control is operated by the entire group.

Here’s how Tomasello describes the evolutionary process up to about 100,000 years ago:

… modern human brains are three times larger than those of other great apes, with an expanded prefrontal cortex (the main seat of executive functioning) and insula (the main seat of social emotions), and are structured by unique types of neurons with more complex dendritic structures Consistent with this analysis, González-Forero and Gardner … find that much of the brain growth characteristic of modern humans during this period was concerned with adaptations for cooperative interactions and cultural learning. P. 106-7; cites omitted.


Regardless of your view of Tomasello’s model, one thing is clear from the evidence he cites. Human evolution runs side-by-side with increasing levels of cooperation. Our ancestors taught each other; we literally dragged ourselves up by our bootstraps. Social learning and cooperation are an integral part of our evolution.

In The Dawn Of Everything David Graeber and David Wengrow discuss the Thomas Hobbes theory that early humans fought each other for resources, the war of all against all. That didn’t happen. We should stop talking like it did.

In the same way, the bizarre neoliberal idea that we humans are atomistic utility-maximizers struggling against each other to get all we can is madness. Any academic who takes this view should be laughed out of their profession.

I’ll have more to say about this in the next post.


Great Apes As Rational Agents

Index to posts in this series

In Chapter 5 of The Evolution Of Agency, Michael Tomasello discusses the nature of the agency displayed by the great apes. This group consists of five species, chimpanzees, bonoboes, orangutans, gorillas and humans. The first four of these are the subject of this chapter. African great apes seem to have emerged about 14 million years ago following millions of years of evolution of mammals. The changes were far-reaching.

There are three relevant threads in this chapter:

  1. evidence of the rationality of great apes
  2. evidence that they recognize that others of their species act intentionally, possibly including humans
  3. the evolutionary pressures that might have contributed to the development of these two mental capacities

Tomasello offers an explanation of this rationality as dependent on a second tier of executive control.

Rationality of Great Apes

Tomasello gives a number of examples of evidence from field observations and experiments that shows the great apes are capable of observing their environment and acting on it it rational ways. One is their understanding of tools. For example, they use sticks to fish for ants and termites to eat. If there is no stick nearby they will tear off a twig from a tree, and strip the leaves if there are too many. They will drop stones on above-ground termite nests to flush out the bugs. Here’s how Tomasello ascribes rationality to this practice:

… [W]hen faced with a novel physical problem, great apes can also take control of the causal process and make new tools that will work in the new context. In this case, they are first imagining an effect that is needed to solve the problem, and then going back to create a cause. For example, in the wild, chimpanzees routinely modify too-leafy branches by stripping leaves from them so that they will fit into termite holes. P. 72, cite omitted.

Here’s another example. The experimenter shows a piece of food to a chimpanzee and then puts it into one of two cups. The experimenter shakes the empty cup. The chimpanzee is allowed to pick a cup, and chooses the unshaken cup. This shows a reasoning chain: no noise means no food; therefore the food is in the other cup. Tomasello says that these are forms of logical organization that we should consider as rational.

Great apes understand some cause and effects created by others

Great apes understand cause and effects created by their own actions, as do other mammals. Unlike other mammals, they also understand indirect causes of results, as with the use of tools. They also recognize that other creatures can themselves cause effects through their actions. Tomasello cites a paper reporting

… that three human-raised chimpanzees selectively reproduced actions that a human demonstrator intended to perform over actions she performed only accidentally; the chimpanzees also performed actions that a human intended to perform but did not actually succeed in performing. P. 75.

A two-part experiment tests whether chimpanzees can “use self-experience to infer what another sees”. (Abstract here). Great apes will took at what another is looking at, which is referred to as gaze-following. The subjects are taught the visual properties of two screens, one opaque, one see-through. The first experiment tests gaze-following when the experimenter is using each screen. The subjects don’t seem to distinguish between the two types of mask in the gaze-following experiment.

The second experiment uses a competition model, where the chimpanzee and the experimenter are dealing with food in two boxes. One has an opaque lid and the other a screen or a transparent lid. The subject is taught the effects of the three lids. Then food is placed in both boxes. If the chimpanzee tries to get food when the experimenter can see it (transparent or screen lid), the experimenter takes it away. To get the food, the chimpanzee must know from its own experience whether the experimenter can see the food. In this setting the chimpanzees get the food significantly more often, leading the experimenters to “conclude that chimpanzees successfully used their self-experience to infer what the competitor sees.”

Tomasello also cites some evidence of social learning in great apes. He says they can learn by noticing the results of the actions of other great apes, and then doing the same thing or something similar.

Evolutionary pressures

Tomasello suggests two types of environmental pressures that might have led to the evolution of these skills. First, fruit is an important part of the diet of chimpanzeees. Fruit trees grow in small clumps, and don’t put out fruit at the same time. Chimpanzees tend to sleep in large groups at night, and split into small groups for foraging. The smaller groups somewhat reduce the competition for food.

Great apes do not usually share these finds. The dominant member of the small group takes all it wants. Even so, predicting the behavior of competitors makes it more likely that subordinate individuals will obtain sufficient food.

Another factor might be that the great apes depend on social learning to maintain their groups, and to understand whether a specific behavior is or is not tolerated. Great apes have longer juvenile periods than other mammals, and much of their time is spent in groups where they learn to align their behavior with that of others. This requires them to be able to attribute their own experience to others of their groups.

This attribution seems to extend to their own mental states. As an example, juvenile chimpanzees use a specific arm gesture to indicate a desire to play with another. The juveniles know that the other must be looking at them in order to see the signal just as they do, and they wait until the other is looking at them to make it.

The psychological processes of great apes

Recall that Tomasello proposes a modes in which small mammals have an executive tier that supervises and controls the operational tier of mental processes. He suggests that great apes have a second level of control which he calls the reflective tier. Its function is to “… to monitor, troubleshoot, and intervene in processes of executive decision-making and cognitive control….” P. 82. In effect, Tomasello says it gives the great apes access to their own mental processes. This fits with the evidence he cites. For example, it explains how great apes can attribute their mental processes to other.

It also explains the results of this experiment cited by Tomasello. The subjects were rewarded for setting a group of blocks on end. Then a block was added that wouldn’t stand on end because of an internal weight. The subjects frequently inspected that block carefully trying to figure out why it wouldn’t stand up. The subjects are trying to reach a goal but failing. Tomasello says in this case the reflective tier in intervening in the intentional action to try to figure out why what works for most blocks doesn’t work for this specific block.


1. Of course great apes can’t explain why they make these choices, so perhaps we humans don’t immediately think of them as rational. But think of the number of decisions we make without using strict logical constructions. In many of these cases rationality is buried so deep in our brains that we don’t really need to use language to work out the solution. This is similar to what Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast And Slow, which Tomasello cites in an earlier chapter for a similar proposition.

2. So far we’ve looked at three categories of agency, goal-directed agency as in lizards, intentional agency as in squirrels and cats, and rational agency as in the great apes. Tomasello’s thesis is that the psychological processes of human agency evolved through these groups.

Next he takes up humans. And so will I.

Goal-Directed Agency and Intentional Agency

Index to posts in this series


Lizards are a representative of the first category of agency according to Michael Tomasello in his book The Evolution Of Agency. As with the other categories, Tomasello focuses on the way lizards forage for prey. C. elegant, the nematode we looked at in the last post, moves and food either does or doesn’t go into its mouth. That obviously won’t work for lizards. Most species survive largely on a diet of insects, small creatures that move and flit about unpredictably.

So lizards have a different strategy. They have a goal, finding food, but they have to do several things to reach that goal. They have leave their hiding places and move to a place where there are insects. They have to spot a specific insect and then catch it and eat it. At the same time, they have to make sure they don’t become prey for other creature.

Here’s a video of a guy feeding crickets to his pet crested lizard. The lizard is in a special feeding cage. The crickets must be alive or the lizard won’t eat them. Bonus: you learn a new term: gut-loading crickets.

Following Tomasello here’s how I read this video. The lizard stands still orienting itself to its surroundings. The guy throws a cricket into the cage. The lizard sees the cricket. It takes a few steps forward. It pauses. It charges and grabs it and eats it. The guy throws another cricket into the cage. The lizard sees it, turns to chase it, misses, and pursues it in short bursts. It catches and eats the cricket. The guy throws a bunch of crickets into the cage. The lizard singles out one, chases, catches and eats it. The other crickets run around. The lizard spots one, chases, catches and eats it. This is repeated.

In this video we see a frilled lizard, a native of Northern Australia and southern New Guinea. It’s about a meter in length, and weighs over a pound. This video is heavily edited but again following Tomasello, here’s how it can be read. The lizard descends from it’s hiding place in a tree. It forages for prey, meaning any insect it might find on the ground. It sees one, approaches, catches and eats it. While chewing it looks around. It spots a predator, a black-headed python. It’s frill blows up. The snake approaches. The lizard runs really fast (also amusing). It eventually runs up a tree, making a full escape.

Tomasello says that the lizard has hard-wired goals: including eating and avoiding predators. Both it’s prey and its predators are quick and unpredictable. It has evolved to deal with that unpredictability by paying attention to the crucial aspects of the situation it perceives at any moment. It then acts to achieve a goal applicable to that situation. In both videos, the lizard eats while checking the situation. In the second it detects danger. It freezes its eating, then flares its frill, then runs. It achieves its goals by a series of go-no go decisions. That’s a clear step up from C. Elegans.


Squirrels are Tomasello’s example of intentional agents. He gives an example of a squirrel on a tree branch spotting a nut on a lower branch. The problem is whether to jump to the lower limb or retreat to the trunk and run down to the lower branch. He says the squirrel looks at the nut then at the tree trunk and then back at the nut. He interprets this as the squirrel cognitively considering two alternatives, then forming an intention to act, then acting. This two step process is evidence of an executive tier of mental control of behavior.

I have a young cat who does something similar. Winston knows there is interesting stuff happening on the counter when I’m making coffee. I see him looking at me, then at the counter as if contemplating jumping up. Am I paying attention to him? If I say No in a loud voice, he won’t jump. Maybe. But if I do nothing or am not paying attention, he works out an answer and acts.

Winston also knows how to open a door. Here’s a video of cats opening doors. Note that in several of the scenes the cat stares at the handle before acting. Tomasello interprets this as the cat forming an intention and then acting on the intention. Again, that implies an executive tier of mental activity.

Here’s a video of squirrels hiding nuts. Nut-hiding is a hard-wired activity, but it’s a complex problem. The squirrel has to decide where to bury the nut, and it has to be able to find it in winter. There are other squirrels waiting to steal the nuts, and predators. There are obstacles, including roots and hard soil. The squirrels stop and look around several times. In each case it looks like the squirrel makes a choice.

This is a 20 minute video of a guy operating a squirrel maze in his back yard. It’s not exactly relevant, but it looks like the squirrels are playing, something we don’t see lizards do. Also I enjoyed it.

The difference

Tomasello says that when lizards perceive a change in the situation, they freeze their current behavior and then respond to the new situation. He contrasts this chain of go/no go decisions with

… an either-or process of decision-making in which the individual simultaneously considers more than one behavioral option simultaneously (which mammals arguably do….) Pp. 33-4.

Tomasello says squirrels and other small mammals have an executive tier in their psychological processes that controls their operating behaviors, like running and burying nuts. This is a function of their larger brains, especially a larger pre-frontal cortex, more complex neurons and neural connections, and increased memory. Larger brains and longer time spent as juveniles increase the possibility of learning about the environment and experimenting, including play, which we might see as rehearsal. Mammals seem to have whet we would call emotions that also provide input to the executive tier.

The executive tier of the squirrel brain coordinates all these inputs. It considers alternative courses of action, “weighs” the costs and anticipated benefits of each and chooses one. That choice is communicated to the operant systems. The executive tier monitors the outcomes. It can inhibit one choice in favor of another if the situation changes or if the initial choice meets an obstacle or fails. Small mammals don’t use words, so it does this with some from of remembered perception.

Here’s Tomasello’s version of an executive tier:

The executive tier oversees the operational tier, as it were, and attempts to facilitate behavioral decisions via action planning and cognitive control. … It requires individuals to cognitively simulate in an organized way their own potential actions, the potential obstacles and opportunities for those actions, and the probable outcomes of those actions. They do this by perceptually imagining all these action elements in the common cognitive workspace and representational format provided by an executive tier of operation. P. 49.

It is this executive tier that gives mammals a wider range of choices of action, which presumably increases the chances of survival of individuals.


1. Tomasello says that there isn’t any way to find mental processes in brains, so scientists infer the mental processes from the overt behavior of the creature. I think this raises the potential of anthropomorphism, leading people to ascribe human characteristics to other kinds of creatures. The executive function in humans is a defining feature of our species, so this is a real possibility.Of course, here we’re talking about a simple form of executive control.

The videos seem to provide at least some reason to think Tomasello is on the right track in ascribing an executive tier to small mammals. The empirical studies he cites may also be persuasive evidence.

2. I have described only a small part of Chapters 3 and 4 for this post. It’s allfascinating, especially the discussion of the executive tier, but it’s not relevant to my purposes in reading this book. As a reminder, this series is aimed at thinking about the origins and roles of rights in our society. I’ll get there, I promise.

Free Will, Agency, And Evolution

Most of us think we have free will, and we certainly act as if we do. We expect ourselves to do certain things and not do other things, and we feel responsible for those choices. We have the feeling, the sense, that we control those behaviors, or at least that we have the ability to control decisions about which things we do and which we don’t. We attribute to other people their own agency, which we take to be just like ours, even if they may have different ideas about proper behavior.

There’s a school of thought that says we don’t control those things. Here’s a recent article about Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neurobiologist, who doesn’t agree. He’s not the only one. Perhaps recognizing that this is an intractable problem, many scientists use the term agency instead of free will.

One is Michael Tomasello, whose book, The Evolution of Agency, I’ll be examining in the next few posts. Agency carries less moral baggage, and it’s something that can be described and studied neutrally; at least more neutrally. Tomasello doesn’t give a precise definition of agency. This is from the introduction:

…[I]n the current case, we may say that agentive beings are distinguished from non-agentive beings … by a special type of behavioral organization. That behavioral organization is feedback control organization in which the individual directs its behavior toward goals—many or most of which are biologically evolved—controlling or even self-regulating the process through informed decision-making and behavioral self-monitoring. Species biology is supplemented by individual psychology. P. 2.

The book rests on two assumptions. The first is that the basis of agency is a feedback control activity, a psychological mechanism, seated in the brain. The second is that agency is an outcome of evolution.

Feedback control organization

Tomasello’s feedback control organization works like a thermostat. The idea is that a goal is set for the thermostat: keeping the temperature at a certain level. It has a sensor that measures the ambient temperature and compares it to the goal. It then turns on another device that brings the temperature closer to the goal. It continues to test the ambient temperature and when it reaches the goal, it turns off the device.

Tomasello claims that this is the only model that can work to enable things to control themselves. He points out that all efforts to get machines to operate autonomously work in accordance with this model.

Evolution and agency

Tomasello doesn’t think there’s a goal for evolution. He thinks that as brains become more complex, the feedback control activity takes on a different shape, a shape that takes advantage of the bigger brain. I’ll just toss in the observation that mutations happen all the time, and some become established in subpopulations whether or not they have any survival value. That might include hair color or a larger brain. If circumstances change, the mutation may suddenly have survival value, and the subpopulation thrives while the rest of the population suffers.

Studying psychological processes

Tomasello says agency is a psychological process, one that occurs in the brain of an individual creature. It cannot be studied directly. Instead scientists infer the existence of psychological processes from the overt behavior of subjects.

Scientists infer psychological agency when the organism acts flexibly toward its goal even in novel contexts. To behave in this flexible manner, the individual must go beyond a stimulus-driven, one-to-one mapping between perception and action. The individual must be capable of choosing to act or not to act, or among multiple possible actions, according to its continuous perceptual assessment of the situation as it unfolds over time (sometimes employing executive processes such as inhibition, as a further control process, during action execution). P. 27.

The layout of the book

Evolution has been at work on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. We say that different species split off from lines of evolution, as humans split off from the great apes; and as homo sapiens eventually split off from the first hominids, and then evolved into modern humans. The lines go back to the beginnings of life on the planet, to the earliest living creatures.

Tomasello thinks certain existing species have no agency, and the rest fall into four categories. He selects five of them to represent his five categories of agency.

1. No agency: C. elegans, a tiny worm-like creature (the image on the home page is a bunch of these creatures)
2. Goal-directed agency: lizards as representative of reptiles
3. Intentional agency: squirrels as representative of small mammals
4. Rational agency: great apes as representative of great apes
5. Socially normative agency, which has two subcategories
a) young human children as representative of hominids with a simple form of socially normative agency
B) adults humans who exhibit a more comprehensive socially normative agency

Tomasello treats each category of agency in its own chapter. The last chapter is mostly for his fellow scientists, discussing gaps in the research and proposals for future work on this model. In each chapter Tomasello explains how the agency works, the evolutionary pressures that might have led to it, and the nature of the world as perceived by the example creatures. These issues are supported by a empirical evidence from academic and field studies.

I’ll take a quick look at the first three levels of agency, and discuss socially normative agency in more detail.

Creatures without agency

Let’s start with C. elegans. This is a worm-like creature about 1 mm in length. We know a great deal about it: we have sequenced its genome; and identified its 302 neurons, their connections, and the role each plays. It has no sensory apparatus beyond the ability to sense nutritious and certain noxious substances. It lives in organic material, where it eats bacteria. It has rudimentary powers of movement. They are mostly hermaphrodites. For more, see this dense Wikipedia entry.

Basically it moves around in organic muck eating bacteria. If it isn’t finding any, it moves. If it detects a noxious substance it moves. That’s about it. Tomasello says that with the tiny number of neurons, it’s hard to imagine the creature could have a goal, let alone behave flexibly to achieve it. It is purely stimulus driven. It’s sensory apparatus is very simple, so it only recognizes a few stimuli, and it responds to them mechanically.

In Tomasello’s terms, this creature is non-agentive. He calls it an animate actor. There’s not much else to say about it.


I’m not fond of the word “agentive”, which strikes me as an ugly neologism, but it points to somehting about human behavior. Not all of our behavior is agentive. Take breathing. We can control it, but mostly we don’t. It’s an interesting exercise to think about what parts of our actions are agentive.

Another way to put that is to ask how much we resemble C. elegans.

Space Cowboys

Well, today there will be another Billionaire Blastoff. First went Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic; today will come Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin. Musk will come last, but as much as he is dislikable, and he really is, he has sent a rocket into real space to the ISS. He just wasn’t on it, which is okay in the Billionaire Blastoff races.

There is a lot of discussion in the social media and press as to whether these vanity flights are worth it, or whether the relative money should be spent on domestic efforts and climate change, child poverty etc. Strikes me that is a valid discussion.

It is pretty hard to argue with the “spend your cash now” on this or that. Very valid arguments. The side that, sure it is vanity by these Billionaire Blastoffers, but there is value here long term, is also right. Maybe it is not such a simple dichotomy.

I will also add, that as a former pilot, I more love the fact that actual pilots had to drive Virgin Galactictic. Bezos vehicle is the proverbial space monkeys in pre-Mercury criticisms.

There are a multitude of questions on the Billionaire Blastoffs. All, and maybe more, valid to be discussed. Personally only, I think the net good in advancement of engineering and US space capability militates in the positivities column. But that is not an easy question.

Use this thread for any launch things. Featured above is the great Steve Miller. And with plaudits to our once, and forever, Roving Reporter Rosalind.

Open Thread: NASA’s Perseverance Rover Mars Landing

OMG it feels soooo good to be able to think about future-looking science instead of worrying about the country blowing up!

We’re waiting now for NASA’S latest Mars rover craft to land on the red planet. Follow along with these videos:

This is NASA Mission Control with a 360-degree video feed (some browsers may not support this):

This is raw feed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab:

Some of the content may be duplicative, but it’s still exciting to listen to this team as they reach a major landmark in their Perseverance project.

Why is Perseverance so different and important compared to the previous Mars rover missions? From the Mission Overview site:

The Perseverance rover has four science objectives that support the Mars Exploration Program’s science goals:

Looking for Habitability: Identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
Seeking Biosignatures: Seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time.
Caching Samples: Collect core rock and “soil” samples and store them on the Martian surface.
Preparing for Humans: Test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.

In other words, we’ve moved beyond successfully arriving at the planet, landing, and taking a look around. We’re now ready to engage in the science which supports humans once they arrive in a near-future stage of exploration.

That last goal is huge; if we can’t manufacture oxygen on Mars using the planet’s resources, we’re going to have to bring means to support humans with us in future exploration.

UPDATE-1 — 3:39 PM ET —

10 minutes ago from The Oatmeal:


UPDATE-2 — 3:55 PM ET —


Touchdown!! Perseverance is on Mars’ surface!! WOOHOO!!

Poor scientist calling the tick-tock just gave a massive sigh of relief over the raw feed.

And now they have an image from the surface!

Congratulations, Team Perseverance!!

UPDATE-3 — 4:25 PM ET —

And now the first tweet from Perseverance on Mars!

Team Perseverance has run through their post-landing review. The next phase of the mission has now begun.

Wow, it feels so good to have some successful science under the belt today!

What science would you like to see tackled this year? Share in comments.

On Mountains, Mountain Climbing, and COVID-19

Memorial to climbers who have died on Mount Everest at the Pheriche Aid Post (h/t akunamatata via flikr; CC BY-ND 2.0)

The language of mountains and mountain climbing is all over the COVID-19 coverage, from the talk of “reaching the peak” of infections to the euphoria of those who proclaim that in various areas, we are “hitting the plateau.” But as a mountain-climbing friend once told me “Climbing the mountain is the easy part — it’s the descent that’ll kill you.”

This is not just a cliche, or a (non-)urban legend, but backed up by the experience of those who know the mountains best:

Kami Rita Sherpa knows Mount Everest better than anyone else: He’s summited the world’s tallest peak 24 times, more than any person in history. . . .

Sherpa said problems arise not from those lines [of climbers waiting at altitude to pass along single-file sections of the climb], but when people accidentally push past what their body can support. Some research suggests that Everest climbers can develop a kind of “summit fever,” racing to the top to prove they can, even when their bodies are showing signs of giving out.

“At that altitude, it takes everything to put one foot in front of the other,” Everest climber and exercise psychologist Shaunna Burke recently told Business Insider. “If you haven’t judged how much gas you have left in the tank, then you can’t make it down. That’s why some climbers sit down and don’t get back up.”

Sherpa echoed this.

“When returning, their body is out of energy, and many people die due to this cause,” he said.

It’s not just one or two climbers’ opinion, either. In 2006, Paul Firth and his colleagues published “Mortality on Mount Everest, 1921-2006: descriptive study” in the British Medical Journal, which looked at every documented death on Mount Everest and sought to understand what commonalities might be found among the fatalities. They first distinguished between deaths below 8000 meters as climbers and their guides traversed areas prone to avalanches, crevasses, and other features of the mountain, and the deaths that took place above 8000 meters, where the mountain is generally more stable but fatigue and altitude sickness are the greatest dangers. On the lower part of the mountain, guides were more likely to be the ones who died, which the authors surmise is because the guides make multiple trips up and down the climbing route, setting ropes and bringing supplies up to the higher camp, before they guide the climbers along the route they found and made more safe. When it came to the deaths above 8000 meters, however, things reversed, and they noticed some shocking numbers:

Table 3 presents data on the mountaineers who died after reaching 8000 m. Fifty three (56%) died during the descent, 16 (17%) after turning back below the summit, and nine (10%) during the ascent. The stage of the summit bid was unknown for 12 mountaineers (13%), and four (5%) died before leaving the final camp.

Look at those top three figures again: 10% died while making the push for the summit, and 73% died while descending. For every death going up, there were 7 going down.

Maybe these climbers who died on the way back down pushed too hard going up, and had nothing left for the descent. Maybe they became disoriented because of lack of oxygen and quit thinking clearly. Maybe they were so excited at having made it to the top that they got sloppy as they turned around and headed down the mountain.

Whatever the cause, the study was clear: descending from the peak is more deadly that making the climb up. As our veteran climber cited above put it:

Burke said that although all climbers want to reach the summit, that objective alone can be a problematic.

“The summit is only halfway,” she said. “Your ultimate goal should be to make it back to camp alive.”

I look at the images of the folks protesting the “stay-at-home” orders issued to fight the COVID-19 epidemic, and their cheers of things like “We made it! We stopped the disease! Now let’s open things up again and get back to work!” I read the tweets to “liberate” this or that state, cheering on those who think the task is done. Then I think of the mountain climbers cheering at having reached the top of the mountain, who don’t realize how dangerous things can be on the way back down. That’s what worries me about all the talk of opening back up right now.

Yes, some places may have reached the peak of new infections, the peak of ICU bed usage, and the peak number of intubated patients. But here’s the thing: we are still on the mountain. Getting to the top is great, but the goal is to make it back to camp alive.

I don’t want to minimize the accomplishment of the climb, whether speaking of those who scale mountains or those who have been struggling to keep ahead of the increasing numbers of those hit by COVID-19. But relatively speaking, climbing the mountain is the easy part. It’s the descent that’s much more likely to kill. Face it, people: This journey has a long way to go, with plenty of opportunities for negligence and for misplaced cheering which will give life to a virus that deals out death.

This is no time for getting complacent or sloppy. Stay home, stay safe, save lives.

Research Misinfo/Disinfo: Check Experts’ Homework

[Check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

This is the first of two posts about research information and the disease COVID-19. I want to point out upfront I’m not a scientist/medical professional/public health expert. However I spend a lot of time reading fine print.

One thing I should set straight here is that we tend to use COVID-19 to refer to the disease and to the virus which causes it. This isn’t really accurate; I’ll be referring to SARS-CoV-2 as the virus underlying the disease called COVID-19 in this post.

~ ~ ~

Family members shared with me a link they received from a health care professional we know and trust. This professional told my family a Stanford researcher said “heat and sunshine will help to diminish the virus that causes COVID-19.”

You can imagine my family members’ concern because they’re in Florida where it’s quite warm already and yet COVID-19 cases continue to mount.

This situation provides a good example of how experts misunderstand and/or misuse research information and how lay people can be further misled or confused.

Direct link to video:

Note the researcher Dr. Lin’s background, Associate Professor in Neurology and Bioengineering at Stanford. He’s degreed in biochemistry and neurobiology, did postdoctoral work in fluorescent protein engineering. Sharp guy, great CV, but he isn’t a virologist or an epidemiologist.

At 6:45 in the video he refers to the outside of the virus as a “plasma membrane” — that’s just another less frequently-used term referring to a cell membrane. Virologists are more specific when discussing the coronavirus which causes COVID-19; it’s an RNA virus with a lipid membrane, attacked readily by soap though he does mention detergents.

When talking about sunshine or UV effects he discusses coronaviruses as a class, not SARS-CoV-2 specifically; he actually uses the word “estimate” with regard to timing.

Here is the first PubMed study Dr. Lin referred to in his video:

Photochem Photobiol. 2007 Sep-Oct;83(5):1278-82.
Inactivation of influenza virus by solar radiation.
Sagripanti JL, Lytle CD.

Emphasis mine. It’s not a study about *any* coronaviruses at all.

This is the second PubMed doc he cited:

J Virol. 2005 Nov;79(22):14244-52.
Predicted inactivation of viruses of relevance to biodefense by solar radiation.
Lytle CD, Sagripanti JL.

This study doesn’t even mention coronaviruses and was published *before* the MERS outbreak — another SARS-like variant of coronavirus which was first identified in 2012 in the Middle East, which I’ll point out is both sunny and hot compared to the northern U.S.

When Dr. Lin discussed temperature he referred to this study on the specific corona virus which causes the disease SARS:

Adv Virol. 2011;2011:734690. doi: 10.1155/2011/734690. Epub 2011 Oct 1.
The Effects of Temperature and Relative Humidity on the Viability of the SARS Coronavirus.
Chan KH, Peiris JS, Lam SY, Poon LL, Yuen KY, Seto WH.

Emphasis mine. Note this is a study of the virus which causes SARS, not the viruses which cause influenza or COVID-19. This is the abstract:

The main route of transmission of SARS CoV infection is presumed to be respiratory droplets. However the virus is also detectable in other body fluids and excreta. The stability of the virus at different temperatures and relative humidity on smooth surfaces were studied. The dried virus on smooth surfaces retained its viability for over 5 days at temperatures of 22-25°C and relative humidity of 40-50%, that is, typical air-conditioned environments. However, virus viability was rapidly lost (>3 log(10)) at higher temperatures and higher relative humidity (e.g., 38°C, and relative humidity of >95%). The better stability of SARS coronavirus at low temperature and low humidity environment may facilitate its transmission in community in subtropical area (such as Hong Kong) during the spring and in air-conditioned environments. It may also explain why some Asian countries in tropical area (such as Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand) with high temperature and high relative humidity environment did not have major community outbreaks of SARS.

38C = 100F degrees.

People avoid being tightly clustered in confined spaces at that temperature. Note especially the first sentence about inhaled droplets. It’s not just that the virus may lose viability in a shorter period of time which reduces cases but the proximity of humans during the time the virus is active. Temperature alone is not a factor in reducing transmission rates.

The second study about temperature he cited:

Biomed Environ Sci. 2003 Sep;16(3):246-55.
Stability of SARS coronavirus in human specimens and environment and its sensitivity to heating and UV irradiation.
Duan SM, Zhao XS, Wen RF, Huang JJ, Pi GH, Zhang SX, Han J, Bi SL, Ruan L, Dong XP; SARS Research Team.

Emphasis mine — this is yet another study of the virus which causes SARS. This is a fairly early study dated 2003; the SARS outbreak began in 2002 with the first epidemic ending in June 2003. Here’s the results in the abstract:

The results showed that SARS coronavirus in the testing condition could survive in serum, 1:20 diluted sputum and feces for at least 96 h, whereas it could remain alive in urine for at least 72 h with a low level of infectivity. The survival abilities on the surfaces of eight different materials and in water were quite comparable, revealing reduction of infectivity after 72 to 96 h exposure. Viruses stayed stable at 4 degrees C, at room temperature (20 degrees C) and at 37 degrees C for at least 2 h without remarkable change in the infectious ability in cells, but were converted to be non-infectious after 90-, 60- and 30-min exposure at 56 degrees C, at 67 degrees C and at 75 degrees C, respectively. Irradiation of UV for 60 min on the virus in culture medium resulted in the destruction of viral infectivity at an undetectable level.

37C = 98.6F (This made me laugh – it’s the temperature used for many years as a baseline for the average healthy human.)

Sure, heat deactivates the SARS coronavirus at temperatures fatal to humans, but it’s active at least a couple hours at temperatures in which humans live.

The last study cited was:

Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1
March 17, 2020
DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2004973

I’ve referred to this several times in comments with regard to hang time of the aerosolized virus. This study is a pre-print, not peer reviewed I should point out. It’s worth reading this study in particular because it’s about SARS-CoV-2 not SARS-CoV-1 and the findings have been misreported or misused a number of times in the media.

Rely on that last study the most because it’s about SARS-CoV-2, not SARS-CoV-1. It confirms that like the virus which causes SARS that SARS-CoV-2 can hang in the air as aerosol, and in this case the study showed it was viable for 3 hours:

SARS-CoV-2 remained viable in aerosols throughout the duration of our experiment (3 hours), with a reduction in infectious titer from 103.5 to 102.7 TCID50 per liter of air. This reduction was similar to that observed with SARS-CoV-1, from 104.3 to 103.5 TCID50 per milliliter (Figure 1A).

A friend sent me a link to this new pre-print study, not peer reviewed yet, published Friday March 27:

Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions
Alex W.H. Chin, Julie T.S. Chu, Mahen R.A. Perera, Kenrie P.Y. Hui, Hui-Ling Yen, Michael C.W.
Chan, Malik Peiris, Leo L.M. Poon

This work confirms the viability of SARS-CoV-2 virus drops with increases in temperature and over time, but do note the data table provided in the study.

What the March 17 and March 27 studies say is that SARS-CoV-2 does weaken and become inactive with heat and over time.

What these and the other studies above do NOT say is that “heat and sunshine will diminish the virus.” There haven’t been any studies about SARS-CoV-2 viability over time with exposure to UV that I’m aware of . And while heat does speed the inactivation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus is still active for 2-3 hours in aerosolized form.

Like exhalation from infected humans, whether symptomatic or not.

It’s critically important that the public understands this virus SARS-CoV-2 is different from its relative, SARS-CoV-1. We can see this difference in both the ease with which it spreads and its much lower case fatality rate. Using studies of SARS and SARS-CoV-1 to extrapolate what SARS-CoV-2 will do has limits because of these key differences.

The same goes for anyone claiming SARS-CoV-2 is just another flu bug, that COVID-19 is just another influenza. It’s definitely not — anecdotal evidence of dead Americans by the truckloads tell you this is not just another flu. This difference is so obvious you should reject any such claims as propaganda. And any researcher making claims about SARS-CoV-2’s viability under certain conditions based on influenza viruses isn’t helping the public.

It’s as unhelpful as telling people erroneously that “heat and sunshine will help to diminish the virus that causes COVID-19.”

~ ~ ~

The bottom line: STAY HOME because aerosolized virus from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers in closed spaces has resulted in a significant number of confirmed cases versus fomite transmission — virus left on surfaces — though fomite transmission is still possible.

I’ll point to the story the Los Angeles Times published this week — sharing The Daily Beast’s summary because the LAT article is behind a paywall:

The Los Angeles Times reports that 45 out of 60 Skagit Valley Chorale who gathered at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church have tested positive. Three have been hospitalized and two have died.

These people were careful; they observed social distancing techniques and heightened hygiene. But aerosolized virus got them, and it can get to others even when the weather is warm.

~ ~ ~

Next: the lack of solid research behind a particular off-label therapy.

Craig Simpson [CC BY 2.0])">CC by 2.0

Straddling the COVID-19 Barbed Wire Fence in Kansas

Pro Tip: Don’t sit on this fence. (photo h/t to Craig Simpson [CC BY 2.0])

The Democratic governor of Kansas, Laura Kelly, has put her finger in the eye of conservatives in Kansas by issuing a state-wide stay-at-home order yesterday in the face of the growing COVID-19 epidemic. Out in the western part of the state, the wingnuts have already been saying “this is an urban problem – we’re just fine – we don’t have any Chinese people here – why did she close all our schools?” and now they’ll scream just a little harder.

Note, however, that Kelly does not have the last word on this. When she issued her initial state of emergency declaration at the end of February, it lasted for 30 days. To extend it, the GOP-dominated legislature had to consent . . . which they did, but not without a fight. From the AP’s John Hanna in Topeka:

The [KS] Senate voted 39-0 and the House 115-0 to approve a resolution to extend the state of emergency until May 1 and to allow legislative leaders to extend it further every 30 days. Kelly declared a state of emergency last week, and without the resolution, it would have expired March 27.

But the resolution also requires legislative leaders to review all of Kelly’s executive orders and allows them to overturn many of them within days. It also prohibits Kelly from having guns and ammunition seized or blocking their sale.

The unanimity of those two votes is almost unheard of these days in Topeka, and it was a sign that the GOP was willing to go along with closing the schools for the rest of the year and take other measures as the COVID-19 outbreak began to surface across the state. But they sure didn’t like it, and wanted to make damn sure that they could shut down an out of control governor (in other words, a Democrat) when they did something they considered outrageous. The guns and ammo provision is another sign of how fearful the rightwing is of folks coming for their weaponry.
That was ten days ago. As soon as Kelly’s Stay-At-Home order came out yesterday, so did the folks on the right, waving around that provision that provides for a veto those orders. Again from John Hanna:

Conservatives in the Republican-controlled Legislature said Kelly overreached this month when she ordered public schools closed for the rest of the semester and complained that the state’s economy was being damaged too much. Legislative leaders have the power to revoke her orders related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Majority Leader Dan Hawkins and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, all Republicans, said in a joint statement that the new order “will no doubt impact our families and our businesses. As members of the Legislative Coordinating Council we have a duty to carefully assess this executive order and the reasons for it. Over the coming days we will consult with the Attorney General, health care professionals, the business community, and the state’s emergency management team to make sure we are on the right path.”

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she was concerned about a “one size fits all” solution.

“I want to assure Kansans, particularly those in rural areas, the legislature is actively working to thoroughly review the Governor’s orders and ensure the specific needs of rural Kansans are addressed,” Wagle said in a statement.

Kansas Congressional Districts

[Note to the folks worried that the state’s economy was being damaged too much: a virus does not care.]

Speaking of those rural areas, let me direct your attention to OB-GYN Roger Marshall, who also serves as the US Representative from KS-01 (the large green area on the map to the right). Marshall is running to replace Pat Roberts in the US Senate, and he is trying to straddle a barbed wire fence on all this. He’s been loud about backing Trump’s “close the borders” stuff, but he’s still enough of a physician that he realizes that science actually matters. He doesn’t like the “big government” approach at all, but he has conspicuously not condemned Kelly for closing the schools. From an story two weeks ago in the Manhattan KS paper “The Mercury”:

Following Gov. Laura Kelly’s recent decision to close K-12 school buildings for the rest of the school year, halt mortgage foreclosures and evictions, and ban gatherings of more than 50 people, Marshall said he would rather people exercise an overabundance of caution at the moment.

“We have to assume that the virus is out in every community,” he said. “I hope there’s not, but we have to assume that. Kids and young adults, they’re super infectors so if one child has the virus, they’re going to transmit it a bunch more often than say an older person who just doesn’t have as many social contacts. Think of senior citizens, for the sake of people with illnesses.

“I hope in a couple of weeks you can say we did too much,” Marshall continued, “but I think right now, it’s so critical that this is the acceleration phase of the spread of this virus. Every virus we prevent spreading today is going to prevent dozens in the future and save many, many Kansas lives.”

Yesterday, Marshall retweeted John Hanna’s story about the Stay-At-Home order to his followers, perhaps trying to signal them that the GOP is watching this. He did not, however, attack or even question Kelly’s judgment for ordering this. To borrow from Sherlock Holmes, this is the dog that did not bark, and the silence is deafening.

And then there’s Marshall’s big opposition in the GOP primary (this was before Kelly’s order was issued yesterday):

U.S. Senate contender Kris Kobach reached for campaign gold amid the coronavirus pandemic by promising to intensify construction of a border wall to defend the country against illegal immigrants from China who may import deadly viruses.

“Over 12,000 Chinese nationals snuck across the border into the United States last year,” Kobach said in a video fundraising appeal delivered Thursday to potential voters in Kansas. “No checks. No visas. No health screening. In times of global pandemic, borders matter.”

The fence in Kansas between science and wingnuttery is made of very sharp barbed wire. Kobach is planted firmly on the Wingnuttery side of that fence, and Marshall does not want to cede all those voters to him by planting his feet firmly on the side of science. But Marshall is is going to find that straddling a barbed wire fence is not comfortable, to say the least.

The KS senate race will be very very interesting this November.