My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary: She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings […]

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Why are atheists so unpopular?

Here is a new research paper from Tomas Ståhl: There is a widespread cross-cultural stereotype suggesting that atheists are untrustworthy and lack a moral compass. Is there any truth to this notion? Building on theory about the cultural, (de)motivational, and cognitive antecedents of disbelief, the present research investigated whether there are reliable similarities as well […]

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Why will the important thinkers of the future be religious ones?

Tony O’Connor requests I cover this: A few times you have said that the important thinkers of the future will be the religious ones. It would be interesting to hear more about what led you to this conclusion. Concretely, I wonder if this would arise because religious populations within liberal polities are expanding over time […]

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My Conversation with Benjamin Friedman

Here is the audio, transcript, and visual. Here is part of the CWT summary: Benjamin Friedman has been a leading macroeconomist since the 1970s, whose accomplishments include writing 150 papers, producing more than dozen books, and teaching Tyler Cowen graduate macroeconomics at Harvard in 1985. In his latest book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Ben argues that […]

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Are disenchanted Iranians turning to other faiths?

The spiritual gap between Iran’s Shia ayatollahs and the people they rule is widening. The strictures of the theocracy and the doctrine of Shia supremacy alienate many. So growing numbers of Iranians seem to be leaving religion or experimenting with alternatives to Shiism. Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais all report soaring interest. Leaders of other forms […]

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What should I ask Dana Gioia?

Dana is what I call one of the world’s information billionaires.  For more specifics, here is part of his Wikipedia page: Michael Dana Gioia (/ˈdʒɔɪ.ə/; born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and writer. He spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his […]

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Who Runs the AEA?

That is a new paper by Kevin D. Hoover and Andrej Svorenčík: The leadership structure of the American Economics Association is documented using a biographical database covering every officer and losing candidate for AEA offices from 1950 to 2019. The analysis focuses on institutional affiliations by education and employment. The structure is strongly hierarchical. A […]

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The Stargate Project

The Stargate Project was a long-running program, funded under various names, by the CIA, Army, and Defense Intelligence Agency to investigate and use psychic powers to defeat enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic. The program can be dated back to the end of World War II but it picked up in the 1970s […]

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SCOTUS, houses of worship, and the pandemic

The Supreme Court has sided with religious institutions (NYT) against some of the pandemic restrictions of state and local governments: The opinion said the state had treated secular businesses more favorably than houses of worship. “The list of ‘essential’ businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services […]

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The Pivotal Justice in the Supreme Court Decision?

It is, in my opinion, difficult to disagree with the Supreme Court decision that prevented the governor of New York from imposing strict limits on religious attendance for public health reasons—while litigation on the substance of the case continues. But I wish to emphasize two subsidiary points, one being a quibble with the Wall Street Journal’s subtitle: “Justice Amy Coney Barrett cast the pivotal vote to depart from past cases” (“Supreme Court Blocks Covid-19 Restrictions on Religious Services in New York,” November 26, 2020).

The majority in the 5-to-4 decision was made of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Barrett. It’s not false to say that Barrett was a pivotal judge, but is slightly misleading to focus on her and say that she was the pivotal judge if the word is used in the sense of “decisive.” With a majority of one, every Justice who voted on that side was pivotal.

Another example: Suppose that Joe Biden had won the popular vote against Donald Trump not by 6,000,000 votes but by a single vote. The probability of that is infinitesimal, but let’s just assume it materialized. Then, each and every voter would have been pivotal. It would not have been false to say that Joe next door was the pivotal voter, but not very enlightening. (Note that recounts and challenges would very likely have switched the majority back and forth a few times, but this is not my point.)

In defense of the Journal, however, there is one reason to focus on Justice Barrett as a pivotal judge since she was the latest one nominated by Trump, in controversial circumstances shortly before the November election. If that seat had been left vacant, the Supreme Court would presumably have tied 4-to-4, and the lower court decision would have remained in force, at least for now, supporting Cuomo’s restrictions (if I understand correctly).

An observation of a different sort is that all three Justices nominated by outgoing president Donald Trump voted to defend freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment, which is a good point in his favor—although he himself, to say the least, did not demonstrate strong preferences for the free-speech protections in the same amendment. The Supreme Court decision also suggests that conservative judges are often more likely to protect individual liberties than “liberal” ones, even if caveats are in order, including regarding Justice Roberts in this case. We are told that Trump consulted the Federalist Society on judicial nominations instead of relying on his empty and dangerous intuitions. One wishes he had done the same on trade and other economic matters.

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