Thursday, March 31, 2005

The War On Birds

Hedwig at Living the Scientific Life has written an extremely important post on the central role of factory farming in the H5N1 crisis:

[W}ild birds have been vilified for a problem that primarily stems from human-based activities. In fact, the widely sanctioned practice of harassing and killing wild birds only makes the problem worse by distracting public attention and energy from the real problem, poultry farming methods....

It is short sighted, ineffective and potentially dangerous to exterminate wild, migratory and exotic pet birds when the real problem can be found in how people raise and market domestic poultry. The way to deal with this problem and to prevent a pandemic is by educating the populace about safe poultry husbandry, slaughter and meat-handling practices and also by investing money, materials and personnel into improving poultry farming methods in the region.
I couldn't agree more. Factory farms are a ghastly embodiment of the worst - and most cherished - falsehoods of our economic, political, and ethical thinking. They're bad neighbors, brutal employers, incorrigible polluters, false advertisers, and careless incubators for diseases old and new. And of course, the "low" price of meat from these farms is an utter delusion. The actual cost of factory farming includes astronomical external costs; if we factored the total social cost of factory farming into the price of meat - instead of passing it on surreptitiously to citizens - a hamburger from McDonald's would be a luxury item.

It's really shameful that governments would persecute wild birds, instead of addressing the stupidity and stubbornness of this short-sighted, dangerous industry.

Include Me Out

I've tried to avoid writing anything about the Terri Schiavo case because I feel that to do so is to invade the privacy of strangers. Beyond that, I find that no matter what I have written on the subject, I've managed to betray or misrepresent myself.

Now, Robert M. Jeffers has coaxed me into taking the plunge, by questioning whether one should assert that Ms. Schiavo's parents have forfeited their claims to our sympathy.

It's good timing. I actually said yesterday - for the first and only time - that I'd lost all sympathy with her parents. It wasn't really true, though, and I felt uncomfortable saying it. I've also argued - just as uncomfortably - that whatever made her an individual personality is completely gone. And although I think this is very probably true, to assert it without reservation is to betray feelings I'd prefer to rely on whether they're correct or not.

So far, the easiest way to resolve my mixed emotions has been to remind myself that the case is absolutely none of my business, except to the extent that it's been exploited and lied about by Republican jackals. And the question there is not whether there's some spark of being in Ms. Schiavo that's worthy of respect and protection - her husband and parents agree on that point, in their own ways - but whether a pack of dishonest, callous, hypocritical politicians has the legal or ethical or scientific standing to address the question in public or private.

So why did I say her parents had lost my sympathy? Part of it was mere aggrieved coarseness. There may be a few people out there who haven't been coarsened or hardened or made more prone to intolerance by the emotional discomforts of life in George W. Bush's America. But most of us, I fear, are stupefied by anger and grief a good deal of the time, and aren't as patient or intelligent as we might be.

When I was younger, I was instantly and often inconveniently empathic, even with "enemies"; nowadays, it often takes a bit of effort to put myself in other people's shoes. It may be more evidence that I've hardened, or it may be that I've stopped taking such feelings seriously, except in cases where they lead to worthwhile action. It's easy to feel - and to prattle about - connectedness and empathy, but language is no proof of anything that really matters. In cases where action is either impossible or unjustifiable, it seems like sheer narcissism to harp on how finely tuned one's sensibilities are.

And sometimes, sad to say, it's easy to take the path of least resistance. Otherwise, you have to figure out what you feel, and then you have to consider whether you can put it into words worth saying, and finally you have to wonder whether people will be willing or able to accept it, whether you express it clearly or not. Generally, I find it more bearable to be understood when I express something that I don't entirely believe, than to be misunderstood when I express something I believe passionately. This makes me prone to indirect or distancing language on the one hand, and overstatement on the other (for those who haven't noticed).

Anyway, whatever I think of the political aspects of this case - and the truth is that no act of political opportunism has ever shocked me more deeply - I think Ms. Schiavo's parents and her husband are both right, on a certain essential level. I marvel at the loyalty this woman has inspired: I marvel at her parents' unwillingness to let her go, and her husband's unwillingness to walk away from a situation that is painful - and now, dangerous - beyond all reckoning, in order to fulfill what he sees as his duty to her. Legally and medically speaking, Mr. Schiavo is clearly far more right than the parents are, given our current understanding of medicine and law. And to the extent the Schindlers have allied themselves with people who are demonstrably evil, I have to conclude that they're morally wrong, too. But one is certainly obliged to feel compassion for people who have been so warped by pain.

My mother, by the way, died five years ago today, partially because I gave up hope of saving her and had her life-support removed. Hers was an exceptionally ugly death...not in its specific physical details - though those were certainly unpleasant - but in her unwillingness to be reconciled to it. If nothing else, I learned from her last days to loathe the idiocy of Dylan Thomas's exhortation to "rage against the dying of the light." My mother raged and raged, and it resulted in nothing but unnecessary distance and irresolvable pain for all concerned.

These things happen, unfortunately. It was all very difficult, but for the most part it was also very private, as such things should be. The political ugliness of the Schiavo case is a very real issue, but that doesn't mean that everyone who's offended by it is competent to discuss the intimate emotional details of the relationships at the heart of the matter. The proper response to the ugliness of this situation is not to demonize the Schindlers, but to reiterate that this case is completely outside the jurisdiction of the court of public opinion.

(NOTE: In case it's not obvious, I wrote this before Ms. Schiavo's death, but was unable to post it.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Flaws Illustrated

Here's some shocking news:

Major input from industry into the EPA's assessment of the toxicological effects of vinyl chloride weakened public health safeguards. The assessment downplayed risks from all cancer sites other than liver, and it reduced by 10-fold cancer potency estimates. The results illustrate flaws in EPA's trend toward increasing collaboration with regulated industries when generating scientific reviews and risk assessments.
These results also illustrate flaws in the notion that the free market is based on the informed choices of rational people.

If you idealize your premises, it's child's play to reach an ideal conclusion, so free-marketeers have no difficulty in equating their dreamy notions with "freedom." But it's obvious that in the real world, their system ensures that honest people will be forever at the mercy of dishonest people, and will thus be anything but free. That's why laws are useful, and regulation is rational. Reason, that crippled god of the libertarians, demands restraint, just as surely as morality does. But power rejects these and any other constraints it finds inconvenient. The moral nihilism of BushCo is a fine example of freedom at its ugly, irrational, vicious worst. There are others.

As for the EPA, it's pretty sad when it misrepresents its results, given the leeway it has to limit the scope of its research. Regulatory agencies start with the reasonable notion that complex situations need to be simplified to the point that they can be studied; having done so, they too often present the simplification as reality. In this case, compelling epidemiological evidence for vinyl chloride's association with non-liver cancers was treated as apocryphal:
Because exposure was not adequately characterized in the epidemiology studies, the EPA cancer potency estimates were based on animal bioassay data.
And yet, despite its obtuse oversimplification of vinyl chloride's hazards - despite a bar that was set ridiculously low in favor of industry - the EPA still felt obliged to edit its final report to appease polluters.

It makes you wonder what we'd learn if we considered our problems honestly, and studied them scientifically.

This Wretched Earth

The present news media do not suffer from any lack of weird opinions, incoherently expressed. But two recent op-ed pieces by Mirza Aslam Beg, former chief of the Pakistan Army, up the ante considerably. He begins by forthrightly stating his credentials:

Early last year when Abdul Qadeer Khan was targeted for alleged nuclear proliferation, I was also implicated and remained under the world media's focus.
The world media's focus included a chinwag with the good folks at NBC, who managed to coax a few soundbites out of this thoughtful and reticent man:
During an NBC TV network interview, I was asked the question whether I would like my future generations to live in this part of the world, which is threatened by nuclear holocaust. I said: Yes, certainly, I would like my future generations to live in South Asia where I see no threat of nuclear war, because perfect nuclear deterrence holds between India and Pakistan. But certainly I would not like my future generations to live in the neighborhood of "nuclear capable Israel."
"Perfect" is not a word I'd use to describe the situation between India and Pakistan, but to each his own. Mr. Beg and I do agree, though, that the rest of the world is somewhat less than idyllic:
The nuclear non-proliferation regime...is dying its natural death at the hands of those who are the exponents of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. How the new balance of terror will be maintained from Mediterranean to Pacific is a task for those who, having themselves violated the nuclear proliferation regime, are now responsible for maintaining global nuclear peace. The world now has to wait and see how objectives of the utopian nuclear non-proliferation regime are achieved.
Indeed. Fortunately, as we all know, there can be no shadow without sunshine. Beg suggests that if globalization is allowed to work its magic,
The "enlightened proliferators" together, with the "innocent," and the "rogue proliferators," would democratize the global nuclear non-proliferation order. This may be the only hope for all living beings inhabiting this wretched earth.
Accordingly, one of Mr. Beg's hopeful solutions for this wretched earth is for Pakistan and India to outsource their nuclear arsenals to Iran:
With regard to Iran, Pakistan and India must not wait for the holocaust to occur. They should rather attempt to pre-empt such a happening. The best way would be the outsourcing of nuclear strikes to Iran as the US and Nato have done. The strategy therefore must also include Iran as it would ensure stability in the Gulf region, the West and South Asia.
I'm no expert on these matters, but this really doesn't sound like a scenario that would "ensure stability." On the contrary, it sounds downright apocalyptic.

Elsewhere, Arms Control Wonk, from whom I got this link, critiques NATO's nuclear "sharing" arrangement, which is what gave Mr. Beg his bright idea.

The Swarm

Howie Kurtz informs us that

Bloggers are swarming around a new target: the Terri Schiavo "talking points."

Fresh from declaring victory over CBS News and its discredited National Guard memos about President Bush, some of the same bloggers are raising questions about a strategy memo, first reported by ABC News and The Washington Post, that cast the Schiavo right-to-die case as a partisan opportunity for Republicans to stick it to Democrats.
I can't say I'm surprised by this. About ten days ago, in an Eschaton comment thread, someone whose name I didn't recognize alerted us that the Right was trying to cast doubt on the talking points, and exhorted us to rally together to defend their authenticity.

I asked why I'd want to do that, given that I had absolutely no idea whether they were authentic or not, but my helpful new friend had already moved on to greener pastures.

It'd be interesting to know whether similar comments turned up on other Lefty blogs around the same time.

A Dead Faith

We're hearing a lot lately about conscience clauses that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions of which they don't approve. Also in the news again - though it's an old story - is the Michigan law that would allow doctors to deny treatment to homosexuals on "ethical" grounds.

In logical terms, I believe that a medical worker who refuses to aid a suffering human being on the basis of ethics is like a physicist who bases a belief in perpetual motion on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But logic is, as usual, beside the point.

A similarly unappetizing burlesque of ethics was common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most "respectable" doctors refused to treat patients who'd contracted venereal diseases. As Laurie Garrett notes in Betrayal of Trust,

From the earliest days of organized public health, Americans had exhibited a peculiar inability to cope with the conjunction of three fearsome factors: sex, disease, and death.
In The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America, John S. and Robin M. Haller describe the situation in more detail:
The same public morality which drove venereal vicims out of the cities of London and Paris in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and later heard from papal pronouncements that syphilis was God's punishment for incontinence, survived in institutions supported by public donations in the nineteenth celltury. Many hospitals in New York and elsewhere had rules prohibiting the treatment of gonorrhea or syphilis.
Indeed, as late as the 1930s, many American hospitals still had an official policy of refusing treatment to victims of venereal disease, even though Hippocrates himself stated that doctors "must inspect the unseemly and handle the horrible." A similar moral delicacy was observed in the early 20th century by doctors in Queensland, Australia, who piously refused to treat aboriginals who'd contracted venereal diseases (from white settlers, as often as not).

Here's the delightful Dr. John Simon of London, writing in 1868 against the use of public money for the prevention and treatment of venereal disease:
Now, it is quite certain that, rightly or wrongly, the proposed appropriation of money would, in the eyes of very large numbers of persons, be in the last degree odious and immoral....I suppose it may be assumed that public policy is very decidely in favour of marriage as against promiscuous fornication; that the latter, however powerless may be laws to prevent it, is, at least, an order of things which no State would willingly foster; that, whereas it has some contagious maladies, such drawbacks from its attractions are not in their kind a matter for general social regret; that venereal diseases are, in principle, infections which a man contracts at his own option, and against which he cannot in any degree claim to be protected by action of others - the less so, of course, as his option is exercised in modes of life contrary to the common good; that thus, prima facie, the true policy of Government is to regard the prevention of venereal diseases as a matter of exclusively private concern. Caveat emptor!
It seems to me that the "religion" of these elaborately squeamish doctors and pharmacists - and their pathetic legislative enablers - amounts to little more than narcissism. These people have a morbid compulsion to trumpet their own spiritual rectitude, and to be recognized for their exquisite moral sensibilities. If that recogition comes in the form of public outrage, so much the better, because theirs is a dead faith that mistakes its merest act of petty intolerance for the imitation of Christ. What American fundamentalism lacks in living, active morality, it makes up for with gratuitous acts of ugly, pietistic snobbery that are calculated to disgust and alienate people of good will. The same transgressive thrill that the secular Right gets from arguing in favor of scientific racism, the Religious Right gets from insisting on the right of "ethical" doctors to cast stones instead of healing wounds. It's soulless, dead-hearted busywork for the terminally childish and vain.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Sprawl and Safety

This article hints at the connection between sprawl and pedestrian deaths:

Even though much of Houston and surrounding areas have been swallowed by urban sprawl, sidewalk construction and road improvements have not kept pace — a trend that may have cost two pedestrians their lives this month....Both country-like streets have only one lane in each direction and for decades have lacked sidewalks.
Several studies have confirmed that as sprawl increases, walking becomes more dangerous. With a couple of exceptions, dense cities have a much lower pedestrian fatality rate than sprawling areas like suburban Atlanta and Phoenix. And of course, the nature of sprawl pretty much requires people to drive everywhere, which means they're far more likely to die in car accidents than city dwellers.

In his landmark study Mortality Risk Associated With Leaving Home: Recognizing the Relevance of the Built Environment, William H. Lucy "analyzed city, county, state, and federal data for traffic fatalities and homicides by strangers for 15 metropolitan areas, and classified deaths as occurring in the central city, in inner suburbs, or in outer suburbs (exurbs)." After studying fifteen years' worth of data, Lucy concluded that
Traffic fatality rates were highest in exurban areas. Combined traffic fatality and homicide-by-stranger rates were higher in some or all outer counties than in central cities or inner suburbs in all of the metropolitan areas studied.
There are, unfortunately, health costs associated with not being a pedestrian; other studies have shown a clear correlation between increased sprawl, and increased hypertension and body weight.

That said, I'll leave you with a thought-provoking response to Houston's latest pedestrian deaths from Guy Hagstette, Mayor Bill White's special assistant for urban design:
"There wasn't even an anticipation there were people at all who would want to walk in those areas."

Monday, March 28, 2005

Injudicious Gardening

I'd been planning for a while to set up a separate blog to act as a repository of quotes that interested me. I've finally gotten around to it; you can visit it by clicking here.

This site will give me easier access to quotes I like, but more important, it'll let me get rid of a stack of books that I'm keeping around simply on the basis of a paragraph or two. And best of all, it'll justify - just barely - the wad of cash I recently spent on a pen scanner.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging



Chromodoris sphoni, since you asked.

Friday Hope Blogging

One of the most persistent (and pointless) threats to certain endangered animals is a popular belief that some part of the animal is an aphrodisiac, or will solve erectile dysfunction.

An article in Grist makes an interesting point about this: we now have pharmaceuticals like Viagra, which actually do improve erectile function. If these drugs were more accessible to people in countries where men traditionally use animal-based nostrums, they could reduce the market for rhinoceros horn and other non-cures for sexual woes.

The implication is clear. If we want to save black bears and rhinos, we have to get these drugs into the hands of the people who would otherwise be paying for those animals' parts or doing the hunting for themselves.
I have a couple of qualms about this idea, but my immediate concerns about poaching and extinction tend to override them. The spread of generic potency drugs to countries that now rely on ingredients from poached animals could be very good news for a number of endangered animals. And if I were in the pharmaceutical industry, I'd be thinking very seriously about the PR possibilities.

In other wildlife conservation news, Save the Elephants has come up with a GPS-based tracking system for endangered elephant populations. Amoing other things, the system allows researchers to track migration patterns:
Our elephant tracking has already shown that there are certain crucial corridors that need to be left open so that elephants can reach their feeding grounds. We can identify precisely the location of several of these. Keeping them open should help to avoid conflict with people and reduce habitat destruction from confined elephants.
STE intends to adapt its tags for other endangered species. Meanwhile, in New York, researchers using satellite telemetry have learned that "common loons from the Adirondacks spend their winter months along the coasts of Cape Cod, Long Island Sound, and New Jersey." Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk of Space for Species explains why this is so important:
From Earth, it's often hard to tell where these wayfarers are going or where they're coming from. From space, with the help of advanced technology, we can locate the breeding grounds, migratory pathways, and winter homes of a wide range of species, many of which are rare or endangered. We can gather data required to protect them or even save them from extinction and learn which regions and countries need to participate in their conservation.

Vox Populi

I often miss living in New York, particularly in the spring. Fortunately, thanks to Overheard In New York, I can pretend that it's me overhearing edifying conversations like this one, which apparently took place in February outside a market in Bensonhurst, when a hapless Russian man made the mistake of blocking the doorway:

American woman: Excuse me.
Russian man: I'm picking my lemons.
American woman: Whadya want us all to do, play leapfrog over you? Move it please.
Russian man: You're stupid.
American woman: Stupid? I got one word for you. Chernobyl! How's that for stupid? Bet you were working there, you fucking asshole. Now move it, you fuckin' retard!
It's not just dilatory Russian lemon-pickers who are driving New Yorkers into Vesuvian outbursts of profanity. An Angry Guy from Borough Park was recently overheard delivering this amazing piece of denial and denunciation:
Fuck New England. Fuck people from Boston. Fuck Pats fans, fuck Red Sox fans, fuck Ben Affleck, fuck Denis Leary, fuck Harvard, fuck MIT, fuck Aerosmith, fuck the Pixies, fuck David Foster Wallace, fuck Boston Cream pie and clam chowder and Sam Adams, fuck Dr. Spock, fuck pahking your cah in Hahvahd Yahd, fuck Sacco and Vanzetti, fuck Paul Revere, fuck 'em all.
You can spend hours on this site very easily. And you'd probably better, just in case a friendly New Yorker suggests a trip to "Germany," or offers you "the Golden Ticket to the chocolate factory."

The Right To Be Irrational

Recently, the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) decided to stop using rBGH, an genetically engineered bovine growth hormone manufactured by Monsanto.

Monsanto threatened a lawsuit - this thuggish tactic had been successful in a similar case - but it eventually backed down.

Now, its op-ed shills are working overtime on damage control. For some reason, they tend to work in pairs; a new op-ed by Alex Avery and Terry Witt is typical of the pro-Monsanto goon squad in every respect. The host newspaper's unwillingness to explain the authors' affiliations is also typical. Avery is with the Center for Global Food Issues, a biotech front group run by the ultra-right Hudson Institute. Terry Witt is executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a phony environmentalist group whose board of directors includes representatives of timber companies, agribusiness, and - wonder of wonders - Monsanto.

Here's what Avery and Witt have to say about the Tillamook case:

Having failed to hoodwink the FDA, anti-biotech activists have switched to directly attacking companies. Over the past year, the Tillamook Creamery, the second largest cheese producer in the United States, has been the target. Rick North of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility led the campaign. With the help of an army of fellow activists -- many backed by organic food companies -- they inundated Tillamook with so-called "consumer complaints."
Oddly enough, TCCA doesn't exactly see things that way:
In speaking with Cheese Market News, North says PSR's campaign was just one of several factors that led the TCCA board to decide to drop rBGH. And both North and TCCA Corporate Communications Manager Christie Lincoln are careful to say that the TCCA board had voted on this issue in May 2004; PSR only started its heavy grass roots efforts - comprising roughly 6,500 postcards - in the fall of 2004.

They can take credit for it, Lincoln says of advocacy groups, but the decision was made independently of the actions by the groups and had more to do with where TCCA's marketing team sees the market heading.
In other words, TCCA did what all good businesses do: it listened to customers, and it anticipated and adapted to changing market conditions. When a normal, consumer-oriented business has an unpopular product, it assumes there's something wrong with that product. Biotech firms, by contrast, assume there's something wrong with the consumer:
Without prompting, consumers rarely, if ever, mention farm production issues such as rbST -- unless they are the target of a fear-based propaganda campaign.
That's simple enough. Consumers don't know anything about factory-farm production methods. But if they think they do, it's because "activists in consumer clothing" are manipulating and misleading them.

Still, if you want a true free-market system, you have to leave choice up to the consumer. And the fact is, consumers are irrational. No one in the history of the world has ever needed a pet rock, or a pair of fuzzy dice. Our economy is based largely on imaginary and irrational needs, and many people have gotten very, very rich by inculcating and catering to those needs. It's only when public irrationality results in a refusal to buy that it becomes a problem worthy of right-wing hysteria.

Monsanto flunkies like Avery and Witt like to pretend that the sole issue is whether or not rBGH is safe. It's true that the FDA approved it ten years ago, though I can't see why I should believe - given recent events - that this demonstrates anything more than Monsanto's well known clout with regulatory agencies. It's worth noting that rbST is not approved for use in Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, or Australia.

What Avery and Witt fail to understand is that people don't like or trust Monsanto. It's invented some of the least popular chemical products of all times - products like Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs. It bribes foreign officials and falsifies data, and it's notoriously litigious and belligerent in its dealings with its opponents. For many consumers, the mere fact that Monsanto developed a given chemical is reason enough not to feed it to their children. I don't think that's irrational. But even if it were, consumers have a right to buy - and not to buy - whatever they like, for whatever reasons are compelling to them. Or at least, that's what free-market fanatics keep telling me.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Drone Vs. Drone

The Defense Department loves drones. There's some evidence that they always don't work as well as they might, but the DoD loves them dearly nonetheless - with all the tumultuous passion of its proud, headstrong nature - and it wants more. Lots more.

But as Defense Tech notes:

We're not the only ones with drones. China, Russia, Iran, France -- all sorts of enemies of freedom have unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. All in all, "some 32 nations are developing or manufacturing more than 250 models" of drones, according to the Defense Department's UAV Roadmap.
With that many drones coming down the pike, there's only one possible solution: immediate, costly research into a drone-destroying drone. And of course, when you need costly research into a weapon system of dubious utility, DARPA is your best bet.
The Peregrine program will develop and demonstrate a UAV interceptor aircraft that will utilize a dual propulsive power system to provide very high endurance for the loiter and surveillance period, and a very high dash speed for intercept and kill....
And with any luck at all, we should be able to outsource operation of the Peregrine to private firms!

What happens when an anti-anti-drone system is invented - to destroy the drone-destroyers - is a question for another, less festive day.

Economies of Scale

POGO has an interview with former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, which gives us important new insights into the taut, alert, elegant mind of Asa Hutchinson:

What are some examples of waste and inefficiency you’ve found at DHS?

There are so many. We did this undercover work where we found that it was still easier than it should have been after 9/11 to sneak guns and knives and bombs onto airplanes. We were able to confirm that ABC News was able to smuggle depleted – not weapons-grade – uranium into the United States. Even though Customs and border protection had inspected those containers, the Department missed it on two occasions. In terms of border security, they’re not catching as many people as they might if their systems were interoperable with the FBI's. It's entirely a DHS decision not to, the reason being the FBI takes ten fingerprints while DHS only takes two. When asked why, [DHS Under Secretary] Asa Hutchinson said it would be too time consuming. I don’t know why. It's not five times more time consuming, you just put down all ten fingers instead of two!

Socialized Losses, Privatized Profits

There are a couple of great posts at Effect Measure today. The first is a devastating dissection of recent anti-pandemic recommendations from the Infectious Diseases Society of America, most of which are hopelessly vague or unrealistic, with the prominent and inevitable exception of "strengthen liability protections during emergency outbreak response." Revere asks the essential question:

Why do we always socialize the losses and keep the profits private? Let's socialize both the losses and the profits. I'm sick of hearing about "liability" barriers. How about "affordability barriers" for a change?
The second is a discussion of what pandemic response actually entails, when you live in a society that has crippled its public-health system for the sake of ideological purity: a series of wrenching moral dilemmas that make the Terri Schiavo case look like a walk in the park.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Wedge or Bridge?

A week or so ago, I was arguing that the environment is an ideal wedge issue to use against the Right, especially in state and local politics. This article concurs...in a sense:

Environmental issues, especially at the state and local levels, are bringing together conservatives and liberals who agree on little else, providing common ground in an increasingly polarized nation....Conservatives such as pro-gun hunters and antiabortion evangelicals are making common cause with pro-abortion-rights, gun-control liberals on land conservation, pollution, and endangered-species protection.
It's an interesting article, worth reading in full. What I think is odd, though, is how it speaks of "bringing people together," "making common cause," and so forth. It made me realize that this is often the tone the media prefers when the Right grants the Left's traditional positions some validity. By contrast, when the Right siphons away some lefties, as it's done with gay marriage or abortion, it's popularly seen as exploiting a "wedge issue." In other words, the Right is portrayed as being willing, occasionally, to take the unexpected stance of "validating" liberal concerns, while the Left is portrayed as a beleaguered group of backbiters trying desperately to hold together a marriage of convenience.

Has anyone else noticed this, or am I just imaging things?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Dust and Noise

An overwrought, poorly written, and apparently unedited opinion piece by Jay Lehr and Richard T. McGuire tearfully contrasts America's Golden Age of resource exploitation with our current era of business-thwarting "junk science":

In the past we used our natural resources freely. We took great pride in our ability to convert resources into products with a direct benefit to the public. We turned trees into houses, coal and iron into automobiles.

Today we hear that we must stop using our economic resources. Scale back. Harvest fewer trees. Drill fewer oil wells. Use less fertilizer. Build no new power plants.
Oh, the humanity! Needless to say, Lehr and McGuire immediately launch into a rant on environmental hysteria, and the privations we've all suffered as the result of imaginary terrors like the "asbestos scare." Intellectual seed is spilled - or perhaps I should say "dribbled" - over the cornucopian fantasy of "wise use." And of course, the mythical Alar Scare - that spavined old warhorse of the anti-environmental ultra-right - is dutifully trotted out as evidence of public irrationality.

Though they try gamely to come across as moderates, the authors simply can't keep their inner demons at bay. One moment they're cautioning us against irrational fears; the next, they're flailing around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, screeching about the
[T]echnically unsupportable global warming assumptions being pressed upon us by a scientific community receiving $4 billion a year to prove the unprovable, the United Nations wishing to expand its power, big business desiring to drive small business out of business, foreign nations desiring to shackle our economy, environmental zealots wishing to undermine our capitalistic economy and a will [sic] co-conspiring news media which thrives on all manufactured crisis.
As you can see, Lehr and McGuire find it very difficult to keep their paws out of the cookie jar of Conservative Cliché. They're aware that they might scare ordinary people away with this deliriously paranoid babbling, though, so they quickly strike a rather pathetic defensive pose:
We are not against wetlands or in favor of dust and noise. We believe in the regulation or [sic] our natural resources. We don't think anyone has the right to spray poison anywhere he likes and we acknowledge the need for community involvement.
In other words, it's not that the environment shouldn't be protected (here and there, now and then). It's just that, like Dick Cheney, we've got "other priorities":
Aside from the obvious and unfortunate cost of our war in Iraq, we all agree that our educational system is in need of major overhaul. We are far from winning the war on drugs. In many states our roads and bridges need repair. And in too many places our water and sewerage systems need improvement to protect our own drinking water.
Isn't this too cute for words? The "unfortunate cost" of the Iraq War is a reason why we can't afford to protect the environment. Sounds like another good reason not to have started it!

Lehr describes himself elsewhere as a libertarian committed to market solutions, so it's very possible that all his tender concern for public infrastructure is a mere ignis fatuus. In any case, it's interesting that he thinks people will be impressed by the argument that we should worry less about protecting the environment, and more about protecting our drinking water.

Towards the end of the piece, Lehr and McGuire ask the really hard questions: questions so incoherent and dishonest that to accept them as rational on any level is to forfeit one's status as a sentient being:
Saving the world from Radon, Asbestos, arsenic, ozone and CO2 is great for raising money, but what is the real cost to the nation's industry?
What's the cost to industry of "saving the world"? Hmmm...let me do the math, and get back to you.
Wetlands, wilderness and unobstructed views are vital to us all, but where, how much and at what cost?
That's a good question, and we'd better err on the side of caution 'til we figure it out. As far as wetlands are concerned, the nation's lost about fifty percent of them. That doesn't sound too bad - perhaps - until you note that states like California and Louisiana and Florida have lost up to 90 percent of their wetlands. Personally, I don't see any reason to shoot for 95 percent.

By the way, Lehr is the "science director" of the Heartland Institute, a Scaife-funded anti-environmental group whose board of directors includes plenty of folks from the fossil-fuel, automotive, financial, and tobacco industries. Of course, the site that printed these ravings didn't see fit to give its readers any background on Lehr or his cronies.

Since I'm a blogger, I may as well get the most out of my irredeemable lack of standards and decency: These people are vermin.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Coincidence

William Arkin recently wrote a fascinating book called Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World.

"Polo Step" is secret Pentagon code for classified material that is more sensitive than "Top Secret." When veteran military-affairs journalist William Arkin first publicly mentioned "Polo Step" in a 2002 column in the Los Angeles Times, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was apparently furious and ordered an investigation into the leak. Over 1,000 officials, military personnel, and contractors were ultimately interviewed, and the investigation even had its own code name, "Seven Seekers." Such is the zealousness, Arkin writes in his book Code Names, with which secrecy is protected in the 9/11 world.
Now, there's been a completely unrelated development, which only a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist would suggest is anything more than a coincidence:
Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to produce a document accusing journalist and activist William Arkin of serving as a spy for Saddam Hussein.

The Pentagon says the supposed Defense Intelligence Agency cable is a forgery. Arkin says it's "chilling" and is demanding an investigation. The NBC News military analyst says he became aware of the bogus document when a Washington Times reporter called about the spying allegation and sent him a copy.

"Someone who put this together obviously tried to make it plausible enough to do harm and endanger me," William Arkin says of the bogus document.
Such, it seems, is the zeal with which BushCo exacts revenge in the 9/11 world.

Arms Control Wonk reports that Rumseld flunky Larry Di Rita has said that an investigation of the forged document is "not likely."

For more information on exactly what "Polo Step" is, you can read this Democracy Now interview with Arkin.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging


Friday Hope Blogging

I usually prefer to stretch out a bit on the "hope blogging" thing, but I'm very busy today so I'm pretty much just going to refer you to this WorldChanging article on the possibility of extracting methane from landfills:

New Scientist reported recently on the project, and noted that Europe alone has the potential to generate up to 94 billion cubic meters of methane annually from landfills, with only 1% of that currently being tapped. The remainder either escapes into the atmosphere (where it is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide) or is simply flared -- burned off to prevent explosive accumulation -- dumping a variety of impurities into the air.
There's one thing I'd like to clarify: It's not that I think that technology or science is going to save us through its magical powers. But I do hope that the realization that we need saving might lead us to look at the world more carefully, question the basic assumptions that drive our society, and change things for the better using all the tools at our disposal, including science. Venting or flaring of methane from landfills is a good example of something awful that simply happens in our system, almost as though it were an act of God. We don't have the luxury of that kind of irresponsibility anymore. We never did, really.

Another thing: When we think about progress, we usually think about computers and lasers and exciting new electronic innovations. But progress, in my view, doesn't mean moving ever closer to some gadget-ridden climax of the technological sublime, where robots shine our shoes and we download music directly into our brains. Progress can also be based on ridiculously simple nonelectric constructions with few or no moving parts, and those are the breakthroughs I prefer to talk about. Progress, to me, means making human systems work better and more safely. In some cases, this may require us to go backwards. If you're lost, after all, the best way to make progress is to retrace your steps.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Blackwashing GMOs

Jonathan Matthews of GM Watch has written a terrific article on Monsanto's attempt to paint opponents of genetically modified food as racists and imperialists, a shameful effort for which they've enlisted the shameless Roy and Niger Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a phony civil-rights group that Glen Ford and Peter Gamble of The Black Commentator describe as:

[A] tin cup outstretched to every Hard Right political campaign or cause that finds it convenient - or a sick joke - to hire Black cheerleaders for their cross burning events.
For their pro-GMO jihad, the Innises have joined forces with Paul Driessen, an anti-environmental PR shill who's in bed with every rabid ultra-right lunatic from Ron Arnold to the Reverend Moon. As Matthews notes:
CORE itself has become increasingly controversial--and in some ways downright strange--since Roy Innis took its helm. Innis once branded opponents of racial segregation in the US as "house niggers", and dismissed the struggle against Apartheid as "a vicarious, romantic adventure" with "no honest base". When asked in 1973 why CORE supported Idi Amin despite the Ugandan president's hatred of Jewish people and praise of Hitler, Innis is reported to have said, "we have no records to prove if Hitler was a friend or an enemy of black people."

Innis has had no corresponding difficulty working out the enemy of black people when it comes to biotech. At Cancun his son Niger, a protégé of Armstrong Williams, handed out "lethal eco-imperialism" awards to the European Union and Greenpeace. But there was another award - an "Uncle Tom" award, presented in front of an audience of grinning corporate lobbyists and libertarians to the Malaysia-based Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific. PANAP is an organisation that works with small-scale and family farmers, peasants' movements, indigenous people, landless laborers and women in countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Innis denounced PANAP for "selling out its own people".
Read the whole article, by all means. And be sure to check out The Biotech Brigade, GM Watch's awe-inspiring database of intricately interconnected propagandists, think tanks, astroturf organizations, scientific hacks, and PR shills.

More Theory, More Practice

Ten geologists have been accused of falsifying data pertaining to the safety of the proposed nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada:

Federal scientists may have falsified documents on a key safety issue for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump, two federal agencies said Wednesday. If the allegations prove true, it could delay and possibly kill the controversial plan to bury nuclear waste in a mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas starting in about a dozen years. That would be a major blow to the stalled Bush energy plan, which calls for building new nuclear-power plants provided there's someplace to store their waste....
Well, if there is proof of falsification, and it does kill Yucca Mountain - and, by extension, the nuclear component of BushCo's energy plan - then I'd say these professional liars had unwittingly done all of us a great service.

That said, the fact would remain that these people had used their authority as scientists to mislead the public about a matter of the gravest conceivable importance, which is a pretty good - and a depressingly common - example of human viciousness and evil.

I've been involved in a lot of debates lately about what science is, and what it does, and whether or not it can solve the problems we face. Personally, I think it could solve our problems, so long as we first eradicate human corruptibility, perhaps by completely overhauling human nature.

I'm sure each of us is working on that project in his or her own way. Meanwhile, though, there are important questions about what legitimizes scientific authority. Of course, I know what's supposed to do it, in theory. But in practice, a great deal of science is legitimized on the basis of its agreement with political or economic doctrine. (If the hypothesis of global warming had agreed with the interests of our government, it would've been accepted as fact over a decade ago, evidence or no evidence.) The authority of science - as mediated by, say, a professional group or a journal - is not necessarily a match for political and economic authority even in those rare cases where it's truly autonomous from that authority.

What I'm trying to understand is why anyone believes this situation will change.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Theory and Practice

The question of how excreted pharamaceuticals persist in the environment - and what their long-term effects might be - has only tentatively been addressed by the EPA and the FDA. Unfortunately, requirements for assessing the environmental risk of pharmaceuticals didn't take effect until 1998.

This article discusses the ecotoxicology of carbamazepine, an environmentally persistent drug prescribed for a variety of illnesses, including epilepsy:

In the late 1990s, scientists began detecting carbamazepine in our waterways, and they later found that the drug resists degradation in drinking-water treatment plants.
Most readers will recall that we have a similar problem with Prozac (how could you forget the media's wonderfully clever gags about depressed fish?).

Anyway, the present article notes that apart from the inherent difficulties of investigating the ecotoxicology of pharmaceuticals, the proprietary nature of these drugs has made independent investigation impossible:
Companies submit anticipated production and sales figures to the FDA during a new drug application (NDA), but this information is then withheld from the public to protect the company from competitors. This makes it impossible to determine how much of any pharmaceutical is pouring into waterways.
That's not very reassuring. But here's the part of all this that I find really disturbing:
[U]nder current regulations, a company can obtain a "categorical exclusion" and not have to perform an environmental assessment if they manufacture less than 40,000 kilograms (kg) per year....A categorical exclusion does not take into account the input from multiple companies that might all be making the same drug. For instance, if 10 companies are manufacturing a drug at 30,000 kg each, for a total of 300,000 kg, there is no trigger to perform an environmental assessment.
The problems with this approach are obvious enough that I'll restrict myself to a general point. Elsewhere, I've prattled about the difference between science as a field - using "field" in Pierre Bourdieu's sense of a competitive system of social relations based on power, which must be assessed in terms of its subjection to the political field - and Science as a Platonic ideal of objective, noble, honest truth-seeking. Our arbitrary, inadequate, scientifically incoherent approach to assessing pharmaceutical pollution makes that difference particularly clear, and reaffirms my belief that public "irrationality" is much less of a threat to science - and to society - than the private "rationality" of gaining and perpetuating political and economic power.

Under Mars



A site called Under Mars is compiling digital photos taken by US soldiers in Iraq. It posts them as they're received - unedited and uncensored - along with captions from the photographers. Given government attempts to control the dissemination of imagery from Iraq, one can't help thinking that this site could be headed for trouble.

Here's what the sitemaster says about the project:

The goal of this site is exclusively to share photos of the experience of war, without politicizing, censoring, or editing....I have presented the captions as they were given to me and have not censored or edited them. I do not know what motivated their titling, nor have I asked, nor do I intend to. My goal is only to record them. These are extreme experiences and I make no claim to understand the feelings involved.
It's a fascinating site - with many powerful and sometimes beautiful images - but please note that some photos are extremely graphic, and disturbing beyond your worst nightmares.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Erasing the Mark of the Beast

A couple of firms are working on technology that will deactivate RFID spychips, in order to protect consumer privacy. The TagZapper site explains how it works:

Proposed scenario:
A consumer purchases a six-pack of beer at a convenience store.
After exiting the store the consumer uses her TagZapper™ to disable the RFID tags.
At this point the consumer is able to transport and consume her purchase without being monitored by any commercial or government agency.
Which proves, once again, that you gotta fight for your right to party.

I'm not crazy about this example, because pro-RFID types can use it to conjure up specious but emotionally loaded images of teen drinking ("Wouldn't you want to know where your underage daughter is hiding out with that six-pack?").

Needless to say, the Rapture Ready crowd is up in arms over RFID, which they see as a precursor of the Mark of the Beast. TagZapper should be able to sell few million anti-RFID devices to the fundies alone. What's especially interesting to me is the tension that RFID is creating between the pro-business, pro-surveillance Bush Administration, and the perennially paranoid members of its base. Religious and libertarian anti-RFID activists have attacked Wal-Mart and other businesses for using the tags, and have complained that BushCo is actively promoting their use. It seems like a pretty powerful wedge issue for any Democrat who wants to take it on.

Link via Near Near Future.

A Successful Government Program

The results are apparently in on Los Angeles' restaurant-grading system:

A recently released study found that the number of people hospitalized around the county for food-borne illnesses declined 13 percent since the county forced eateries to display their health inspection grades prominently.
It's important to note that this thirteen-percent decline is in hospitalizations; most victims of food poisoning are not hospitalized, and many never seek medical treatment of any kind.

Government inspection of restaurants is a good example of why hardline libertarian dogma is wrongheaded. A food business could improve its bottom line by refusing to replace a faulty refrigeration system, by using food products that are past their "use by" date, or by cutting corners on janitorial staff and cleaning supplies. All other things being equal, a business that behaves in this way has an unfair advantage over a business that obeys the law. Thus, the law should be enforced for the benefit of the honest business, as well as for the safety of consumers.

"But private companies can do these inspections on a contract basis!" cry the libertarians. "The government shouldn't be involved. Just post the results and let consumers make up their minds where to eat!" Of course, the government is involved, regardless; it requires the inspections, and requires that the results be posted, and it also provides a legal framework for the enforcement of contracts between private businesses (shall we have privatized courts, too?). Another virtue of having government inspections is that the results are standardized: you can presume that a grade of "A" means the same thing, no matter which restaurant you visit. Otherwise, the concerned consumer is forced to assess the capabilities and methodologies of several inspection firms.

According to libertarians, government regulatory bodies are prone to abuse and dishonesty; someone at a public-health agency, for instance, could decide to make an example of a particular business; they could also demand or accept bribes. But private firms can do precisely the same things. The libertarian idea is that consumers will find a trusted private inspector on the basis of a reputation garnered over time; obviously, then, your success as a private inspector depends on convincing consumers that you have the highest standards around, and there are plenty of unethical ways of doing this, from bribery to coercion to doctoring lab results.

The funny thing is, libertarians would make this type of deceit incredibly easy, because they assume - for no reason at all - that private enterprise is basically good, and that the market will winnow out anyone who isn't. Unless, of course, they want the government to inspect inspectors, and make sure they have adequate expertise and technology?

Libertarian thought reminds me of the epicycles that were invented to make the observed motions of the planets agree with the Aristotelian dogma that heavenly bodies must move at uniform speed, in perfect circles. So long as they can imagine a scenario in which privatization would work - no matter how little connection it has to reality - the system triumphs.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Complexity and Crime

A four-year study by fifty scientists offers further evidence for the hypothesis that things happen whether you're paying attention to them or not:

The new studies identified toxic mercury contamination in mountain songbirds - the first time contamination was documented in wildlife not associated with water. Mercury is converted into a toxic form in water and mud, but the toxic mercury was also discovered in the song bird, which does not eat fish.

The songbirds may have been exposed by eating insects that ate tree leaves that converted mercury to its toxic form, scientists said. That "dry" route of exposure is new.
These findings are sure to be controversial, since they fly in the face of what I've elsewhere called the "Refusing to Pay Any Attention Principle." This is an epistemological norm that makes scientific research and public policy easier, by reducing the number of possible effects that a given cause can have. The basic idea is that the importance of missing information decreases as complexity increases.

Despite this shocking new evidence that ecosystems are characterized by complex interrelationships and a high degree of context dependence, and are thus more susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury than was previously thought, BushCo wants mercury-spewing power plants to be able to buy pollution "allowances" instead of cutting emissions, on the grounds that this sort of market-based solution has been successful at "curbing the pollution that causes acid rain."

Putting aside the fact that acid rain and mercury pollution are incommensurable as threats, I'd dispute the idea that market-based regulation is a rational response to market-based pollution. When a system leads to disastrous results - widespread mercury pollution, for example - I think one is obliged to question whether it's a good system.

We don't politely ask meth labs to adopt a cap-and-trade system for their hazardous waste emissions, nor do we invite the Mafia to police itself. We correctly see these groups as antisocial lawbreakers, and we don't expect them to reform themselves. I see no reason to view polluting firms any differently. Their freedoms end where ours begin, after all. BushCo's "market-based solutions" should be recognized for what they are: a reward for criminal behavior.

Come On Down!

The US-funded al-Iraqiya channel has an exciting new TV game show in which alleged Iraqi insurgents are confronted by their victims' families, and forced to confess on camera:

Terror in the Grip of Justice is the latest weapon in the Government's propaganda war against the insurgents, exposing them as the enemies of Iraqis and cautioning those tempted to join them. The authorities insist that the confessions are genuine, although many wonder whether the statements are made by ashamed killers or simply bad B-actors.

[snip]

Insurgents have begun a propaganda counter-offensive, denouncing the tapes as fakes and threatening to impose "God's justice" on the station's employees — a threat apparently made real with the killing of Raeda Wazan, an anchorwoman, last month.
Hmmm. "Terror in the grip of justice" versus "God's justice." I don't know...they both make a good case!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging



"In my frightened arms, polka dots and moonbeams sparkled on a pug-nosed dream."

Friday Hope Blogging

I believe that pollution comprises the biggest wedge issue the Left's got. Handled correctly, it could dwarf the political impact of Der Kulturkampf. As frightening as the idea of extending human rights to fellow citizens might be to the average American, there's compelling evidence that Americans are more concerned about the state of their air, water, and food than they are about gay marriage and televised nipples. For one thing, it's a local issue, and the Right does poorly on local issues; they prefer to prattle about abstract ideas of national rebirth and manifest destiny, because they know that there's a limit to the lies you can tell people about what's going on in their own communities.

You hear a lot about BushCo's assualt on the environment - and rightly so - but unless you read a hundred environmental news stories a day, as I do, you might not notice that all over the country, people are fighting back and winning. They're bringing lawsuits against polluters, preventing various types of development, and generally raising hell. And at the same time, cities and towns are converting vehicle fleets to alternative fuels, installing rainwater cisterns, banning truck and bus idling, installing solar panels, and offering consumers green energy options.

What's interesting about all this is not whether, say, biodiesel or wind farms will "save" us from this, that, or the other catastrophe; what's interesting is the incredible rapidity of these changes, which is something I've really never seen in my lifetime. Half the battle with bureaucracy is getting it to admit that change is possible, let alone necessary. But today, in many states, local bureaucracies are actually in the vanguard of change. I find that heartening, and pretty much unprecedented; it seems to me that this may be what the early stages of a national change in attitude look like.

Meanwhile, BushCo's appalling Clean Skies Initiative is dead, for now. And although one hesitates to put any faith in evangelicals, since they're so easily sidetracked by the voluptuous terrors of human sexuality, the fact that they're taking a stand in favor of "creation care" (i.e., common sense) is promising:

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group of 51 church denominations, said he had become passionate about global warming because of his experience scuba diving and observing the effects of rising ocean temperatures and pollution on coral reefs.

"The question is, Will evangelicals make a difference, and the answer is, The Senate thinks so," Mr. Haggard said. "We do represent 30 million people, and we can mobilize them if we have to."
A new study shows just how much Republicans and Democrats agree on the environment. Here's what happened when respondents were presented with Bush's 2005 budget priorities, and asked to adjust them to match their own priorities:
Funds for conservation and the development of renewable energy were increased by 1090%. That is not a typo. 70% of respondents opted for increases in this area.
So why do we keep losing battles? There are various answers; one of them is "We don't." In a recent article called We're Winning, Ted Williams interviews a gaggle of long-time environmentalists, and finds a remarkable amount of optimism:
"The environmental movement is doing fine," said Brock Evans, formerly of the Sierra Club and Audubon and now president of the Endangered Species Coalition. "I remember in the 1960s rivers were burning. There were no laws; there was only hope. Today we win most battles. I don't get scared anymore when I see another Republican assault on an environmental law. We've been there before; we saw it in 1995 when Gingrich came out with his Contract on America." Evans cited seemingly hopeless battles won at the 59th minute of the 11th hour — the California Desert Bill, saving Hell's Canyon from dams, establishing the wilderness areas in the Cascades, the Alaska Lands Act. "Our greatest victory was the ancient-forest wars from 1988 to 1994. We got allowable cut in the Northwest knocked down 95 percent. Politicians from both parties were opposing us. I kept an 1,800-page diary of it. Scary reading, but we did it. I'm optimistic because we win. We win so much, I've come to believe there's no such thing as miracles. We win by standing tall, by not quitting against seemingly hopeless odds, by endless pressure endlessly applied."
He's got a point. One of the places I occasionally go birdwatching has a deep, manmade duck pond in the middle of one of its meadows. It was the initial excavation for a nuclear plant that was never built, because public pressure stopped it.

And at a preserve I sometimes visit near Stanford, an aerial view of the site has an overlay showing the acres of parking lots, malls, and airport tarmac that were supposed to be built. It didn't happen, and now the preserve is home to "Rail Alley," one of the few places where one can reliably see the retiring clapper rail, which was hunted almost to extinction in the early 20th century.

Both these battles were won at a time when there was virtually no public awareness about environmental issues, no organized environmental movement, and no Internets. We should be able to do better today. And while we're at it, we should be able to portray the GOP as the party of dirty air, dirty water, and cancer clusters.

A Slap On the Wrist

Effect Measure alerts me to the imperial arrogance of the Washington Post, which has seen fit to slap the wrists of the nearly 800 microbiologists who argued that BushCo's fixation on biodefense is wrecking the public health system:

Where we lose sympathy for the authors is when they state that funds have been diverted from "projects of high public-health importance" to "projects of high biodefense but low public-health importance." This country has already experienced one anthrax attack. Security officials have stated repeatedly their belief that al Qaeda and others continue to search for more lethal bioweapons. Surely that makes biodefense projects of "high public-health importance."
Of course, "security officials" have repeatedly stated a lot of beliefs that turned out to be lies or errors, but I can't say I'm surprised that the WaPo is pretending not to recall this, despite (as Revere notes) having issued a public apology for believing the Administration in the past.

But what really strikes me about this editorial is its author's belief that this sort of languidly pompous dismissal constitutes a valid rebuttal to the combined authority of 758 microbiologists, and offers legitimate grounds for questioning their competence as health professionals. Apparently, the media now function as a sort of drive-through peer review board; whatever hurdles these microbiologists might have overcome in their professional careers, whatever laurels they may have earned, they've failed the all-important test of impressing an editorialist, and have thus forfeited their right to his or her "sympathy." And needless to say, if some anonymous trained monkey at the WaPo fails to understand risk, then it's incumbent on all of us to do likewise, like those loyal subjects who used to throw themselves into the dirt when the king stumbled.

Here's a brainteaser for the folks at the WaPo: Suppose you could either double your risk of dying from anthrax, or double your risk of dying from ordinary influenza. Which would you prefer?

This editorial also demonstrates the odd logic of media. Anthrax attacks are rare and frightening, which makes them big news, which makes them a grave concern to all informed people, which makes them the rightful focus of healthcare professionals.

What evidence do we have that anthrax attacks are "of high public-health importance"? The fact that the 2001 attacks were obsessively covered by the media, who devised ominous graphics and sinister music for the occasion, making the five victims seem more vibrantly, excitingly dead than the hundreds of people who die monthly from all-too-common diseases like AIDS, hepatitis, and pneumonia. And in addition, the fact that BushCo - the most dishonest administration in modern memory - says we're in serious danger. Meanwhile, everyday sickness and death isn't newsworthy, so it's not a threat. And thus the WaPo can wag its finger at these out-of-touch microbiologists, who obviously haven't been reading the papers.

For those who missed it the first time, you can click here to see the expenditures that the microbiologists are complaining about. You'll note that anthrax spending is up 2388 percent, while hepatitis is down 58 percent, and tuberculosis and AIDS are down 20 percent.

I Know, I Know

Blogger's commenting is atrocious lately. And it's not just the commenting; I'm getting double and triple posts, and the simplest things take an eternity.

I realize that it's prevented some people from commenting - I've gotten a number of e-mails about it - and that bothers me, 'cause Lord knows I'm more interested in what you folks have to say than I am in my own ramblings.

Still, I did like the last commenting update Blogger did, and I'm hoping they'll make some further improvements. I have serious qualms about Haloscan, but if Blogger doesn't improve soon I guess I'll be obliged to switch over.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Social Security Of The Gods

As long as I'm in a bad mood anyway, let me explain - briefly - why I think it would be salubrious if America's fundamentalist Christians were stripped naked, slathered with extra-fancy-grade itching powder, and sent on a one-way trip to the Horsehead Nebula.

I make a point of slogging through Rapture Ready News every day, because they collect stories from all over the place and some of 'em are interesting. But of course, all the stories are presented as "evidence" that the Rapture is nigh.

And thus, inevitably, you come across stories like this one:

More than half a billion people, nearly double previous estimates, were affected by the deadliest form of malaria in 2002, scientists say. Most were in sub-Saharan Africa but nearly 25 percent occurred in southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.
Now, disease is a fact of life. And treatment options for malaria are less than ideal. But prevention of malaria is possible, given a modest amount of money and time and education. In fact, Eritrea recently reduced its malaria cases:
[T]he key reason for the decline was the government's distribution of bed nets. Insecticide-treated nets have been shown to cut malaria transmission by up to 90 percent.
90 percent? It's a miracle! Praise Jesus!

Of course, helping poorer countries to reduce their malaria caseload is of no interest to the folks at Rapture Ready. To them, every disaster is a good disaster - a fun little puzzle to be interpreted, like the Junior Jumble. Through their bizarre rose-colored glasses, tragedies that are nothing more than the perfectly logical consequence of human stupidity and avarice and callousness and selfishness become nothing less than God's glad tidings for His faithful lambs.

Not that these dear lambs aren't forced to walk along the Via Dolorosa from time to time. For instance:
Despite a series of interruptions, which I blame on the devil, we’ve managed to keep the wheel of progress in motion.
And Saint Anthony thought he had problems.

Though Rapture Ready is focused firmly on the splendors of its home on high, it recognizes that certain worldly obligations can't be ignored. Spreading demonstrable lies about Social Security, for instance:
This past week, Washington D.C. was buzzing about the poor state of Social Security. A decade before the trust fund is projected to begin collapsing from an overabundance of retirees, Congress suddenly realized the money pot is full of nothing but IOUs.

I firmly believe there is a spiritual trust fund that glorified believers will someday draw upon for their eternal rewards. Unlike Social Security, this trust fund is solely funded by the deeds of the individual.
Isn't this altogether charming stuff? A blind eye and a deaf ear is turned to human suffering, except insofar as it brings these good people closer to their shuddering theophanic climax. But as tantalizingly close as the Rapture is, they still think it's best to help Bush destroy Social Security, just in case. And if they have to resort to lies to do it? Well, Christians aren't perfect...just forgiven.

Bring on the Rapture, I say. It's time to take out the trash.

Dreams of Power

My rant against pop science was apparently taken in some quarters as a manifesto for a sort of militant, utopian rationalism. That's my own fault, of course. What I want to say - and how I say it - is constrained not just by my literary incapacities, but also by what I believe the specific people I'm addressing are willing to accept as valid arguments.

Anyway, it's an easy misconception to clear up. All I have to do is act naturally.

Cervantes said in a recent comment that "the question of whether we proceed on the basis of faith or science has great implications for the future of humanity." Whatever I lack in cogency, I more than make up for in my capacity for obsessive brooding, and I've been brooding about that statement for days.

It's a pretty typical claim for a "rational" person to make, in order to demand capitulation rather than accomodation from the stubbornly irrational Other. It sounds very sober and serious, and it adds a thrilling sense of urgency to the proceedings. Unfortunately, it's nonsense. In the first place, as human beings, we're going to proceed on the basis of faith and science, whether we like it or not. I see no reason to believe this will ever change, or could ever change; a philosophy that refuses to accept people as they are, and imagines that it can remake them in its own image, is deranged in theory and dangerous in practice.

In this regard, the distinction between faith and science is analogous not to the distinction between truth and falsehood, but to that between Scylla and Charybdis. If you insist that humanity must choose between truth and error, you must also believe that it has a reliable ability (and a willingness) to distinguish between the two. And anyone who believes such a thing is in no position to lecture anyone else about misplaced credulity.

Like religion, science is corruptible and can give rise to problems of power, authority, control, and dominance. We know all about this; we know about the Tuskegee Experiments and Dr. Mengele and - possibly - the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, as well as any number of other grievous injustices justified by the science of some other era. And yet, it's apparently impolite to talk about these things when we talk about the future of science, much as it's impolite to talk to today's Catholics about the persecution of the Cathars. Those were the bad old days, after all, when people were ignorant and irrational.

I think I'm within my rights to say that science - and by this I mean the field as it actually, demonstrably functions within our society, and not the omnipotent, infinitely good, crypto-Platonic abstraction - could, at this moment, be leading us over a cliff. For that matter, we may already have gone over the edge.

Obviously, I really prefer not to believe that. In fact, I'm obliged not to believe that. And sometimes I even believe that science will solve the problems it's created (though I'm sure it will never learn to raise its victims from the dead). But this is hope speaking, not rationality. We hear much about the "self-correcting" nature of scientific endeavor; unfortunately, the corrections sometimes happen only after irreversible damage has been done.

Cervantes' claim seems to rely on an assumption that the solutions to human problems must be arrived at rationally (whatever that means in philosophical terms), preferably through use of the scientific method (whatever that means in practical terms). That assumption is objectively false. The only coherent criterion for judging problem-solving behavior is its ability to solve problems. Double-blind studies can solve problems, but so can an inspired guess. So can drawing lots or flipping a coin. So can dreams, as in the case of Kekule's "discovery" of the benzene's ring structure.

A system of ethics must be complete; it must be able to generate answers for moral dilemmas as they arise; if these answers are to generate a solution, they have to create emotional or rational assent despite the absence of proof.

Science is incomplete by definition, so at any given point there will be things it can neither prove nor disprove. Some people believe that humans will eventually know everything that can be known, and that all important questions will be answered. Whether that's true or not (I think it's delirious nonsense), that's not the situation we're in at the moment. If we're going to solve our problems, we have to make do with what we have. This includes centuries of rich intellectual and social traditions from all over the world, which compel belief in the same way that a moral argument lacking evidence compels belief: by being just, and thus by being worthy of being true. Some people argue that these traditions are inferior to science because they're not scientific. The utter incoherence of this argument is apparently a minor flaw to be worked out in the fullness of time.

In my opinion, it's not sufficient to call a concept religious, or scientific, and act as though you've settled the question of which one should guide our actions. The important questions about "the future of humanity" are ethical questions about specific uses of religion and science: Is it ethical to stone adulterers to death, or to deny certain groups of people rights? Is it ethical to conduct certain types of experiments, or to work on certain government projects?

If we're to avoid disaster, we'd better arrive at the correct conclusions, one way or another. But your status as a scientist, or a priest, does not in itself give you the moral authority to decide these questions for other people by decree. Among other things, you may have a conflict of interest.

Another question is whether progress comes most reliably from adherence to the rules of a system, or from the free interplay of ideas of all sorts. My suspicion is that a variety of ideas - right, wrong, and in between - is as important to a healthy culture as genetic diversity or temperature variation is to life itself. My problem with pop science books is not that they're irrational, or wrong, or silly, but that they constitute a form of argumentum ad verecundiam, in which the authority of, say, a physicist is supposed to be transferable to his or her ruminations on metaphysics or morality. Though I'd never argue that such books shouldn't be written, I object to the popular idea that the metaphysical fantods of a scientist are somehow worth more per pound than mine or yours or anyone else's, and it troubles me when people who swallow the propositions in these books see fit to look down their noses at the credulity of others. While it's interesting that Schrödinger was led by physics to embrace Vedanta, it's also interesting that millions of uneducated people lived peacefully and gracefully within that tradition long before it received his seal of approval.

It's a busy day for me, so I'll cut things off right there, and leave you with an intemperate but admirable quote from Paul Feyerabend:

But dreams of power such as these are not only very far from my mind - they positively make me sick. I have little love for the educator or moral reformer who treats his wretched effusions as though they were a new sun brightening the lives of those living in darkness...I have only contempt for the fine plans to enslave people in the name of "god" or "truth" or "justice" or other abstractions, especially as their perpetrators are too cowardly to accept responsibility for these ideas but hide behind their alleged "objectivity."

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Thirsty Work



The image above comes from an amazing online museum of vintage Soviet anti-alcoholism posters. I can't help wishing today's propaganda had half as much aesthetic appeal!

Link via Near Near Future.

Loose Cannon

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) wants to resume nuclear testing in the desert West.

What makes this interesting is that in 1979, Cannon was one of the lawyers who filed a landmark lawsuit called Irene Allen v. United States, which sought government compensation for the victims of fallout from earlier nuclear tests.

Cannon has also claimed that fallout from nuclear tests killed his father.

Cannon says he believes his own father died of cancers that were caused in part by his exposure to radioactive fallout from the tests.
Take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and we'll proceed.

If you think that Cannon must have a fairly compelling reason for resuming tests that he himself believes harmed his family and his fellow citizens, you're mistaken. Cannon's rationale for a new round of testing is simply to frighten the "evildoers" into embracing civilization:
"We need to give them the fear of destruction and hopefully over time people will recognize that the democratic system works."
Sounds reasonable. After all, who but an old Scrooge could fail to admire a system that allows gibbering lunatics like Cannon to lurch aimlessly through the halls of power?

By the way, if you're one of those unhappy souls who thinks that we recently went to war with an essentially unarmed country that didn't attack us, Cannon's got a stern message for you:
"Democracies don't create wars. Evil people who assume positions of power create wars."

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

BushCo is considering removing hazmat placards from rail cars. The reason, of course, is terrorism.

For decades, emergency-response teams approaching train wrecks have peered at the signs through binoculars to see what dangerous chemicals might be leaking. But federal officials will soon decide on a proposal to remove the placards from all tank cars. Their fear is that terrorists could use them to lock in on targets for highly toxic attacks.
This is stupid for any number of reasons. First, it's a typical example of BushCo's penchant for ignoring real dangers in favor of speculative ones. Hazmat incidents are scandalously common, and often devastating; frankly, our rail system is so accident-plagued that the odd terrorist incident would be a drop in the bucket.

Second, regardless of whether a spill is accidental or not, first responders very definitely need to know what's in any leaking tanks. Sad to say, compliance with current placarding rules is less than ideal. Even in cases where placards are present, they're not always accurate (especially on trucks), nor do they always give a complete picture of a given material's hazardous characteristics. All other things being equal, we'd be much safer if we improved training and compliance than if we simply did away with the placarding system.

Third, if you want to terrorize people with toxic gas, you could make your own out of any number of compounds, the sale of which remains virtually unregulated because these chemicals have friends in high places. If you're a bit more ambitious, you could attack one of our nearly 3500 chemical plants, a good number of which remain unprotected both by BushCo and by the firms that run them. The only thing that's been done to "secure" many of these facilities is hiding evacuation plans and the like from citizens and lawmakers:
People who live near chemical and nuclear plants, dams and oil and gas pipelines complain that it has become harder to find out about disaster plans and environmental hazards, and some have sued for more information. Engineering reports have been stripped from government Web sites, and several agencies are creating new controls on sensitive information that go far beyond the wide-ranging classification system built in the cold war.
And of course, if all else fails, you can always use guns.

What's most disturbing about all this secrecy is that there's rarely any talk of fixing problems; vulnerabilities are being hidden instead of remedied. But does anyone really, truly believe that some terrorist - a white Christian terrorist, in particular - couldn't get hired at a chemical or nuclear plant, or a railyard, and learn about these vulnerabilities first hand? That scenario seems perfectly plausible to me...though not nearly as plausible as a disastrous accidental derailing or explosion in some crowded suburb.

In my opinion, this proposal is intended to advance the cause of government secrecy, and to limit restrictions on the chemical industry. As such, it's a typical BushCo "security" measure...the kind that'll end up getting people killed.

Duh

When I lived in New York, my dehumidifier pulled about a gallon of water out of the air every few hours, which meant I was constantly dumping pails of water into the bathtub.

I still use the dehumidifier pretty often to keep mold growth down. Since I have a garden now, I dump the water there.

This, however, is something that never occurred to me:

Somebody had the clever idea of combining a dehumidifier with a water purifier, so that instead of throwing out the pan of water sucked from the air, you can drink it....It'll produce 20 liters of water a day in 70% humidity, which is about the amount that comes in one of those fat-ass 5 gallon bottles, but without the waste or transportation emissions.
I wish I'd thought of that. Make a solar-powered version of this thing, and you just might have one of the greatest products ever.

Monday, March 07, 2005

An Outright Xenophobe

In re John Bolton being nominated to the post of ambassador to the UN, there are a couple of must-read posts at Arms Control Wonk today. (Of course, every post at ACW is must-read, but you know what I mean.)

In particular, check out this quote from Bolton:

In substantive field after field — human rights, labor, health, the environment, political-military affairs, and international organizations — the Globalists have been advancing while the Americanists have slept. Recent clashes in and around the United States Senate indicate that the Americanist party has awakened, and that the harm and costs to the United States of belittling our popular sovereignty and constitutionalism, and restricting both our domestic and our international policy flexibility and power are finally receiving attention.

Biodefense Versus Public Health

Effect Measure has a terrific post today on how the public-health system is being sacrificed to the biodefense juggernaut. It offers a special rebuke to those who believe that increased bioterror spending will result in some sort of Golden Age for public health.

In reality, these people have it exactly backwards. If you build the best public-health system you can, in order to deal with everyday problems, most of the work of preparing for bioterror gets done automatically. Agent detection is an interesting but comparatively minor field; it doesn't work well, but even if it did, mere data aren't all that useful unless you have a staffed and funded and organized public-system system. Bioterror is primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement issue; the greatest threat (and it really is miniscule in comparison to everyday public-health threats) comes not from international jihadists, but from homegrown racists, lunatics, and apocalyptic religious cults (from Bush's base, in other words). Forcing the public-health system to concentrate on biodefense is like designing a car that has a parachute - in case a bridge you're driving on collapses - but doesn't have seat belts.

But BushCo is ignoring all of this in order to siphon more money into the defense industry's all too capacious pockets; a new bioweapons race - requiring a decade or two of fantastically expensive, taxpayer-funded research into some omnipotent high-tech "bioshield" - would suit them just fine. And as Revere notes, this is likely to have grave consequences for public health and science:

Some of the research will inevitably be secret or classified. No public health research that is classified can serve a public health purpose or even a legitimate scientific agenda. If the results of our research is not to be made available to the global public health community of scientists and public health workers, we are not serving public health, a global enterprise of shared knowledge and endeavor. Instead, we corrupt that enterprise, just as physics was corrrupted by the Cold War.
Meanwhile, new vulnerability testing will be conducted in New York City:
At some point within the next two weeks, Madison Square Garden will play host to a swarm of observers scrutinizing the behavior of an unseen agent.

As early as Wednesday morning, depending on the weather, the carefully orchestrated release of a colorless, harmless gas in Manhattan should help researchers get a better handle on how hazardous contaminants - whether from natural sources or malicious attacks - disperse in an urban setting.
Sounds innocuous enough, perhaps, but it isn't. I believe that under Bush, a return to earlier levels of intensive open-air testing is all but inevitable (if it hasn't happened already). The temptation to use live bacteria, or potentially allergenic aerosols or particulates, is not one I can see BushCo resisting. Whether such vulnerability testing ends up harming people or not, it's expensive, unethical, and indistinguishable from the testing of offensive bioweapons.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Unreasonable, But Correct

PZ Myers has a thought-provoking article over at The American Street today, which, coupled with Robert M. Jeffers' ruminations about Wittgenstein, which he wrote in response to my ruminations about pop science, were...um...

Jeez, causality is harder to elucidate than I thought!

Anyway, Wittgenstein once said something more or less like this: "I'm not a religious man, but I can't help seeing every problem in religious terms." That's true of pretty much all of us, I think. For one thing, our language is religiously charged, never more so than when we describe dropping napalm on children, or the immorality of pre-emptive war, or similar atrocities. Remove religious concepts from language, and you impoverish your ability to speak, precisely when it's most necessary to speak. I find this interesting.

Here's how Myers' piece ends:

"[S]ecular" is not inferior to "religious", but is actually a higher kind of value, better because of its universality.
Now, I enjoy arguing epistemological points, so I might take issue, here and there, with what can be known or demonstrated at a given point, and what implications this has for the distinction between religious and secular thought. Still, Myers is quite correct; the moral community must be as inclusive as possible, but religion very often attempts to limit moral consideration to a "deserving" few, usually on the basis of some depressingly rational set of tribalist assumptions. This is wrong, because morality is responsibility - or obligation, as Simone Weil puts it - that one feels without "reason." The more universal are the duties which it imposes, the more unreasonable it is, in the worldly sense.

Of course, no one's ethical values actually are universal. But we have an obligation to make them as universal as we can, as Myers notes, unreasonably and correctly.