Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A Scientific Disguise

Environmental Science and Technology has a fascinating investigative article describing the process by which a virtually unknown Canadian businessman became seen as a legitimate critic of climate change.

Stephen McIntyre began by publishing a paper in an obscure journal that doesn't require traditional peer review (more about that journal in a moment). That's not usually a good way to get on the fast track to fame and glory, but it worked nicely for McIntyre:

As a result of the Energy & Environment paper, lead author Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian, was flown to Washington, D.C., to brief U.S. business leaders and the staff of Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chair of the committee on Environment and Public Works. He also presented his findings that year at the Marshall Institute, a nonprofit organization whose chief executive officer is ExxonMobil lobbyist William O’Keefe.
Not long after this gala event, McIntyre reached his apotheosis: he was the subject of a doting article in the Wall Street Journal, a paper which had previously done almost no substantive reporting on climate change.

Which is not to imply that the article on McIntyre was substantive by any measure other than sheer bulk:
The harshest critic of the whole issue is former Wall Street Journal page-one editor, Frank Allen. He now directs the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources in Missoula, Mont. When asked to read the front-page article, he described it to ES&T as a “public disservice” littered with “snide comments” and “unsupported assumptions”. He says he does not understand how the story got past the editors.

“It was a strange story ’cause it had this bizarre undertone of being investigative but it didn’t investigate,” says Allen. “And this piece — what I thought was bothersome about it — it purported to be authoritative, and it’s just full of holes.”
Despite being full of holes - or more likely, because of it - the WSJ article turned McIntyre into an authority on climate change, at least among certain Republicans. Representative Joe Barton (R-TXD) recently used the putative authority of the article to write a rather threatening letter to the eminent scientist whose work McIntyre attacked, demanding that he turn over all pertinent raw data, and divulge all his funding sources, and explain each of the alleged errors and omissions detailed by McIntyre.

ES&T has another article on Energy and Environment, the magazine that published McIntyre's first paper. Not surprisingly, it seems to act as a reservoir from which unreviewed crackpot science can be pipelined to the GOP noise machine. Even less surprising is that its editor, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, is comfortably ensconced within the conservative culture of victimhood. Get out your handkerchief, because this is sad stuff indeed:
It’s only we climate skeptics who have to look for little journals and little publishers like mine to even get published....
Someone with a less maudlin cast of mind might conceive of perfectly good reasons for this injustice. To me, it's roughly equivalent to lamenting that one was forced to start a local softball team after being rejected by the major leagues for having a pitching speed of 29 miles per hour.

Given that Boehmer-Christiansen blithely publishes works that don't meet the standards of respected journals with rigorous peer review, this letter of complaint, which she wrote to the Financial Times, is pretty interesting:
[E]nergy (and agriculture) research may be asked to respond to threats that are commercial or ideological, but benefit from a “scientific” disguise.
Ain't that the truth. Boehmer-Christiansen also complains that
The...article referred to was not written by environmental scientists but environmental economists who are known for their rather cavalier attitude to science and certainly pay little attention to it.
Boehmer-Christiansen is a geographer. Stephen McIntyre's expertise is in mineral exploration. His co-author on the Energy and Environment paper was Ross McKitrick, whose biography says "his area of specialization is environmental economics and policy analysis."

Normally, I'm amused when people of this ilk confess their sins by means of accusation. But with an American city underwater, the laughter dies on one's lips. Global warming may not be to blame for Katrina, of course. But if people like these have their way - and thusfar they have, to an amazing degree - we'll have no way of knowing until it's too late.

Honoring American Discoverists

Click here, you can download these beautiful stamps commemorating the scientific discoveries of the American ultra-right...discoveries that not only revolutionized the life sciences (which had previously been a veritable Sargasso of torpidity and obfuscation), but dealt a death blow to the spiritual malaise of a nation.

UPDATE: Broken link fixed. Thanks to Theophylact for the tip.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Roundup, Ready?

Bitter Greens Journal, which has a running feature called "Roundup, Ready," recently got a cease-and-desist letter from Monsanto.

Here's a bit of Tom Philpott's response:

Although it's comical for a corporation with upwards of $5 billion in annual revenue to harass an obscure blogger who helps run a 2.5-acre farm, the tone of your letter is earnest; so I will reply earnestly.

Your arguments seem specious to me, and I therefore I must refuse to cease using "Roundup, ready" as the title for an occasional feature on my Web log.

You write that "[t]his use of the term could cause your readers to think that your journal is in some way sponsored by Monsanto or that Monsanto supports the positions set out in your journal." Yet my journal clearly presents itself as a "running critique of industrial agriculture," and from its first post on has made no secret of its distaste for Monsanto and its particular style of industrial agriculture.

I doubt you will be able to dig up a single reader who, after perusing a "Roundup, ready" post, will think to himself, "Now this fellow must be on the Monsanto dole!"
Philpott's got guts, that's for sure! When it comes to, few companies can hold a candle to Monsanto. I admire his stance, and wish him the best. This is one of those situations where intense public scrutiny can make the difference between a good outcome and a bad one, so I hope like-minded fellow bloggers will join me in keeping an eye on this story.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

O, Pioneers!

Atrios linked a couple of days ago to a BBC article on the latest findings from the eugenicist Richard Lynn. Disturbingly, the article failed to mention Lynn's connections to the Pioneer Fund - and related groups - whose intent is the mainstreaming of scientific racism.

This is a topic I'm always happy to explore in detail. One of the most common defenses of the Pioneer Fund is that its "early" eugenicist notions were perfectly respectable in the context of their times. It was only later - the defenders paradoxically argue - that the socialistic myths of egalitarianism and multiculturalism put these ideas outside the bounds of civilized discourse. And although these racial scientists disdain egalitarianism and multiculturalism - and believe them to have been proven false by their own research - they nonetheless changed with the times, eschewing both racism and eugenics. Or so the story goes. The only problem now, apparently, is that political correctness is stifling these scientists' sober inquiry into the eternal verities of racial and sexual hierarchy.

There's a grain of truth to virtually every lie, of course. Eugenics was still respectable - just barely - when the Pioneer Fund was founded. However, it stopped being respectable within a few short years.

I'll try to give a brief rundown of the Fund's history. In 1910, Charles Davenport, the director of the center for genetic research at Cold Spring Harbor center, established the Eugenics Record Office, and appointed a former high school teacher and amateur eugenicist named Harry H. Laughlin as its superintendent. The fact that Laughlin had no qualifications seems not to have bothered Davenport...possibly because Davenport was a fellow eugenicist with strong anti-Semitic leanings.

Laughlin used his newfound scientific respectability to push for eugenic programs across the country and around the world. As Paul Lombardo, historian at the University of Virginia, says,

Advocacy in favor of sterilization was one of Harry Laughlin's first major projects at the Eugenics Record Office. In 1914, he published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed to authorize sterilization of the 'socially inadequate'....Borrowing from Laughlin's Model Law, the German Nazi government adopted a law in 1933 that provided the legal basis for sterilizing more than 350,000 people. Laughlin proudly published a translation of the German Law for the Prevention of Defective Progeny in The Eugenical News.
In May 1936, Laughlin was awarded an honorary medical degree from the University of Heidelberg, in recognition of his work in "the science of racial cleansing." This touching tribute was bestowed upon him by Dr. Carl Schneider, a "scientific adviser" to the murderers of Germany's handicapped population. According to Holocaust researcher Dr. William E. Seidelman,
Schneider conducted psychological assessments of children he knew were doomed to die, and had their brains collected and dissected after they were murdered.
Schneider later committed suicide after being interviewed by war-crimes prosecutors.

With Wickliffe Draper, Laughlin established the Pioneer Fund as a charitable trust on February 27, 1937. Draper, the heir to a substantial Massachusetts textile fortune, was a passionate admirer of Hitler's' racialist ideology, and hoped to send American blacks back to Africa.

Fortified by the moral support of Nazi Germany's medical community, and the deep pockets of Wickliffe Draper, Laughlin giddily made plans for the dawning of a bright new eugenical day. One of his first schemes was a system of cash bonuses for US air-force members who procreated copiously (the racial and the hereditary qualities of both partners were to be carefully considered, of course). Another goal was "the eugenical education of the American people by moving picture films on eugenical subjects." To this end, Draper acquired a subtitled Nazi propaganda film in hopes that they could "lend the film to high schools, colleges, clubs, churches...."

In this, as in so many other endeavors, they were successful. A letter from Laughlin to Draper, dated December 9, 1938, says
You will be interested to know that the moving picture film "Eugenics in Germany" has proven very popular with senior high school students. Up to date the film has been loaned 28 times.
Laughlin also lobbied Congress vigorously to change US immigration law. Largely as a result of his efforts, the Johnson Act of 1924 set strict quotas on immigration; Nordic races were given high quotas; other races--including the Jews--were given low ones. The Anti-Defamation League website notes that Harry Laughlin "was active in efforts to block Jews fleeing persecution prior to World War II."

Laughlin retired from the Pioneer Fund in 1941, and died in 1943. But Wickliffe Draper was still very much alive, and very busy. In a 1977 article on the Pioneer Fund, The New York Times reported that
In the 1950's and 1960's Mr. Draper supported two now-defunct committees that gave grants for genetics research....The committee members included Representative Francis E. Walter, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC]; Henry E. Garrett, an educator known for his belief in the genetic inferiority of blacks, and Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi.
Senator Eastland was an unabashed and overwrought racist who rather poetically objected to the idea of sharing "his" country with "black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers.... African flesh-eaters." He also publicly regaled his supporters with a travesty of the Declaration of Independence, which ran
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives.... All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.
For more on the connections between Draper and Eastland, see this 1960 article from the Capital Times, entitled Rich New Yorker Trying to Prove Negroes Inferior.

In 1963, Draper funded the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which supported segregation. Draper also funded the work of William Shockley and J. Phillippe Rushton. Shockley's main claim to fame - after the invention of the transistor - was a proposed government policy under which blacks would be paid to undergo sterilization. One of Rushton's more comical theories is that blacks are the result of an evolutionary strategy that jettisoned intellectual capabilities in favor of large penises; thus, the smaller your penis is, the smarter you are.

Perhaps the most interesting latter-day director of the Pioneer Fund was Thomas Ellis, manager of Jesse Helm's 1972 senate campaign, and an advisor to Ronald Reagan during his 1976 presidential campaign. He was also a co-founder of Fairness in Media, which you may remember from its abortive attempt to take over CBS.

J. Philippe Rushton took over the Pioneer Fund in 2003. Pioneer Fund historian William H. Tucker says, "Rushton has not only contributed to American Renaissance publications and graced their conferences with his presence but also offered praise and support for the 'scholarly' work on racial differences of Henry Garrett, who spent the last two decades of his life opposing the extension of the Constitution to blacks on the basis that the 'normal' black resembled a European after frontal lobotomy."

At this point, I think it's fair to say that a pattern has emerged, and that far from repudiating its eugenicist roots, the Pioneer Fund has done a remarkable job of clinging to them. Richard Lynn would probably agree, given that his own website trumpets his interest in eugenics, and given his observation that
What is called not genocide, the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of the 'phasing out' of such peoples....
Lynn received at least $325,000 from the Pioneer Fund, and was made a director when Rushton took over the presidency from Harry Weyher.

That Lynn's latest research relies on IQ testing is characteristic of racialist pseudoscience. This has also become a central concept in conservative circles, especially those concerned with welfare and education. Superficially, conservatives argue in favor of an American "meritocracy." However, believers in genetic determinism have loaded the dice, so that those who "merit" success are delimited in advance on the basis of race, sex, class, or some combination thereof.

This is a convenient form of attack, because it's once removed from its actual target. The problem is no longer that blacks are subhuman "flesh-eaters," or that women are sentimental flibbertigibbets incapable of rational thinking; we now have recourse to the "scientifically neutral" matter of IQ. Thus, dissenters who ignore the Eternal Truths of science in favor of a delusional attachment to egalitarianism sin against science through irrationalism, and sin against blacks by forcing them into a "civilized" role they're not evolutionarily prepared for, and sin against society by imposing an unjustifiable financial burden on it (i.e., by trying to give blacks more education than their genetically inferior brains can handle).

The findings of Pioneer Fund researchers argue that the IQ of blacks can't be raised appreciably by state or private intervention; this implies clearly that public schools and welfare programs and various forms of minority outreach are a waste of time and's the proverbial case of trying to teach a pig to sing. Whether some inherent racism makes these scientifically unfounded findings appealing to conservatives, or whether it's simply a case of each group finding the other useful, "facts" derived from Pioneer Fund research have a disturbing habit of finding their way into the consciousness of mainstream and moderate conservatives; many of them have no idea of the pedigree of these ideas, and I'm optimistic enough to believe that some of them would surely be horrified to find out.

IQ is an idea that won't go away, despite the fact that it's a rather shallow form of statistical inference. It's not just a matter of its intangibility, either. A shadow, for instance, can provide perfectly valid information about the body that casts it. But in the case of IQ, both the "body" and its shadow are illusory. They simply don't exist as real qualities of a real thing.

Though IQ testing is mildly useful as a predictive tool, it's predictive merely of how well a given student will negotiate an arbitrarily delimited set of tests and problems; such a test regime is necessarily constrained not only by its own limited terms and definitions, but also by culture and language.

IQ testing is by no means predictive of scholastic or financial success (high-IQ children often do poorly in mainstream schools, which is why they're properly classed with the developmentally disabled as "special needs" children), and certainly can't be correlated with moral excellence or psychological stability or human happiness or any other classical virtue. It doesn't measure creativity or artistic skill, either. The test is quite humble, in fact, offering few valid predictions, and no valid explanations. (In fact, Binet, the test's originator, presciently worried that his test would be perverted by biological determinists in order to stigmatize certain children as "unteachable.") It's only as a social concept that IQ has real power, and that power is primarily ideological.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Nembrotha cristata, a nudibranch who does not play the public swan, nor try to curve its proud neck on your vocal streams, but is, in its own little isle retreated, the cygnet of its own secluded wave. Or words to that effect.

Friday Hope Blogging

Giving the rather dour tone of my last few posts - and the fact that this feature still appears erratically - I'll believe I'll skip the long-winded preamble.

There's been some improvement in the state of Iraq's marshes, which are some of the most beautiful and important wetlands on earth:

Of the almost 3,600 square miles of marshes in 1970, the area shrank by 90 percent to 300 square miles in 2002. As recently as 2001, some experts forecast the marshlands would disappear by 2008.

Instead, the new satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover in just the past three years, with the marshes rebounding to about 37 percent of their 1970 reach, the United Nations Environmental Program said Wednesday.
You can see photos and videos of the marshlands here. And you can get more information from Eden Again.

Treehugger reports that an increasing number of suburbanites are choosing to grow their own food.
Jules Dervaes and three of his four grown children work tilling their urban garden full-time. The garden produces about 6,000 pounds of food a year — enough to feed the Dervaes, their menagerie of ducks, chickens and bunnies and even some diners seeking organic meals at local restaurants.

"We're farming on just a 10th of an acre here," Dervaes said. They're at the forefront of a small but growing number of city dwellers who are ripping out lawns and replacing them with vegetable beds and fruit trees.
Treehugger also has a thought-provoking article on how North America's rail system might be improved. Giving trains a more prominent role in local and interstate supply chains, while increasing their energy efficiency, sounds like a pretty good idea to me. (A train comprising, say, 98 cars has a lot of room for solar collectors on the tops and sides, which ought to be able to power something, one would think.) The Treehugger article talks about running trains on biodiesel, which doesn't exactly enthuse me; other possibilities are more exciting, but more elusive. Seems to me like some form of electrification with regenerative braking would be the way to go, in the near term.

In Eritrea, a new stove design has reduced the need for firewood in that heavily deforested land, and reduced the emission of toxic combustion byproducts and greenhouse gases:
The original mogogo stoves are smoky and dangerous and often difficult to start, sometimes needing kerosene to get going.

The award-winning new mogogo uses half as much firewood, insulates the flames and makes better use of ventilation....Thick smoke from stoves and fires inside homes is associated with around 1.6 million deaths a year in developing countries, two United Nations agencies said last year.
Another nice thing about this story is that villagers are being taught to make these stoves, so that they can pass the knowledge on.

Last, Echidne's got some good news, too, and she's promising more of it.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Pandemic Preparedness

The Vancouver Sun has an interesting article on the possible economic effects of an influenza pandemic. It ends with a list of preparedness suggestions for consumers, which are well worth thinking about:

Insurance: Do you have medical insurance? Check the fine print on your life insurance. Does it cover death by pandemic?

Income: Be ready to withstand a period of no income at a time when financial markets are depressed.

Debt: Reduce it.

Hide: Be prepared to "hole up."

Risky investments: Get out of commodities and high-tech products if a pandemic is on the way.

Flee to quality: Gold, cash, government bonds and blue-chip stocks with high dividends.
All this may sound a bit intimidating, but remember...carefully following these steps may enable you to get rich quick!
Buy low: Be prepared to take advantage of cheap stocks and other investments as world markets rebound from an 18- to 24-month pandemic period.
Something to look forward to, definitely. The Invisible Hand may forbid certain types of precautionary public health measures, and it may reward short-term behavior that's incompatible with long-term viability...but at least it gives you an opportunity to cash in on the disasters it helps to create.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Too Lucrative to Resist

I'm nothing if not open-minded. The "free market" may have done unspeakable violence to virtually everything I hold dear, but if experts insist that market forces now have the ability to undo these catastrophes, I'm willing to listen. Whatever skepticism I may have about the viability of a Paracelsian economics, in which like magically cures like, I'm willing to put it aside in order to consider the pros and cons of relatively new concepts like mitigation banking.

So far, the gap between theory and practice in mitigation banking seems to be pretty much what you'd expect from an erratically regulated arrangement between government and developers. Elsewhere, I discussed how Wal-Mart had exploited mitigation banking in order to ruin two pieces of land for the price of one. Now, it looks like a mitigation banking scheme in Michigan is headed for a similarly bleak outcome.

The owners of a landfill in Wayne County have an option to buy 445 acres of stunning Lake St. Clair marsh. But there's a hitch: They're offering to purchase and protect the privately owned coastal marsh along Anchor Bay if the state compensates them by allowing them to fill 31 acres of wetlands at Woodland Meadows Landfill in Van Buren Township.

If approved, the traded acreage would add to the state-owned St. John's Marsh along the coast of northern Lake St. Clair. It's a rich habitat of prairie and wetlands that is a haven for wildlife, birdwatchers, hikers and hunters. It also acts as a massive sponge-like filter that cleanses pollutants from water flowing into the lake and controls flooding in nearby communities.

The deal might be too lucrative for the state to resist, even though it would void a conservation agreement made years ago by Waste Management Inc. to protect the Woodland Meadows wetlands. It would also skirt an informal policy that such trade-offs be made within the same watershed so that there is no net loss of wetlands to any one ecosystem.
"Too lucrative to resist," indeed. This is little better than extortion, and it reflects poorly on us that we've conducted our national affairs in such a way that a garbage company can hold any portion of our vanishing wetlands hostage. The basic standard for mitigation banking is that it should prevent a net loss of wetlands. A conscious decision by government not to meet that standard calls the entire concept into question, to say the very least.

The Woodland Meadows wetlands were placed into a conservation easement as part of the deal that allowed the landfill to open; apparently, that deal also allowed the easement to be terminated at Wayne County's whim. And oddly enough, the easement "was put in place despite the fact that the acreage was in the landfill's long-range plan for expansion."

So if I understand this correctly - and I really hope I don't - Waste Management puts 31 acres of wetlands into an easement, in return for permission to open a landfill; it gets a stipulation that the acreage can be used for waste disposal if "necessary," which happens to dovetail nicely with its stated plans for expansion. Having decided expansion is indeed necessary, it's now offering to trade Lake St. Clair marsh for Woodland Meadows.

Fair enough. One can only hope that the agreement protecting Lake St. Clair marsh turns out to be a bit more legally binding than the one protecting Woodland Meadows was.

Obligatory information on Republican malfeasance can be found here.

The West Wind

Effect Measure describes Europe's response to the westward march of bird flu, which reminds me of Charles Dickens' working title for Bleak House: "The West Wind."

The title refers to the wind that carried disease - according to the theories of Dickens' time - from a fictionalized East End slum called Tom-All-Alone's to the mansions of the West End.

Even the winds are his messengers, and they serve him in these hours of darkness. There is not a drop of Tom's corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere....There is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his commiting, but shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high.
In a report published, like Bleak House, in 1853, Dr. John Simon echoes this passage with talk of "the vapours of a retributive poison....spreading over miles of land." Simon described open sewers as
[C]hambers for an immense faecal evaporation; at every breeze which strikes against their open mouths, at every tide which encroaches on their inward space, their gases are breathed into the open air - wherever outlet exists, into houses, foot-paths, and carriage-way....
In other words, bacteria and poisons don't stay where you put them. Among other things, Bleak House is about the impossibility both of isolating oneself from society, and of confining moral and physical sickness to an area conveniently reserved for it by economic theory. The book's heroine catches smallpox from a homeless child; she describes a stage of her delirium in one of those striking images that seem to go off like flashbulbs throughout the book:
Dare I hint at that worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads! And when my only prayer was to be taken off from the rest and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing?
The "dreadful thing," of course, is humanity itself. In Dickens' era, as in ours, a great many people felt that they could buy their way off this necklace. What happens to the poor, the logic goes, is their own problem; the diseases they catch, and the accidents that befall them, are simply their punishment for failing to be sufficiently prosperous.

Bleak House is an extended assault upon this viewpoint. First, the population of London is consistently de-individualized; the city is presented as an object - or even as a body with "ganglions of roads" - and the boundaries between its citizens are blurred or eliminated:
[E]very noise is merged, this moonlight night, into a distant ringing hum, as if the city were a vast glass, vibrating.
Dickens' London is like a smoke-filled glass, with humanity puddled at the bottom. Throughout the book, he explores the various miseries of human proximity, from queasy distate (the minister Chadband exudes a hideous "train-oil" that his flabby hands smear over other characters) to smallpox.

The threat of contamination is everywhere. The death of Krook by spontaneous combustion is presaged by a pair of characters complaining about a certain greasiness in the air, and the stench of spoiled meat cooking, which they assume is coming from a nearby kitchen. But what they mistake for the stench of a lower-class meal is actually carbonized human flesh. When they go to visit Krook, they blunder into a "little thick nauseous pool" of his molten fat:
A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder....“This is a horrible house,” says Mr. Guppy, shutting down the window. “Give me some water or I shall cut my hand off.”
This passage is symptomatic of the fascination with contamination and decay that so often led Dickens to visit the morgue on his midnight walks. On one such visit, he saw "a large dark man whose disfigurement by water was in a frightful manner comic, and whose expression was that of a prize-fighter who had closed his eyelids under a heavy blow." Later, while swimming in the river, Dickens is panicked at the thought of sharing the water with this corpse:
I was seized with an unreasonable idea that the large dark body was floating straight at me. I was out of the river, and dressing instantly. In the shock I had taken some water into my mouth, and it turned me sick, for I fancied that the contamination of the creature was in it.
But despite his horror of contamination, Dickens needed crowds pressing in on him; isolation from crowds robbed him of his power to work. Perhaps it was this symbiosis that led him to see through a central lie of his era, which was that one could exist as something entirely separate from one's society...that one could escape basic human relationships and responsibilities through religion, or money, or aestheticism, or some appalling confluence of the three.

At any rate, we have a new disease drifting westward from the slums of the East. We have medical resources that Dickens' era lacked, of course; unfortunately, the persistence of laissez-faire's most nonsensical dictates has left us unable to use them to our best advantage. We exist at the mercy of an "invisible hand," of all absurd superstitions, and if it forbids us a functional public health system, that's just too bad for us.

As I argued elsewhere:
[S]ociety must put out my burning house not because I'm part of some "meritocracy"...but because a conflagration at my house may well burn down everyone else's.
But even this modest concession to self-interest apparently requires too much acknowledgement of vulnerability and culpability from the idiot children of laissez-faire. Where they have control, they pretend to be helpless slaves to market forces. Where they have no control, they imagine that they're omnipotent, and immune to all "retributive poisons."

Our globalized world is more thronged and claustrophobic than Dickens' London; the "telescopic philanthropy" he complained about - because it led Londoners to pay more attention to the woes of far-flung "savages" than to those of their own neighbors - is hardly an issue; third-world slums are no less threatening to us than the slums of the East End were to the mansions of the West End. And it's very possible that our failure to recognize the problems of global poverty and ignorance as our responsibility "shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high."

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Pretty Innocent

A microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has resigned, after acknowledging that he misrepresented the findings of his research into the prophylactic properties of an anti-anthrax lotion.

Dr. John Heggers faced scrutiny for claiming that the Bio-Germ Protection lotion – made of grapefruit seeds and the oil of an Australian tree – would protect the public from an anthrax attack. He also said it would probably work against other bioterrorism threats, such as smallpox or the plague.
The owner of Bio-Germ is named Allan Lord. His father, Doug Lord, is a close friend of Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), who is a high-ranking member of the House Science Committee.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall and McKinney Police Chief Doug Kowalski, who holds homeland security seminars around the country and led the Dallas police SWAT team for a decade, support the product on its promotional videos.

"This certainly appears to be a breakthrough and the answer to the anthrax problem," says Hall, R-Rockwall, who's been friends with Lord's father, Doug Lord, for decades.

Kowalski, in uniform and holding the Bio-Germ kit, says it is "the type of product that will be very beneficial to first responders." He had worked with Doug Lord for years on police charity rodeos.
Hall, needless to say, displays the GOP politician's usual inability to grasp the concept of personal responsibility:
"I'm pretty innocent in this thing," said Mr. Hall, the No. 2 Republican on the House Science Committee. "I was trying to help a friend and the American people."
Dr. Heggers' misconduct doesn't seem to be a matter of debate. He used a very weak strain of anthrax for his tests, and tested the lotion's effectiveness only in petri dishes. He published his "findings" in an online journal run by two of his former medical residents, and he listed two other scientists as co-authors, despite the fact that they hadn't read the paper.

All the same, Bio-Germ's developer, Robert Heiman, feels that Heggers hasn't been treated with quite the proper respect by UTMB (which is, incidentally, one of the largest recipients of federal biodefense dollars):
"I think that a man who has a lifetime of proven experience with a résumé that's basically almost an inch thick, that has contributed in every way in the field that he's in ... they should have really treated him royally," he said.
None of the articles on Bio-Germ identify Robert Heiman, but I strongly suspect that he also runs a company called Epicuren; it makes an anti-aging cream that works according to these indisputable scientific principles:
All cells have memory specific to their type and function. Cells copy each other, which is why the memory of each cell must be changed to a healthier state. IF this change does not take place, cell memory continues to digress [sic].
There's no doubt that a seal of approval from a "Developmental Scientist" like Heiman would be a valuable commodity indeed; this is, after all, the man who invented the silver ion cloth. But whether or not Bio-Germ's Robert Heiman is also the CEO of Epicuren, it would be interesting to know just what credentials he has.

As of this writing, the Bio-Germ Kit is still available online; the site informs prospective buyers that
Bio-Germ Protection Products may be eligible for FY 2005 Homeland Security Grant Programs (HSGP) as Authorized Equipment under AEL item number 9.2.8, "Supplies, Disinfectant."

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sound and Fury

An article on Bill Frist's cynical support for the Intelligent Design "theory" makes an important point:

The theory of intelligent design says life on earth is too complex to have developed through evolution, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation. Nearly all scientists dismiss it as a scientific theory, and critics say it's nothing more than religion masquerading as science.
It's always nice when such articles emphasize that scientists dismiss ID as science; too many articles imply that the opposition to ID is based primarily on an atheistic worldview, rather than on the fact that ID is essentially devoid of content. The main problem with ID is that if it were a demonstrable fact, it would affect neither the goals of science, nor its methodology.

Nor, I suspect, would it affect ethics. If all evidence for evolution can be ignored, based on emotional prejudice, so can all evidence for a creator. And even if people believe in a creator, they remain intellectually free not to worship that creator. And even if they do worship the creator, they remain intellectually free to choose their own form of worship, whether it be liberation theology, polygamy, or racial separatism.

The existence of deity has been accepted as a given for centuries by a majority of human beings; I have boundless admiration for certain acts and monuments of faith, but I see no reason to believe that religion's enormous capacity to inspire and justify evil actions would vanish, were ID accepted as fact. The basic argument behind ID was accepted during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conquest of the New World. By the scientific standards of those times, all nature revealed God's handiwork. Cotton Mather's The Christian Philosopher is a learned and beautifully written explication of intelligent design, the arguments of which were virtually unassailable in his day, but Mather nonetheless presided over the horrific injustice of the Salem Witch Trials.

ID can't answer the fundamental question, "How then shall we live?" It can't put an end to sectarian squabbling, douse the fires of fundamentalist extremism, or contradict religious and racial bigotry.

ID solves no scientific problems, and no moral problems. A world in which ID were "true" would be a world very much like our own.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Ceratosoma trilobatum. Now you know!

The Freshwater Shells of Quebec

Quebec's Lac St-Pierre comprises the largest heron habitat in North America, and is a vital migratory bird sanctuary. It's also full of unexploded shells, thanks to the fifty years it spent as a test site for artillery. Some shells are on the shore, where they can be gathered up by the curious. Others lie on the lake floor. And a few, remarkably, are ambulatory:

Over the years, shells have been carried by springtime ice to as far as Île d'Orléans, past Quebec City, some 150 kilometres downriver from where they were fired.
Artillery test ranges are always problematic, and their siting tends to be short-sighted at best. But testing munitions over a body of fresh water ringed by towns is an act of truly elemental stupidity. I have no doubt that the people who dreamed up and implemented this scheme were, in some strange sense, the best and brightest of their generation, but to quote Marilynne Robinson, "their presence in roles that are ideally filled by competent people does not make them competent."

Now, a number of thoughtful people are pondering how to remove the shells from the lake. Apparently, it's easier said than done.
Captain Matt Braid, project director for the Defence Department's unexploded-ordnance program, said the pilot project would proceed next year, but he warned that removing artillery from water is complex, and coming by the technology isn't easy.
I can't tell you how much I appreciate this sober warning about the difficulties of dealing with submerged artillery...made by a representative of the very agency that saw fit to create this absurd problem in the first place, and was blithely shelling the lake until five years ago. One wishes that a person of Captain Braid's uncanny sapience had emerged at some point between the late 1950s and 2000, though one suspects that he would've been dismissed as a simpleton and a worrywart.

Paul Szabo, a liberal from Mississauga, is as puzzled by all this as I am:
Mr. Hunter, there are 300,000 projectiles remaining in the lake today, of which 8,000 are potentially dangerous. This is absolutely astounding, it really is, when I think of all of the rules and regulations we have at all levels of government, that this situation could have been allowed to be created in the first place....I know that when the minister was here, one of the points that came out was that there was not enough money in the entire defence budget to clean up all the sites that were contaminated. Do we in fact still live in an environment with a federal government that can permit this stuff to happen in the first place? Are those things closed now? Can this ever happen again? Can you promise, can you attest to this committee, that this will never, ever happen again?

Mr. Gordon Hunter: Actually, I'm going to be 55 next month, so it's pretty hard for me to make promises for the people who will be following me. I was four years old when people starting shooting into Lac Saint-Pierre in 1952. We can't really offer any explanation for the first 40 or 50 years of this....
You have to wonder how many things we're doing today that our experts will be at a loss to explain in fifty years' time.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Avoiding Confusion

Early this year, the U.S. Geological Survey found that environmental levels of mercury in the Great Salt Lake were among the highest ever recorded by federal scientists. Previously, the fanciful-yet-conventional wisdom had been that the GSL was a "natural disposal system" for contamination of this sort. In reality, it appears that the unique conditions in the GSL actually speed the conversion of inorganic mercury to more readily absorbed and bioaccumulated organic mercury.

An environmental group called the Great Salt Lakekeeper wants to perform an independent analysis of mercury levels in fish from streams that feed the Great Salt Lake. The analysis would be performed by a federally certified lab in North Carolina. However, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in conjunction with the Division of Water Quality, has refused to give the group a permit to catch fish for the survey, largely on the grounds that conflicting results might "confuse" the public.

That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Perhaps the results of independent testing would be unwelcome in some quarters? Hard to say. Local point sources for mercury are many and varied, but a fair amount of people are blaming gold-mining operations in Nevada.

Mercury is floating out of smokestacks into the atmosphere from a cluster of gold mines near Elko that account for as much as 11 percent of the nation's total mercury emissions. Utah's mountain high country, its urban heart and the irreplaceable ecology of the Great Salt Lake are directly downwind.
I'll note, in passing, that Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-NV) - an anti-environmental zealot who was a co-author of the ludicrous Mercury in Perspective report - seems to have a amicable relationship with gold-mining concerns...including the Newmont Mining Corp, which owns about 3,000 square miles of Nevada land along the Interstate 80 corridor, and is one of the country's worst emitters of mercury.

Recently, the Idaho Conservation League performed independent tests that suggested that air coming from the direction of Nevada's mines had significantly elevated levels of mercury.
Glenn Miller, a University of Nevada mining expert, praised the environmental group's work, despite its limitations. He was briefed on it and called the data the first of its kind. "It was important data," he said, "and the question ought to be asked why hasn't anybody else been doing that."
Maybe no one else did it because, like Utah's Division of Water Quality, they had neither the inclination nor the equipment. A fairly staggering article from The Salt Lake Tribune, dated July 6, 2005, says:
The state Department of Environmental Quality hopes soon to buy mercury analysis equipment for the state lab....After that, the Water Quality division can begin the rule-making process for mercury testing, which will involve public hearings and a formal request to the state Water Quality Board. The testing program could be in place by next spring. The main reason the state hasn't already set up protocols is because officials haven't seen evidence it was necessary.
Fair enough. If memory serves, Utah and Wyoming are the only Western states without protocols in place for issuing public advisories on mercury in fish. Given the nature of the threat - which includes unpredictable patterns of contamination from global sources, in addition to contamination from neighboring states - their worldview is a wee bit too insouciant for my taste.

All things considered, it's hard to see why allowing independent testing would be more productive of public confusion - or panic, or suspicion, or anger - than forbidding it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

An Abject Apology

Some readers may recall my exceedingly peevish post about Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd's theory on the female orgasm.

I recently got a polite but firm reply from Dr. Lloyd, who took issue with my characterization of her as a pseudoscientific charlatan...a characterization that irked her all the more given that she's in basic agreement with the concerns I raised in my post, and had apparently taken great pains to address them in The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, a book that she correctly surmised I hadn't bothered to read.

Quite honestly, I'm utterly without excuse. One of my regular themes here is the misrepresentation of science in the popular press. That being the case, it's rather ludicrous that I relied on a popularized article about Dr. Lloyd in order to attack her.

Another thing I often discuss here is ethics. Thus, I look even more foolish for launching an attack that was clearly unethical, given my lazy unwillingness to acquaint myself with the facts of the matter.

I can take a stab at an explanation, so long as no one sees it as an attempt - on any level - to weasel out of taking full responsibility for what I write here. In the first place, there's a constant temptation on political blogs to foment cheap outrage, especially when it's simply a matter of expanding on something someone else said. Posts like those are very easy to write...too easy, I'm afraid. Despite being aware of this mechanism, and often trying consciously to avoid it, I failed to consider whether I was falling prey to it before writing my post on Dr. Lloyd.

Most readers are aware that there are certain people who interpret evolutionary theory in a way that tends to validate sexual or racial oppression. This is an area of science - and ours is a political climate - in which it's extremely easy to assume the worst, and that's precisely what I did here. The media representation of Dr. Lloyd's views fit a stereotype I already had of evolutionary psychology at its most irresponsible.

However, as Dr. Lloyd points out, I was under no compulsion to accept that representation. If anything, I was obliged to take greater care with my response, given my first-hand knowledge of my own prejudices. Dr. Lloyd says:

[I]t's very alarming that anything I said could be misused. In fact, I'm quite shocked that it has been misused and misinterpreted. But all that misuse relies on MISREPRESENTATION. My real views are not in any way damaging to women, which you would know, if you looked at the book. You actively contributed to the problem, by not finding out more about my work before you wrote about
it. It would have been easy to do.


Still, I do see now why so many women and feminists have been alarmed-- through the media treatment of the book. The media have emphasized the one conclusion: that female orgasm is an evolutionary byproduct -- while downplaying my other findings. In particular, my findings that the evolutionists, through their sexism, have distorted and ignored real women's sexuality, and through assuming that orgasm is an adaptation, have forced women's sexuality into a reproductive functional model that doesn't reflect women's range of sexual experience and pleasure. Just as with Freud, an evolutionary adaptive or "usefulness" approach to female orgasm has never been an ally of women's sexual expression.
Just to make it clear how off-base I was, I'd like to reproduce a couple of my original points, with Dr. Lloyd's rebuttals. My remarks are in italics.
In any case, there's a huge difference between describing how the parts of our body should function, and ordaining how we should function, socially and sexually.

You make an excellent point, and it's actually a point I make quite firmly in my book. Since you make the point, though, why didn't you follow your own advice? That is, if I'm saying that women's orgasm has no evolutionary function, this has no consequence whatsoever on how we should value it socially and sexually. We take the general point for granted: reading and writing and operating a computer are hugely important in our culture, yet none of these traits are adaptations, they're all evolutionary byproducts. But we don't think they're any less culturally important on that account. In other words, we don't assign cultural importance according to whether a trait is an evolutionary adaptation, and we shouldn't. Period. That goes for female orgasm as much as it goes for reading.

Since recorded history began, the dominant scientific, sociological, religious, and legal approaches to sexuality in general - and female sexuality in particular - have been vicious, ignorant, and oppressive....

You're right. And I make a point of further documenting this in the book, showing that many of the evolutionists I examine have been exactly as you say. I support your feminist point, and provide further, scholarly documentation for your feminist conclusion.
If anyone needs further evidence that my original post grotesquely misrepresented Dr. Lloyd's position - to say nothing of her integrity and intellect - I can provide more of her remarkably patient and even-tempered rebuttals. But I think the point is made, for now. I've already apologized to Dr. Lloyd privately, but I also want to apologize publicly. The journalistic sloppiness I displayed on this occasion can be put down to a combination of prejudice, suspicion, overwork, groupthink, and general ill temper...these are things to which all of us fall prey now and again. What's far more disturbing to me is the moral dimension of my critique; a couple of the things I said about Dr. Lloyd were inexcusably mean-spirited and stupid, and I regret them a great deal. In fact, I would certainly have deleted the post if Dr. Lloyd hadn't specifically asked me to leave it as it was.

In any case, this has been a valuable lesson to me, and I'm grateful to Dr. Lloyd for setting me straight far more gently than I deserved!

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Power-Hungry World

A pro-nuclear article in the Washington Times raises some interesting questions, as dishonest gibberish so often does.

Nuclear power is on the rise here and abroad after decades of dormancy, driven by the need for a cleaner environment and steady, secure sources of power in the Internet age.
The "rise" of nuclear power in the USA is largely rhetorical, and is fueled by the willingness of right-wing media to treat the matter as a fait accompli. Write enough articles about how everyone has embraced nuclear power, the logic goes, and eventually everyone will embrace nuclear power. It may work, or it may not. I suspect it won't.

If we want to talk about how nuclear power is faring in foreign lands, Germany's situation is worth a mention. Under that country's "nuclear exit strategy," all nuclear plants were supposed to be scrapped by 2020. Sounds great, in theory, but there is the small matter of waste to consider. Germany has enacted a ban on nuclear-waste exports to other nations, which leaves it with thousands of tons of hot radioactive waste, and no good place to put it.

Germany's not alone in this dilemma; things are tough all over. (Rather than bore you with the details here, I'll bore you with them over here.)

Now, let's get back to our friends at the Washington Times:
With worries about terrorism now paramount in the minds of the public and political leaders, concerns about safety that haunted nuclear utilities for decades appear to have receded, replaced by increasing confidence that after a half-century of operating without causing a major public health hazard in the United States, nuclear plants have by and large proven to be safe.
This is quite a paragraph. It begins with a non sequitur; whether terrorism is "paramount" in the minds of Americans or not - and polls suggest that it isn't - the notion that fear of terrorism has caused fear of nuclear power to "recede" makes no sense whatsoever. For one thing, these fears aren't mutually exclusive; the fact that nuclear plants and waste dumps are ideal targets for terrorism may not yet have percolated into the hive-mind of the Washington Times, but more individuated forms of consciousness have surely managed to grasp it.

Of course, what naysayers like myself fail to reckon with is the amazing progress we've made in ensuring plant safety:
A new generation of power plants on the drawing board, some with automatic methods of shutting down in emergencies, promises to be safer than before.
Wow...automatic shutdown systems! Whatever will they think of next?

As it happens, nuclear power plants are already equipped with automatic shutdown systems (whether they work reliably is another question). I don't know how many people will be comforted to learn that some unspecified percentage of the "new generation" of atomic plants will be equipped with this standard-issue safety feature.

So far we've learned that nuclear power is fashionable, and that it's possibly a bit safer than it used to be, and that it has been validated in some obscure way by 9/11. With those crackpot notions duly espoused, the only thing left to do is explain that nuclear energy is nonpolluting:
In the West, nuclear power is gaining an image as a clean energy source. Nuclear plants emit none of the pollutants or greenhouse gases that are byproducts of the most common sources of power: coal, oil and natural gas.
One might just as logically say that natural gas plants emit none of the radioactive isotopes that are byproducts of nuclear fission. In any case, uranium enrichment produces plenty of greenhouse gases, and the nuclear industry uses huge amounts of fossil fuel. France has estimated that its nuclear industry produces about 25 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, without factoring in emissions from uranium ore mining and preparation. We can argue about whether that's an improvement over other types of energy production, so long as we can agree that there's a stark quantitative difference between 25 million tons of emissions, and zero tons of emissions.

In closing, I'd like to turn things over the dewy-eyed, Birckenstock-wearing treehuggers at the Economist, who have managed to explain the financial problems with nuclear power pretty clearly:
Taking into account the uncertainties, most studies done on nuclear economics (including the most authoritative ones, done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs) conclude that new plants built by the private sector, with investors bearing the full brunt of risks, are not economic without subsidy.

Though nuclear vendors are promising that their new designs will cost only $1,500 per kW of installed capacity, that assumes ideal conditions and no delays. A more realistic assessment (indeed, the consensus view among experts not aligned with the nuclear industry) is that new plants will probably cost close to $2,000 per kW. That may be less in real terms than the capital cost of previous generations of nuclear plants, but it is still about double the capital cost of a conventional coal plant today.
And this, of course, is without factoring in waste disposal, a problem for which there is no safe and cost-effective solution, and which renders null and void any proposed environmental benefit of nuclear power.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Risk Management

I hold this truth to be self-evident: Unreleased footage from Iraq's prisons depicts the US-sanctioned rape of children in front of their parents.

With that rather astonishing fact in mind, let's have a brief look at this NYT article:

Officials See Risk in the Release of Images of Iraq Prisoner Abuse

Pentagon officials argued that releasing the images would incite public opinion in the Muslim world and put the lives of American soldiers at risk.
Let's be clear about this. If our government has ordered, condoned, or attempted to cover up a policy of raping children in front of their parents, all of our lives deserve to be at risk. These are acts of incalculable evil, and we're all culpable for them. If I've been raping and murdering children and burying their carcasses in my backyard, and the police become interested in me, I can't seek an injunction against a backhoe operator on the grounds that his activities will inconvenience me, or upset my neighbors. I gave up all consideration for myself and my neighbors when I committed those crimes.

Notwithstanding, General Richard Myers warns us that
It is "probable that al-Qaeda and other groups will seize upon these images and videos as grist for their propaganda mill...."
It seems obvious to me that an administration whose actions so reliably aid al-Qaeda is incompetent at fighting al-Qaeda, but that's a mere detail.

A sane country holds its leaders accountable for crimes of this magnitude, because it realizes that the social and moral disequilibrium caused by failing to do so threatens every member of that society. Our morbid national obsession with morality - a showy, commercialized form of morality that lacks any consistency or validity, let alone compassion - is a perverted, superstitious recognition of this disequilibrium, and is about as sophisticated as knocking on wood to ward off evil. Apparently, if we can prevent infants from being raised by lesbians, we've done our part; we can shrug off the sexual torture of Iraqi children (and the very real possibility that these videotapes were created, at least in part, to serve as pornography for members of our government).

The argument that revealing the truth about these crimes would put the lives of American soldiers at risk is absurd. First, our soldiers' lives are already at risk, by virtue of being under the dominion of a corrupt administration. Second, there's a certain irony in the fact that BushCo is trying to protect itself by means of the basic argument against violating the Geneva Conventions, which is that committing war crimes puts one's own soldiers and civilians at risk. Needless to say, this is an argument that Bush and his creatures have been sneering at for years. Having rejected it summarily when it would've put a crimp in their plans, they have no right to invoke it in their own defense now.

My feeling is that if we're unwilling to identify and punish the officials behind these acts, we forfeit any right to complain about retribution, no matter what it is or whence it comes. Nature abhors a moral vacuum.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Not sure which nudibranch this is, but it's attractive!

I've claimed several times that I was "pretty much done" with my extremely time-consuming "real" job, and intimated that I was ready to get back to a more regular posting schedule. But I was kidding myself, unfortunately. As usual, the less work remained, the more time it took!

Now, however, I really am finished. The project's completely out of my hands, and will make no more demands on my time. So starting tomorrow, I'll be getting back to daily posting, or something very near to it. (Unless, of course, I'm too hungover after celebrating the end of this nightmare, and the bonus I received for dragging my poor carcass to the finish line.)

I must say, I'm really amazed at how many people have stuck with me over the last few months. Thanks!

Friday Hope Blogging

A short installment this week, but a sweet one. POGO has a great story about a successful example of "anonymous activism," in which current and former employees of the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC) brought down the crooked Bush appointee who was running it into the ground:

They mounted a sophisticated campaign to expose how the new head of the commission, Arturo Duran, abused his public office -- everything from hiring his crony friends to buying a Cadillac Escalade with "shale nuance leather seating surfaces" on the taxpayer dime. They did it all ANONYMOUSLY.

Now the El Paso Times reports that President Bush has asked Duran to resign.
The exceedingly good folks at POGO, by the way, published a book a while back called The Art of Anonymous Activism. Looks like an ideal gift for any friends you might have in high places!

A comment on the POGO story alerted me to Anonymous Blogging, a nicely designed new site whose mission is
To produce and translate comprehensive instructions on processes and tools for blogging anonymously and to distribute them to the five countries that are the most dangerous and difficult for bloggers.
Have a look, and help out if you can.

In other news, climate change deniers look a wee bit more stupid than usual today, as we learn that one of their major pieces of "evidence" against global warming turns out to be an artefact of sensor placement. This discovery has temporarily reduced at least one group of anti-environmental lunatics - a class of people who are very seldom at a loss for words - to sullen silence.
Mark Herlong of the George C. Marshall Institute declined to comment. The group, financed by the petroleum industry, has used the data disparities to dispute the views of global warming activists.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Fun With Chemical Weapons

America's chemical weapons continue to be a greater threat to US citizens than they ever were to our "enemies." The federal government claims it has no money to clean up Camp Sibert, a highly contaminated site in Alabama which was formerly the nation's largest repository of chemical weapons.

A check in 2002 unearthed an old artillery shell containing the chemical phosgene, a choking agent, in a field near a family's home in Etowah County. The house is located at what was once an artillery range where troops trained in the use of chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, mustard gas leaks from a storage building:
Leaking mustard agent has been found in a second Blue Grass Army Depot storage building near Richmond, the Army announced yesterday. The building, known as an igloo, is being filtered to prevent the chemical agent from escaping into the air.
Disposal of these useless weapons - which have primarily been used on US citizens acting as human guinea-pigs - continues to be...well, problematic. The incinerator at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele, Utah is unreliable, to say the least. The Pentagon wants to tear it down when (or if) it finishes destroying its allotment of chemical weapons. But Utah Republicans can't bear the thought of losing this symbol of wastefulness, misplaced bellicosity, and environmental ruin. They want to turn it into a disposal site for conventional weapons.
"This large investment should not be abandoned," the Utahns wrote. "It would be a more responsible use of taxpayer funds, as well as more environmentally friendly, to consider converting the chemical destruction plant to a conventional munitions disposal operation rather than completely dismantling and tearing down this facility."
It's interesting to compare Republican solicitude for this godforsaken locale to their disregard for, say, Otero Mesa or ANWR. Saying that it's "environmentally friendly" to keep the Tooele incinerator running for the next couple of decades is like saying that it's hygienic to bathe in raw sewage.

In other news, two of our primary nerve-gas incinerators are apparently bedeviled by poltergeists:
The Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon had its fourth fire in as many months Friday night, temporarily suspending operations to destroy M55 rockets filled with GB sarin nerve agent. Previous fires were April 7 and 23 and May 18 at the depot, which is 35 miles south of the Tri-Cities. The fires each started in the M55 GB sarin rockets' motor section as a shearing machine was chopping up the rockets.
Similar fires have been breaking out at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Fortunately, this is of no concern whatsoever:
The Army concluded in a preliminary assessment that safety at the incineration operations won't be reduced even if such fires continue.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Dendrodoris denisoni. It's a nice change from the woefully drab nudibranchs I usually post, isn't it?

Rather than gnawing at coral, D. denisoni dissolves it with digestive juices and then siphons it up. Nice work if you can get it!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Blind Spot

This week, our president - one of the most diabolically insincere people on earth - evinced a "sincere" desire to see Intelligent Design taught in schools.

The reaction from the Left blogosphere was swift and predictable. The difference between faith and science was explained yet again, as was the difference between belief and proof. And I'm sure that every person who wrote one of these earnest pieces felt like a dauntless crusader for the truth, rather than like a monkey dancing feebly to the GOP's barrel-organ.

For the Right, the Left's reaction to such pronouncements is one of the primary reasons for making them. And the Left's stolid insistence on taking this disingenuous gobbledygook at face value drives me to despair. We don't believe anything Bush says, except when it comes to his "faith."

But this is not about faith; it's about fascism. The Bush Administration is fascistic by any reasonable definition of the term, and fascism thrives on the irrational the way Hummers thrive on cheap gasoline. There's no arguing with fascism, because it has consciously and proudly put itself beyond the reach of logic and proof and morality and compassion.

BushCo's irrationalism is not some sort of humble subservience before the glory of the Almighty; it's a psychologically liberating rejection of anything (including God) that might dare to put a limit on personal, temporal power...including, of course, the humanist ideal of an educated, scientifically literate public.

It's also calculating and cynical. Theodor Adorno often had occasion to note "the entirely calculated, highly rationalistic nature of [fascism's] irrationalism." Unfortunately, when this calculation dresses itself up in its Sunday best, much of today's Left loses the ability to recognize it as anything other than Faith Rampant and Militant. It's as though we're too busy arguing with Oz over whether wizards exist to look behind his curtain.

A while back, I discussed Hans Hörbiger's Cosmic Ice Doctrine, a crackpot theory that became orthodox in Nazi Germany. It didn't become orthodox simply because the Nazis refused to listen to respectable scientists, but because respectable scientists opposed it. Outraged scientists were, for Hitlerians, the best conceivable argument in favor of Hörbiger; anything that could dismay the "enemy" to such an extent was precisely as true as it needed to be.

I concluded that post with this thought:

It's not so much that people are ignorant, or are sinking back into a Medieval worldview, as that they're engaged in active, conscious rebellion against reason itself. I think this is a very important distinction to make, and that people who ignore it are adding to the Left's problems.

How far this rebellion will go is anybody's guess; the idea that the current Left represents a serious obstacle to it is, I think, a mistake. To the extent that we come armed with statistics and facts and pro-science polemics, we're more or less toothless.
I stand by that belief. And in closing, I'll add that the Right has been the primary force behind research into bioweapons. The PNAC recently became downright giddy at the thought of engineering viruses so that they'd target specific racial groups. These are people who are perfectly comfortable with hard science, when it suits their purposes.

But fussing over Intelligent Design achieves several important goals. First, it taps into the paranoia and anomie of the underclass, and turns it against educators and other "elites." Second, it works towards establishing epistemological nihilism as the law of the land. Third, it makes Bush a halo'd defender of the One True Faith. And last, it makes liberals pig-biting mad, which the Right can triumphantly point to as evidence of our hostility to all that "real Americans" hold dear.

Not a bad little racket, all in all.