Friday, January 30, 2009

Quote of the day

'Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: "My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly." This stranger is a theologian.' - Denis Diderot, Pensées philosophiques (1746)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Expert on gullibility and Ponzi schemes explains why he fell for Madoff's Ponzi scheme

I meant to link to this eSkeptic a while ago, but better late than never.

There are few areas of functioning where skepticism is more important than how one invests one’s life savings. Yet intelligent and educated people, some of them naïve about finance and others quite knowledgeable, have been ruined by schemes that turned out to be highly dubious and quite often fraudulent. The most dramatic example of this in American history is the recent announcement that Bernard Madoff, a highly-regarded hedge fund manager and a former president of NASDAQ, has for several years been running a very sophisticated Ponzi scheme which by his own admission has defrauded wealthy investors, charities and other funds, of at least 50 billion dollars.

In my new book Annals of Gullibility, I analyze the topic of financial scams, along with a great number of other forms of human gullibility, including war (the Trojan Horse), politics (WMDs in Iraq), relationships (sexual seduction), pathological science (cold fusion), religion (Christian Science), human services (Facilitated Communication), medical fads (homeopathy), etc. Although gullibility has long been of interest in works of fiction (Othello, Pinnochio), religious documents (Adam and Eve, Samson) and folk tales (Emperor’s New Clothes, Little Riding Hood), it has been almost completely ignored by social scientists. There have been a few books that have focused on narrow aspects of gullibility, including Charles Mackey’s classic 19th century book, Extraordinary Popular Delusion and the Madness of Crowds (most notably on investment follies such as Tulipimania, in which rich Dutch people traded their houses for one or two tulip bulbs). In Annals of Gullibility I propose a multi-dimensional theory that would explain why so many people behave in a manner which exposes them to severe and predictable risks. This includes myself — I lost a good chunk of my retirement savings to Mr. Madoff, so I know of what I write on the most personal level.
The author goes on to explain some of the dimensions of gullibility and then uses himself as a case study of how he fell for Madoff's multi-billion dollar scam.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Quote of the day

"The great moral questions - the most moral and urgent ones - are not about sex, drugs and unmarried mothers. They are, instead, about human rights, war and genocide, the arms trade, poverty in the Third World, the continuance of slavery under many guises and names, interreligious antipathies and conflicts, and inequality and injustice everywhere. These areas of concern involve truly staggering horrors and human suffering. In comparison to them, the parochial and largely misguided anxieties over sex, drugs, gay marriage and the other matters that fill newspapers and agitate the ‘Moral Majority’ in America and Britain, pale into triviality. It is itself a moral scandal that these questions preoccupy debate in comfortable corners of the world, while real atrocity and oppression exist elsewhere." - A.C. Grayling, The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty, and the Good Life in the 21st Century

via the Butterflies and Wheels book review

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is Bill O'Reilly the next John Edward?

To make sense of the post title, you'll first need to know that John Edward is a charlatan who claims to be able to communicate with the dead. Now on to O'Reilly ...

Yesterday on the Radio Factor, Bill O'Reilly asserted that he knows "for a fact" that the Founding Fathers would consider abortion infanticide. This begs the question: what does O'Reilly think the word fact means? If it means what standard dictionaries define it as, then it is not a fact that the founders would consider abortion infanticide. If, however, you define fact as something believed by Bill O'Reilly to be true, then in that case it could be a "fact."

As far as I can tell, abortions were legal at the time of the nation's founding, and remained so well into the 19th century. Indeed, the History Channel notes that abortion "was not considered an offense in secular law until the 19th century." The review of When Abortion was a Crime in The Atlantic states

UNTIL the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was criminalized state by state across the land, abortion was legal before "quickening" (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for "bringing on the menses" with herbs that could be grown in one's garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism ("taking the trade"). Unfortunately, these drugs were often fatal. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business -- including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press -- was booming. The most famous practitioner, Madame Restell, openly provided abortion services for thirty-five years, with offices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and traveling salespeople touting her "Female Monthly Pills."

In one of the many curious twists that mark the history of abortion, the campaign to criminalize it was waged by the same professional group that, a century later, would play an important role in legalization: physicians.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

David Michaels talks pseudo-doubt

Given that I just named Doubt Is Their Product the 2008 Book of the Year, I thought it would be a good time to post this discussion from Michaels on the subject.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sagan's letter to Leibniz

From Ann Druyan's introduction to The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan.

In [the] same drawer where the transcript of these lectures were rediscovered, there was a sheaf of notes intended for a book we never had the chance to write. Its working title was Ethos, and it would have been our attempt to synthesize the spiritual perspectives we derived from the revelations of science. We collected filing cabinets' worth of notes and references on the subject. Among them was a quotation Carl had excerpted from Gottfried Leibniz (1646 - 1716), the mathematical and philosophical genius, who had invented differential and integral calculus independently of Isaac Newton. Leibniz argued that God should be the wall that stopped all further questioning, as he famously wrote in this passage from Principles of Nature and Grace:

"Why does something exist rather than nothing? For 'nothing' is simpler than 'something.' Now this sufficient reason for the existence of the universe ... which has no need of any other reason ... must be a necessary being, else we should not have sufficient reason with which we could stop."

And just beneath the typed quote, three small handwritten words in red pen, a message from Carl to Leibniz and to us: "So don't stop."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the decline of democratic capitalism

David Cay Johnston in Mother Jones

For the past 14 years, on my former beat as the tax reporter for the New York Times, and now as a columnist for the trade journal Tax Notes, I have been documenting the myriad ways in which our economy has been recalibrated to take from the poor, the middle class, and even the affluent and give to large corporations and the very richest of the rich. I discovered, for example, that in 2000, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 paid the same share of their income to the federal government as those making more than $87 million, and that those making between $100,000 and $200,000 were taxed more heavily than those making $10 million—a state of affairs the Bush administration called "progressive" when I first reported it in 2005. Thanks to Reaganite economic policies, we have encouraged once-competitive industries such as oil, car manufacturing, accounting, and news media to congeal into unchecked (and now struggling) oligopolies. We have slashed the ranks of white-collar cops—the auditors and investigators whose beats are taxes, securities, food and drugs, pollution, etc.—and hamstrung those who are left. And we have transformed the idea that bankers would self-regulate from a crackpot notion into the essence of government policy, with results as predictable as if we removed all traffic lights and stop signs on the theory that most drivers are responsible.
The rest of Johnston's lengthy article gives recommendations on reforms that can be implemented to improve this dire situation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quote of the day

"Humans all seem to be on the verge of apophenia. The brain that is able to link the tides to the phases of the moon may also see in the passage of a comet an omen of victory in battle, or perhaps link a distant supernova to the birth of a god. A strategy is needed to tell which patterns are significant, and which are merely coincidental. It took 160,000 years before such a strategy was found. We call it science." - Robert Park, Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

Monday, January 19, 2009

2008 Book of the Year

Back in the 2005, the first book chosen here as Book of the Year was Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History, a no-brainer for The Daily Doubter given the book’s survey of the history of doubt as a creative force and an antidote to the stagnation of dogmatic certainty.

This year is another no-brainer, but for almost the opposite reason. Where as Hecht’s work followed doubt as a component of critical and open inquiry that leads to the improvement and acquisition of knowledge, the book chosen this year is about the misappropriation of doubt as an obfuscating tool to block and retard the advancement of human knowledge. And so the 2008 Book of the Year is:

Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels

One of the key concepts that one should take away from a reading of Hecht’s Doubt is that it is that by recognizing that we can not obtain absolute certainty we leave open the avenue to the improvement of our understanding of the world around us. In Doubt Is Their Product, David Michaels explores how industry seeks to exploit this form of doubt in order to create what more properly should be understood as pseudo-doubt: the manufacturing of uncertainty in service of a predetermined conclusion.

The book is an extension of an article by Michaels in the June 2005 issue of Scientific American which is also titled "Doubt is their product." Both the book and article derive their title from an infamous Big Tobacco internal memo which perfectly epitomizes the production of pseudo-doubt and concisely sums up the decades long p.r. campaign to hide the deadly health consequences of cigarettes from the public. I'll quote the article's intro at length

Few scientific challenges are more complex than understanding the health risks of a chemical or drug. Investigators cannot feed toxic compounds to people to see what doses cause cancer. Instead laboratory researchers rely on animal tests, and epidemiologists examine the human exposures that have already happened in the field. Both types of studies have many uncertainties, and scientists must extrapolate from the evidence to make causal inferences and recommend protective measures. Because absolute certainty is rarely an option, regulatory programs would not be effective if such proof were required. Government officials have to use the best available evidence to set limits for harmful chemicals and determine the safety of pharmaceuticals.

Uncertainty is an inherent problem of science, but manufactured uncertainty is another matter entirely. Over the past three decades, industry groups have frequently become involved in the investigative process when their interests are threatened. If, for example, studies show that a company is exposing its workers to dangerous levels of a certain chemical, the business typically responds by hiring its own researchers to cast doubt on the studies. Or if a pharmaceutical firm faces questions about the safety of one of its drugs, its executives trumpet company sponsored trials that show no significant health risks while ignoring or hiding other studies that are much less reassuring. The vilification of threatening research as "junk science" and the corresponding sanctification of industry-commissioned research as "sound science" has become nothing less than standard operating procedure in some parts of corporate America.

In 1969 an executive at Brown & Williamson, a cigarette maker now owned by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, unwisely committed to paper the perfect slogan for his industry's disinformation campaign: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public." In recent years, many other industries have eagerly adopted this strategy. Corporations have mounted campaigns to question studies documenting the adverse health effects of exposure to beryllium, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, chromium, benzene, benzidine, nickel, and a long list of other toxic chemicals and medications. What is more, Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush have encouraged such tactics by making it easier for private groups to challenge government-funded research. Although in some cases, companies may be raising legitimate arguments, the overall result is disturbing: many corporations have successfully avoided expense and inconvenience by blocking and stalling much needed protections for public health.
In the book, Michaels demonstrates that this pattern of attacking legitimate science as being too uncertain in favor of industry funded “sound science” - which always finds in favor of the industry client - is pervasive and dangerous to the nation’s health. Describing the product defense industry, Michaels writes

The range of their work is impressive. They have on their payrolls (or can bring in at a moment’s notice) toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostaticians, risk ascesors, and any other professionally trained, media-savvy experts deemed necessary. They and the larger, wealthier industries for which they work go through the motions we expect of the scientific enterprise, salting the literature with their questionable reports and studies. Nevertheless, it is all a charade. The work has one overriding motivation: advocacy for the sponsor’s position in civil court, the court of public opinion, and the regulatory arena. Often tailored to address issues that arise in litigation, they are more like legal proceedings than scientific papers. In the regulatory arena, the studies are useful not because they are good work that the regulatory agencies have to take seriously but because they clog the machinery and slow the process.
Michaels gives a typical example of this process in the book’s introduction. In 1986, a warning label was added to aspirin products noting the danger to children of developing Reyes syndrome if consumed while experiencing a viral illness. Before the FDA warning label there had been a substantial danger to children: in 1980, 555 cases were reported (and the actual number was likely under reported) with 1 in 3 of those diagnosed having died. The FDA’s warning label had been delayed by the efforts of aspirin manufacturers despite the CDC already having issued an alert about the risk. They argued that the science linking Reyes and aspirin was too uncertain and issued a public service announcement stating, “We do know that no medication has been proven to cause Reyes.” With the additional industry sympathetic efforts of the Reagan administration’s OMB, mandatory labels were delayed by four years, only to be enacted after the government’s hand was forced by litigation from the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. Since the establishment of the warning label only a handful of cases of Reyes are now reported a year.

The public service announcement issued by the aspirin manufacturers contrary to what was already known about their product is not atypical. Indeed, in example after example the same pattern repeats itself: industry issues public denials of danger from their product even long after they’d privately become aware of the dangers they were pretending (or managed to convince themselves) did not exist.

For example, on February 9, 1971 a public relations statement from B & W Tobacco said that cigarette health hazards were “not a statement of fact but merely an hypothesis.” Yet in 1964 the U.S. Surgeon General had issued a public warning about the health hazards of cigarettes which were already well known and documented by scientists. Internal documents now reveal that the tobacco industry was well aware of the dangers of cigarettes but lied about them in public as part of a deliberate p.r. strategy. This strategy continued into the 1980s when the tobacco industry created the “sound science” movement – always asserting that any science that reflects poorly on industry is "junk science" – in order to combat the regulation of secondhand smoke.

Nearly seven decades after the health hazards of cigarettes had been reported, in 1994 B & W CEO Thomas Sandefur testified before a U.S. House of Representatives committee that “I do not believe that nicotine is addictive;” a lie which became the final straw for B & W scientist Jeffrey Wigand who quit and then blew the whistle on his former employers to 60 Minutes. The incident was made into the film The Insider about the attempted censorship (which lasted 3 years) of the report by CBS’s then corporate parent company Westinghouse.

As far back as the '30s the investigative journalist George Seldes had already observed that the press was caving to advertising interests in not reporting the health hazards of tobacco, but it was not until the 1950s that the science was definitive enough to warrant a public warning (in 1954) about smoking while more research continued.

This illustrates an important principle of regulation: precaution should take precedence over demands for "proof." Given that the absolute certainty demanded by industry is a goal that can never be attained, public policy must reflect the best available science and if a risk is indicated the burden of demonstrated safety should be on industry. In Europe this is understood as the "precautionary principle."

Industry, however, in order to avoid policy discussion concentrates its efforts on the manufacture of uncertainty at the scientific level, an effort that extends not just to the public, but to itself. Michaels notes that while evidence linked abestos and cancer, industry executives used self-imposed uncertainty to avoid regulatory efforts. The executives purposefully did not conduct research that would demonstrate dangerous levels of asbestos exposure so that when regulations were proposed they could argue there was no evidence indicating asbestos dangers at the levels proposed to be regulated! Decades after the dangers of asbestos had been discovered and regulation proposed the industry still refused to self-regulate, while the government lacked the capacity to do so, either, which has led to a crisis of health effects resulting from asbestos exposures.

Minutes of an internal meeting show industry deceiving itself: "We do not believe there is enough evidence of cancer or asbestos, or cancer and asbestosis, in this industry to warrant this survey" of the dangers. By the time of the meeting - 1957 - this was simply an absurd statement given the evidence that was already available. Michaels speculates that the executives engaged in a process of self-justification to eliminate cognitive dissonance: they wanted to believe their product safe, therefore they used anecdotal thought (e.g. "I know workers exposed to asbestos for years who are perfectly healthy") to convince theirselves that it was safe in a process similar to that of William Clifford's shipowner who manages to stifle his doubts about the safety of his ship. This habit of thought, when combined with the profit motive to disbelieve and human difficulty in grasping the statistics of epidemiology, forms a powerful means of developing and maintaining beliefs not grounded in reality.

Reading Doubt is Their Product you will see the deadly product of this form of directionally manufactured uncertainty over and over again. Michaels examines psuedo-doubt campaigns from the industries of vinyl chlorides, lead, beryllium, mercury, aromatic amines, etc which all emulate the efforts of Big Tobacco which were so successful for nearly half a century. Indeed, many of the same scientists-for-hire who cut their teeth defending tobacco went on to do work for the other industries (including those that argue against taking action on anthropogenic global warming.)

Although not as well publicized, these campaigns have also been quite successful; for instance, it was known as early as 1895 that exposure to aromatic amines causes bladder cancer, but industry fought regulations well into the 20th century, despite the cases of cancer that followed. And beryllium beat regulation in 1978 and in 2002 despite the dangers associated with it. The book is rife with such examples.

These campaigns are facilitated with captured journals designed to provide the prestige of peer review, where the reviewers are in reality carefully chosen by industry in advance. Mercenary scientists manipulate the parameters of studies to dilute or dissappear risk so that regulation can be challenged. Given the dubious nature of such science-for-hire, this is largely a stall tactic. The real benefit of such pseudoscience is that it can be used in courts to confuse juries that are not familiar with research methods and statistics. Industries are willing to pay millions to mercenary scientists to reanalyze critical studies in such a way that undesired results go away. In one instance Michaels cites, industry was willing to pay as much as $22 million because they knew in advance what the conclusion of the study would be!

And to illustrate how product defense firms are only interested in servicing their client, Michaels points out that while working for the Chromium Coalition, Exponent Inc denounced an EPA funded John Hopkins University study but when working for a different industry praised the same study!

Speaking of chromium, the book covers some particularly dirty tricks from the industry, which would complain in public that there is not enough low exposure research while secretly hiding its own damning low exposure research until it could doctor the results to dissapper the risk.

The book also documents the serious governmental regulatory deficiency we have here. The example that jumps out is that of diacetyl, a popcorn butter flavoring agent responsible for a lung disease so deadly it's named bronchiolitis obliterans. OSHA simply declined to take action despite the NIOSH having made recommendations in recognition of clear danger. OSHA instead entered into a collaborative "alliance" with popcorn flavor maufacturers where OSHA consults with industry rather than regulates it.

But wait - haven't we heard from Market fundamentalists about the crippling regulations that industry faces? Michaels counters

Workers wait for OSHA at their peril. It is as simple as that. New workplace health standards are rare, and it makes little difference whether the White House is in Democratic or Republican hands. In the last ten years OSHA has issued workplace standards for a total of two new chemicals. Two Indeed, since its inception it has issued comprehensive standards for only thirty toxic materials. Additionally, the agency enforces permissable exposure limits for fewer than two hundred of the approximately three thousand chemicals the EPA characterizes as high-production volum (HPV) because more than a million pounds of the substance is produced or imported each year. Of these OSHA standards, all but a handful were borrowed whole from the voluntary levels established by industry consensus groups prior to the agency's creatio in 1971. Many are now hopelessly, dangerously out of date; new science has had no impact on these regulations. Because OSHA has been so beaten down by the opponents of regulation, it has virtually given up on developing new regulations or strengthening outdated ones.
And in some instances, OSHA has itself become the opponent of regulation. Eugene Scalia became OSHA's top lawyer when he was named solicitor of the Department of Labor, having previously worked as an opponent of ergonomics regulations.

In March 2003 OSHA came up with an extremely effective way to control the rate of reported RSIs: The agency revoked a planned regulation that would have required employers to report annually the number of musculoskeletal disorders occurring among their employees. In other words, just don't collect data, and the injury numbers will go down drastically. Obviously OSHA must be doing a great job.
This sort of capture of government regulatory agencies extends elsewhere. The PDUFA, when passed in 1992 (a somewhat reformed version was apparently passed in '07, although Michaels argues that this should only be a temporary fix), transformed the FDA into a semi-de facto front for Big Pharma. User fees from Big Pharma became a revenue source for the FDA while Congress cut the agency's budget, but the money was dependent on the agency approving drugs in the review process rather than regulating for safety after approval.

Rezulin stands out as an example of the ability of Big Pharma to influence the regulatory process. This liver drug was approved after the lead FDA investigator who opposed it was removed and his report shelved, thanks to pressure to approve the drug. This led to 100s of deaths and the drug's removal from the market 2.5 years after it had already been taken off the market in Britain. In another instance, the product defense firm the Weinberg Group bragged about being able to delay phenylpropanolamine's (PPA) removal from the market for ten years.

Industry has several other major tools to delay or prevent regulation. One such hurdle for regulators is the Daubert Supreme Court case which allows judges to throw out evidence using the industry standard of uncertainty (pseudo-doubt.) Michaels explains some of the problems with the decision, here. Another is the Data Quality Act, which was dreamed up by Big Tobacco (although their role in its creation was far from transparent.) This bill has been used by the Bush administration to allow industry to put a virtual halt to the regulatory process by challenging the legitimacy of scientific reports. All done under the pretense of - you guessed it - formulating "sound science." The Washington Post described the act as the "nemesis of regulation." A companion movement that would give industry additional power to handcuff regulators is the OMB's peer review proposal.

Of course, regulation never really had much of a chance with Bush 43 as president.

From the moment George W. Bush took the oath of office in January 2001, his political appointees, working at the bidding of the corporate polluters who in many cases were their former and subsequen employers, have gutted, evaded, and opposed environmental regulations.
With the regulatory agencies under assault, under-funded, and under-staffed, litigation is one of the last lines of defense for the public. Michaels notes that the tide was turned against the tobacco industry's disinformation campaign not by regulators (although they helped) but by the judicial system. In "industry after industry" litigation has forced the disclosure of damning industry documents. With this in mind, Michaels offers four proposals to make the judicial system a critical component of the public health system:

1. "No more court sanctioned secrecy." Industry uses the trade-off of settlement for secrecy in order to hide the health consequences of its product from the public. A solution would be to use settlements as the basis for future punitive precedent.

2. "Allow injured workers to sue their employers." Workers compensation can sometimes preclude litigation. Michaels gives the example of a window washer company which was fined merely $2, 700 by OSHA for negligence leading to the death of an employee. The family was awarded $7.2 million in compensation by court.

3. "Develop better compensation systems." Industry favors compensation schemes which preclude litigation, but non-exclusive schemes which allow choice of litigation or compensation would better protect the ability of workers to pursue just compensation.

4. "End 'preemption by preamble.': Bad public policy and bad for public health." Industry argues that compliance with pertinent regulations should preclude litigation, but many regulations are either too weak or written by industry lobbyists in the first place. A classic example of this is the Titantic, which didn't have enough lifeboats for its passengers but actually exceeded the existing number required by regulation,because the regulation had been written 30 years earlier back when cruise ships were smaller. Despite the obvious negligence of the company responsible for the Titantic, it was not held legally responsible for the lack of lifeboats under the "preemption by preamble" princple.

The Bush administration has itself been a big fan of this principle. In 2006 the FDA stated that a drug label "preempts conflicting or contrary state laws." Remembering that the labels are heavily influenced by Big Pharma in the first place, that's not a comforting thought. Michaels calls this principle "catastrophic" for public health, given that it would leave no incentive for the improvement of public safety.

Returning to the central premise of the book, Michaels observes that the manufacturing of uncertainty by industry might also be described as the "Enronization of science," with product defense firms paralleling the actions of Arthur Anderson for Enron. This is indicative of the reality that "the seperation betwen academic science and the business world is disappearing." Thomas Frank described the problem of the merging/confusing of the academic and business conception of a "marketplace of ideas" in The Wrecking Crew.

Like many winger ideas – anticommunism, for example – it sounds good at first. A “free market of ideas” sounds like “free inquiry,” or a "free exchange of ideas”; an environment in which hypothesis are tested and bad ones are weeded out while good ones go on to earn the respect of the community of scholars. But this is not what the phrase means at all. Markets do not determine the objective merit of things, only their price, which is to say, their merit in the eyes of capital or consumers. To cast intellectual life as a “market” is to set up a standard for measuring ideas quite different from the standard of truthfulness. Here ideas are bid up or down depending on how well they please those with the funds to underwrite inquiry – which effectively means, how well they please large corporations and the very wealthy.
The "funding effect" demonstrates the validity of Frank's observation.

Michaels closes the book with twelve recommendations to remedy this situation:

  • 1. "Require full disclosure of any and all sponsor involvement in scientific studies"
  • 2. "In this stuff safe? Manufaturers must test chemicals before exposing workers and the public"
  • 3. "No more secret science: Manufacturers must disclose what they know about the toxicity of their products"
  • 4. "Put and end to rigged data analysis"
  • 5. "The Lessons of Enron: Hold real people accountable"
  • 6. "Level the playing field: Require equal treatment for public and private science"
  • 7. "Protect the independence of federal scientists and the science advisory committees"
  • 8. "Regulation by shaming: Increase the public disclosure of hazards"
  • 9. "Require corporations to make a plan and stick to it."
  • 10. "Embrace ALARA ('As low as reasonably achievable')"
  • 11. "Take down the stovepipes: Integrate the control of environmental and workplace toxic exposures"
  • 12. "Make the states public health protection 'laboratories'"
I've simply listed them, but it goes without saying that the book should be consulted for a detailed explanation of each. This is definitely the most important Book of the Year to date.

Previous Doubter Books of the Year:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

And then they came for him

"... there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods ... These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you. Make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists." - George Orwell, "The Freedom of the Press"

Lasantha Wickrematunge was a Sri Lankan journalist who had grown critical of the government's abuses of civil liberties and journalistic censorship in pursuit of putting a stop to the Tamil Tigers (the terrorist group that introduced the modern tactics of suicide bombing.) Anticipating that he would be killed for his dissent, he wrote his own obituary in advance. Demonstrating the on-going relevance of Orwell, The Economist notes

On the battlefield, the Tigers have nearly lost. Few neutrals can be sad about that. Alarmingly, however, Tiger methods—ruthless silencing of dissenting voices, insistence on fanatical loyalty—seem to be catching on. Spokesmen often justify the government’s murky behaviour by reference to the awfulness of the Tigers. But the outside world and Sri Lanka’s own citizens have the right to hold a democratically elected government to higher standards than a banned terrorist outfit. That demands a swift and decisive end to the impunity which those who menace and kill the government’s critics enjoy.
Wickrematunge's self-written obituary is titled "And then they came for me" and its profound message deserves a careful reading.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niem”ller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niem”ller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem”ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Judging a book by its title

I saw this book title the other day and loved it.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin

From the book's about page

Why do we look the way we do? What does the human hand have in common with the wing of a fly? Are breasts, sweat glands, and scales connected in some way? To better understand the inner workings of our bodies and to trace the origins of many of today's most common diseases, we have to turn to unexpected sources: worms, flies, and even fish.

In Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin tells the story of evolution by tracing the organs of the human body back millions of years, long before the first creatures walked the earth. By examining fossils and DNA, Shubin shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our head is organized like that of a long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genome look and function like those of worms and bacteria.
You can read Carl Zimmer's review, here. And for my previous musings on the subject of the history of human evolution, here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

More about that Ice Age ...

The point I was attempting to make in my previous post regarding Matt Drudge having promoted an article in PRAVDA asserting that anthopogenic global warming is bad science and that we should instead expect the coming of an ice age is that one should be able to tell - even if you aren't familiar with the science of climatology - that it isn't something that merits being taken seriously. It was for that reason (plus laziness) that I didn't even bother addressing the content of the article.

Well, over at The Island of Doubt, James Hrynyshyn attempted to ignore the article, too, but found himself compelled to respond to its (lack of) scientific merit.

It's sad that it's come to this, but I feel compelled to offer some guidance on the persistent allegation that the Earth is about to enter an ice age. It all started a few days ago, when Matt Drudge added a link to an English-language Pravda (?) story claiming that "a large and compelling body of evidence from within the field of climate science" points to the impending end of the current interglacial period. Never one to care what Drudge is linking to, I tried to ignore it. But then I started getting email.

The most depressing came from someone who was good enough to provide his real name, place of occupation and contact information, none of which I will share with you, except to note that he works in "ag weather forecasting and often get questions when I'm out at farm meetings regarding global warming" and that he and his employer seem to be legitimate. He wrote:

One of my contacts is a big fan of the Milankovitch cycles and says that these offer proof that global warming is not occurring. Do you have an opinion on the Milankovitch cycles and how they should be interpreted?
Given that the email arrived shortly after the Pravda story came to Drudge's attention, it's clear that we have a problem. What we need is a primer on Milankovitch cycles. So here goes.
You can read the rest over there.

Disclosure: I sent Mr. Hrynyshyn an e-mail about this story. Not so much because I thought he needed to respond to it, but because I found it amusing that PRAVDA would magically become a credible source to certain websites the instant it promoted global warming denialism.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In case anyone is wondering

I have picked a Book of the Year for last year (as I do every year) but haven't gotten around to announcing it since I decided to break with tradition and do more of a full review rather than the brief plug I usually go with. I expect to have it up in a day or so, but I've also been held prisoner by some captivating reading (which I'll also review) and I just got in a big shipment of science books from Scientific American's book club that I'm dying to delve into, so we'll see.

Update: Let's call it Monday. I don't have the time I need today (Friday) to put the post up and traffic tends to drop off over the weekend, so Monday it will be up.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Is foreign aid a waste?

I've been hearing talk lately in AM radio world about how the US shouldn't increase its foreign aid (which is still far short of our agreed upon developmental aid target) since the money only goes to fuel conflict and dictators or that it's simply not effective and what not. There is some merit to this, as aid has been misappropriated and put to poor use in the past, and there are deficiencies. But many critics of foreign aid manage to miss entirely some of the great success stories. Developmental economist Jeffrey Sach addresses just this point in Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, noting that:

  • Foreign aid has contributed to the economic development of Asia and Latin America through the Green Revolution of increased agricultural productivity; the control of infectious diseases, such as smallpox; the vast rise of literacy and school attendance; and much more.
  • Foreign aid and global agreements have facilitated the dramatic, indeed revolutionary, dissemination of modern methods of contraception and family planning, leading to a crucial voluntary drop of fertility rates in most of the world.
  • Global cooperation has produced major advances in global environmental control, most successfully in heading off the destruction of the layer of atmospheric ozone, and has established frameworks for dealing with climate change, biodiversity, and desertification.
  • Global cooperation has dramatically slowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and encouraged several dozen countries to abandon their quest for such weapons
These are global achievements of historic proportions. Yet the roots of these successes are almost forgotten today by unilateralist or free-market ideologues in the United States, obscured by a heavy dose of reactionary ideology and rhetoric that claim, against the facts, that such progress was ordained by market forces alone and was not the result of the massive collective actions and financial backing that went into these efforts.
Sachs then goes on to address specifically the argument of economist William Easterly who has argued that 2.3 trillion dollars of aid money has been wasted over the last 50 years. Easterly's work has been widely cited as a reason for the United States to not bother meeting the Millenium Development Goal of .7% of GNP to Official Development Assistance. Sachs points out that even in Easterly's book The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good he admits that there have been successes. Quoting Easterly

[F]oreign aid likely contributed to some notable successes on a global scale, such as dramatic improvement in health and education indicators in poor countries. Life expectancy in the typical poor country has risen from forty-eight years to sixty-eight years over the past four decades. Forty years ago, 131 out of every 1,000 babies born in poor countries died before reaching their first birthday. Today, 36 out of every 1,000 babies die before their first birthday.
In addition, Easterly overlooks that aid has come from nations other than America. Sachs mentions that Japan helped build infrastructure in Southeast Asia which allowed it to grow to become an industrial exporter and that today's emerging markets in Korea, Taiwan, China, and India “have all been the beneficiaries of external assistance.”

What’s more, $2.3 trillion is portrayed as a massive expenditure, but “it signifies all aid to all countries from all donors over a fifty year period!” This amount averages to about 30 cents per 100 dollars income from developed nations and 17 cents from the U.S.; it's also about 15 dollars per recipient. Sachs observes that in the proper perspective this doesn't seem like such a great expenditure after all

Put $2.3 trillion in comparison with U.S. military spending during the same period, which totaled $17 trillion, nearly eight times the aid levels. And we can note that the Iraq War cost $500 billion in direct outlays by the middle of 2007 and about the same amount in indirect costs (for example, the costs of medical and long-lasting disability care of veterans). The Vietnam War cost at least $500 billion in today’s dollars. Suddenly $2.3 trillion over a fifty-year period for the entire world of development – health, water, disease, literacy, family planning, roads, power, courts, democracy, famine, and other emergency relief – is not so self-evidently extravagant.
Sachs does agree with Easterly that aid has been wasted in the past and agrees with Easterly's conclusion that we need to refocus on getting poor people the essential infrastructure they need to escape poverty.* But his ultimate point is that we also need to start paying attention to the fact that foreign aid can achieve life-altering improvements for the world's poor, as he noted in his comment to the New York Review of Books

When we overlook the success that is possible, we become our own worst enemies. We stand by as millions die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. The inattention and neglect of our policy leaders lull us to believe casually that nothing more can be done. Meanwhile we spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on military interventions doomed to fail, overlooking the fact that a small fraction of that money, if it were directed at development approaches, could save millions of lives and set entire regions on a path of economic growth. It is no wonder that global attitudes toward America have reached the lowest ebb in history. It is time for a new approach.
*A subject discussed at book length by Sachs in Common Wealth.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Conservatives for PRAVDA

Given PRAVDA's 80 year history as the official Soviet Communist propaganda outlet and the psuedo-conservative extreme dislike for all things communist, one might be inclined to think that such "conservative" websites would be pretty skeptical about anything published under the name PRAVDA.

Unless, that is, Matt Drudge happens to link to an article up on PRAVDA claiming that anthropogenic global warming is bad science and that the Earth is in fact "on the brink" of an ice age. In which case you get sites like these eating it up without a critical thought. Newsbusters called it "a study ... published by Pravda" and speculated that since cooling is on the way we need to start building more oil refineries and doing more off-shore drilling. Imagine that.

The article being swallowed up whole was written by one Gregory F. Fegel. A credible journalist, that one is. Here's another article of his I found

Indict all of the US government officials and their allies who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks

A preponderance of evidence shows that the highest officials of the Bush Administration, in collusion with many other officials from the Pentagon, CIA, FBI, FEMA, NSA, NORAD, New York City officials, air-traffic contollers, airline executives, controlled demolitions experts, computer graphics technicians, media executives, and others together planned and committed the horrible attacks of 9/11/2001 against the Pentagon and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The 9/11 attacks were immediately blamed on some bogus 'Arab highjackers', a half dozen of whom were later confirmed to be still alive, and therefore innocent, after the 9/11 attacks.
As you can see, he's a kook.

I recommend that one get their climate science info from, say, Discover or Scientific American or New Scientist as opposed to an on-line variant of a post-Soviet state tabloid.

Update: Deltoid catches a couple of things (one hilarious, one just a sad reflection of how blinding ideology can be) that I missed.

Glorious late '80s tv theme song awesomeness

1989 to be precise. The show ran until '93.

Not another another Kennedy

I haven't written anything before this post about the potential appointment of Caroline Kennedy to Hillary Clinton's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat because I don't know what to say about it other than what I've already written about my feelings towards America's growing dynastic tendencies (If you check that link you'll get the reference in my post title).

Well, that's not exactly true. I can comment that in the specific case of Caroline Kennedy I am opposed to it on the grounds that were she not the daughter of JFK she would have zero chance of being able to just announce she wants the seat and have it handed to her with zero previous political experience. Indeed, I strongly suspect that were the only thing different about her being that her last name wasn't "Kennedy" she would still have no chance at the appointment. And now that I've typed out the preceeding sentences I can see why I wasn't going to write anything in the first place: this is basically the same complaint I had before.

So since I'm lacking any new words to describe something I feel quite strongly about, I'll defer instead to what Glenn Greenwald wrote about America's growing dynastic politics and his Salon radio interview with political scientist Dr. Nathan Burroughs about the same subject.

Additionally, I'm seconding the sentiment expressed by Ophelia Benson in regards to Kennedy's attrocious interview with the New York Times in which she drops what seems like a hundred or so "you know"s.

I'm always on the lookout for code, and that's a code I don't think I've seen before. 'Other walks of life' and 'all kinds of different voices, you know,' is code for people with no relevant experience whatsoever going into politics, and it's not in and of itself a thing to be cheered. Total lack of relevant experience is not absolutely always a disqualifier, but it does at the very least need to be offset by conspicuous talents and skills of the right kind - like, for instance, being able to talk in an adult way in public. Caroline Kennedy is 51 years old and a lawyer, and she talks like a teenager. So - she has no relevant experience, and she's remarkably bad at talking in public, and the only reason to suggest her at all is because she is a Kennedy. Hmmm...that reminds me of something...what could it be...Oh yes, it's the current president. And even he doesn't say 'you know' every five words like a high school kid.

In my book, her being a Kennedy is a reason not to appoint her, and also a reason not to vote for her, just as in my book Hillary Clinton's being a former president's wife was a very strong reason not to vote for her. I detest this nepotism thing we've got going and I wish people would stop encouraging it. I don't want a Kennedy dynasty or a Clinton dynasty any more than I want a Bush dynasty; I don't want any damn dynasty.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thought of the day

From The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich

The operative question becomes this: If neither the CIA nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff had existed when Osama bin Laden launched his attack, if Congress had not created the Department of Defense or the National Security Council back in 1947, would the United States find itself in any worse shape than it is? That is, if President Bush had had to rely upon the institutions that existed through World War II - a modest State Department for diplomacy and two small cabinet agencies to manage military affairs - would he have bollixed up Iraq any more than he already has? To frame the question more broadly: When considering the national security state as it has evolved and grown up over the past six decades, what exactly has been the value added? And if the answer is none - if, indeed, the return on investment has been essentially negative - then perhaps the time has come to consider dismantling an apparatus that demonstrably serves no useful purpose.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Quote of the day

"Now, it is sometimes said that people who take a skeptical approach to UFOs or ancient astronauts or indeed some varieties of revealed religion are engaging in prejudice. I maintain this is not prejudice. It is postjudice. That is, not a judgement made before examining the evidence but a judgement made after examining the evidence." - Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Coulter promotes violence as a solution to liberal "assault on America"

Ann Coulter has a new book out: Guilty: Jewish "Victims" and Their Assault on Germany oops! I mean: Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America.

While out promoting this book she advocated "strong Republican men" punch non-violent (though disruptive) 99 pound female anti-war protesters in the face when they get the chance.

Of course, we've seen before where violence as a response to a perceived oppressive assault on the nation by a group of supposed faux victims can lead.

Again: why I despise Rush Limbaugh

Me, Aug. 15 2007:

On today's Rush Limbaugh program he was saying that carrots are more deadly than cigarettes or trans fats. Rush's incoherent ramble about carrots came after he had said that second hand smoke being dangerous is "a hoax like global warming." Someone better run and go tell the CDC.

To borrow (and paraphrase) a phrase from Glenn Greenwald, it's things like this that make me despise, rather than merely dislike, Rush Limbaugh.

Assserting that cigarettes or second smoke or trans fats aren't dangerous is inexecusably stupid. There are millions of people that listen to Rush and call themselves "dittoheads" because they take his bullshit seriously. He is sabotaging their health. It is a grave betrayal of trust and responsibility. They should be furious, but instead they love him for it.

This is Rush continuing his long history of helping to get his audience sick or dead.

"It has not been proven that nicotine is addictive, the same with cigarettes causing emphysema [and other diseases]." - Limbaugh, (4-29-94 radio program)
From the Center for Media and Democracy

A new study, now the ninth of its type and the most comprehensive one yet, has shown a major reduction in hospital admissions for heart attacks after a smoke-free law was put into effect.

On July 1, 2003 the relatively isolated city of Pueblo, Colorado enacted an ordinance that prohibited smoking in workplaces and indoor public areas, including bars and restaurants. For the study, researchers reviewed hospital admissions for heart attacks among area residents for one year prior to, and three years after the ban, and compared the data to two other nearby areas that didn't have bans (the part of Pueblo County outside city limits, and El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs). Researchers found that during the three years after the ban, hospital admissions for heart attacks dropped 41 percent inside the city of Pueblo, but found no significant change in admissions for heart attacks in the other two control areas.

Eight studies done prior to this one in other locales used similar techniques and yielded similar results, but covered shorter periods of time -- usually about one year after the smoking ban went into effect. The results of this longer, more comprehensive study support the view that not only does secondhand smoke have a significant short-term impact on heart function, but that lives, and money, are probably being saved by new laws proliferating around the world in recent years that minimize public exposure to secondhand smoke.
The post goes on to detail how the tobacco industry was aware of the dangers of second hand smoke and yet formulated a strategy to confuse the public about the health consequences and to delay regulation for as long as possible. It is worth reading if you are not already familiar with this subject.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Quote of the day

"[W]e must regain our ability to feel outrage whenever our government acts lawlessly and devises bogus constitutional arguments for outlandishly expansive presidential power. Otherwise, our own deep cynicism, about the possibility for a President and presidential lawyers to respect legal constraints, itself will threaten the rule of law — and not just for the remaining nine months of this administration, but for years and administrations to come." - Dawn Johnsen

Johnsen will head the Office of Legal Counsel for the Obama administration. Glenn Greenwald comments on the significance, but I'll state the obvious: it is step in the right direction, to say the least, when moving from an OLC that secretly advocates for Presidential dictatorship to one which condemns it.

More discounted library books

For $3 each:

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (hc) by Christopher Hitchens

The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (hc) by Douglas Brinkley

I've already read God is Not Great, but it's the sort of book I'd like to have in my personal collection as Hitchens displays a marvelous talent for rhetoric in writing this polemic against religion. You can read three excerpts of it at Slate.

The Great Deluge I've intended to read for going on three years. To get an idea of why I wanted to read this book in the first place, listen to Brinkley's erudite discussion of the subject with NPR (which also provides an excerpt.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Trivia of the day

Question: Who coined the phrase ghost in [the] machine?

Answer: Gilbert Ryle

The phrase "ghost in the machine" was used by Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book The Concept of Mind to describe the dualism of Descartes. According to Descartes, the human body may be a machine, but it only became a "person" when it was infused with an immaterial soul. The two thus produce a dualistic system of substances, one material and the other immaterial, neither or which could be reduced to the other. Ryle rejected and criticized this view in his work.
For more on Ryle, see the extensive entry about him at the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Clarification of some previous random knowledge

Hendrik Herzberg has written a follow-up clarification to his post on lynching. The gist: the killing cited by the New York Times he referenced was not a lynching, but rather a hate crime since it was not an act of mob or vigilante justice.

Islamic subversion of the UDHR

If you read A.C. Grayling's tribute to the UDHR, then you'll want to read Austin Dacey's and Colin Koproske's excerpted article in Free Inquiry of the Center For Inquiry's position paper dealing with the Islamic attempt to shift the UN from a standard which enshrines human freedoms to one which redefines "freedom" as the ability to enforce religious orthodoxy.

The movement has been especially successful at limiting free speech in the guise of protecting religious freedom, as the article notes

What has the Human Rights Council done about this? On March 28, 2008, the Council actually undermined its own ability to protect free speech. An amendment to a resolution on freedom of expression (passed 27 to 15 with three abstentions) now requires the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to “report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.” Instead of traveling the world in search of instances in which free speech is unjustly limited, the Rapporteur will now do just the opposite, in an effort to police “abusive” speech. The protector has become the oppressor. The Council failed to note that Muslims (and all citizens) are already protected against discrimination and defamatory speech by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and reasonable limits to free speech were already referred to in the preamble to the March 28 resolution. Further, concerns for freedom of religion are already reported by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion.

With such protections already in place, this amendment’s only effect is the undermining of what little ability the HRC has to safeguard free expression around the world.
Ed Brayton points out that the "Islamic Human Rights" that advocates are promoting as complimentary to the UDHR is in fact theocracy, something explicitly rejected by the UDHR.

The neuroscience of magic

Scientific American has written an article about how neuroscientists are studying the tricks of magicians in order to gain insight into the way the brain functions. The whole thing is worth reading, but here are the key concepts delineated:

  • Magic tricks often work by covert misdirection, drawing the spectator’s attention away from the secret “method” that makes a trick work.
  • Neuroscientists are scrutinizing magic tricks to learn how they can be put to work in experimental studies that probe aspects of consciousness not necessarily grounded in current sensory reality.
  • Brain imaging shows that some regions are particularly active during certain kinds of magic tricks.

Friday, January 02, 2009

CFI now has a blog

The Center for Inquiry - which is affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry; publishers of the magazines Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer which are featured in my Links section - has started up a group blog: Free Thinking.

(h/t The Secular Outpost)

Something I might have noticed had I bothered to look

A few days ago I mentioned that I was planning on reading David Donald's biography of Lincoln in conjunction with Gore Vidal's same titled historical fiction novel to compare for historical accuracy. In the course of adding in a link - this link - to that original post that I had forgotten to include when I first published it, I saw that Donald had actually reviewed Vidal's manuscript for him to help improve for historical accuracy. Donald commented about Vidal to PBS's NewsHour back on Feb. 12, 1996

A question from Jessica Bar of New York, NY

How is the Lincoln in your book different from Gore Vidal's Lincoln?

Prof. Donald responds:

Finally, to Jessica Bar, I can say that I am a great admirer of Gore Vidal's Lincoln, which he was kind enough to ask me to read in manuscript for him, and I think it is one of the great portraits of the President. My own differs somewhat in that it is more closely grounds in fact--and remember that Vidal's work is fiction, not history--and that it is based upon more intimate knowledge of behind-the-scenes activities in Civil War Washington. In addition, Vidal's Lincoln is--quite properly--a heroic figure who moves to change the very nature of American government and American society. Mine is a more troubled, pragmatic Lincoln, who was working out solutions to difficult problems always without a fixed plan or ideology in mind, save his determination to save the Union. Mr. Vidal and I had a considerable correspondence about his manuscript, and he was gracious enough to accept a good many of my suggested revisions. But on occasion he would refuse, saying that he knew very well that I was factually correct but that, for the purposes of his novel, he had to state his case in such-and-such a way. He was, I think, entirely correct in so doing--but, of course, as a historical biographer, I did not have the liberty of tampering with even the smallest of facts.

One thing you can say about Fox News ...

... is that it continuously strives to reach new lows.

Throughout last night’s New Year’s eve broadcast, Fox News Channel allowed viewers to send in New Year’s greetings and wishes via text message. The messages were then scrolled across the bottom of the screen, replacing Fox’s normal crawling news headlines. While most messages were cordial, Fox allowed at least one racist message directed toward President-elect Obama to be broadcast. The message referenced Rush Limbaugh’s “Barack the Magic Negro” song: