On framing and perceptions

June 8th, 2014

Daily Show vaccine segment 02 June 2014
This segment on the Daily Show, and the reaction to it, set me to thinking about how our views as a population are shaped. To read even a smidgin of the literature on persuasive communication would take years — but in a little over five minutes, Samantha Bee’s piece has illustrated some of the high points quite nicely.

Storytelling through comedy.

It is a commonplace that we live in an age of information overload. It is hard even to get the attention of our fellow info-globe citizens, let alone inform or persuade them of anything important. The difficulty of persuasion in a churning sea of competing media is something that science film-maker Randy Olson has thought about quite a bit. With collaborators Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, Olson has developed a handbook and toolbox for anyone with a message to convey. I have no idea whether the Daily Show‘s producers were consciously working from the same playbook, but I was impressed by how deeply they seem to have understood and how effectively they have used the techniques described by Olson, Barton and Palermo.
The Daily Show is a comedy program that covers the news — or a news show that’s funny; take your pick. As a result, its style is an often disorienting chimera of comic and journalistic conventions. A regular feature of the show is a short piece like Samantha Bee’s, in which one of the Daily Show‘s comedy reporters produces a short, funny segment on a serious topic. Much of the narrative toolbox described by Olson et al. shows up here — the building from simple to elaborate, the conflict and the resolution, all in five minutes while being funny.

The theme sets the expectation.

Samantha Bee sets the segment up with a familiar observation: “Conservatives are fighting the good fight against something they think threatens us all — science.” followed by a sequence of conservative figures bashing science. She then introduces Paul Offit to make the core statement: vaccine-refusing parents are denying science and bringing back childhood diseases. Bee delivers the straight line: “Every scientific fact has a counter-fact that is true for other people.” Offit responds that the fact of vaccine effectiveness rests on evidence, not belief. Graphics then show disease incidence vs. vaccine introduction, underscoring the point. Bee sets up the joke as a map of the US lights up with foci of infection on both coasts: “Because of these right-wing nut-jobs, outbreaks of preventable diseases are occurring in the red states of California, New York and Oregon .. wait, what the [bleep] is going on here?” Cut back to Offit. Vaccine refusers are largely educated people in affluent communities. They think “by simply Googling the term ‘vaccine’ on the internet they can know as much, if not more, than anyone who is giving them advice.” Bee is shocked. “It’s happening in my community … people who juice?”
All this gives the piece a theme — liberals can be science-deniers too! — and causes the viewer to expect something unusual and interesting. In this case I think the underlying assertion is not true. Studies have found that vaccine denialists are equally likely to be conservative or liberal, and it is not difficult to find prominent conservatives who are rabidly anti-vaccine. But the premise works. It arouses interest and sets the stage for what is to come.

Every subject is a character.

The Daily Show segment is a narrative, however brief. And at the center of this narrative is the contrast between two people: Paul Offit, introduced at the outset, and “patient zero” — someone who is infected with science denial and transmits it to other victims. The Daily Show producers chose for their patient zero a vaccine opponent and blogger: Sarah Pope, the “Healthy Home Economist.” Pope was a good choice because it was not obvious at first how well she would play the role. Attractive, well-dressed, she could have easily been a reasonable, likable character — not a good contrast to Offit. The viewer knows nothing about Pope until Samantha Bee sets up the conflict with a throwaway question: “Do you know a good organic hair-gel recipe?” Of course Pope does, sounding earnest and faintly silly. The expectation is set (“You are definitely at risk.”). In the next frame, Pope lets the other shoe drop (“These vaccines are loaded with toxins …”) and the expectation is fulfilled (“You are definitely infected.”). The development of Pope’s character takes all of 23 seconds. With that element in place, the segment moves to a couple of stock shots illustrating science denial and vaccine opposition (one is of Andrew Wakefield, who is not named). Then it is back to Offit, then Pope, Offit again, accelerating to a series of short cuts in which Pope brings the crazy (“My data’s different … there is no herd immunity … you can line up the doctors from here down the block refuting me, but I’m not gonna change my mind.”). She appears a bit wild-eyed and smugly wacky as she supplies Samantha Bee with straight lines (“the decline of epidemics is … due to getting the filthiness of the horses out of the streets.” “You know that you don’t get measles from horseshit, right?”). With Pope firmly established as an utter nutjob, thesis and antithesis are complete.

Resolution and wrapup

The segment then moves to a farcical climax, in which Bee wages a desperate battle against contagious “liberal idiocy”, frantically looking for the next link in the chain of transmission (“Do you remember where you last had tea?” “It was Starbuck’s.” “Which one, which one, WHICH STARBUCK’S?”). After a few sight gags of Bee dashing around Manhattan in a hazmat suit, we return to Offit, who calmly opines that we probably need a few more disease outbreaks for enough people to realize why we have vaccines. Samantha Bee breathes a sigh of relief, bringing the right- and left-wings of looniness together: “So there IS a cure for science denial! Once Florida is under water, and we all have polio, it’ll be better.” And we have synthesis.

What can we learn?

Watching and thinking about this segment raised for me a few salient points, of greater or lesser obviousness:

  1. Making a complex point in a short time, while being funny and entertaining, is an art.
  2. Sometimes that art demands a compromise among primary and secondary messages — as here, where the politics of science denial were simplified in order to achieve impact.
  3. Characters are important. In interviews Paul Offit comes across as smart but unpretentious, good-humored, likable. Sarah Pope, in contrast, was intense, smug and combative — much harder to like. If they had said the same things, but with their styles reversed, the result would have been different.
  4. Communication technique is invisible but vital. The editing skill that went into this segment was not obvious to me until I had watched it several times. Much of its effectiveness came directly from that skill.
  5. Those skills can be used for different ends. In this case, we are fortunate that the Daily Show is on the side of the angels.
  6. For any message, some of the audience will never be reached. In this case, I think that the core of Daily Show viewers — young, educated, mostly liberal — are likely to be favorably influenced by this segment.

On the whole, I think this was a great example of sophisticated techniques of communication being used in a worthy cause. My hat’s off to the Daily Show, and I hope we see a lot more of this in the future.

Willy Ley’s Exotic Zoology

May 31st, 2014


This is the first of what I hope will be many posts on books that have brought me joy over the years.
I am writing it for the selfish pleasure of remembering what it was like to read this book for the first time.
But I hope that someone may, as a result of reading this post, find that book, read it, and feel something of what I felt.

The Back Story

If you are a nerd of a certain age, you may know Willy Ley (1906-1969) from his writings on space flight.
He was influential in creating a rocketry fad in Germany during the 1930s, and is remembered for the imagination and technical brilliance he brought to the subject.
In some ways he was too good.  As a young man he served as technical advisor for a science fiction movie about a trip to the moon. The technical details were so accurate that the Gestapo later confiscated the spaceship models and seized every copy of the film.
In 1935, horrified by the rise of Nazism and personally endangered because of his political views, Willy Ley fled Germany for Great Britain and then to the US, where he became an influential and beloved writer and popularizer of science.

Not just a rocket boy

This book is actually a “best of” collection, drawing from Dragons in Amber, Salamanders and Other Wonders and The Lungfish, the Dodo and the Unicorn. Willy Ley later wrote a history of natural science, Dawn of Zoology. Clearly, space was not his only interest. Yet he acknowledges in his foreword that he is typecast. “So what is a man who is known as an advocate of space travel … doing writing a book on animals, extinct, rare or unknown?” In fact, Willy Ley’s first love was natural history. “I grew up, so to speak, in the shadow of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.” He remembers wandering the museum as a boy and coming across two fossils: one real, the other a reproduction. They were under dusty glass in an out-of-the-way back room with hardly enough light to make them out, but they were two of the most important fossils in the world — Archaeopteryx.
Young Willy knew, without the need for any signage, that he was in the presence of something deserving awe.  As he tells the story of the fossils’ discovery, he weaves into it the struggle for priority between London and Berlin (much like the bone wars of America), the developing understanding of how flight arose, and the family history of winged reptiles and feathery dinosaurs. This mixture of legend, science and personal history flavors the book, and it is a gripping read.
Much of Ley’s personal reminiscences took place in what was then East Berlin. In 1992, I went with the family to the reunified city and saw, in the Pergamon museum, the reconstructed Sirrush of Babylon’s Ishtar gate.
Ley talks for a bit about the odd dragon in the bas-relief, renders it as if it were a real animal, and discusses animals found in the Middle East in Nebuchadnezzar’s time. Then he moves with hardly a pause to the legendary mokele-mbembe of the Congo basin. Could this be the Sirrush, survived into modern times? Ley had a fascination with the interface between legend and science that informs every chapter of this book.

Was he, then, a sucker for Bigfoot and ancient astronauts? Not on your life. Even when venturing into Yeti territory, Ley took pains to explore each legend as legend, and to illuminate it with the best science available. Decades after the writing, that science is still pretty good.

So what else is good about this book?

It’s interdisciplinary. For example, you can find out about the coco-de-mer, so incredibly rare that it was worth more than its weight in gold, and also about the French engineer who learned to his sorrow that it were better for him if Econ 101 had been taught in engineering school.
It gives perspective to the reach of time. The American eel and the European eel swim down the Mississippi and the Danube, respectively, to the Sargasso Sea, where they lay their eggs. The hatchlings then swim back to their destined continents, taking three years to do it in the case of the European eels. The two species have different numbers of ribs, never interbreed and seem never to get lost. They diverged back when North America and Europe split apart — during the Jurassic, 150 million years ago. That’s a long time to be doing that lonely swim.
Did ichthyosaurs give live birth? For years, some paleontologists insisted that fossils of ichthyosaurs with little ichthyosaurs inside were examples of cannibalism — until a fossil turned up of an ichthyosaur considerate enough to be fossilized while giving birth.
All this only scratches the surface, there is so much to be found in this wonderful book. You might think you know about the discovery of the coelacanth. OK; but do you know what it is like when it is cooked? You’ve heard about the moa — would you know how to hunt one (not that you would) if they weren’t extinct?
Willy Ley’s Exotic Zoology is a book that radiates its author’s inexhaustible joy in the natural world from every page. Over the decades since I first read it, I have come back again and again, and found some new treasure every time. It has been out of print for many years, but used copies are abundant.
What more can I say? This is a book that will be liked by those who like this kind of thing — and by those very much.

Boojums, reanimated

May 18th, 2014

Rising from the earth’s damp clutch, shaking off clods and looking around dumbly, the blog attempted to form a thought. “Me … alive?”

If you found your way here, you know that this blog’s domain is now “somesnarksareboojums.com” and not “someareboojums.org.” Long story. Let me just advise that, before you sign up with an ISP run by a guy out of your cousin’s mini-storage, do some comparison shopping, ferchrissake. Live and learn. Anyway, recently I felt the need to re-start this thing. I have a whole herd of new bêtes noire now, and a bunch of them are about to calve. Something had to be done. We all know that I’m not a post-every-day kind of guy, so we’ll see how it goes.

The Power of Positive Ignorance, Part I

May 30th, 2011

People often ask me “Jimbobboy, what do you think science is like, anyway?”

Or they would, if anyone who knew me gave a rat’s ass what I think science is like.

Fortunately, answering questions no one has asked is exactly what we have blogs for!

And today, the answer is that science is quantitative.

The text for today’s lesson is drawn from the book of Richard, with grateful acknowlegment of the demon squid.

This post is part of a kind of self-organizing series called “What I Think Science Is, Not That Anyone Cares.”  It’s sort of thematically related to the last one, but it is not about stupidity, exactly.
It’s more about two kinds of ignorance: the deficits we all have in various areas and to different degrees — the ones we can’t help, that is — and the ones we cherish and nourish and defend.
The test article today has both types in beautiful, illuminating display, but we will start with the first and deal with the second in a post to follow. It begins, as all good things do, with a blog flamewar.

The first dinner roll thrown in this food fight came during last year’s[1] election.   Libertarian yoyo (and now Senator) Rand Paul, at a Kentucky homeschoolers’ convention, declined to say how old he thought the earth is. Paul was mocked by PZ Myers as a craven weasel. A conservative Christian blogger rushed sarcastically to Paul’s defense, and was duly thrashed.

“So what?” I can hear you say, “Isn’t this just more of the childish raillery to be found in countless locations all over the intertubes, and rather lukewarm broth at that?”

You see, this is what happens when the common people are allowed access to computing machinery — you have become jaded. I’ll tell you what’s special about this exchange. It’s a springboard to a dual exploration of unintentional and intentional ignorance, that’s what it is. By the time we’re done exploring, you’ll thank me and ask for more, you will, so sit down and shut your pie-holes.

Where was I? Oh, yes, ignorance. Let’s address unintentional ignorance, and start with someone who was anything but ignorant.

Native ignorance about magnitudes

We would be reading, say, about dinosaurs. It would be talking about the Tyrannosaurus rex and it would say something like, “This dinosaur is twenty-five feet high and its head is six feet across.”  My dad would stop reading and say, “Now, let’s see what that means.  That would mean that if he stood in our front yard, he would be tall enough to put his head through our window up here.” (We were on the second floor.) “But his head would be too wide to fit in the window.” Everything he read me he would translate as best he  could into some reality.  It was very exciting and very, very interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude–and that they all died out, and that nobody knew why. I wasn’t frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this. But I learned from my father to translate: everything I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s really saying.

Richard P. Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Most everyone who reads these childhood stories of Feynman’s finds them irresistibly charming, and I’m no exception. I think the reason is that he is always looking for an early example of the process that made him such an extraordinary thinker. That process began with a child’s incandescent joy in discovery — a joy that Feynman experienced every moment of his life. In this case he is recalling how his father nurtured in him a sense of magnitude. It is noteworthy that Feynman learned as a wee sprout that when he heard “twenty-five feet” and “six feet” he should imagine the elevation and width of his bedroom window, because from that lesson, and others like it, one little boy grew to have a quick, powerful insight into aspects of our world most of us literally cannot imagine.

That insight is a special quality. It is essential to the successful pursuit of scientific discovery, and the greatest scientists have it to a degree that appears supernatural to the rest of us. Enrico Fermi’s ability to conjure with quantities was legendary, and hs name is now associated with a kind of estimation — the Fermi problem. The objective of a Fermi problem is to arrive at a reasonable answer to a complex question with limited  information. Accuracy in the usual sense is unimportant here, but understanding relationships is everything. In some cases, getting an answer  correct to within two orders of magnitude is considered pretty good.[3]

This is relevant to the present question because I think there is a spectrum of quantitative insight stretching from the truly extraordinary such as  Fermi and Feynman, through ordinary mortals like me and you, to those who have little or none of the magic juice. This is not a moral judgment. I would love to be able to grasp a difficult physical problem instantly, just as I would love to be able to dunk a basketball or have perfect pitch. That I am unathletic and musically untalented does not (I hope) reflect badly on me as a human being.  However, it does mean that I am unlikely to be tapped first at pickup concerts for the local string quartet, and that my audition for the Nuggets may go badly.

I don’t hold it against Martin Cothran that he has no sense of magnitude, but it must be admitted that he has none[4]. This is important because we live in a world where a sense of magnitude is increasingly valuable as one item in the toolbox of the everyday citizen. And the magnitudes of interest here are different enough that the everyday citizen should be able to distinguish between them. How different? For biblical literalists, often identified as Young Earth Creationists (YECs) the benchmark estimate for the age of the earth is that established by Archbishop James Ussher, who pegged  the date of the world’s creation at Sunday 23 October 4004 BC. In fairness to the Bish, we’ll cut him some slack on the dates. Any of the various  begats and begots could easily have been in error by a few years, leading to an honest error in his estimate of the earth’s age. It doesn’t matter,  because the best estimate for the earth’s age from the radiometric evidence is between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years. This staggering duration is so much greater than Ussher’s estimate that any simple error of estimation is overwhelmed. One of those two estimates is wrong: not just wrong, but wildly wrong, and wrong beyond any hope of correction by fine-tuning of methods. The ratio between those two numbers is 4.5 x 109/6000, or about[5] 750,000. Neither I nor anyone likely to be reading this is a Feynman or a Fermi, so an analogy may help us visualize this ratio. But what would be appropriate for the intended audience? Ah — I know.

An analogy

In Danny Leiner’s 2004 movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, the eponymous restaurant was located in Montclair, New Jersey[6]. Now,  suppose for the sake of this analogy that the Montclair White Castle, befitting its significance as the symbolic object of all desire, is the only White Castle in the universe. And suppose further that Harold and Kumar, as good stoners, live not in New Jersey but in Monterey, California. The distance from Monterey to Montclair is about [7] 2600 miles. Imagine how the critical discussion might have gone[8] under these assumptions:

Kumar: Dude, I am so baked.

Harold: Tell me about it. Hey, you know what I could go for?

Kumar: Zat?

Harold: Some sliders, man. Let’s hoof it over to White Castle and get some sliders.

Kumar: Dude, White Castle is like three thousand miles away. You can’t walk there.

You take my point, I am sure. There is not enough dope in California to convince even Kumar that he could walk to New Jersey. And this conclusion is not affected by a large correction factor:

Harold: No, White Castle is only 2557 miles away.

Kumar: What are you, a geography major? It’s still too far to walk.

Let’s consider it established that no one, no matter how stoned, would consider walking from California to New Jersey for a slider, even without  precise information as to the distance. The magnitude is simply too great. Now, suppose we were to contract the Monterey-Montclair axis by the  factor of 750,000 discussed above. The distance from Harold and Kumar to the White Castle would shrink to eighteen feet, and Harold could march up and order sliders with little more effort than it takes to pass the bong. That is the difference between the generally accepted estimate of the earth’s age, and that embraced by creationists. You can’t walk there from here.

The next post will deal with willful ignorance about magnitudes.

Pointless Footnotes

[1] Yes; this all happened last year.  I’m a stonecutter, OK?  And I needed an example.

[2] This post will seem like an extended beating-up of Martin Cothran, because that is what it is. But what is the purpose of the Web, after all, if it is not to beat up on arrogant twits?

[3] I recall that there has been (and may still be) a Fermi Problem challenge held during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP, also known as January) in which some problems had explicit success criteria of two or three orders of magnitude. Like “How many quarks in the universe? Full credit if your answer is greater than one-thousandth and less than one thousand times the correct number.” Anybody out there remember this? I’ll pay a bounty of $1000 for more information, up to a factor of 10E03.

[4] Cothran figures he can get away with this because he can claim agnosticism on any question of magnitude. Nice try.

[5] Keep in mind that two significant figures here are plenty. This will be on the quiz.

[6] Not, apparently, the location of any real-world White Castle, but birthplace of actor Kal Penn.

[7] It’s 2557 miles to be precise, but we’re not being precise here, now are we?

[8] Take all the colorful language as read.

Good morning!

July 25th, 2009

Attention Conservation Notice:[1] Today’s post is self-indulgent, political, and contains no science. And it’s about stupidity. So you know.

What prompts anyone to get back on the horse, even a trickless pony such as one’s own blog?  In my case, it was a column in the Denver Post by David Harsanyi.

Titled “What if Palin were president?”[2], this opinion piece is a study of stupidity executed from a stupid world view, in a stupid way, which makes it dazzlingly fascinating to me. Maybe because I’m stupid. Let’s move on.

Ironically framed[3], Harsanyi’s column makes the case that Sarah Palin would make at least as good a president as Barack Obama because she’s really, really dumb. Harsanyi observes that:

We need former constitutional scholars. Who else, after all, has a better understanding of how to undermine the document?

Enriching political donors with taxpayer dollars takes intellectual prowess, not the skills of a moose-hunting point guard.

Does anyone believe that Palin possesses the competence to nationalize entire industries without the consent of the people? A housewife from Wasilla simply isn’t equipped with the political brawn to shake down banks and bondholders.

From all that, I’m figuring that Harsanyi, weighing the relative evils of dumbness and government nannyism, finds nannyism to be the worse. I sent the following suggestion to the Denver Post:

Shorter[4] David Harsanyi (Friday, July 10th, “What if Palin were president?”):

I would rather that the government be run by dumb people than by smart people I disagree with.

I cc’d Harsanyi on the letter to the editor. He replied that he’d rather have government run by dumb people who care about the Constitution and liberty than smart people who don’t. I was immensely tickled by that, and wrote back that the Republicans could probably use it in 2012. At that point the piano player stopped and everyone in the bar hit the floor. Apparently (and I should have known this), calling a Libertarian a Republican is like calling a Norwegian a Swede[5]. With our correspondence so promisingly begun and so abruptly cut short, David and I had no more to say to one another about salutary dumbness. But the concept wouldn’t let go of me. I could hear Harsanyi cheerfully chirping away “I’d rather have government run by dumb people who care about the Constitution and liberty than smart people who don’t” in the voice of Ralph Wiggum saying “My cat’s name is Mittens!”

Then it came to me: why would anyone want to belong to the Dumb wing of the Libertarian party who could belong to the Libertarian wing of the Dumb party[6]? The demographics are irresistible. The coalition of the Dumb will sweep all before it. And so, my friends, I now call on all the Dumb, of all ages, ethnicities and walks of life, to proudly support the one campaign[7] that you can really believe cares about you:

Box of Rocks 2012

Dumbness cuts across all categories of age, race, height, socieoeconomic status, life-plan, handedness, sodium sensitivity, romantic inclinations and planet of origin. Dumbism has something to offer every man, woman, child, manchild, mandrake root, elf, dwarf, elk, whelk, kelpie or pooka on the face of the earth, over or under it. Dumbness is a friend when you have no bottle. Dumbness is a lobotomy when you have no friends. Dumbness will never let you down, and if it does you’ll never know it. Dumb is now.

But wait, you say, all the different kinds of Dumb are, you know, different. How can we make them all get along? God, there’s just no pleasing you people. The defining feature of Dumbism is its inclusiveness:

It’s a Big Box, with Room for a Lot of Rocks!

And Dumbism has a policy solution to every problem[8]:

Climate change? I got a cold, and all my boogers melted.
Health care? I glued my head to my shoulder, now i have two owies.
Economic meltdown? There’s my milk money … and there’s my milk.

As any fool (and probably every fool) can plainly see, there is no important issue that can’t be dealt with by the power of Positive Dumbness. Just wish that everything were just the way you want it to be. And wish for a pony[9] while you’re at it.

[1] Attention Conservation Notice concept originated by Cosma Shalizi.

[2] Yes; the whole concept kind of evokes horsemen and dragons and birds gorging on your flesh and all, but it’s a thought experiment, so stay with us here.

[3] If irony can be limp, witless and predictable. Oh, yes it can.

[4] Shorter concept originated by Daniel Davies.

[5] The importance of the distinction depends on context. Hey, did I mention that I know a great lutefisk joke? I’ll save it for Gratuitously Offensive Friday.

[6] There is, it should be noted, a Smart wing of the Libertarian party, but we’re nowhere near it at the moment.

[7] Grotesque imaginary political party concept originated by Michael Bérubé.

[8] Other examples abound, but let’s just keep picking on Harsanyi here because … well, why the hell not?

[9] Wish for a Pony concept originated by John and Belle.

Edit:Tempered the discourtesy of quoting Harsanyi’s private email by pulling it out of blockquotes. Don’t give me that look.


July 13th, 2009

Wow, that’s some echo.  There must be a lot of space back here, but I can’t see a damn thing … let’s prop that door open there, unh, OK that’s better.  Bring the shop light over, yeah, over there, shine it in the corner.   FFFFFHHHHHAWW, man it’s dusty, this is worse than Bérubé’s place when he opened it up … oh, CRAP, it is! IT’S MY BLOG!

Leave the shop light.  Let’s go get a couple of snow shovels, the wheelbarrow, three bales of ShamWows and a drum of Nature’s Miracle.  It’s going to be a long night.

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All comments will be moderated for a few days.

October 13th, 2007

The usual barrage of comment spam, as relentless and (ordinarily) unnoticed as cosmic rays, seems to be slipping more than usual through Akismet’s filter. Until I get it figured out, all comments will go to moderation. Sincerest apologies to both my readers.

Update, 17 Oct.: Akismet seems to be catching them again, so I have turned off moderation.

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Plus ça change …

October 2nd, 2007

Eric Prince, the famously secretive CEO of Blackwater USA, has emerged from an unspecified location to testify before a House committee, and delivered a vigorous defense of his company’s performance in Iraq. Despite Blackwater’s vigorous defense, no casualties were reported among House members, staff or press, so the hearing was deemed a great success. Much of the questioning had to do with the Christmas eve killing of an Iraqi bodyguard by a drunken Blackwater employee . It should be noted that the incident ended well. The employee was hustled out of Iraq, and his pay was docked, presumably for wasting ammunition. After that, there was only a quick claims adjustment to be made, and everything would be all tidied up:

[A]n official of the United States Embassy in Iraq suggested paying the slain bodyguard’s family $250,000, but a lower-ranking official said that such a high payment “could cause incidents with people trying to get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family’s future.” Blackwater ultimately paid the dead man’s family $15,000.

You really have to admire the way that lower-ranking official watched out for the budget. Start making lavish payouts every time a private security guard gets sloshed and opens up on the citizenry, and Iraqis will be cashing in their relatives left and right. Best to nip that in the bud.
For some reason, the committee members seemed perturbed by all this. For me, though, it harked back to a simpler time, when a can-do organization like Blackwater was not harried by packs of hand-wringers with their pathetic complaints about “accountability” and “due process” and “could you remove the electrodes from my genitals, please?” The happy spirit of that age was captured best by Mark Twain:

I refer with effusion to our railway system, which consents to let us live, though it might do the opposite, being our owners. It only destroyed three thousand and seventy lives last year by collisions, and twenty-seven thousand two hundred and sixty by running over heedless and unnecessary people at crossings. The companies seriously regretted the killing of these thirty thousand people, and went so far as to pay for some of them—voluntarily, of course, for the meanest of us would not claim that we possess a court treacherous enough to enforce a law against a railway company. But, thank Heaven, the railway companies are generally disposed to do the right and kindly thing without compulsion. I know of an instance which greatly touched me at the time. After an accident the company sent home the remains of a dear distant old relative of mine in a basket, with the remark, “Please state what figure you hold him at—and return the basket.” Now there couldn’t be anything friendlier than that.

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Monday Bristlecone Blogging

August 27th, 2007

A few months ago, on a tip from Abel Pharmboy of Terra Sigillata, I paid a visit to some of this planet’s senior residents — the bristlecone pines of Windy Ridge, near Alma, Colorado. These magnificent trees stand at the very edge of treeline, in a landscape barren of anything much larger than a tuft of moss. They have the neighborhood to themselves because this is a rough place to make a living.

bristlecone pine

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Ruckelshaus, Sweeney and DDT

August 26th, 2007

On June 2nd, 1972, William D. Ruckelshaus, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, issued an order effectively ending the agricultural use of DDT in the US.

Thirty-five years later, that order is still the subject of fierce controversy.

One claim often made by proponents of renewed DDT use is that Ruckelshaus’ decision was capricious and unsupported by the evidence — specifically, that he acted in willful disregard of his own hearing examiner’s findings. For example, in a post co-authored[1] with the late J. Gordon Edwards, Steven Milloy states that Ruckelshaus “ignored the decision of his own administrative law judge.”[2]

Milloy’s distortion of the history and science surrounding DDT is shameless, and deserves to be the subject of a separate post. But let’s stick with the Ruckelshaus order for now.

Did Ruckelshaus ignore the conclusions of his hearing examiner? You’d think, since this claim is made so relentlessly by DDT advocates, that we could find the relevant document somewhere on the Web. But it’s not that easy. Ruckelshaus’ order itself is readily available (see below for a more readable copy), but the hearing examiner’s findings … not so much. The document is sometimes cited as “Sweeney, E.M., 1972. ‘EPA Hearing Examiner’s Recommendations and Findings Concerning DDT Hearings,’ April 25, 1972. 40 CFR 164.32.” — which helps a bit, but only a bit, since “40 CFR 164.32″ is just the Federal Regulation governing administrative hearings at EPA. Anyone who offers that to you as an actual cite for the opinion is blowing smoke. A better cite is the one given in the order, viz.: “Stevens Industries, Inc. et al., I.F&R. Docket Nos. 63 et al. (Consolidated DDT Hearings)”. But even that will not get you anything online. EPA does give its Decisions and Orders online, but only back to 1989. A good deal of fruitless searching convinced me that the Sweeney opinion would not be mine with the click of a mouse; it was old-school or nothing. After several weeks, a dozen or so phone calls and the help of some very nice university librarians, I was able to get my hooks on all 173 glorious manually typewritten pages of Edmund M. Sweeney’s “Recommended Findings, Conclusions and Orders.”

Here it is. (56 Mb pdf!) EPA’s librarians indicated that they would not post it online, because of the wretched quality. I’m not so picky. While we’re at it, here is a (slightly) more readable copy of Ruckelshaus’ order.
(UPDATE: See [4] below.)

The following are some of the more notable things we can observe if we look at both documents:

Did Sweeney’s findings generally support the Petitioners (DDT registrants)?

Yes. Sweeney found no evidence to indicate that DDT causes mutations or birth defects in humans, considered the evidence for DDT’s carcinogenicity in humans to be inconclusive, and, though he found that DDT is harmful to wildlife, he deemed that harm to be outweighed by DDT’s value as a pesticide. Sweeney’s findings of fact are summarized in pages 91-92, and his conclusions of law in pages 93-94. Milloy quotes (#17) part of those conclusions:

The EPA hearing examiner, Judge Edmund Sweeney, concluded that “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man… DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man… The use of DDT under the regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”

That partial quote is misleading. Sweeney also found (p. 92) that

20. DDT can have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish and estuarine organisms when directly applied to the water.

21. DDT is used as a rodenticide.

22. DDT can have an adverse effect on beneficial animals.

23. DDT is concentrated in organisms and can be transferred through food chains.

It is not true that Sweeney found no harm caused by DDT. Rather, he found that, using a “preponderance of the evidence” test, DDT users and USDA had shown that DDT’s usefulness to agriculture outweighed the demonstrated harm.

Did Ruckelshaus ignore Sweeney’s opinion?

No, but he disagreed with substantial portions of it. Ruckelshaus quotes extensively from Sweeney’s opinion, including the findings of fact and conclusions of law noted above. He repeats arguments made by the petitioners, and describes how he differs. Choosing one example:

Group Petitioners and USDA argue that the laboratory feeding studies, conducted with exaggerated doses of DDE and under stress conditions, provide no basis for extrapolating to nature.
They suggest that the study results are contradictory and place particular emphasis on documents which were not part of the original record and the inconsistencies in Dr. Heath’s testimony as brought out during cross-examination. Group Petitioners also contend that the observed phenomenon of eggshell thinning and DDE residue data are tied by a statistical thread too slender to connect the two in any meaningful way.

Viewing the evidence as a total picture, a preponderance supports the conclusion that DDE does cause eggshell thinning. Whether or not the laboratory data above would sustain this conclusion is beside the point. For here there is laboratory data and observational data, and in addition, a scientific hypothesis, which might explain the phenomenon.

This is exactly the kind of language that sent J. Gordon Edwards ballistic (detailed discussion reserved for another post). Then as now, DDT advocates felt that the existence of studies with negative results created enough doubt that a ban could not be justified. Ruckelshaus felt just the opposite — that the bulk of the evidence supported a ban — and explained why. For eggshell thinning, 35 years of research have shown that Ruckelshaus was right. A follow-up report issued in 1975 cited 179 studies related to eggshell thinning alone (pp. 69-81). Today, a quick check of PubMed for “ddt eggshell” turns up 50 papers since 1969, and it is clear from the abstracts that the association of thinning and DDT is well established. Bald eagle populations have rebounded since the DDT ban, so successfully that they are now delisted as threatened, a result accepted matter-of-factly by wildlife biologists as a benefit of the DDT ban.

How did Ruckelshaus’ order differ from Sweeney’s recommendation?

One word: cotton. Sweeney ruled on six separate applications for DDT registration, affirming the cancellations for two, vacating the cancellations for three, and allowing a sixth to start the application process. Two of the cases where Sweeney restored the DDT registration were for public health uses: Wyco’s for treatment of mosquito larvae and Eli Lilly’s for use against body lice. Ruckelshaus permitted both applications, as well as public health use of DDT generally, but required a label restricting it to that use. As to DDT’s application worldwide against malaria (the topic of so much dispute nowadays), Ruckelshaus took pains to say that he was not restricting it:

It should be emphasized that these hearings have never involved the use of DDT by other nations in their health control programs. As we said in our DDT Statement of March, 1971, “this Agency will not presume to regulate the felt necessities of other countries.” (p. 26)

The remaining case in which Sweeney vacated the cancellation of DDT registration, permitting its use, was a biggie: USDA and Group Petitioners (31 users of DDT). These had argued collectively that DDT was “essential” for economical production of various crops and control of pests such as the spruce budworm. Of these applications, by far the most important was cotton production, accounting for at least half of all DDT consumption in the US[3]. Other crops were discussed, with sweet peppers in the Delmarva peninsula used as an example. In his order, Ruckelshaus carved out specific exceptions for several crops where DDT was considered the only acceptable alternative, and said that

… if these users or registrants can demonstrate that a produce shortage will result and their particular use of DDT, taken with other uses, does not create undue stress on the general or local environment, particularly the aquasphere, cancellation should be lifted.

The fact that a few loopholes were left open for a while does not change the fact that Ruckelshaus intended to eliminate use of DDT on crops in the US, and his order did have that effect. Even for the “essential” uses, alternatives were found and DDT was dropped. The largest impact of the order was on cotton production. And this is where it gets even more interesting. One of Sweeney’s conclusions of law (p. 94) was that

13. The use of DDT in the United States has declined rapidly since 1959.

The EPA’s 1975 report gives a table (p. 149) that I’ve represented graphically below.
DDT plot
Although exports, and overall production, continued to rise until 1963, US consumption of DDT peaked in 1959, before any significant restrictions were placed on its use, and declined steadily thereafter. A reasonable person might wonder why that would be. Guess what? The boll weevil and the bollworm were becoming resistant to DDT. Sweeney refers to this fact (p. 86) and observes that

While the evidence convinces me that the use of DDT on cotton is declining and should be reduced as soon as effective replacement means of controlling pests are developed, I do not feel that the evidence to date permits any conclusion to the effect that DDT should be banned for use on cotton at this time.

Ruckelshaus disagreed. With his order, use of DDT on cotton pests became history. The economic impact on cotton growers was significant but far from catastrophic: costs to cotton producers were estimated at $7.75 million nationally, and for consumers at 2.2 cents per capita per year (p. 193).

Even in the one arena where the DDT ban was argued to be unbearably burdensome, its use was already declining, the hearing examiner recommended that it be reduced further in favor of alternative methods, and in the event, the ban’s effects were easily absorbed. Well, then — did it have any impact that we should care about?

Glad you asked.

Returning to Steven Milloy’s DDT FAQ, cited above, we find a pearl. Robert Desowitz’ The Malaria Capers is quoted (#8):

“There is persuasive evidence that antimalarial operations did not produce mosquito resistance to DDT. That crime, and in a very real sense it was a crime, can be laid to the intemperate and inappropriate use of DDT by farmers, especially cotton growers. They used the insecticide at levels that would accelerate, if not actually induce, the selection of a resistant population of mosquitoes.”

That’s right. The 1972 DDT ban did nothing to restrict the chemical’s use against malaria, but had the effect of eliminating the single most intense source of selection pressure for insecticide resistance in mosquitos. As the rest of the world followed suit in restricting agricultural use of DDT, the spread of resistance was slowed dramatically or stopped.
By this single action, William Ruckelshaus — and, credit where it’s due, Rachel Carson — may well have saved millions of lives.

Steven Milloy is invited to add that to the DDT FAQ any time it’s convenient.

[1] A footnote explains that the post is “largely drawn from materials compiled by J. Gordon Edwards, professor of entomology at San Jose State University.” How much actual collaboration took place, if any, is not stated.

[2] Technically, it’s not a “decision”, but an opinion stating “recommended findings, conclusions and orders.” A fine point, to be sure, but it makes a difference.

[3] “It has been estimated that two-thirds of the DDT that is used in the United States is used in agriculture, and that 75% of the DDT that is used on agricultural crops is used on cotton.” (Sweeney, p. 83). According to the 1975 report, cotton’s share had increased to 80% by 1971-1972.

[4] UPDATE: EPA has now posted its DDT archives, complete with the Sweeney opinion, here. You can now download a better-quality copy of the opinion at a fraction of the size, so do that. If my copy is adding no value, I’ll probably take it down eventually. I see that the EPA page was last updated September 25th, roughly a month after this post. I’d like to think that my prodding was a factor, but there’s no way to know.

(Hat tips are due Ed Darrell, for the best historical coverage, Bug Girl, for the best scientific coverage, and Tim Lambert, for the best overall coverage of this issue.)

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Jaworowski 2003: A cornucopia of misinformation, Part 1

September 26th, 2006

(Joint post with John Cross)

In recent polls, the question most often asked by both of this blog’s readers has been
What are Zbigniew Jaworowski’s chances of repeating his stunning 2005 performance in this year’s Golden Horseshoes?
It is our unfortunate duty to inform you that good ol’ Z, as he is affectionately referred to here at Boojum Labs, has been eliminated in the semifinals. Part of the reason is that 2006 has been an extremely strong year for distortion, exaggeration, misdirection, tendentiousness and obfuscation. The number of outstanding contenders is such that many extremely qualified truth-stretchers fell from the pack in the early rounds. Another factor may have been that good ol’ Z does not seem to have published anything in the last year. Or two. Whatever the reason, we feel it unfair and a disservice to the public to simply ignore this titan of mendacity, especially when he is an honored guest at this year’s Climate Crackpot Controversy Conference. For that reason alone, it seems appropriate to bring back a blast from the relatively recent past — Jaworowski’s classic The Ice Age is Coming! Solar Cycles, not CO2 , Determine Climate.
The paper appeared in the Winter 2003-2004 issue of Lyndon Larouche’s magazine 21st Century Science and Technology. This publication is so wacky that it deserves a post of its own — but suffice it to say that we’re not talking about the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here. Jaworowski is a featured writer for the magazine, with articles in both the “Global Warming?” and “Go Nuclear” sections. His piece on CO2 in ice cores predates his testimony before an imaginary Senate hearing, and may warrant a closer look; also, his views on how Chernobyl showed that nuclear power is safe are sure to be interesting. But for now, let’s see what happens when good ol’ Z turns his attention to the larger topic of climate change. The result is … positively Jaworowskian. This article is such an epic work of misinformation that we are forced to break the review into segments. If the coffee holds out, we may be done before the next Ice Age.

Jaworowski opens by tenderizing the truth a bit, saying that

Since the 1980s, many climatologists have claimed that human activity has caused the near-surface air temperature to rise faster and higher than ever before in history. Industrial carbon dioxide emissions, they say, will soon result in a runaway global warming, with disastrous consequences for the biosphere. By 2100, they claim, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration will double, causing the average temperature on Earth to increase by 1.9°C to 5.2°C, and in the polar region by more than 12°C.

If we were sticklers, we might ask for more specificity than “many climatologists”, or object that no one has predicted “runaway” warming. But the opener is, in parts, roughly consistent with what has actually been predicted. Then we get to the second paragraph, and the fun begins.

Just a few years earlier, these very same climatologists had professed that industrial pollution would bring about a new Ice Age. In 1971, the spiritual leader of the global warming prophets, Dr. Stephen H. Schneider from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, claimed that this pollution would soon reduce the global temperature by 3.5°C.1

“[T]hese very same climatologists” turns out to be Stephen Schneider. He was at NCAR from 1973-1996, not in 2003, and was at NASA in 1971 when the cited paper was written. In fact, the lead author was S. Ichtiaque Rasool. Schneider was a post-doc at the time, little dreaming, perhaps, that he would one day be the “spiritual leader of the global warming prophets.” The relevant passage in the paper is

Even if we assume that the rate of scavenging and other removal processes for atmospheric dust particles remains constant, it is still difficult to predict the rate at which global background opacity of the atmosphere will increase with increasing particulate injection by human activities. However, it is projected that man’s potential to pollute will increase six- to eightfold in the next 50 years[24]. If this increased rate of injection of particulate matter in the atmosphere should raise the present global background opacity by a factor of 4, our calculations suggest a decrease in global temperature by as much as 3.5° K.

As it turned out, Rasool and Schneider’s predictions were off the mark because they had used too low a value for CO2 sensitivity:

From our calculation, a doubling of CO2> produces a tropospheric temperature change of 0.8° K[12]. However, as more CO2 is added to the atmosphere, the rate of temperature increase is proportionally less and less, and the increase eventually levels off. Even for an increase in CO2 by a factor of 10, the temperature increase does not exceed 2.5° K. Therefore, the runaway greenhouse effect does not occur …

So even the “many climatologists” cited by Jaworowski fail to predict a runaway greenhouse effect — or a “new Ice Age” for that matter. The statement that “climatologists had professed that industrial pollution would bring about a new Ice Age” is a canard, trotted out whenever someone wants to imply that projections of climatic change have been, and thus are, unreliable. In fact, there were no articles in peer-reviewed journals during the 1970s predicting a new Ice Age.
Jaworowski’s quotation from the National Science Board is second-hand and incomplete. The citation is actually to a statement by James Schlesinger[2] that quotes the Board as saying

[T]he present time of high temperatures should be drawing to an end . . . leading into the next glacial age.

A more complete quote is

Judging from the record of the past interglacial ages, the present time of high temperatures should be drawing to an end … leading into the next glacial age. However, it is possible, or even likely, than human interference has already altered the environment so much that the climatic pattern of the near future will follow a different path. . ..

For some reason, James Schlesinger found it impractical to quote the second sentence in that passage along with the first. Perhaps he was out of space. This statement was the subject of commentary at the time by popular publications, including National Geographic. It has also been shamelessly misrepresented, over the years, by a motley cast of characters that now includes Jaworowski.

To sum up, then: We are now three paragraphs into a twelve-page paper. Jaworowski has already presented us with four misleading statements, three errors of omission, two outright errors of fact and a misattribution in a pear tree. Now that’s the kind of performance we have come to expect from a champion!

Next: Radiative balance.

[1]S. I. Rasool and S.H. Schneider, 1971, Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate, Science 173 (July 9), pp. 188-141 [Footnote numbering from Jaworowski (2003)]
[2]David Schindler wrote a pointed reply to Schlesinger that’s well worth a read.
[12] Our computed surface temperature increase for an increase in the amount of CO2 by a factor of 2 is less than one-third that of Manabe and Wetherald (11). There are three reasons for this difference: (i) The absorption coefficients for CO2 used by Manabe and Wetherald [from G. Yamamoto and T. Sasamori, Sci. Rep. Tohoku Univer. Ser. 510 (No. 2), 37 (1958) are higher than ours [from (4)]. (ii) In our calculations the temperature throughout the troposphere varies at the fixed critical lapse rate, whereas in Manabe and Wetherald’s calculations the increase in temperature is confined to the lower troposphere, and the upper troposphere and stratosphere show an actual decreasing temperature. (iii) Our method of calculation for the overlap of H2O and CO2 absorption bands and our evaluation of the radiative flux integrals are not identical with theirs. However, since we are interested in studying the very long-term effects of increasing CO2 up to a factor of 10 or more, the shape of the curves shown in Fig. 1, which indicates a leveling off of the temperature increase, is the major point of emphasis, rather than the absolute value of temperature change for a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. [Footnote numbering from Rasool & Schneider (1971) — and no, I’m not going to copy the figure and the secondary footnotes at the moment.]
[24] J. H. Ludwig, G. B. Moran, T. B. McMullen, Eos Trans. Amer. Geophys. Union, 51, 468 (1970) [Footnote numbering from Rasool & Schneider (1971)]

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Coffee break’s over.

September 9th, 2006

Blogging is remarkable in how well it suits the needs of the lazy and the compulsively productive alike. Have a need to be heard every day? Pump out those posts! Just don’t feel the muse’s tickle? Let ’em sit!

Never a posting dynamo, I have (obviously) been even less motivated than usual for the past five months, doing no more than weeding comment spam and giving directions to the occasional lost web-surfer: “Deltoid? Is it Deltoid ye’re seekin’, young feller? Why, Deltoid is clear over in the antipodes, and ye’ve some wet wheelin’ in front a yer!”

But sloth, for all its charms, has its costs. With this blog’s inactivity, both its regular readers seem to have given up commenting on it. There are, after all, only so many things to be said about the effects of increasing CO2 on the evolution of blue-green indigo algae. For that reason, and because all my alternatives look even more like work, I’ve decided to start posting again. To mark the decision, I thought I’d adopt a theme. The choice was sparked by my re-reading a piece from years ago: Richard Feynman’s commencement address to Caltech’s class of 1974, also reprinted in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

That short piece, in my view, states perfectly the spirit of the scientific enterprise at its best. In its simplicity, its clarity, and its unassuming good humor, it also communicates that spirit in a way that every sentient being on this earth can appreciate. On reading it again, I decided to adopt Feynman’s address as the canonical statement of the Right Way.

Many, many others have praised that address before me — but I’d rather be in good company than be original.

With this short statement on scientific honesty as my guide, I’ve changed my tag line — because I believe that whenever someone has a chance to add a little bit to our understanding but chooses instead to harness the facts to some other purpose, somewhere along the worldline of a single electron, zigzagging from one end of time to the other as it weaves our reality, Richard Feynman sheds a single, perfect tear.

Milloy parrots Jaworowski: dog bites man yet again.

March 22nd, 2006

While I’m reporting news that shouldn’t surprise anybody … this just in!

An alert reader[1] reports that Steven Milloy has discovered Zbigniew Jaworowski!

Startlingly, Milloy concludes that Jaworowski casts doubt on anthropogenic global warming!

But that’s not all. Are you sitting down?

Fox News got the scoop!

Enough of that; my sarcasmic center is saturating.

Seriously: what’s remarkable about this story is what’s not remarkable about it, viz.: the low, low standard of research required by the Junk Tech Fumento Central Science Station (JTFCSSTM) complex of anyone who will support the Cause.

Milloy is a prized hack in this effort, because he is always willing to take any rag of an argument, dry-clean it, embroider it, and hang it out again. I’m particularly tickled by Milloy’s eyewitness account of Jaworowski’s Senate testimony:

“More than 20 physico-chemical processes, mostly related to the presence of liquid water, contribute to the alteration of the original chemical composition of the air inclusion in polar ice,” Dr. Jaworowski told Senators.

I wonder if Milloy would be embarrassed to learn that Jaworowski never testified, or even left a statement, with the US Senate[2], or that the quoted passage has zero credible science to back it up, including even the short paper Jaworowski cites in support, or that Jaworowski’s history of CO2 measurement from ice cores is an egregious and inexcusable distortion of the actual research, or that the atmospheric CO2 argument Milloy quotes so admiringly is a bit of transparent flim-flam, or that the entire “statement” is a tissue of hokum, as dense with falsehood and misdirection as any supposedly scientific document to come down the pike in donkey’s years?

Nah. Remember — this is Steven Milloy we’re talking about. If there is anything capable of embarrassing him, no one has found it yet.
[1] Thanks, S!

[2] In a Jaworowski-esque display of chutzpah, Milloy cut and pasted that passage from Jaworowski’s “statement”, framed it in quotes and added the words “Dr. Jaworowski told Senators.”

Inhofe Asks NSF Director to Warp Time: So What Else is New?

March 22nd, 2006

I will say this for US Sen. James Inhofe (R-Exxon): his relentlessly ideological view of science isolates him from the world, but at least that isolation is so robust and seamless that there’s not much risk of reality intruding and causing him to frighten the horses by saying something rational. Even his moments of most spectacular looniness, such as calling Michael Crichton as an expert witness to a Senate hearing, are entirely at home in the comfortable personal history he has woven as the dumbest man in the Senate.
So it is with his recent request that the director of the National Science Foundation provide detailed information on employees and contractors at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Rep. Mark Udall put it diplomatically:

[H]is request for the names of NCAR and UCAR employees and a list of their research projects raises the question whether this is about the conclusions these scientists have reached or whether this is an attempt to influence the outcome of their research.

No kidding. The letter is extraordinary in its scope and detail, making it clear that its intent is to harass and threaten. It asks for:

  • A basic organization chart for NCAR and UCAR with names and titles of office directors,
  • A list of all NCAR and UCAR staff, their job title, location, and a brief description of their duties and responsibilities.
  • A list of all NCAR and UCAR employees working at, or who are under contract with, non-NSF Federal agencies and departments or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s), their job title, salary, and length of time on this assignment. Please provide this information for a period of time covering the past 3 years.
  • Any and all rules, policies, regulations, manuals, internal memoranda, and any other documents that govern NCAR and UCAR employees working at or who are under contract with non-NSF Federal agencies and departments or NGOs.

A list of research projects funded for the last 3 years broken out by institutions and amount of funding by fiscal year.

The letter finishes with a deadline:

Thank you for your prompt consideration of this request. I look forward to receiving your response by Monday, February 13, 2006.

I hope NSF got cracking on that one right away. The letter was dated February 24, 2006.

Another detour

February 24th, 2006

To those who have asked me (or would have, if you’d thought of it), your eyes filled with hope and voices cracking ever so slightly, “Jim Bob Boy, will you ever post again on climate change?” I can only say, “Soon, dear hearts, soon.”

In the meantime, we have another shameless detour, this time compounding the sin by including an element of politics. That’s Politics with a capital P, and that rhymes with T, and that stands for Tool! Yes, friends, that’s right — I’m talking about He Who Shall Not Be Designated By His First Initial and a Drastic Truncation of His SurnameTM, although it rhymes with [cough]Horowitz! Those who have followed HWSNBDBHFIAADTOHS through his long career know that he started out as a devoted follower of the Black Panthers, then after a period of self-examination decided to get really silly. For some years now, HWSetc. has established quite a reputation (if that’s the word) as a critic of America’s left-leaning professors, and has set himself the arduous and thankless task of cleaning up Dodge. In the process, he has elbowed most of the competition off the short list for America’s Most Pretentious and Ill-Tempered Right-Wing Ninny.

HWSetc. has not had a good last week. In a series of exchanges with Michael Bérubé over several days, HWSetc. took blow after blow, falling then staggering to his feet and flailing wildly at random, only to fall again, while horrified spectators begged officials to stop the fight.

Now, with his disposition unimproved by that experience, HWSetc. has stepped into the ring again with an online poll in which readers can vote for the Worst Professor in America. Of course, to prevent ballot-stuffing, the page code checks IP addresses and prevents multiple votes from the same location and … no, wait, that’s some other poll. True to form, HWSetc. did nothing at all to try to make the poll more than an online stunt, and the results were … well see for yourself.

Bérubé asked his readers if they could band together and vote – vote, me hearties, like yer miserable scurvy lives depended on it — to make him the unquestioned Worst Professor in America. Bérubé’s readership responded with a will. Thanks to loyal readers’ dedicated efforts and a homespun PHP script or two, votes have been streaming in all night at an average rate of several per second. At time of posting, Bérubé has what might modestly be called a commanding lead, with 151,402 votes. The page itself was edited after someone twigged to the fact that the “Professor” and “University” headings were reversed, but t

The online Diebold continues to spin merrily as we speak.

Some things are almost, but not quite, beyond the reach of mockery. Fortunately for all of us, this one slipped under the wire.

Update: For a moment there, I thought that HWSetc. had actually detected and corrected a mistake, and I trembled at what that might imply. I see that the Last Days are not yet upon us, and that the current Worst Professor in America, with 254414 votes at the moment of posting, is “Penn State University” who holds tenure at “Michael Berube.” Why I thought that had been fixed, I sure don’t know. Dyslexic am I!

UpdateUpdate: The fun continues. HWSetc. realized belatedly that he does not, in fact, have billions of readers, and reset the poll. This of course was an opportunity for Bérubé to improve and extend HWSetc.’s very public pantsing.

It’s not easy being indigo.

February 21st, 2006

God, I love Boulder!

As if it were not enough that this place is blessed with a perfect climate, heart-filling scenery, a lifetime’s worth of outdoor activities, an educated and tolerant populace, a great university and the NCAR library (happiest place on earth), we also enjoy the highest density of wacky beliefs per capita in the known universe. And if you have not experienced anything like the latter, don’t knock it — for entertainment, it beats hell out of the local dodecaplex, and it’s free.

As an example of Boulder’s zany bounty, let me offer an item I could never, ever have made up, believe me.

Indigo children.

Indigos, named after their supposed indigo-colored aura, are thought to be psychologically and spiritually gifted — a new generation of higher evolved humans believed to have been born in or after the 1980s. Believers say clusters of Indigos appear in well-off, open-minded communities, such as Boulder and Hollywood.

Lest the reader get the impression that one aura fits all, let’s get clear on Indigo taxonomy:

Indigo children: Supposedly children (approximately age 7 through 25) with special psychological and spiritual abilities, believed to be “sent” to Earth as highly evolved souls that will save the planet.

Crystal children: Similar to Indigo children, but younger, roughly up to age 7, with more happy, delightful and forgiving personalities. Often with large, penetrating, wise eyes.

Once I read that last, it all became clear to me: Aliens sent these children to Boulder and Hollywood so as to provide a nurturing environment for their spawn!

And, just in case you were inclined to be less than nurturing, keep in mind that Indigos can sense your thoughts and feelings:

Daniel Link, of Boulder, sat with his 11-year-old daughter, India Halliburton-Link. He remembers when India was 4, she surprised him by looking across a restaurant and asking, “Why is that woman so sad?” “You could observe nothing,” Link says. “But it was something she detected.” Link, a former teacher, isn’t sure if his daughter is one, but he has no doubt Indigo children exist. “We all want to believe, on the spiritual side, a little bit more, that the unique is possible, that miracles happen and that there’s a better way,” he says.

As evidence, (particularly of that “penetrating, wise eyes” part), we have a photo of one Crystal and one Indigo child:

Remind you of anything? I know it does me:

Now all that creepy mind-reading stuff falls into place, doesn’t it? Indigo kids, let me leave you with this — if all you’re picking up is “Brick wall … brick wall …”, hit the dirt!

Blue-Green Algae and the Unbearable Importance of Linking

January 5th, 2006

This is about something I learned nine years ago, and about how different the Web has made the world since then.

In 1996, I was introduced to a product known as Blue-Green Algae. BGA, as I’ll call it, was presented as the nutritional supplement that would fix all the damage caused by our modern, nutrient-poor diet. BGA’s supporters were also its distributors, in an Amway-style multi-level marketing structure. BGA was promoted by word of mouth and in a body of literature published by its manufacturer, Cell-Tech of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The benefits to be had by taking BGA were enthusiastically listed in a Q&A section headed “The secret of perfect cellular balance is proper cellular nourishment.”. A key element in the BGA narrative was the critical role played by minerals and trace elements, the presence or absence of which would make the “difference between vibrant health and chronic disease.” One brochure presented a detailed case:

I was intrigued by all this, and wanted to learn more. In all of the descriptions of how BGA’s properties set it apart from conventional foodstuffs, one solid lead presented itself. In the brochure shown above it was said that a “recent study from the Firman Bear report, based on research conducted at Rutgers University concluded that commercially grown and organically grown vegetables … had significant nutritional differences.” A table was presented in evidence, seen at the lower right above. Here it is at larger scale:

I wanted to know more about this “Firman Bear Report”, but how was I to find it? In 1996, the Web was in its infancy, and Google had yet to transform electronic research. Even so, there were a few search tools available, and I was able to discover that Dr. Edward Firman Bear (1884-1968) had been a highly respected agronomist and soils chemist, and that a chapter of the Soil Science Society of America was named after him. So far so good — but, if Dr. Bear had died in 1968, how likely was it that a “recent study” had been derived from his work? A little more electronic digging turned up a citation:

Bear, Firman E, Stephen J. Toth and Arthur L. Prince. “Variation in Mineral Composition of Vegetables.” Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America, 13:380-384, 1948.

This was progress. The study might not qualify as “recent” by many folks’ standards, but I had a citation. The next step was to get my hooks on the report. Anyone who has done much academic research is aware that the number of journals in the world is so huge that only a few of the largest university libraries can carry more than a small fraction of them. The Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America proved to be outside the holdings of any university in Colorado, and with my pitiful Public Patron card, there was little I could do to get the document. With some reluctance, I gave up the quest.

Fast-forward three years. In 1999, I was taking graduate courses at CU. One day, something reminded me of Bear et al., and I realized — hey, with a student’s library card, I can get Inter-Library Loan! By filling out a form and waiting two weeks, I was able to get a copy of the study. It contained a table, parts of which seemed familiar:

The alert reader will have noticed that the five vegetables listed in the BGA brochure, and the mineral contents for each, do indeed appear in the table from Bear et al. — but with very different labels for the rows. The table presented by Bear, Toth and Prince lists the mineral content of vegetables grown in the soils of several states. Because the focus of the study was cation uptake by plants, mineral content was expressed as “milliequivalents per 100 grams dry water” (an odd phrase, but it makes sense in the context of the experimental procedure). First listed are the state-by-state averages for each mineral in each vegetable, then the highest and lowest values obtained in all 204 samples. Thus, snapbeans grown in Georgia were reported to have an average of 38.3 meq/100g of magnesium. The highest and lowest values of magnesium in any snapbean sample were 60.0 and 14.8 meq/100g, respectively, and so on.[1]

When we look at the table presented in the BGA promotional brochure, we see the same numbers for the same vegetables — but now, each of the “Highest” rows has been relabeled “Organic” and each of the “Lowest” rows has been relabeled “Conventional.”

Now, six years later, I remember clearly how surprised I was by this. I thought “Why did they even bother to take a table from an actual paper that anyone could look up, and relabel the rows? Why didn’t they just make up the numbers from whole cloth?”

Here’s my guess: Someone, for reasons now forgotten, once transcribed the table and relabeled the rows. The table was then passed from hand to hand many times after being separated from its parent document. The writers of the BGA brochure had probably never seen the original paper, and most likely believed that the table they presented was valid. Hardly anyone was likely to go to the trouble I had just to get a copy of the Bear, Toth and Prince study. There is no need to assume that the writers of the brochure were working a conscious deception; they could take anything they’d been given, accept it on faith and print it without any reasonable likelihood of a casual reader discovering that it was false.

But my library card was not the only thing that had changed. Between 1996 and 1999, the Web grew a lot. Suddenly it was possible to do a Google search for “blue green algae” and discover a number of interesting things about the product, the company and its founders — such as the fact that Cell-Tech is descended[2] from another company, and was apparently founded in order to shed the legal baggage of its predecessor. In 1986, a court found that Blue Green Manna products had been mislabeled and misleadingly advertised, and issued a permanent injunction against Victor Kollman and K. C. Laboratories forbidding further sales of Blue Green Manna. Fortunately for the algae business, Victor’s brother Daryl had started Cell-Tech International a few years before[3], and has continued to do business under that name ever since. By 1999, it was also possible to find references to BGA at sites ranging from Health Canada to MLM Watch. With a dial-up connection and a half-hour’s research, the consumer interested in BGA could easily discover that the elaborate framework of claims made for the supplement had little or no basis in fact.

Now, fast-forward to the present. Want to know about the “Firman Bear report”? Just Google[4] for “firman bear” — the top result is for the Rutgers University library system, where another link takes you to a page dedicated to information about the report, including the following:

This study is often misrepresented as evidence supporting the position that organically grown foods are superior in minerals and trace elements to those grown conventionally. In fact, the study did not compare synthetic fertilizer practice to organic.

Professor Joseph Heckman of the Rutgers Plant Science Department has prepared a packet of materials discussing the study including “disclaimers” about its relevance to organic farming. If you would like to receive the packet, contact: Professor Joseph Heckman
Dept. of Plant Science
Rutgers University, Foran Hall
59 Dudley Road
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
heckman (SHIFT – 2) aesop.rutgers.edu
732-932-9711 Ext. 119

Another link takes you to the study itself.[5] That’s right — the whole blessed thing is now on line! I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about this, considering the effort I’d expended just a few years ago to get a copy — but there is no doubt that this is a good thing all around.

So — in our enlightened present times, there is no reason for the health-conscious consumer to remain in the dark about BGA, right?

Not quite.

If we go back to our Google search for “firman bear” and examine the hits that come after Rutgers, we find that most give an essentially correct account of the study’s conclusions. But not all. One site invokes Bear et al. to support its assertion that “the depletion of dozens of minerals from the soil continues to wreak havoc with our metabolic enzyme systems–gifting us with the chronic diseases of our time.” Another cites Bear, then concludes that “It is quite clear that the vitamin and mineral content in our food supply is continuing to diminish.” Even today, we can find the mislabeled table continuing to be offered as evidence that organically grown crops contain higher concentrations of minerals — for example, here and here. Dr. Bear deserves to be remembered for his contributions to soil science, but his immortality has taken the form of being the most misquoted figure in the history of the discipline.

How about BGA, then? Surely, in our information-rich age, any over-exuberant claims for algae’s benefits cannot survive the withering heat of scrutiny, can they? One can only wish. Cell Tech International continues to sell a line of products containing “nutrients that promote physical well-being” and providing such benefits as “nutritional assurance for the mind” and “high-quality nutrition for the perfect balance of physical energy and mental performance.” At another location, BGA is still touted as a treatment for ADHD and an immune system booster. Until recently, one site sold BGA as the “Natural Wonder Food” Chlorella, claiming that it would

  • Build your immune system
  • Detoxify the heavy metals and other pesticides in your body
  • Improve your digestive system, including decreasing constipation
  • Focus more clearly and for greater duration
  • Improve your energy level
  • Balance your body’s pH
  • Normalize your blood sugar and blood pressure
  • Eliminate bad breath
  • Fight cancer

In February, the FDA pointed out that it is illegal to make such claims unless and until their truth has been demonstrated. Faced with the choice between backing up those claims and toning them down to avoid legal action, the distributor deleted every claim specifically objected to by the FDA, and continues relentlessly to plug Chlorella as a miracle product.

I began this post promising a history of what I’d found out about BGA some years ago, and a discussion of how the Web has changed the world since that time. I’m done with the BGA story.[6] As to the Web, I can only point to this experience as an example of what others have observed (and done it much better) before me:

Thanks to the Web, more people can acquire more information, more quickly, than ever before.

Thanks to the Web, more people can acquire more misinformation, more quickly, than ever before.

[1] The figure of 15.5 for the lowest calcium content seems to be in error, since the average for Georgia is given as 14.5. This is probably a typo.

[2] Here, as elsewhere, I link to the Wayback Machine’s archive from the period in question — in this case, 1999. The page has been updated since then.

[3] The company’s first web page, ca 1996, dates its founding to 1980. It makes no mention of Victor or Blue Green Manna.

[4] Remember, before “Google” was a verb, when the user had a choice of six search engines, any one of which returned a random grab-bag of useless results? I don’t miss those days, either.

[5] At the time of writing, Rutgers’ server appears to be down. All praise be to the Wayback Machine!

[6] You can cheer quietly, you know.

Shaken, not stirred.

November 18th, 2005

A recent comment by Skeptico in response to my earlier post on Oscillococcinum has forced me to re-think the whole homeopathy[1] thing:

Of course, by doing nothing at all they would still “enjoy all the benefits of homoeopathy”. With the added advantage that the fees would also be reduced to a homeopathic magnitude.

Well, yeah, but … that’s not quite playing the game, now is it? I had approached the matter somewhat in the spirit of those intrepid adventurers who spent long careers in search of the perfectly dry martini:

One might prepare a martini by waving the cap of a vermouth bottle over the glass, or observing that “there was vermouth in the house once.” Winston Churchill chose to forgo vermouth completely, and instead simply bowed in the direction of France, while General Patton suggested pointing the gin bottle in the general direction of Italy.

After exhaustive research on the subject of homeopathy, the one principle I have been able to pull out of my assembled references[2] is that we do not make homeopathic remedies stronger by doing nothing, we make them stronger by asymptotically approaching doing nothing.[3]

For all these reasons then, and against my better judgment,[4] I offer the following (also available as a pdf for your personal wall-defacement):

Boojums Quick Reference to Homeopathic Dosages

Standard Strength:    Take a homeopathic remedy.

Extra Strength:       Be in the same room as a homeopathic remedy.

Industrial Strength:  Think about homeopathy.

Maximum Strength:   Don’t think too hard.

[1] In deference to our buddies in the UK, who treasure and support this zaniness at least as well as we Murcans, I will alternate between “homeopathy” and “homoeopathy.”

[2] Did I hear someone say “subliminal, my assembled references”?

[3] Whatever does not terminate me (urp), but causes me asymptotically to approach doing nothing, makes me stronger.

[4] “Judgment” it has been written, “comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment.”

Read the rest of this entry »

A brief detour

November 17th, 2005

I promised myself when I started this blog that I would not post unless I thought I could add some value to some discussion somewhere.
Of course, the inevitable result is that this blog sees a new post only slightly more often than we see a new Pope.
So, now we will break with tradition and introduce a post meant only to point and giggle.
Paul Ford is always a hoot, but he has outdone himself here.

Of particular deliciousness is the fact that, at the time of writing, B2Day still has not twigged to it.
As if that were not enough to sate the most avid comic appetite, he finishes with this:

I remember the sweet day when I replaced [this image] with [this one], thus confounding a few corporate websites.

Aw, jeez, now I have to replace the upholstery again. And yes — buy the book.

Update: Someone at B2Day finally noticed the fun that was being had at their expense. Erick Schonfeld has restored the original cartoon, this time with a copy under his control, and has belatedly acknowledged Paul Ford as its author. In the process, he also deleted all the comments about stoats, etc. Appropriately enough, you can still find them at the Google cache.

Geese are where you find them.

November 16th, 2005

I was driving to work this morning, and heard a wonderful piece on the radio by Brigitte Mars, host of the herbal healing show Naturally. I was inspired to write her the following letter:

Dear Ms. Mars,

As a regular listener to KGNU, I have often enjoyed Naturally on Wednesday and Thursday mornings.
Your segment this morning (16 November) was, as always, interesting and enjoyable.
I was intrigued by your advice that persons at risk for influenza look into the benefits of the homoeopathic remedy Oscillococcinum.

Of particular interest was your thoughtful comment directed to Vegans — that although Oscillococcinum is made from goose liver, and some of us may be reluctant to use animal-derived products, the concern is lessened by the fact that only two geese are killed each year, and their livers furnish enough active ingredient to supply the entire world!

Your advice was well-placed, and I am sure it has brought comfort to those who are understandably loath to put their welfare in conflict with that of our fellow creatures. If I may, I would like to suggest a step some of us may take to reduce that harm even further. Since, as we know, homoeopathic remedies are made more potent as they are diluted, it is not necessary to kill a goose at all in order to derive an effective Oscillococcinum.

If capsules with some inert substance are placed in a container, and that container is slowly drawn across the abdomen of the goose, they will become at least as active as standard Oscillococcinum in preventing influenza. I strongly recommend this approach to those who wish to avoid causing needless pain and suffering, and to those on a confining budget.

One caution, however, is in order. Some people may be tempted to increase the effect still further by simply waving the container in the direction of Lyon, France, where Laboratoires Boiron keeps the Oscillococcinum geese. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, ATTEMPT THIS! So doing is likely to dilute the Oscillococcinum so much that it acquires a dangerous potency, and the user is likely to overdose!

However, if this caveat is kept in mind, I am sure that many of us who love animals but are worried about the flu may enjoy all the benefits of homoeopathy while remaining secure in the knowledge that they have done no harm.

Yours Naturally,

Jim Easter