Friday, March 31, 2006

NO Justice in New Orleans

The following comes from a friend who spent the past week doing relief work in New Orleans with an organization called Safe Streets, a group working to curb police brutality and to reform the criminal justice system in New Orleans.

According to her report, there is a long, long way to go:
...Relief here has been so slow and inadequate that it is hard to know where to begin. More than six months after the storm, huge areas have no power and water; kids don’t have schools to go to; debris and destroyed cars are littered on deserted blocks, the list goes on and on.

I spent the week working at an organization called Safe Streets which works on police brutality and the criminal justice system here. And, I was hoping that y’all (note the southern influence) would take a minute to read about some of the horror stories that are a part of daily life for African-Americans and the poor here.

The New Orleans criminal justice system has a long history of discrimination, corruption, and abuse. Prior to the hurricane, the police department was already notorious for its abuse. Because it does not have an independent monitoring arm, reports were rarely followed up on. In fact, those who complained suffered further abuse and some were even killed. More police in New Orleans have been convicted of serious crimes than in any other city. Poor people not only face overworked public defenders, but the public defenders office is overseen by the same lawyer who represents the police and the defenders are appointed by judges who frown upon “vigorous defense” since it clogs their courtrooms.

As bad as all this is, conditions since the storm have gotten much worse. The public defenders are funded by traffic tickets and so their funding has dried up since the hurricane. Without even this minimal safe guard, police harassment and brutality have spun out of control. I met dozens of individuals being released from jail. The story which I heard over and over was that people are stopped walking down the street, in their cars, or in their homes without probable cause and without search warrants. They are never read their rights. Police refer to this as simply “street sweeping.”

When the police don’t find drugs, they charge individuals with public drunkenness which doesn’t even require a breathalyzer test, with public disturbance, with blocking a sidewalk, or with criminal trespass. I spoke with five men who were charged with criminal trespass in the home that they themselves were renting. They were arrested and charged despite producing renter’s receipts (could I produce renter’s receipts? No).

While many described their physical treatment as fair apart from the harassment of being arrested in the first place (lending credibility to their complaints), abuse on arrest is frequent. I met one man whose head was slammed on such a hot car hood that he suffered third degree burns and needed a skin graft on his face. Others have been beaten so badly vertebrae in their back or neck is broken. Yet unless, they have credible witnesses or a tape of the abuse like the retired school teacher Robert Davis, the police get away with it. One older gentleman who was arrested for trespassing in his own house was and told by the officer “You should never have brought your black ass back to New Orleans.”

After being arrested, they are taken down to the one jail still operating in New Orleans. Conditions in the jail are almost indescribable. People go without food for the first day. The cells have mold that make people sick. 40 people are crammed into cells that were built for 12. There is no ventilation or temperature control—which meant that this winter temperatures inside dipped to freezing on some nights and there are no blankets. When summer comes, it will be just as bad. Food and urine are on the floor and they have to use trash bags for toilets. Since there are no public defenders to press for a speedy release and FEMA pays for each person jailed, the people I met had languished in the jail anywhere from days to months. Some hadn’t even been given a phone call to let anyone know. All this before even being charged. So, it doesn’t help if the charges are ultimately dropped. The people I met never talked with a public defender. In fact the public defenders office recently recused itself from 3000 cases because it couldn’t provide effective counsel. Yet, this move simply left these people without any representation at all. The few who do see a public defender any time before their first court appearance are usually told to plead guilty without even being asked about their stories.

Less widespread but just as tragic, nearly 2000 people are still in jail awaiting charges or a trial from when Katrina hit…over six months ago. A few months ago, this came to light and a judge issued a decree that if the D.A. couldn’t bring charges by the end of January, the individuals had to be released. January has come and gone, but without anyone to enforce the decree, these people are still waiting in jail. The wardens are in no rush to let them go because they get FEMA money for each night they house the prisoners, the D.A.’s office would still like to bring charges when they get around to it, and the public defender’s office simply has no resources. Many would like to just plead guilty since they could get off with time already served. Even for those who do have charges brought against them, the average stay in prison before trial is 385 days and growing. One girl, only 17 at the time of arrest in
connection with a school shooting, had been in jail for 2 years awaiting trial when the storm hit. Her trial has now been postponed until at least September. Another man has been awaiting trial for five years.

New Orleans has a serious crime problem, but this treatment is abhorrent and the abuse of scarce resources only punishes an already beleaguered community. I was really shocked that conditions like this still existed right in our backyard. I know that most people don’t lead a life of leisure like me and can’t come down here to see for yourselves and help. By writing this email I was hoping to do what little I can to let people know about this tragedy and I hope you’ll do the same by mentioning it to your friends and family.

Annie

To those who regularly read this blog, and to those who stumble along only occasionally, please do your part and pass this information along. After all, the point of the blog revolution was to enable all of us to tell the stories that weren't being told by mainstream media, the stories that couldn't find a voice. Well, this is a story that isn't being told. But it can be.

Please spread the word.

A hope and a prayer, but no help

"Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery." That was the much anticipated conclusion of a decade long study into the effects of intercessory prayer.

The study, which concentrated on prayers offered for patients recovering from coronary bypass surgery, further suggested that prayer, rather than benefiting post-operative patients, might actually harm them. Researchers in the study hypothesized that the adverse results associated with intercessory prayer might be due to increased expectations on the part of the patients.

To which some members of the prayer community offered a predictable, and consistent, response: "A person of faith would say that this study is interesting," said Bob Barth, the spiritual directory of Silent Unity, a Missouri prayer ministry. "But we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started."

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable response for someone whose beliefs or opinions are premised on faith. By definition, a faith-base belief is one that does not require evidence or proof to justify its own existence. Which begs the question: why try to provide scientific justification for a belief that is rooted in faith?

In studying intercessory prayer it strikes me that, for many people who already engage in the practice, only two outcomes were possible: 1) the disclosure of a positive correlation between intercessory prayer and improved health status, which would encourage further prayer, or 2) no correlation (or a negative correlation), which would be dismissed as incomplete or as irrelevant.

Beliefs premised on faith are, typically, not averse to receiving scientific or empirical support. But they do not require it for, as faith-based beliefs, they can and will be maintained even in the face of contrary evidence, for it is faith, and not evidence, by which they are supported.

All of this leads me to wonder what purpose this study truly served? When scientific research dollars are scarce, is there really full value in pursuing a question whose results will only be acknowledged if favorable? More broadly, what role can and should scientific research take on in the investigation of beliefs that are fundamentally rooted in a supernatural faith that exceeds the boundaries of scientific investigation?

If this is to be the response by the faith-based community to studies of faith, then why commission the study at all?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

"A Pacemaker for the Brain"

Lowering the Curtain on Hwang Woo-suk

In a little publicized announcement (well, anyway, it took me five days to hear about it) earlier this week, Seoul National University fired infamous stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk. The announcement, along with news that "six other professors who worked with Hwang [had been] either suspended or had their salaries cut", marks, one would hope, one of the last entries along an ignominious timeline for stem cell research and scientific ethics.

Though the name of Hwang Woo-suk will now, one would hope, drop from the popular press (although criminal charges are still pending), there is still much to be learned from the institutional structures that permitted this scandal to develop in the first place. Now that the story is drawing to a close, the time for reflection is fully at hand.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Whence Came Intelligent Design?

From the choirs of Catholic elementary schools, that's whence.

Recently I was having a discussion with a friend who believes in intelligent design. My friend, Ryan, is a very bright guy - thoughtful, intelligent, opinionated - and not necessarily the type that I would peg as an ID adherent. Anyhow, in the course of our discussion he actually sang for me a song from his Catholic choirboy days. I think that the song, "I'm a K-I-D, Not a Monkey," the first verse of which is reprinted below, explains a lot:
I'm a K-I-D, Not a Monkey

Some people say
That the Bible's wrong
That the first mom and dad
Came from old King Kong.
Well I admit
A banana split
I just can't seem to get enough of it.
But that doesn't prove a thing
NO! That doesn't prove a thing
Cause God made me in His image
I'm a K-I-D, not a monkey!

Ryan was raised as a strict creationist and, in the two decades since his brainwashing via song choir days, he's migrated to a belief in evolution, but only under the watchful direction of God.

I'll bet a Ghiradelli bannana split that by the time two more decades have passed, the belief in intelligent design will have gone by the boards as well. Now if only I could set that to song...

An Example of "Bad Logic": Human Cloning

I was asked recently, via email, to provide an example of "bad logic." In fact, here's the full text of the email:
I need about a paragraph's worth of a dumb logical or tautological
argument, the kind that a self important logic student in a senior seminar might spew out in his term paper. Anything come to mind? Thanks. -jv
If you care to read and/or critique my response, read on.
Here, in it's full and complete form, is my response:
Not totally sure what you're asking for but I'll do my best...

1) I'm going to interpret "dumb logical" as meaning "logically unsound" and "tautological" as, well, "tautological." So, before we get to what you’re looking for, a little in the way of definitions:

2) Soundness: An argument is logically sound if and only if the argument is valid AND all of its premises are true.

Of course for this to make any sense we need the following definition:

3) Validity: An argument is logically valid if and only if when its premises are true its conclusion cannot be false.

The following is an example of a valid argument form:

I) If A then B
II) A
III) Therefore B

Note that this argument is valid regardless of what you substitute for A and B. So if I say

I) If I can type a sentence then John will give me $1,000,000.
II) I can type a sentence.
III) John will give me $1,000,000.

that is a logically valid argument. However, as is readily apparent, it is not a logically sound argument because all of the premises are not true, namely the first one. On a side note, if it turns out that all of the premises are true please let me know immediately – I’ll send you my address.

Now we get to the last key term…

3) Tautology: A statement (different from an argument, which is composed of several statements) is a tautology that is truth-functionally valid. That means that regardless of the truth of its variables, the statement itself is always true. Or, to put it more colloquially, a tautology is an argument that is trivially true. So, an example:

I) A or not A

Or, in words:

I) The Raven is black or the Raven is not-black.

Notice that tautologies or more or less independent of the logical validity or soundness of an argument. An argument can be logically sound (which implies logical validity) and contain a tautology, it just probably won’t be a very meaningful argument. For example:

I) The sky is blue.
II) If the sky is blue then either the sky is blue or the sky is not blue.
III) Therefore, the sky is blue.

This argument has a logically sound form, and it also contains a tautology (II). As you notice, it’s not all that compelling.

This leads me to the final point…


4) What you want:

I assume that what you want is not for me to give you one sentence examples of unsound or tautological arguments. What I’m not too clear on is what you do want…

Do you want an example of a “bad” argument (where “bad” means either “unsound” or “tautological” or both) that might show up in a college classroom? Do you have a topic or a prompt?

In case you don’t, here’s an example I came up with that you might find useful.

5) Example: Human Cloning

The development of genetic sciences is proceeding with astonishing speed. Sooner or later it may become possible to clone human beings. If this happens, cloning of human beings should be banned. Why? Because allowing the cloning human beings would create a host of nightmare scenarios – children harvested for organs, armies of warrior clones trained to feel no pain or remorse, an inexhaustible supply of Dick Cheneys – that everybody would agree must be stopped at all costs. Therefore, human cloning should be banned.

Notice that if you break this argument down you get the following argument (more or less, there are some interpretative questions here):

I) Either cloning will be possible or cloning will not be possible (“Sooner or later it may become possible to clone human beings”).
II) If cloning is possible it should be banned (“If this happens, cloning of human beings should be banned”).
III) Therefore, human cloning should be banned (“Therefore, human cloning should be banned”).

or, to use symbols:

I) Either A or not A
II) If A then C
III) Therefore, C

Notice, first and foremost, that all the “meat” of the argument – the stuff about Cheney and whatnot – adds nothing to the logical structure of the argument. It simply is an elaboration on the “If A then C” premise above. That is, “If cloning is possible it should be banned because ….”. This is important for getting you to believe that premise II is a true premise, but it doesn’t change the logical form.

And looking at the logical form we see an argument that a) contains a tautology, which is usually a bad sing and b) is neither logically sound nor logically valid.

1) The tautology is obvious – it’s premise (I).
2) The argument is invalid because all the premises (I and II) may be true and the conclusion may yet be false. That is, it might never prove possible to clone human beings, which means that the conclusion would not follow despite the (arguable) truth of both premises.
3) The argument is unsound because the truth of all the premises has not been demonstrated. The first premise is true because it is a tautology. The second premise, on the other hand, is not necessarily true. There has been support given (the Cheney line) but it is hardly compelling or convincing support.

Thus you have an argument that is logically flawed in several ways and yet, despite this, might conceivably be employed. Usually horrible arguments like this are surrounded by slightly more padding, and are slightly more difficult to unpack and expose, but this is, in my opinion, a reasonable representation of arguments against cloning that are in fact made. And, for what its worth, made by persons more eminent than mere college students at that.

Enjoy!

Whew. Not certain if I got that entirely correct, so anybody who wants to provide feedback will be warmly welcomed.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A South Dakotan Solution?

More on the South Dakota abortion ban from indianz.com:
When Governor Mike Rounds signed HB 1215 into law it effectively banned all abortions in the state with the exception that it did allow saving the mother's life. There were, however, no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. His actions, and the comments of State Senators like Bill Napoli of Rapid City, SD, set of a maelstrom of protests within the state.

Napoli suggested that if it was a case of "simple rape," there should be no thoughts of ending a pregnancy. Letters by the hundreds appeared in local newspapers, mostly written by women, challenging Napoli's description of rape as "simple." He has yet to explain satisfactorily what he meant by "simple rape."

The President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Cecilia Fire Thunder, was incensed. A former nurse and healthcare giver she was very angry that a state body made up mostly of white males, would make such a stupid law against women.

"To me, it is now a question of sovereignty," she said to me last week. "I will personally establish a Planned Parenthood clinic on my own land which is within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation where the State of South Dakota has absolutely no jurisdiction."

I have nothing but praise for Cecilia Thunder Fire and her decision not to take South Dakota’s indefensible abortion ban lying down. But it’s important to remember that a Planned Parenthood clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation is a band-aid, it is not a complete remedy. The real problem with anti-abortion legislation, in South Dakota and elsewhere, is displacement: the outsourcing of abortion to other states, to other countries, or even to private, unsupervised bedrooms thanks to do-it-yourself online manuals.

Cecilia Thunder Fire is doing an admirable thing, stepping up to the plate in an attempt to assist the South Dakotan women who would suffer most from the abortion ban: the socially and physically disadvantaged, and the victims of violence and abuse. But she should not bear that burden alone. South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, in his statement accompanying the signing of the anti-abortion legislation, said the following:
In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society. The sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because unborn children are the most vulnerable and most helpless persons in our society. I agree with them.

It’s an admirable goal, to protect “the most vulnerable and most helpless” in society, and it is one that South Dakota is failing at. Miserably.

Fallout in South Dakota: The Online How-To Abortion Manual

Now available for the women of South Dakota: a detailed online abortion manual. This is the kind of thing that makes me really, truly wonder how much the people of South Dakota, and pro-life advocates nationwide, have thought through anti-abortion legislation like the piece enacted signed in South Dakota last month.

The thought of women performing abortions on themselves, or with the help of lay assistants in the privacy of their own home, is a fearful one. Of course, I don’t fault Molly Saves the Day for putting the information out there: I’m sure she’s not the first one, and nothing is to be gained from hiding the ball.

But here’s the real question: what do pro-life advocates truly hope to gain by banning abortion? A reduction in the overall numbers of abortions performed? Perhaps. But unquestionably at the expense of the health and safety of countless women and, regrettably, infants born after botched abortions.

For a glimpse into a hypothetical future where a South Dakota-esque stance on abortion is the governing law on the land, we need only look to Portugal, which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe:
Under current Portuguese law, a women can have an abortion only if her life is in danger, to protect her mental or physical health, or in cases of rape, incest or fetal impairment….

Today, roughly 40,000 Portuguese women have illegal abortions each year, according to women's rights groups. Thousands more go abroad for the procedure, including to neighboring Spain, where the abortion law is interpreted far more liberally.

Moreover, pro-choice groups assert that hundreds of Portuguese women end up in hospitals each year because of complications resulting from illegal abortions.
"The women who have abortions are the poorest, the youngest, the oldest, the violence victims," said Maria Jose Magalhaes, a Porto-based member of UMAR, a women's rights lobby group. "The others -- the middle class, the literate women -- they have other possibilities," including access to private clinics staffed by competent medical personnel.

And, in case anybody needed reminding, the abortion laws in Portugal are actually less restrictive than in South Dakota, where there is not even an exception in cases of rape.

Unfortunately, it seems all too plausible to suggest that in their ardor for “winning” the abortion battle, pro-life enthusiasts have failed to consider what would happen if and when they “won.” And we all know, in an ongoing lesson that is now entering it’s fourth year, that simply declaring “mission accomplished” is not enough.

[Note: Many thanks to sugiero for drawing my attention to this story]

Maybe the Sky Really is Falling on Patents

The New York Times editorial page weighed in on the patent reform issue today with it's own analysis of the situation: "patently ridiculous" (Hey. I (re)used that pun first!) The editorial is short on substance but it's further (and compelling) evidence that the patent problem is become a mainstream one. More on this shortly...

Monday, March 20, 2006

Patently Absurd: Why It's Time to Rethink Our Notion of the "Patent"

Michael Crichton's guest column in today's New York Times is an amusing-bordering-on-hysterical polemic attacking the present criteria for patentability in this country.

From the patent issued in 1986 covering the biological relationship between elevated homocysteine and B-12 deficiency, Crichton traverses a slippery slope until he arrives at a nightmarish world of patents in which Philip K. Dick thought police prosecute the patent covering an "essay or letter criticizing a previous publication." The result: even in your own head you couldn't disagree with what I'm writing here without first shelling out some coin (although whether that would go to me or to Mr. Crichton is not entirely clear).

Crichton's histrionics are certainly not out of character. After all, Crichton's most recent book, "State of Fear", carried similar warnings about the dire consequences that will ensue unless society corrects its poisonous blend of law, policy, and science. In "State of Fear" the target was environmentalism; today it is patents.

I rankle against Crichton's slippery slope strategy (unless we draw the line here and now we will descend into a sci-fi patent hell) because it strikes me as needlessly alarmist. When it comes to slippery slopes there are two basic kinds: the logical slippery slope “holds that we are logically committed to allow B once we have allowed A” because there is “a genuine causal element linking the top of the slope with the bottom.”[1] The alternative is the empirical slippery slope which “tells us that the effect of accepting A will be that, as a result of psychological and social processes, we sooner or later will accept B.”[2]

In the case of patents, with the issue of what is a proper subject for a patent determined largely in the courts, it’s hard to see how our precedent-orientated system of law could place us on a logical slippery slope that would commit us to patenting B once we had patented A. The very notion of precedent is that at ruling on A governs future situations involving A, not B. It would take affirmative extensions and expansions by the courts of existing precedents in order to transition from A to B to C to the Philip K. Dick patent thought police. The alternative, the empirical slippery slope, is possible but hardly inevitable.

Nevertheless, though I disagree with the seeming inevitability with which Crichton portrays the descent into absurdity of our patent system, I think that his ultimate point is well taken. Our notion of what sorts of things and ideas are and are not patentable is one that is in need of a serious overhaul. As the lines between biological and technological and between discovery and invention grow increasingly opaque it is irresponsible and untenable to continue to hold these debates exclusively in the courtroom. What is "patentable" is a question of law only as long as society refuses to intercede and rewrite the laws.

Irrespective of what the Supreme Court decides with respect to the patentability of a biological link between elevated homocysteine and B-12 deficiency Crichton is right: that bare fact doesn't deserve to be protected by patents and fee requirements, and it likely shouldn’t even be a very close question. There are other, better ways to promote cooperative scientific and medical research than to patent everything under the sun (and, as Crichton might suggest, the sun itself, photosynthesis, and the concept of 'daytime'). That we have gotten to this point means that, in spite of all the difficulties involved in rethinking and reworking something as entrenched as the patent protection system, it is time to rethink when and why it is appropriate to issue a “patent.”

Update (3/20): Find the NY Times article discussing the Supreme Court case on this issue, LabCorp v. Metabolite Laboratories, which is scheduled for oral argument tomorrow. Also, the patent at issue is available here, and Metabolite's brief is available here.


[1] Shrecker, Ted, Elliot, et. al. “Ethical Issues Associated with the Patenting of Higher Life Forms.” Intellectual Property Policy. n. pag. Online. Available: http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/epic/internet/inippd-dppi.nsf/vwgeneratedintere/ip00095e.html.

[2]Id.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Two Heads are Better Than One

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Tipping Teapots and Blogs: How little blogs can become big

I'm reading "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell (excellent through the first third or so) and it has me wondering two things:

1) What are the factors that make a blog "tip." Is it the one golden post that gets linked to over and over again (in Gladwellian terminology, an unusually "sticky" post)? Is it consistent, quality content that is finally recognized by an influential website or fellow blogger (Gladwell's "Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen")? Or is it something else, something more nuanced?

2) How do I make my own blog tip? Having hit the four month mark here at Farr Ago News I'm starting to see a modest uptick in traffic, but nothing yet to write home about. If anybody has suggestions specific to this blog - whether design, description, content, or anything else - I'd love to hear them.

Friday, March 17, 2006

It's "Sense of Humor", not "Censoring Humor"

In Australia the government has shut down a satirical website that featured a faux-apology speech for the Iraq war, delivered by Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

And at the University Illinois the editor of the student newspaper has been fired for his decision to print the now infamous caricatures of Muhammed.

It's always good to be reminded that the freedom of speech* is alive and well worldwide.

* Many restrictions apply. Offer not good in Iran, China, or anywhere political leaders are struggling in the polls. Freedom not available to government employees, their family members, or anyone who has something critical to say. Your government reserves the right to modify the terms of this freedom at any time without notification.

Did you hear the one about the Bible and the Constitution?

Reproduced below is an excerpt from the Baltimore Sun describing legislative hearings on a proposed amendment to the Maryland constitution that would ban gay marriage:
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties, engaged in an impassioned debate with Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor from American University, over the influence of the Bible on modern law.

"As I read Biblical principles, marriage was intended, ordained and started by God - that is my belief," she said. "For me, this is an issue solely based on religious principals."

Raskin shot back that the Bible was also used to uphold now-outlawed statutes banning interracial marriage, and that the constitution should instead be lawmakers' guiding principle.

"People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don't put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible," he said.

Some in the room applauded, which led committee chairman Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County, to call for order. "This isn't a football game," he said.
That's about as pithy a summary of the what the church-state divide is supposed to represent as I've ever heard. Kudos to Professor Raskin, who is also running for office (he'd have my vote if I lived in Maryland), and to Uncertain Principles for clearing up the myth behind the confrontation.

Still, while Raskin's barb is amusing and well-taken, it exposes an even deeper fault-line in the supposed wall between church and state in this country. Why do we continue to permit and encourage witnesses (along with government officials, both appointed and elected) to swear an oath on the Bible? What kind of wall is it that affirms the most important instrument of our democracy by reference to the most important instrument of the religious majority of this country?

As an atheist the witness oath is of particular concern to me. Were I ever to take the witness stand, I would, of course, choose a non-secular affirmation rather than one of the religious "so help me God" variety. But I would worry very seriously, especially if I were in the unfortunate role of testifying defendant, that my failure to swear an oath to God would prejudice my testimony in the eyes of some jury members. These days our law is supposed to be blind to the religious beliefs of those that come before it. Which begs the question of why we allow, as their first act to the court, witnesses to either affirm not only that they will speak truthfully but also that they subscribe to a fundamentally religious point of view?

I guess, since atheists are more moral, it's probably not something I ought to worry about too much since. And we're taking over the country anyway. If I ever did do something that might be illegal I'm sure I could just go ahead and change the law.

That's what it says in the Constitution, right? Or was that the Bible?

The Promise of Nanotechnology: Delivered


After all the talk about how nanotechnology is going to remake the world it has finally done just that. Well, sort of. Cal Tech scientists have produced a DNA map that resembles the Americas.

"The mini-map measures just a few hundred nanometres (billionths of a metre) across, smaller even than some bacteria - a scale of 1:200 trillion." The lead scientists write in the journal Nature that "their technique could find uses in the the emerging field of nanotechnology." Not clear on exactly what those uses might be, but they did also produce an evil Wal-Mart icon a smiley face.

In a possibly more practical development, nanotechnology is being used to return sight to hamsters that were previously blind.

"Food miles don't go the distance"

That is the title of a BBC guest column by agriculture and land use professor Gareth Edwards-Jones. Edwards-Jones asks us to rethink the assumption that buying locally benefits the environment by reducing the number of food miles, measured in the distance that food travels from its production source to your mouth, that we consume.

The assumption is that by decreasing the distance that the food they buy is transported - try apples from a local orchard rather than ones shipped by train, plane, boat, and automobile all the way from another continent - consumers could do their own small part to help the environment through greenhouse gas reduction.
read more...
That, says Edwards-Jones, is a nice thought, but one which we have very little evidence to back up.
Unfortunately though, simply getting consumers to target food miles when making their purchasing decisions may not necessarily bring about a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as these are emitted from many more places within food systems than just trucks, planes and automobiles.

For example, the production of fertiliser, pesticides, machinery and packaging all use energy - the generation of which will undoubtedly have contributed some greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

In addition, storing and cooking food also consumes energy.

Indeed, our research suggests that when considering UK grown potatoes, 48% of all energy used during the potato's life cycle is expended in the kitchen (the life cycle encompasses the sowing, growing, harvesting, packaging, storage, transport and consumption of potatoes).

One disadvantage to buying locally is that it is frequently, although not always, a more expensive option. I typically buy from the local farmer's cooperative but the premium that I pay for doing so is not insignificant given the overall size of my budget.

In choosing to buy local the perceived benefit to the environment is not the only motivating factor - a reality that Edwards-Jones recognizes. But, at least for me, it is certainly a motivation, and one that I'd heretofore taken for granted.

Edwards-Jones doesn't suggest that it's a mistaken assumption that a reduction in food miles produces environmentally beneficial results, he simply argues that it's an unsupported one. It may be correct, and it certainly seems to satisfy a common sense test in that it sounds like it should be correct. But common sense is no substitute for science, and sounding like a good idea is hardly enough to justify avoiding an actual empirical investigation.

Sounds reasonable enough to me.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

All Abortion, All the Time. But Why?

This is yet another post about the anti-abortion statute recently signed into law by South Dakota’s governor Mike Rounds last week. Actually, it’s a post about all the posts about that anti-abortion statute.

Anita Allen (aka “The Moralist”) suggests in her column “We don’t need to go there again” that the abortion debate has, more or less, been had already. Allen writes:
If news of the anti-abortion machinations in South Dakota brought on that sinking, "here we go again" feeling, you're not alone. Like you, I believe there's little to be gained from another round in America's abortion wars.

I certainly understand where she’s coming from – there was definitely a sinking sensation – and she's right, to a degree. But only to a degree.

From Allen’s perspective we’ve been through this all before. Although the court has changed the fundamental pro-life / pro-choice arguments haven’t changed, and neither has the basic technology and science of abortion. So why bother “putting the country through a bound-to- be-bitter rehash of the law and ethics of abortion"?

There are two answers to this question. The first is that, for those that view Roe v. Wade as a “loss”, a changing Supreme Court and the South Dakota statute (or whatever follows it next in the queue) represent a chance for “victory.” These are the people that keep political scorecards and care primarily about vanquishing their enemies. You say potato, they say potahto. And they won’t stop saying it until the Supreme Court holds that the Constitution permits only “potahto” as the proper pronunciation of the word.

So be it. Those people are never going to be satisfied, they aren’t going to be reasoned with, and all we can do is hope that there aren’t too many of them out there.

But there is second, and more insidious reason, why I think the abortion battle is going to happen again; and why, as Allen suggests, it is "bound-to-be-bitter." Bitter, protracted fights over moral issues are a powerful political tool and, though I can hardly take credit for this idea, I suspect that an ultimate resolution to the abortion debate, even one that resulted in a “victory” for the pro-life lobby, would be a political disaster for a certain segment of society.

Abortion – like gay marriage and latent xenophobia – is a hot-button topic that certain politicians and religious evangelicals use to motivate their constituents; I’m no political strategist but I believe the term is “firing up the base.” And nothing fires up the base better than a knock-down, drag-out, all-the-way-to-the-Supreme-F*$%ing-Court abortion battle.

Allen is right – there is no good reason to have this argument over again, because nothing substantive has changed. But that’s also exactly why we will have the argument all over again, because nothing substantive has changed. As long as abortion remains a hot-button political issue you can bet that the debate will continue to rage, and we’ll all be forced to listen to it.

Plan B: Grade F

President Bush picked a new commissioner of the FDA yesterday, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach. Dr. von Eschenbach has been the acting director since last September, and he is likely going to remain the acting director, and the acting director only, for the foreseeable future.

The reason is Plan B - the controversial emergency contraceptive pill that has politicians, and the abortion debate participants, at loggerheads. As long as the Plan B dispute remains unresolved, Democratic senators have vowed not to confirm Dr. von Eschenbach, although with his nomination pending, Dr. von Eschenbach can continue to head the FDA indefinitely as acting commissioner.

The real losers here are the women denied easy access to Plan B, a product that all scientific evidence suggests is safe and effective and only political dogmatism has prevented from attaining OTC status.

But this news brings no prizes for the rest of us either. The FDA is charged with evaluating, regulating, and monitoring the safety and efficacy of the substances that we put into our bodies. While Bush bickers with senators in Washington, the FDA is left languishing under a culture that allows politics to inform scientific decisions about health and safety, and that lacks a confirmed commissioner who is capable and willing to bring change to the administration.

As the Plan B dispute continues to drag on, the only thing that's clear is that both the politicians and the food and drug administration deserve a failing grade for their handling of this situation.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Right Not to Believe (Part II)

Apparently I was wrong. Mere days after lamenting the decreasing viability of atheism in the current American political climate I find out that, actually, atheists are taking over politics and have religion on the run. Especially the Christians.

My bad.

According to Mr. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, we are now witnessing an increasingly "militant attempt to surgically remove religion from the public square and turn us into an atheistic society." And those atheists, not content with having excised God from biology and the evolution of life (the Thomas More Center made a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save him by defending the Dover, PA school board in the Kitzmiller intelligent design case), are going after Christians, God's helpless and pious adherents, as well. As Thompson points out, "It’s almost like a genocide. It’s a sophisticated genocide."

With Christianity under siege, confronted at every turn by godless (and soulless and just generally ugly-looking and smelly) atheists, now's probably a good time to turn to one of the great defenders of the Christian faith, Jon Stewart, for some words of hope:
Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion.... perhaps around their necks? And maybe - dare I dream it? - maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.

Until that day comes, thank God there are men like Richard Thompson with the courage to speak out against these atheist atrocities.

Ahem. Amen.

Who Really Cloned Dolly?


Apparently that's a matter of some debate. While the dispute over who to credit for the much-heralded breakthrough in ovine reproduction continues, the good news is that there is no indication that Hawng Woo Suk was involved in the research the science itself is being called into question.

Science Federalism

In Glenn McGee's newest column in The Scientist he discusses the "State of Science Funding" (excerpt from the column available for free on the AJoB blog, full column requires a login). McGee notes that, increasingly, scientific funding and policy decisions are migrating from Capitol Hill to statehouses nationwide, a process that he terms "science federalism."
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As evidence McGee cites budget cuts at the NIH, the Senate's persistent opposition to all forms of stem cell research, and the rise of state programs designed to fund expansive new science initiatives:
So scientists and Congressional constituents are turning to the states. Citizens who kept their states from accepting others' trash in their landfill once chanted, "not in my backyard." In 2004, dissatisfied with national policy about stem cell research, Californians marched on Sacramento to ask the cash-strapped state for $3 billion for stem cell research.

More importantly, some states are debating large programs to fund innovative science in general. For example, New York's more than half-billion dollar investment in nanotechnology transformed the state overnight into a competitor not only with other states but also with the US government itself. Michigan put tens of millions of dollars from the proceeds of tobacco lawsuits into giant glass temples of science that rise above Ann Arbor, like new casinos in Nevada. Even tiny Rhode Island is building a fund to attract and retain scientists from a variety of disciplines.

Is science federalism a fad, or has McGee identified a real trend in the future of science funding and policymaking in this country? The answer will depend in large part on the success of these state-sponsored science initiatives. Procuring funds is, after all, only the first step. Despite a federal funding ban for new embryonic stem cell lines, the federal government provides tens of million of dollars annually for embryonic stem cell research (using ESC lines created before the ban went into effect). California, on the other hand, "has yet to award a dime of its $3 billion stem cell initiative."

Irregardless of the ultimate outcome of these state-sponsored initiatives their very presence makes it clear that, at least in certain parts of this country, citizens are increasingly unwilling to permit the federal government to act as the final arbiter on questions of science funding and policy. Which begs the following question: As emerging scientific technologies infiltrate the lives of individuals in increasingly obvious and intimate ways will we, as individuals, cede control over science funding and policy decisions to national (or even international) political institutions, however they are constituted, or is this becoming a truly local issue?


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Intelligent Design to Quantum Mysticism (or Bad Biology to Bad Physics)

"Reality is just a mental construct that we can rearrange and improve, if we are enlightened or determined enough."

That, as Dennis Overbye reports in today's New York Times, is the conclusion presented by two recent films: "What the #$!%* Do We Know!?" and "What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole". These cinematic purveyors of what is known as "quantum mysticism" are, it turns out, physics's answer to the bad biology of intelligent design.
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Like intelligent design, the quantum mysticism notion that, at some level, our minds control the reality around us is premised on faith and scientific theories that are decades out of date. And both movements have acquired followers for the same basic reason: "We want to know that God loves us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution."

To an outside observer the parallels between quantum mysticism and intelligent design are readily apparent. But this discussion begs a further question: just what does the intelligent design community think of quantum mysticism?

If individual minds control the reality that surround them, does that mean that an intelligent designer created human beings who are, in their own fashion, intelligent designers themselves? Talk about constructing in one's own image. And if the original intelligent designer was, as many intelligent design proponents not-so-secretly speculate, the big G-O-D himself, does that mean that all of us, in the process of manipulating the reality around us, are guilty of "playing god"? Time to focus our mental energy and magic up some bigger britches.

Seriously, somebody needs to answer these questions for me.


Saying No to (Expensive) Drugs?

A recent NYT article discusses the sudden price increase of a cancer drug, nitrogen mustard (marketed as Mustargen), that has recently dramatically increased in price despite the fact that has been available, unchanged, for decades.

The article deals primarily with the lack of regulation (and, indeed, rational bases beyond pure profit) governing drug pricing, in particular price increases. Included in this discussion is the following pasage:
And once a company sets a price, government agencies, private insurers and patients have little choice but to pay it. The Food & Drug Administration does not regulate prices, and Medicare is banned from considering price in deciding whether to cover treatments.

Well that's true enough. But "little choice" is not equivalent to "no choice". The always available alternative, that of choosing not to take the medicine at all rather than pay an exorbitant fee, is one that the article fails to touch upon.
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We - as individuals, consumers, patients - constantly engage in health tradeoffs. We forgo sunscreen because we'd like a tan, even though it increases our risk of skin cancer. We eat french fries even after a second bypass operation because a burger just isn't a burger without them. We drive seven hours to visit relatives for the holidays, rather than fly, because airplane tickets are too expensive. All of these decisions represent common enough instances in which we are willing to trade an increased probability of harm to ourselves for some other good, e.g., an attractive tan, a pleasurable meal, or some extra money in the bank.

So why, when drug prices soar, are we so unwilling to say "enough is enough"? As drug manufacturers "increasingly point to the intrinsic value of their medicines as justification for [high] prices", perhaps its time to reexamine the categorically high intrinsic valuation of medicines.

Keep in mind that there are very few drugs on the market that are 100% efficacious. Taking an AIDS drug is not a cure, indeed it doesn't guarantee any improvement whatsoever. All it can offer is a probability of success, however "success" is defined for that particular drug-disease pairing. And, of course, it offers hope.

And, I have to imagine, it is hope that ultimately does much to explain the individual patient-consumer's tolerance for the spiraling increase of medicines and treatments. Skin cancer? That's in the future. A fatal car accident? A non-specific probability. A disease like AIDS or cutaneous lymphoma (the drug discussed in the Times article) is a present reality, often painful both physically and emotionally, and medicines like Mustargen offer the possibility of a solution.

The elephant in the room - lurking behind complaints about high drug prices, as well as debates over wrongful birth (see below), end of life care, etc. - is whether all lives are intrinsically worth preserving, regardless of the cost.

At least in the abstract there are few of us, if any, that support this position. The value of a statistical life is a common calculation for many an administrative agency, government organization, private employer...even for the individual. Ask whether the FDA is justified in preserving 12 statistical lives at a cost of $300 million and people will haggle over numbers, but they won't haggle over the basic principle that some risk of harm is inevitable in the crowded world in which we live. To attempt to prevent the loss of all lives would bring society to a grinding halt.

And yet, as soon as you put a face to the statistic - as soon as it is you or I who stand a 1 in 1,000 chance of death from a disease, rather than an unnamed, unknown individual who stands a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by an exploding radiator - the game changes dramatically. Expenses that would never be countenanced if undertaken for the benefit of a faceless statistical population group are accepted without second thought - after all, when it comes to your health money is no object, right?

I'm not so sure. While I can understand the emotional and personal elements involved, I also think that there is a certain amount of unthinking submission to the idea that our own health, or the health of our loved ones, is not the proper subject of a cost-benefit analysis.

To some extent I believe that attitude is correct. Money is, after all, just bits of green paper (or more accurately these days, bits representing ones and zeros in electronic bank accounts) and you can't take it with you when you go. Then again, very few of us will leave behind nothing more than our bank accounts. There will be friends, family members, and the rest of our society which we have touched in various ways.

Ultimately, like Socrates in the Apology, I find fault with the notion that death should be abhorred and life should be preserved at all costs. If you throw your grandmother in front of the bus to save your own life, will you regret that decision later? Similarly, if you bankrupt your family scooping up long-shot medications that, at best, will extend your life by a few months or years, is that a justifiable decision?

I'm not advocating any sort of strict utilitarianism here - this isn't a kill the old to feed the young proposition of any sort. All I'm suggesting, to go back to the article that started this whole discussion, is that there is always an alternative to over-priced drugs: just saying no.


Rewriting the Rules: Now That's Cheating

Barry Bonds is in the news. I'd post a link to an article discussing the recent SI story, the book, the ongoing allegations...but if you can't locate one yourself you're just not trying. Still, just to be polite, here's a link to the SI preview story.

I've written before on the more general topic of doping in sports, and there's so much noise on the subject these days that it's easy to imagine that all athletes have turned into cheaters, they're all guilty as hell, and sports as we know it is at a crisis. In what increasingly reminds me of a witchhunt, fans and writers (especially a certain cadre of writers that seems to relish the opportunity to take athletes down a peg or two) are asking two basic questions, over and over again: 1) How guilty are they? and 2) How many records/medals/titles are we going to strip from them?

But there is another question that is prior both temporaly and logically, that isn't being asked: 1) Were they even cheating?
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All the sound and fury surrounding the steroid allegations directed at Bonds misses a key point: steroids weren't a banned substance in the world of professional baseball until last year. A year in which Bonds played only a handful of games. And you know, there are good reasons why we don't approve of ex post facto laws. Fact is, there's a very, very good chance that Bonds, whatever else he may be (liar, poor role model, over-the-hill ballplayer, etc.) is not a "cheater", at least not if we refrain from rewriting the rules to suit our cause.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "[T]hose who choose ... to sail as close as possible to the wind inevitably run some risk." What Holmes meant, I believe, was that part of pushing the envelope, whether in the realm of law or sport, is knowing that the boundaries between legal and illegal aren't always clear, and even legal courses of action may not be entirely risk-free.

Bonds sailed close to the wind and for that he will be punished with a tarnished reputation, millions lost in endorsements, and, potentially, future physical effects from his steroid use. From where I sit it looks like Bonds has plenty to worry about as it is - there's no need to go back and rewrite the rules just because we don't like the guy. That's just cheating.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Right Not to Believe

“Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for.” So says Slavoj Zizek in Defenders of the Faith, an editorial in today’s New York Times.

What, however, about the American atheists on the other side of the Atlantic? Zizek notes that “what makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.”

And in America? Not only is atheism an obstacle to public office – quick, name one prominent politician who is openly agnostic, let alone an atheist – it is becoming an increasingly marginalized belief. With both democrats and republicans attempting to appeal to voters of faith there is little welcome for the confirmed atheist.
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These days discussions begin and end with ideas for bringing together people of different faiths, or appealing to faith-based values that cut across political lines. There is hardly any room for those of us who would like to join the discussion from a firmly non-religious point of view.

I am an atheist. An atheist, not an agnostic. For many years I was uncertain about the existence of a higher being, an organizing force in the universe. In the absence of any affirmative evidence that I found credible I was skeptical that such a “god” existed, but as a skeptic I wasn’t willing to rule out the possibility.

It was only recently, after reading the essay “A Will to Believe” by William James, that I became convinced that hedging my bets as an agnostic was not a tenable philosophical or intellectual position. Believe or disbelieve – there is no maybe. Further convinced that Pascal’s Wager was nothing more than a Hobson’s Choice – you cannot simply choose to truly believe in something that you don’t truly believe in – I became a confirmed atheist.

And I know that I’m not alone.

And so I bristle, ever so slightly, when I hear politicians include people of all different faiths in their political discussions: where “faith” is taken to mean “religious affiliation.” The belief in a god is common ground to which politicians on both sides of the aisle appeal. And the atheists are seen as trouble-makers – calling into question even this seemingly basic proposition. Atheists are silenced because they don’t believe in a god, they’re just asked to keep that fact to themselves, and out of the political discourse.

Atheism has always been a barrier to political office in this country, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. My fear is that it is increasingly becoming a barrier to political participation as well.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Cephalopod for Governator

It's even cooler than Terminator 2 - because it's real. This isn't exactly new, and it isn't exactly news, but it's worth a watch anyhow. Take a look as Roger Hanlon, a marine biologist at Wodes Hole, stumbles upon a cephalopod (Octopus vulgaris) pretending to be a rock. This is, without question, one of the more remarkable animal videos I've seen if only because, in an age where practically everything we see seems to have benefited from some CGI-enhancement, there are no special effects.

Anyone interested in reading more should pick up a copy of the most recent issue (April 2006) of Discover, which contains an interesting short piece on what cephalopods can teach us about language.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Low Times and High Irony in South Dakota

South Dakota governor Mike Rounds today did what all good governors are supposed to do and put his state squarely on the front page of the national news. Unfortunately, it's not good news - at least not from this vantage point.

Rounds signed a bill that will ban most abortions in South Dakota - if it is upheld in the courts. The bill criminalizes all abortions save for those necessary to save the woman's life - it makes no exceptions for rape, incest, or for any other mitigating circumstances.
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Rounds, along with pro-lifers nationwide, see the South Dakota bill as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. And, in case the Supreme Court needed a refresher, Rounds made sure to point out, in his comments accompanying the bill, that the court has reversed itself in the past:
The reversal of a Supreme Court opinion is possible. For example, in 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy versus Ferguson case that a state could require racial segregation in public facilities if the facilities offered to different races were equal. However, fifty-eight years later, the Supreme Court reconsidered that opinion and reversed itself in Brown versus Board of Education. It proclaimed that separate could not produce equal. The 1954 Court realized that the earlier interpretation of our Constitution was wrong.

Am I the only one that thinks Rounds' choice of legal precedent is a questionable one? Yes Plessy and its companion Brown represent an issue that similarly divided the country the way that the abortion question does today.

But there the comparisons end.

The Warren Court, in overruling Plessy, made a clear statement that the imposition of the majority's view upon a minority group (in this case minority schoolchildren) unable to adequately protect their own interests would not be tolerated in this country.

If the current Roberts court looks to Plessy and to Brown, as Rounds suggests, they should overwhelming and unhesitatingly affirm Roe v. Wade. The South Dakota bill, much like the statute mandating segregated railway cars that was at issue in Plessy, seeks to impose the will of the majority on a largely defenseless minority. Today, in South Dakota, that minority is composed of the numerous women, many of whom are below the voting age, who are unable to vote their opinion, unwilling (for fear of retribution and condemnation) to voice their opinion, or both.

Rounds may win his abortion fight, but his lawyers better dig up some more compelling legal precedent before they hit the courtroom.