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.

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.

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

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.)

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)]

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

And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Christian president!

September 20th, 2005

I am the very model of a modern Christian President,
My sanctified advisers are both transient and resident,
I know our planet’s history in milestones theological,
From Genesis to Malachi (but nothing geological).

I’m very well acquainted too with matters exegetical,
I parse the scientific into holy and heretical,
In embryonic stem cells, I see Satan’s plan to capture us,
But space-based X-ray lasers make me positively rapturous!

But space-based X-ray lasers make him positively rapturous,
But space-based X-ray lasers make him positively rapturous,
But space-based X-ray lasers make him positively raptu- rapturous!

I will not rest until our era cuts off at the Holocene,
And all our high school students have Intelligent Designer genes.
In short, with pious counselors both transient and resident,
I am the very model of a modern Christian president!

******

Pat Robertson’s advice for me has never failed to fascinate —
Especially which foreign leader we should now assassinate.
To pick Supreme Court justices, I never have to wait and see –
Pat puckers up his eyes and asks the Lord to make a vacancy!

For drilling in the Holy Land, I’ve always had a softer side,
Don’t tell me of the Hubbert Peak — it’s Providence that will provide.
My daddy and his daddy knew their bidness King Faroukh-ular,
But never bring it up with me, because I might go nucular!

But never bring it up with him, because he might go nucular,
But never bring it up with him, because he might go nucular,
But never bring it up with him, because he might go nucu- nucular!

I don’t believe in global warming; Kyoto is anathema.
I haven’t put the weather in my plans — and neither has FEMA,
But still, with pious counselors both transient and resident,
I am the very model of a modern Christian president!

******

When I can tell you what is meant by adenine or cytosine,
When I can tell by sight a PCR tank from a bread machine,
When I’ve acquired the rudiments of epidemiology,
And list the latex virtues with no hint of an apology,

When I know any factor that gives rise to tropical cyclones,
When I know more of physics than our mascot did at Skull and Bones,
When I have mastered any part of of basic science policy,
You’ll have a Christian president who clearly isn’t all at sea!

We’ll have a Christian president who clearly isn’t all at sea,
We’ll have a Christian president who clearly isn’t all at sea,
We’ll have a Christian president who clearly isn’t all-at-all-at-sea!

For, although in sacred matters I’m a walking, talking Pentium,
In science I have only reached the early first millennium.
But still, with pious counselors both transient and resident,
I am the very model of a modern Christian president!

Incompetence Sufficiently Advanced

September 6th, 2005

In a display of the rapid response for which they are justly famous, the Bush team has mobilized to shield the administration from the political consequences of Hurricane Katrina. In parallel with the official effort to shift blame to local authorities, we are now receiving a pitch-perfect chorus of talking points from the usual apologists. One choice bit of misdirection is to say that any criticism of this administration’s performance is equivalent to blaming Bush for the hurricane.

Wrong.

Bush can’t be blamed for the hurricane, but he can be blamed, and rightly, for the failure of his administration to take any preventive action to mitigate the effects of a predictable disaster, and his failure to respond when the inevitable occurred. As voices were raised from all sides asking how Bush could have managed so completely to avoid fulfilling any of his duties in a time of crisis, he assured us on Thursday morning that the consequences of Katrina were … unforeseeable.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”

In fact, massive levee failures in the event of a major storm were predicted years before Katrina.
Scientific American even ran a feature article in October 2001 (hat tip PZ Myers for the reminder) with a chillingly accurate forecast of the disaster to come.

In 1999, the late Marc Reisner gave the keynote address at a conference on water use. He said at that time that the loss of land from the Mississippi delta, caused by channelization of the river and proceeding at a rate of 16,000 acres per year, was the most important environmental story in the US. More recently, research into storm dynamics led to an estimate that damage to New Orleans from hurricane winds could be increased by 25% due to the loss of the delta’s cushioning effect.
These predictions were uncontroversial at the time they were made. They were accepted by emergency planning agencies, including FEMA — which conducted its own simulation exercise just last year.
But was protecting New Orleans properly a Federal responsibility? And could the federal government have done anything about the threat? Yes, and yes. Responsibility for flood control along the Mississippi has for years rested with the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built the impressive levee system that channelized the Mississippi and caused the coastal erosion just mentioned. In 1995, the Corps was chartered in the SELA project with improving southeast Louisiana’s coastal defenses.
However, that effort had slowed to a crawl in recent years:

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security — coming at the same time as federal tax cuts — was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

The linkage between this administration’s priorities and the lack of preparation for the current disaster could hardly be clearer. And this is just a single example (though the most horrifying in its effects) of the Bush team’s attitude toward unwanted advice from scientists. As Chris Mooney has noted, George W. Bush and his advisers have from their first day in power treated science as an unwelcome distraction and scientists as an interest group.
In today’s world, this approach cannot be regarded as just another style of governance. Given the importance of getting the best scientific advice available and acting on it, Bush’s failure to do so is simple dereliction of duty. The best summing-up I’ve seen is a twist on Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum:

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

Ten Questions to Ask Your History Teacher

August 17th, 2005

One of my objectives in self-improvement is to stop correcting people who misuse the phrase “begs the question.”
As has been said about teaching a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig.
But even if we feel awkward telling people “that’s not what ‘begging the question’ means”, we still need an example of what it does mean.

Luckily, the Discovery Institute has supplied a valuable teaching tool in the form of a list of ten questions, each one more question-begging than the last, for students to ask their biology teachers.

Now, some people would recommend that anyone who starts a sentence with “Why don’t textbooks discuss the ‘Cambrian explosion’,” be smacked with a rolled-up newspaper until he stops peeing on people’s brains.

But not me!

I think what we need is a lot more question-begging, willfully ignorant, smug, supercilious hooey posing as innocent requests for fairness and balance!

I feel so strongly about this that I’ve even generated a starter kit for those who want to bring this noble crusade to the rest of the academic disciplines.

So — kids, the next time your history teacher starts trying to force-feed you Revolutionary “theory” as if it were “fact”, you know what to do!

Ten Questions to Ask Your History Teacher

Q: ORIGIN OF GOVERNMENTS: Why do history textbooks claim that the modern British monarchy originated with the “Norman conquest”, in “1066″, when nobody has ever seen a calendar for that year, and there has never been an English king named “Norman”?

Q: WASHINGTON’S BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT: Why don’t textbooks discuss the “Civil War,” or the fact that all US governmental bodies appear together at that time, instead of branching from a Constitution — thus contradicting revolutionary theory?

Q: THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: Why do history textbooks claim that the “Revolutionary War” started with a “Declaration of Independence” and quote its words, then claim that a suspiciously old-looking document in Washington D.C is the same document because it contains the same words, — a circular argument masquerading as historical evidence?

Q: GEORGE WASHINGTON. It is well known that the infamous “cherry tree” story was faked, and that “George Washington” never said “I cannot tell a lie” — that is, if he ever existed. Why do textbooks use drawings or “artist’s conceptions” of “George Washington” as evidence that he existed? Why does no single history textbook anywhere point out that there are no photographs - zero! - of “George Washington” in existence?

Q: ALEXANDER HAMILTON. Why do some history textbooks give Alexander Hamilton’s year of birth as 1755, and others as 1757? Why do historians refuse to discuss, or even acknowledge, the controversy? Why do many textbooks even claim that this (probably imaginary) figure was killed in a duel with “Aaron Burr”? Take out a $10 bill and see whose picture is on it. Do you think this duel actually occurred, and that the US then decided to put the loser’s picture on its currency?

Q: WASHINGTON CROSSING THE DELAWARE. Why do history textbooks all use the same picture of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” — when historians have been aware for years that the picture was staged? Any idiot knows that you can’t get ten guys in a canoe without capsizing, and “Washington” is standing up? Get real.

Q: SILLY HATS. Why do textbooks claim that Revolutionary Fashion can explain the use of Tricorner Hats by the colonists — even though these hats were not used in the French Revolution, and there are no such silly hats anywhere else in history?

Q: REVOLUTIONARY WAR. Why do textbooks represent the Revolutionary War as having been won through a series of “small victories” when, every time you look at an actual battle the colonists fought against the British, as likely as not they got their asses handed to them? Do you think a nation as magnificently complex as the United States could come about through a random, undirected sequence of military engagements?

Q: GOVERNMENTAL ORIGINS. Why are artists’ drawings of a bunch of middle-aged guys in poofy wigs used to justify Revolutionary claims that we are all descended from a parcel of ninnies who didn’t have the sense to be at the beach in July — when historians cannot even agree on who they were or what their actual hair looked like?

Q: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION A FACT? Why are we told that the American Revolution is an historical fact — even though many Revolutionary claims are based on misrepresentations of the facts?

And remember — when some liberal revolutionist starts spouting off about imaginary events supposed to have taken place in 1776, all you have to do is look him in the eye and ask “Were you there?”

Mmm … DDT … Yum!

June 20th, 2005

Thanks to John Quiggin and Tim Lambert, we have pointers to yet another uninformed anti-environmentalist loyally repeating the party line that DDT has been banned for use against malaria, and that the ban has cost millions of lives. This is a crock, as a quick visit to the Malaria Foundation will confirm.[1]
While flogging this one around the track one more time, Miranda Devine takes a moment to muse on the attitudes that prevailed before the publication of Silent Spring:

Advertisements of the time, which today seem preposterous, extolled it as a benefactor of all humanity, with slogans such as “DDT is good for me-e-e”.

Tim Lambert supplied a link to an advertisement with that slogan. The same rendering has been widely reprinted. The advertisement perfectly captures the cheerful carelessness that led to over a billion pounds of the stuff in the US alone being applied to everything in sight. The singing cow and the dancing cucumber seemed about right … but … I did wonder how much the company paid whoever came up with the name “Killing Salt Chemicals,” and the reference to Star Trek seemed out of place. So I looked up the original (in Time magazine of June 30, 1947) and compared it with the reprinted version. The linked-to version has been modified from the original, but not by much:
DDT is good for me-e-e!
The blithe willingness to sprinkle DDT on everything from the barley to the baby, celebrated so colorfully in this advertisement, led in just a few years to widespread insecticide resistance among malaria-carrying mosquitoes. In Sri Lanka, Gordon Harrison observed[2] that

Anopheles culifacies, completely susceptible to DDT when the spray stopped in 1964 was now [in 1968] found resistant presumably because of the use of DDT for crop protection in the interim. Within a couple of years, so many culifacies survived that despite the spraying malaria spread in 1975 to more than 400,000 people.

This pattern was repeated in many places. If governments had paid more attention to Rachel Carson in the 1960s, this weapon against malaria might have retained its potency.

[1]“But,” some will object, “didn’t some environmental groups want to ban all use of DDT?” They sure did. And they got talked out of it. The simple fact is that DDT has never been banned as an antimalarial agent.

[2]Mosquitoes, Malaria and Man, Gordon Harrison, E. P. Dutton, 1978, p. 255

I christen thee … Samizdat!

May 30th, 2005

In 1625, King Gustav of Sweden commissioned a warship, the flagship of his fleet, to be called the Vasa. Built to the king’s own specifications, the ship would be the largest in the world — a fitting symbol of Sweden’s naval might. August 10, 1628 was a sunny day, and crowds turned out to see Vasa launched. The great ship was indeed a beautiful sight. As the city cheered, she slipped into the waters of Stockholm harbor, sailed a mile or so, turned upside-down and sank to the bottom.

It was the most humiliating ship-launching in naval history.

On May 14, 2004, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution announced the upcoming release of a book by its president, Ken Brown, to be titled Samizdat. According to the AdTI press release the book would “directly [challenge] Linus Torvalds’ claim to be the inventor of Linux.” With obvious pride, AdTI said that

Brown’s account is based on extensive interviews with more than two dozen leading technologists in the United States, Europe, and Australia, including Richard Stallman, Dennis Ritchie, and Andrew Tanenbaum.

The announcement caused a flurry of publicity. Within two weeks, nearly every well-known name associated with Unix and Linux (including Richard Stallman, Dennis Ritchie, and Andrew Tanenbaum) had weighed in, and their opinion of Brown’s thesis was unanimous.

Andrew Tanenbaum, Brown’s primary source, published a brilliant (and often hilarious) account of Brown’s efforts to tease accusatory statements from him, contradicting him on every point and remarking in passing that Brown is “not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

Alexei Toptygin, the expert Brown had hired to find evidence of copied code in Linux revealed that his analysis had found just the opposite, and that Brown had promptly dropped the code comparison from discussion. About Ken Brown, Toptygin remarked in passing that “to the best of my knowledge he is talking out of his ass.”

Knowledgable people from all corners of the Unix / Linux universe added their respective takes to the discussion. Eric Raymond remarked in passing that “Judging by these excerpts, this book is a disaster.”

Failing even to do Ken Brown the courtesy of being offended, Linus Torvalds offered his own theory: Linux was written by “the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.”

Comments from the experts continued to stream in over the following weeks.
Ilkka Tuomi, the author of a study of the credits list of the Linux kernel, remarked in passing that “he tried to help Mr. Brown to comprehend the study, but that he had ‘only limited success’”.

But the unkindest cut was administered by Microsoft. After a month of hideous embarrassment over what Redmond must have seen as the spectacular incompetence of its PR firm, a company spokesman called the study “an unhelpful distraction from what matters most — providing the best technology for our customers.”

For AdTI, a pseudo think-tank funded largely by Microsoft, and for Ken Brown, that must have been tough to take.

Today, over a year later, the book remains unpublished, and AdTI is doing everything it can to pretend it all never happened.
This may have been the most humiliating attempted launch of a book in publishing history.