August 2007 Archives

Science Fame: Million Dollar Minutes

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"Art is What You Can Get Away With." -- Andy Warhol

Scienceblogs' scientist PZ Myers of Pharyngula, one of the first and most entertaining science bloggers, was recently sued for 15 million dollars by Stuart Pivar because of Myers' scathing review of Pivar's book. The 2005 review is here, and an updated review from last month is here. On behalf of Myers, Lawyer Peter Irons wrote a response to Pivar here. Pivar dropped the suit -- but until then feverish speculation and analysis prevailed on some blogs. 'It will be dismissed' some said. 'It's groundless' everyone agreed. But there was also unexpected and deafening silences from other corners, as if a cold wind had blown through some warm cozy blogospheric goodness. Some just had no comment. But others asked, what if people start suing individual bloggers?

What if? Would all bloggers just go quiet? Really? No. If it weren't Seed and a famous blogger, would there be any point of a suit? No. So what's the suit really about? We conclude that from Pivar's history, he's seeking fame, but what does Myers get? Well, fame from being sued. And interestingly, even though Myers tears Pivar's book book apart for being non-sciency, why does he not question Lynn Margulis's anti-science ideas?

How do fame and science mix and confuse science understanding?

Who The Heck is Stuart Pivar?

When I first tried to search for "Pivar" and "science" I came up empty-handed. Google asked me if I meant "Pixar", as in Pixar Entertainment? "Picar"? "Piper"? My search terms were wrong and as it turns out "science" was throwing off the results. Well-known in art and New York Society circles, Pivar is often associated with famous people, sometimes deceased -- like Andy Warhol and Diana Vreeland. He has been featured in popular magazines, like the New York Times "Public Lives" section, and in New York tabloids' "celebrities" sections for over 30 years.

In 1975, Newsweek profiled Pivar, who at the time was curating a show on "Schlock Art" (not an insult, apparently). In 1979 he paid $223,250 for a rare sabre-tooth tiger skull to add to his collection of skeletons and bones. Then he spent oodles of time and money delving into the provenance of a life sized statue called "Roman Bronze Boy" a fake, as it turned out.

He strives to be the highest bidder: "'This is an excellent painting,'" Pivar exclaimed...a W.C.M. [world-class masterpiece.]'" (Boston Globe, March 22, 2000), referring to art painted by live elephants for a foundation that teaches Asian elephants to paint. The foundation also develops "an affordable line of non-toxic quality paints for use by elephants and caretakers as well as underprivileged children in developing countries". Claudia Steinberg once interviewed Pivar (NYT September 9, 2004), on decorating and noted his "'grand tone"', as if he mastered "'the effectiveness of pontification.'" Pivar pontificated:

"'Every time I see an example of something that is better than what I own, I buy it... otherwise for the rest of my life I have to live with the knowledge that someplace in the world something is floating around that is better than mine, and that's intolerable.'''

This is the artist who sued Myers. He sues frequently. He targets a variety of people and organizations and was once called "'an institutional stalker"' by the president of the New York Academy of Art. (The New York Post, June 20, 1998). After suing the Academy (which he had founded), he showed up one night at their "Take Home a Nude fundraiser", which the Post described as: "flesh-filled works". Since Pivar had sued the association, he was unwelcome, in fact "barred at the door, then thrown down into a puddle". "'Ass over teakettle'", Pivar told the Post. He slapped the Academy with a suit for assault. Then he dropped the suit.

Perhaps the culture of New York artistes differs from that of scientists'? Somehow PZ and Pharyngula figured into Pivar's marketing plan. But it's odd that someone who pursues fame so relentlessly, who has so many well-connected friends, can't simply get himself listed as an expert on the internet somewhere

Pivar certainly must not have looked too closely at the articulate, analytical, opinionated, sarcastic, and biting Pharyngula blog before jumping in. Gauging the landscape, I would think twice before submitting a book for review there. But knowing that Pivar lives with "wallcovering of rose-gold silk brocade" and hundreds of art objects ( NYT, September 9, 2004), I wouldn't solicit his opinion about some things either, like design or my attitudes towards pursuing fame. So Pivar expected a cordial reception from Myers?

Although, true, Myers blog Pharyngula gave controversial scientist Lynn Margulis a very welcoming reception when he hosted her earlier this year. And in a way Lynn Margulis is to science, I suppose (minus the endosymbiotic theory and some other things) what Pivar is to art.

Mastering Fame In Science -- Your 15 Minutes? Again?

Dr. Lynn Margulis is renowned for cell biology she did 15, 20, 30 or so years ago on endosymbiotic theory. She's earned plenty of street cred -- of the science type, both for her science and writing. But she's also well-known for putting forth "non-traditional" ideas, like:

"In the nerve cell, the axons and the dendrites that make the physical connections that allow us to communicate are latter-day spirochetes. Nerve cells, having long ago discarded the rest of the spirochete body, use the fundamental motility system of spirochetes. Think of the nerve as coming from what had formerly been a bacterium, 'trying' but unable to rotate and swim. Thought involves motility and communication, the connection between remnant spirochetes. All I ask is that we compare human consciousness with spirochete ecology."1

You can imagine a simple schematic that suggests the relationship.

Of course all fame - science, art or blogging - demands selective use of charm. And to her credit, given Pharyngula's on-line chat forum, Margulis was charming and gamely mastered the medium, tutoring the likes of a participants with handles like "Hairhead" on her theories.

Be Charming, Claim You're the Underdog, "Don't Worry What They Write About You...."

Margulis is well-established and somewhat revered, so she didn't hesitate to use this opportunity to forward her harebrained and controversial ideas. With PZ Myers moderating, Margulis insisted that the HIV virus doesn't cause AIDS, citing a Harper's article published last year. However the Harpers article was roundly dismissed by scientists, public health and policy experts as well as AIDS patients and activists around the world (PDF).

Margulis persisted - If HIV did cause AIDS why didn't the CDC respond to her written demand for proof? This is a weak argument. The feigned helplessness from Margulis is laughable. Here's a woman who with tenacity, research skills, and dare I say -- balls -- unearthed obscure microbiology references from 19th century Russian publications, compared these to modern paradigms for cell evolution, then successfully challenged scientists to accept symbiosis theory.

Don't underestimate her feat in establishing symbiosis theory. But think, when listening critically to Margulis's argument, about HIV now. The CDC explains HIV virus and AIDS here. NIH explains everything here. Given her mastery of chat and her previous investigative work, do you believe her Google search skills are so lacking that she needs to resort to 1960's communications in sending snail-mail letters?

When Science is What You Can Get Away With

Reading the Margulis post on the Myers blog and the chat that he hosted, it's hard to tell if PZ would have axed anything under his "no-trolling" rule. These forums tend to go sideways anyway after hundreds of comments, not just because of trolls, but because people don't know basic science. Reading the Pharyngula blog comments transcript was like watching a parade while a posse of kids fights in front of you to retrieve gumdrops that rolled on the ground. In other words, Margulis got off lightly with her anti-science ideas.

Myer's "moderated" forum enforced civility that drifted to intellectual stupor. Originally, the subject sounded promising, but Margulis ably chose what to talk about. It was certainly not a place where an "open exchange" could occur, rather it was a place where she could get coverage for her crazy ideas. Margulis is savvy and used PZ Myers' forum well. Pivar, obviously, played his unique hand with Myers differently, with less successful results.

Margulis knows how to get her ideas across because she knows the rules of the game and isn't afraid to make her own. Scientists employ well established rules of engagement in academia. There is an old adage that the feuds are intense in academia because the stakes are low -- that is the financial stakes. Not true so much anymore, but unlike art, apparently, scientists generally don't sue fellow scientists. It never made sense because there was nothing to gain -- " Watch out, I'll confiscate all your test tubes!" Science fame is achieved with intelligence and/or least creating that image (to the point of intimidation). Equally powerful tools are words, wit, aplomb, and most of all, renown from previous accomplishments -- all attributes that Margulis deploys with rigor.

Margulis relishes controversy and slings mud far better than most people, a well-honed and essential skill. She has maligned molecular biologists (who she felt threatened her cell biology) for various things, particularly being reductionist. Margulis also criticized evolutionary biologists for ignoring chemistry and microbiology in evolution and chided developmental biologists for not understanding important components of evolution like geology. She refused to talk to journalists because she said they always misrepresent her ideas. Nowadays she decries online sources who she claims distort her theories. Famously, despite her formidable offense skills, she forever portrays herself as someone who has been pushed in a mud puddle.

Scientists' methods of acquiring prestige are not to be underestimated because it's these skills as well as their research that make and break careers. (Of course this is so, but the stereotypes are different.) These skills help hold scientists and lay audiences in hypnotized sway. Clearly Pivar's background makes him pathetic at science combat skills. I mean if you attain fame by being the highest bidder on art made by elephants with their trunks, which you refer to with cute acronyms like "W.C.M." for "world class masterpiece", and if your biggest publicity stunt takes the form of a lawsuit, think again before messing with scientists. Forget the image of pocket-protectors -- modern successful scientists have overcome far more adversity in the lab and in the politics doing science than you ever will by falling in a mud puddle "ass over teakettle" at a art show featuring nude paintings.

Crackpot Science or Breaking Science? "It may not be Raining. They may be Spitting on Us." -- attributed to Warhol

Scientists can be eccentric, though, like artists. The difference is, when scientists mutter poetry or mismatch socks it adds to their mystique -- just like Einstein. So who's a crank? Eccentric? Margulis herself observes how "'it's easy to be dismissed as a "crank" or "on the fringe"'. Unlike the artist new to the science party, however, Margulis's past publications give her the leeway to tell us that what looks like "crank" theory is really a new, unappreciated breaking science. She brandishes the ghost of Thomas Kuhn to throw doubt on all our rock solid reality-based paradigms. She uses her fame and suggests to people that people will discount any idea but paradigms are shattered to reveal new truths.

So if one is a lay-person, how do you tell science from pseudo-science? It's tricky. Obviously, if the person doesn't have an established biography in science, it's easy to doubt their credibility. But what about scientists? PZ might say the Margulis exchange was an open forum, and indeed some people asked pointed questions. But did the warm reception send a mixed message to those who don't know or who swoon before fame rather than examining each new science proposal with equal amounts of analysis or skepticism?

It used to be that scientists didn't so often enter the public forum. They didn't blog. In 2000, James Glanz of the New York Times wrote in "Geniuses, Crackpots and a Grand Unified Theory" that interactions between scientists and the public used to occur only when the public wanted to appropriate scientists' ideas, or when they engaged scientists in their own crazy theories.

We still aren't entirely comfortable with scientists, and vice-versa. Margulis contends that new-age Gaia people misinterpret and missappropriate the science behind her's and Lovelock's ideas. But if scientists deeply doubt the public's ability to understand science, this challenges any layperson who would doubt scientists.

Artists and Bloggers, "...Measure [Criticism] in Inches." -- Warhol

The current political climate, in which fear dominates politics, drives people to faith and speculative pie in the sky theories. But at the same time the fame culture drives bloggers to be somewhat "controversial" just to get an audience. Many science bloggers want to expose readers to solid science and give them some sort of arsenal to distinguish good from bad. Yet paradoxically, to attract an audience, blogs need to entertain and be very popular. So Myers devotes himself to anti-religion, anti-alternative medicine, and anti-fringe science screeds, but welcomes someone who denies HIV causes AIDS? How is the public going to make sense of this?

Conflict is entertaining, as those who seek fame know. Margulis has mastered this. Pivar has cultivated a combative image in the art world but fell flat on his face in science. And certainly PZ has gathered admirers of his skilled rhetorical obliteration of science "foes".

So for Myers' own fame, it makes sense to engage cordially with Dr. Lynn Margulis, a famous scientist. He allows questions under a "no trolls" policy. But who is a troll in PV's world? Myers interestingly and controversially doesn't challenge her anti-science ideas, although his entire blog is devoted to attacking religion, alternative medicine, and "anti-science" ideas. And of course Pharyngula agrees to review the self-published book of Stuart Pivar, a famous art collector, and does so in a frank and comedic way. Pharyngula is popular, Margulis gets more than her 15 minutes, and -- Pivar? -- sorry. And for the public? Just do know, dear layperson, that the HIV viruses, not, say, intergalactic forces, cause AIDS.

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1 Margulis, Lynn and Hinkle, Gregory, "The Biota and Gaia: 150 Years of Support for Environmental Sciences," in Schneider, Stephen Henry and Boston, Penelope J. (eds.), Scientists on Gaia (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991): 11-18.

From Space, China's Air

FF China got nervous a couple of years ago when their astronaut, Yang Liwei, landed on the Moon and noticed that you actually couldn't see the Great Wall from there, despite what people had assumed since 1938. In general, according to astronauts "the only thing you can see from the Moon is a beautiful sphere, mostly white, some blue and patches of yellow, and every once in a while some green vegetation".

But then astronaut Leroy Chiao used 80mm and 400mm lenses and managed to capture some images. In this photo, NASA adds helpful red arrows which will guide viewers hoping to discern the location of the wall amidst the white and patches of blue. The photo shoots were well received, according to NASA's 2005 account:

"the photos by Chiao, commander and NASA ISS science officer of the 10th Station crew, were greeted with relief and rejoicing by the Chinese. One was displayed prominently in the nation's newspapers. Chiao himself said he didn't see the wall, and wasn't sure if the picture showed it...

In a different set of NASA photos, certain man made features are more well-defined. FF In these, the east coast of the nation is blanketed in a thick layer of brown pollution. The testament to China's rapid economic progress is quite visible and needs no visual aids to pinpoint.

China has 4 cities that rank in the top 10 cities in the world with the highest air pollution. China's not the only nation whose development efforts are overtaking the environment. India also has four cities in the top 10, and Cairo and Jakarta rank nn the World Bank's top 10 list. However China is hosting the Olympics and therefore is receiving extra pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in addition to general concerns about its ability to institute environmental measures.

Earlier this year, the China reportedly convinced the World Bank to excise from their report some statistics on the potential ill effects of the high levels of pollution on the health of the population.

"China's State Environmental Protection Agency engineered the removal of the statistics, the Financial Times reported, because the government feared the figures could trigger social unrest."

The New York Times wrote this weekend about China's relentless growth and colossal pollution problem. Although Europe and the United States could pursue development goals for years before bringing their pollution under control, the Times noted that "China is more like a teenage smoker with emphysema."

Last week, for four days, the country imposed alternate odd/even license plate bans on driving in Beijing in order to try to reduce the city's pollution in preparation for the Olympics. The IOC has been wary of the effects of the air pollution on the health of athletes, especially in endurance events like cycling. The four day ban kept levels of particulate at level 2 on China's 5 step scale, which the government declared a success, reasoning that without the ban the air would have been worse.

Guano Takes the Bridge, Pigeons Take the Fall

Just when you thought the profile of the lowly rock pigeon couldn't sink any further. "Experts say" that pigeon guano may have contributed to the Minnesota bridge failure. Apparently the acidic guano corroded and weakened the metal.

With this sort of evidence, can we really continue to lash out at legislators, the governor, tax laws, the war in Iraq, federal deficits, the inspectors, Republicans, distorted taxpayer priorities --or if you happen to be a Rush Limbaugh fan -- labor unions? Sure investigators are still "investigating", but maybe they should just stop that, given this finding.

The abundant city pigeon, known as the rock pigeon or Columba livia, is one of the least favored species. Indeed, humans refer to them derogatorily as "rats with wings". Therefore the promotion of pigeon to scapegoat is brilliant, so much more community oriented than finding lapses in official judgment and blaming politicians.

An exceptional choice to take the fall, this will be like water rolling off a duck's back to the pigeon. They'll just continue on with that jerky red-eyed strut for as long as they live, heads jutting left and right, back and forth, parading across dirty city sidewalks, cooing in the gutters.

The alternative culprit to the bridge disaster is politicians, who may also be oily, but they're human and weak. We shouldn't blame them because they're more susceptible than pigeons to family stressing repercussions of disaster. When civilians who have been bopped over the head with perceived negligence one too many times start to stir, watch politicians leave in droves, tails tucked between their legs. Back to their "families". Not a problem with pigeons (squab, if you prefer). Most people can't even figure out whether they actually have babies or not.

The solution is simple and scientific. Aa wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to oust the pigeons and suggests preventative actions: "netting to block holes and surfaces, spikes to keep them from landing, and sometimes poisoning, shooting or trapping the birds".

This is what's apparently called a "multi-pronged strategy" to deal with pigeons and their guano, and it's a sublime blend of sport, family fun, and civic duty. Carefully executed, it should be warmly received with rare unilateral support from the state and federal governments, taxpayers, and officials of every stripe. Environmentalists might even be on board. The squinty, awkward pigeon is certainly no round-eyed, fluffy, cute little spotted owl.

Not only could the plan save other bridges imperiled by pigeon guano, it could redeem whole cities. Scientists should think along these lines more often. It's one of those extraordinarily rare "expert" findings that's actually useful to society. Perhaps the levees in New Orleans were weakened by Pelican guano? Oh no wait, that's the state bird...

IPCC Releases More Information

A couple of days ago Climate Change: Fueling the "Debate", about "balanced" news coverage, Acronym Required commented on an editorial by Clive Crook published by the Financial Times. Quoting an economist who has long denied the causes and effects of global warming, Crook called IPCC report nothing but a product of biased scientists with limited knowledge. The FT article criticized the economic projections made by the committee, and accused the committee in general of ignoring complaints about errors.

Far from acknowledging the point and correcting the projections, the IPCC treated these eminent former civil servants as credentialed troublemakers....the episode was symptomatic of a wider pattern of error (often, in the case of economics, elementary error) and failure to correct it. How can this be possible? The IPCC prides itself on the extent of its network of scientific contributors and on its rigorous peer review. The problem is, although the contributors and peers are impressively numerous, they are drawn from a narrow professional circle.

Moreover, the editorial and its source accused the IPCC of "pervasive bias" and lack of disclosure:

Add to this a sustained reluctance - and sometimes a refusal - to disclose data and methods that would allow results to be replicated. (Disclosure of that sort is common practice these days in leading scholarly journals).

Via Real Climate, in a post that helpfully provides some background, for instance by explaining both the both the IPCC review process and the different academic peer review process, we learn that the IPCC has now released draft and comment information that informed the reports. As the IPCC site says:

The following web page provides links to: the first draft chapters of the WG I report; review comments on the first drafts and corresponding author responses; the second draft chapters; and expert/ government review comments on the second drafts and author responses.

The IPCC information (thousands of pages) should provide even more transparency into the process for the public and scientists. It provides of wealth of information that can be used as anyone sees fit -- for better or worse .

One notion it helps challenge, often propagated by people who set out to deny many valid scientific conclusions, is that scientists are a "lockstep/groupthink community". Such an statement is either made by someone who honestly doesn't know too many scientists or understand the scientific process, or by someone out to distort public perception of science.

The release of draft comments in such a report is unusual, as Real Climate points out, concluding:

..the IPCC is indeed an open and transparent process and there is plenty of criticism from all quarters during the review process and the idea that it is just a closed forum is completely bogus.

Of course the same people will turn around -- as they are sure to following the release of this information, and angrily point out that the scientists "don't agree". But hopefully this new IPCC release will diffuse the influence of those who, capitalizing on a lack of information, have set out to spin false and nefarious tales about the IPCC and its reports.

Cheapening Your Vote?

Voting Machines Hackable

Electronic voting machines are famous for their susceptibility to hacking, as shown by several groups, including Ed Felten and his team at Princeton, who write the Freedom to Tinker blog. The group has repeatedly shown various problems with electronic voting machines. Last fall they published a widely read paper on multiple problems with the Diebold Accuvote-TS, which they also demonstrated in this short video posted at Google.

Last week, following more research on voting machine fallibilities, California's Secretary of State Bowen decertified several voting machines in use in the state and imposed new conditions on the machines based on the findings.

There has been some mixed press about Bowen's move. Most of the press seems positive, however a few reporters focused on the "high costs" of implementing the system. Of course "cost" arguments always cause public hesitation but in the end catch up with us.

Bridges Fallible

"Bridge Disaster Could Mean Gas - Tax Hike", the New York Times warns today, noting that the catastrophe "could tip the scales in favor of billions of dollars in higher gasoline taxes for repairs coast to coast". It probably sent shivers down the backs of politicians and citizens alike, from coast to coast.

Of course, inspectors had warned about the structural integrity of the Minnesota bridge for years. But fortunately the warnings were quieted by an outside bridge review in 2001, under Mr. Elwyn Tinklenberg, former Governor Jesse Ventura's transportation commissioner. Current Governor Tim Pawlenty and the transportation commissioner Helen Molnau, (known as "Ma"), say they "relied on experts" to certify the bridge. They have steadfastly resisted tax increases that would have paid for road improvement.

As levees sink and pipes burst, U.S. infrastructure grades fall to C's and D's. Environmental waste clean up "costs", as does implementation of carbon regulation or taking the bus. Education costs are exorbitant too.

And Democracy's Costs So Malleable

But interestingly driving an SUV -- this site we previously linked to guesstimates that about 30% of the cars in NYC are SUVs -- doesn't "cost" too much even though gas is $3.00-4.00 per gallon. Almost any city budget can accommodate a new baseball stadium, lobbying groups spare no cost in attaining 30 second spots promoting their measures, and politicians spare no cost at getting elected.

But it seems like venturing down a dark path to suggest that a certifiably honest and accurate voting system costs too much. Doesn't this cheapen our vote, or even suggest perhaps, with twisted logic, that our votes can be bought?

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Acronym Required posts regularly on government spending dilemmas, especially with regard to the federal role in oversight (for instance with health issues), and less frequently public infrastructure.

FI-HISSS-SA

Yesterday, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick expressed more indignation about the FISA vote last weekend, questioning the Democrats who voted for the bill:

With this FISA vote, the Democrats have compromised the investigation into the U.S. attorney scandal. They've shown themselves either to be participating in an empty political witch hunt or curiously willing to surrender our civil liberties to someone who has shown - time and again --that he cannot be trusted to safeguard them. The image of Democrats hypocritically berating the attorney general with fingers crossed behind their backs is ultimately no less appalling than an attorney general swearing to uphold the Constitution with fingers crossed behind his own.

Reason magazine also reasonably pointed out that Attorney General Gonzales once excused his own legal transgressions, because:

"the administration had to violate FISA because a Republican-controlled Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 would not have agreed to the changes that a Democrat=controlled Congress has approved by a comfortable margin six years later"

The Republicans didn't have to be so sneaky all this time because, really, no one cares? Bloggers all over the internet urge you to barrage your representative -- the one who voted to further increase executive power and wiretapping -- for answers.

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Acronym Required also wrote about CALEA.

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Older, somewhat related, worthwhile, thoughtful entertainment: "The Lives of Others", and "Kremlin, Inc."

Britain's Foot-and-Mouth Disease

UK's Latest Foot-and-Mouth Outbreak

The UK is struggling to contain the latest foot-and-mouth outbreak and to determine its origin. The contagious disease infects cloven-hoofed animals like sheep, cattle, and pigs, and in the last week two Surrey farms in UK have been forced to severely cull their cattle herds to try and contain infection by the disease.

The virus tagged for this outbreak is O1BFS67, similar to a 1967 strain which devastated British farms. The current strain was being produced at two facilities, the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) and Merial Animal Health Ltd (Merial), and investigators suspect the outbreak originated at one of these facilities. Merial is the lab investigators from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs DEFRA are focusing on. As opposed to the 1967 and 2001 cases, the Health and Safety Commission do not think an airborne route caused the infection, rather that the virus was carried to the farms in water or on clothing. There is a stream running between the two infected farms and DEFRA is investigating the possibility of a surface water route of infection.

Investigators also noted that human movement could be a factor. The Guardian reports that a worker from Merial has an "allotment" (small leased vegetable garden) near one of the farms.

National Threats

Countries are vigilant about keeping foot-and-mouth at bay because disease is a costly agricultural threat. City-dwellers and supermarket shoppers don't usually dwell on the threat of foot-and-mouth to their supper prospects, but agricultural interests and government take the disease very seriously.

The Australian Department of Agriculture carries a general warning about severe consequences of an (unspecified) FMD outbreak on their website.

  • "$8 million (Australian) per day cost in control and eradication costs alone (not taking into consideration the effects of the immediate loss of wool, meat and dairy product markets)."
  • "$8 billion dollars out of $12 billion dollars worth of agricultural production being lost in the first year"
  • "the loss of 20 000 to 25 000 jobs"
  • "average cost to each farmer $70 000 in lost income"

The UAE, China, Russia, South Africa, the EU and the US have banned imports of cloven-hoofed animals from the UK. And Prime Minister Gordon Brown has apparently returned to Downing Street from Chequers (not reading The Pet Goat) to chair meetings of the Civil Contigencies Committee, according to the Guardian.

For a agricultural country, maintaining your status as a foot-and-mouth disease free country is critical to a healthy export market. Countries like Australia and New Zealand brag that they haven't had the virus in centuries. New Zealand actually claims they've "never had an outbreak". But the disease carries such bad publicity that if they had contained an outbreak, it might be in their best interest not to speak of it.

When Argentina edged towards ridding their herds of foot-and-mouth in the 1990's, newspaper stories in Australia warned of the potential economic impact on Australia's impending beef exports. Newspapers in various countries routinely trot out warnings about how feral pigs, wild animals, and domesticated imports from other countriese threaten national agriculture.

Airborne, Waterborne, Traipsed In...

The UK's latest outbreak was preceded by one in 2001 and another in 1967. The outbreak that started in England in February, 2001, lasted through October. News of it was finally eclipsed by 9-11. It cost the nation in the range of 8 billion pounds in compensation.

People have also been accused of using the threat of FMD disease for extortion. Others rumor that governments consider the use of FMD by terrorists and that Russia and the US prepared for possible FMD bioterrorism perpetrated by one another during the Cold War.

Tracking down the route of infection can be as tricky as it is important. Researchers who modeled the UK 1967 and 2001 outbreaks suggest that both of these were started by airborne virus. Researchers in the UK been studying the dynamics of airborne infection to better prevent and manage outbreaks. The Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright, Woking, Surrey, UK, published an article last month reporting on the susceptibility of sheep exposed to airborne foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) strain O/UKG/2001. (Veterinary Journal, July 11).

If the virus is airborne, other factors may influence virulence. Authors, R. Sellers and J. Gloster of the same institute reviewed the literature and found that exposure from different strains, in different species and individuals, along different infection routes, all varied the rate of infection (Veterinary Journal, May 15, 2007). Less understood factors such as meteorological conditions and droplet features may also contribute to infection. They found that cattle were the most susceptible to hoof-and-mouth, followed by pigs and sheep.

To prevent further outbreaks researchers are producing vaccines. In the meantime, limitations have been placed on animal movements. In Woking, Surrey, public notices ask people to report any stray dogs they see.

Climate Change: Fueling the "Debate"

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Newsweek Now Decides Climate Change is Real

The title of Newsweek's current article, "The Global Warming Hoax", makes me wonder if Newsweek is still trying to appease all audiences, despite overwhelming evidence of climate change. The provocative title and cover photo with a giant burning sun gives the impression of a magazine intent on feeding the fire of debate. Inside, Sharon Begley coolly focuses on the deception of climate change by its deniers, who she says are running amok:

"....outside Hollywood, Manhattan and other habitats of the chattering classes, the denial machine is running at full throttle -- and continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion."

In the 4000+ word article, Begley profiles a cabal of naysayers', who say that global warming is false, unproven or unimportant. The article features the usual suspects, ExxonMobil, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, James Inhofe, Fred Singer, and Richard S. Lindzen. Its well worth reading if you haven't heard the denier's tall tales or want to read them again. Perhaps you went out and bought a Hummer after reading Richard S. Lindzen's 1000 word opinion featured just last April in Newsweek, fatefully titled: "Learning to Live With Global Warming, Why So Gloomy?":

"There is no compelling evidence that the warming trend we've seen will amount to anything close to catastrophe. What most commentators -- and many scientists -- seem to miss is that the only thing we can say with certainly about climate is that it changes...Many of the most alarming studies rely on long-range predictions using inherently untrustworthy climate models, similar to those that cannot accurately forecast the weather a week from now..."

Earlier this year, to be fair, Newsweek published an article from "the other side", about the the Union of Concerned Scientist's report on ExxonMobil's lobbying campaign.

The 50% Solution

It's not clear whether Newsweek's "balanced" coverage is in deference to its readers or its advertisers or both. This newest article comes at a time when ExxonMobil itself acknowledges climate change. "With its change of heart, ExxonMobil is more likely to win a place at the negotiating table as Congress debates climate legislation"

To Begley's point, the deniers still thrive in their slowly closing circle of lies. In fact they have now have been invited to the negotiating table. Those media outlets which broadcast the deniers articles also thrive. The Financial Times featured an editorial last week titled, "The Steamrollers of Climate Science", by Clive Crook, arguing that the IPCC and its reports were tainted by "pervasive bias"..

He acknowledged that it was written by numerous scientists, but wrote as if the IPCC was actually just a few scientists, four maybe -- Ian, Paul, Chuck and Cliff (IPCC). He recommended that "if governments are to get the best advice, they need information and analysis from an open and disinterested source". Who did Clive Crook have in mind? He quoted the opinions of David Henderson, affiliated with the Marshall Institute, Fraser Institute, and Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) (all funded by ExxonMobil).

Today, the Financial Times published two letters to the editor, one in complete agreement with, one disagreeing with his editorial. The rote, 50-50 solution that heedlessly denies the evidence.

Oil in The Melting (Shhhh!) Arctic

The climate change deniers ought to be experiencing cognitive dissonance that would compete with the "wind-induced" mechanical resonance that brought down the Tacoma-Narrows bridge in 1940.

While the denier editorial business thrives, last week Russia planted a flag in the Arctic, staking out future Gazprom profits, accessible with the melting waterway and the capital of foreign oil companies. The Financial Times itself reported on the opportunities in the Arctic and on various companies and countries chances of competing for oil in the article: "Arctic Ice":

"in a dreadful circularity, global warming, helped along by the burning of fossil fuels, is causing the Arctic's ice sheet to recede -- making any oil and gas there easier to access.

Spiegel, the German newspaper, wrote, "How much truth is there to the dire warnings of melting polar ice caps"?, asks the German newspaper Spiegel, in an article on the French Oil Company Total, a sponsoring explorer to the artic. The French company's stated purpose is to "measure the arctic melt" (and perhaps to send back pristine images for public relations efforts). Total is also working with Gazprom on Russian gas reserves in the arctic. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States currently claim parts of the North Pole.

The Heritage Foundation noted that "a quarter of the world's oil", may be under the caps, and "if the ice caps melt and shrink", the newly available resources will fuel foreign "tension".

Is global warming real? No it's not, say deniers, but then they add that whoever gets to the Arctic and its oil as the ice melts wins. If you're dizzy from snapping your head around to follow first the one side of their argument, than the other, simply follow the money for the truth.

Or do we know the truth and just want to drive around in our SUV's a while longer?

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Acronym Required previously posted about climate change with:
"Cars, Buying Cognitive Dissonance"
"Green Spirit"
Communicating Climate Change
"Sea Change or Littoral Disaster"

FEMA: It's All Fun And Games until....

We recently noticed the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) site for kids. We don't know when the kids site launched, but how could anyone consider preparing for or managing a disaster without "Herman, the spokescrab"?

The bright yellow site, I would say, is geared towards kids 2-25. Activities range from downloadable songs and coloring pages, to a "Hidden Treasures Activity", on the kids ready.gov site. There's Julia and Robbie: The Disaster Twins stories, and if you're ambitious, a "FEMA Careers for Kids Site".

The Kids Activity Survival Kit provides a list of items to pack in a disaster such as crayons, a "keep safe" box with "items that make you feel special", a puzzle, books, pictures of "the family and pet". and action figures:

"small people figures and play vehicles that you can use to play out what is happening during your disaster -- such as ambulance, fire truck, helicopter, dump truck, police car, small boats."

Maybe you can make life preservers for them and float them down the river. No, hopefully your action reenactment will play out what is actually happening during "your disaster". Action figures can be handy in a disaster.

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Acronym Required previously wrote about FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, here and here and here, and last February, here.

The Wall Street Journal -- Changing Biz?

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Murdoch -- Scarred by Chapter Books?

The Wall Street Journal -- sold to the only bidder. Finally the most obvious outcome arrives after months of drama and teeth gnashing. The Bancrofts apparently hadn't had a family member on the board since 1932, and by all accounts were "hands off" owners, busy with horses, aviation and other pursuits. Cashing out, with the appropriate level of public contemplation, was a clear-cut opportunity.

People are concerned about the outcome of the sale. Their's is reasonable consternation. The New York Post is a freak show, with it's distorted portraits lurching out at you from the newsstands, fear-mongering headlines battling for your attention. This week's issue features a story "The Tragic Madness of King George" -- about George Steinbrenner, of course -- subtitled "Babbling Boss 'Shocks' Pal". I'm surprised they let the "g" stay in "babbling". The Post is world of "Pals", "Cops", "Hubbies", "60 Second" interviews, chases where the "cops" generally prevail, along with riveting human interest tales like "Castrated Dad was 'Monster'. Will the editorial page views of the Wall Street Journal change, people ask? Hmmm...doubtful?...but fair enough....

Hopefully all readers aren't getting their news from the editorial pages, if so it's a sunk cause. But there's obvious confusion, especially given the hopeful to and fro about an independent board, that led the publisher to clarify in his "Report to the Readers", earlier this week:

"...some of the concerns raised about the acquisition have been illegitimate -- and could wrongly impugn the Journal. One is the notion that somehow ownership could be separated from control."

There you have it, people do indeed acquire things to control them, that's "biz".

Shorter Articles for Our Shorter Attention Spans

I'm aware of people's attentions spans in the world of the blog, in fact, I'm quite sure only a few people have read to this point in this article. It is with this understanding that I say that my prediction that the WSJ articles, especially investigative pieces, will get shorter. Not to mention that Murdoch said as much himself when he spoke about some of his ideas for his impending acquisition in a conversation with the New York Times a couple of months ago. He said he had a hard time understanding some of the technology articles. He also expressed his distaste for longer articles: "'I'm sometimes frustrated by the long stories'", he told paper, noting that he '"rarely" finishes' them.

That Murdoch can't finish his articles is as heartbreaking as watching a toddler pick all the green things off her highchair tray and hurl them onto the floor. Indeed it was Murdoch's "unfinished" bits, I'm sure, that most interested us. We noted this in Coke, Teaching the World to Sing (June 7, 2005).

"The Wall Street Journal article takes an interesting approach in its article ["How a Global Web of Activists Gives Coke Problems in India",Steve Stecklow, June 7, 2005]. The intended audience seems to be the corporate world, when the author writes about exaggerations made by exuberant NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). The Wall Street Journal informs readers in the second paragraph that Mr. Srivasta is a "pony-tailed, 39-year old college dropout."

However turning off the front page, you learn that the Wall Street Journal visited the bottling company in Kerala where Coke was accused of dumping toxic waste and found that required soil sample testing was not routinely done. As well, reporters found that while the Coca-Cola corporate website virtuously announced the results of a study that purportedly found a Kerala plant's waste material not hazardous, but that other independent studies concluded the opposite...."

It's exactly these stories that we devour, as they elucidate the complexities of issues, or at least pique our interest and stimulate further research. It's not a rule, but some of the most distorted news spews forth from short pithy sound bites, as on the FOX news network or in other Murdoch publications.

The "Old" WSJ?

Most people don't think of the Wall Street Journal as focusing on public health or environment issues, but we wrote quite a few stories over the past few years referencing Wall Street Journal articles, on diverse subjects, such as:

Some of the WSJ articles were extensive, like Peter Waldman's article on endocrine disruptors (one of a series). Others brought national attention to important issues, such as Thomas Burton's articles on Northfield Laboratories' clinical trials. A few were pure blog fodder, as may more often be the case in the future.

It's Not His Fault

As disappointing as this seems, the trend towards shorter enlivened content preceded Murdoch's incursion. Last January, the WSJ publisher L. Gordon Crovitz, announced changes to the paper that he called, "the first newspaper rethought for today's needs".

"..This includes more interpretation, analysis and context -- more focus on what the rush of news truly means....As Managing Editor Paul Steiger puts it, today perhaps a bit over half of our news space is devoted to exclusive, differentiated information and the rest to essentially what happened the day before. Our goal is to move to 80% exclusive news, with 20% making sure you're aware of the key developments of the previous day. ...Expect to see more forward-leaning coverage, with headlines featuring predictive and explanatory words like "will" and "means" and "why."

This is a more straight-forward admission than the crafty FOX News claim: "We Report, You Decide". The WSJ slant is obviously familiar to us. As Gordon Crowitz stated in his latest, "A Report to Our Readers", two days ago: "Opinions represent only the applicable publication's own editorial philosophies centered around the core principle of "free people and free markets".

Supporting free market ideology isn't new. It's "forward-leaning". Not to be confused with "right-leaning", or "left-leaning", but definitely, positively pro-business. Although FOX and other Murdoch publications broadcast far-right Republican political agendas, Democrats are also "forward-leaning" and pro-business -- albeit more supportive of government regulation and socially liberal values. Remember, Murdoch supports Hilary Clinton. Harper-Collins, owned by Murdoch, published John Edward's last book and provided hefty advances to the now indignant candidate.

News to Hypnotize the Masses - and No Democrat Left Behind

The WSJ also changed the format of the paper last January, because a businessman wrote in and said that when he flew first class, he would knock over his fellow passengers' orange juice, thus... "an easier-to-handle size, to a more standard width" -- New York Post-like. All the better to capture those can't miss opinions about what it all the days events mean. It's unfortunate that the first class businessmen are apparently too distracted to sort out their own opinions.

Hopefully the new Journal will continue providing a certain depth of coverage. If not maybe the analysis and opinions the editors feed to readers will help this broad new population alleviate what The Atlantic last month labeled "Cognitive Dissonance".

The Atlantic proposes a phenomenon where "rational voters", who watch certain cable stations, that feature news about the late Nicole Simpson, for instance, but not than the Iraq War, are dulled by the assuaging effect of the biased news for simpletons. As a result of the networks manufactured lack of concern, say about the Iraq war, these people are prone to support obviously failing government policies, like the war. Why did so many people re-elect Bush when his record was so bad, the article asks? Given the mass audience of WSJ readers, and the potential for the content to spiral south, The Atlantic presents an uncomfortable notion.

But maybe there aren't any "rational voters" anyway. An alternative theory is that maybe the WSJ readers aren't innocent lambs bound for a future shearing. They're self-interested voters, free market adherents both Democrat and Republican, who Murdoch has found corralled together reading the Wall Street Journal. They have already asked for and received WSJ publication changes that trend towards his 'ideals'. Perhaps he increases his personal power by adding Democrats to his audience, which coincidentally benefits his bottom line. So what, we'll ask impudently? Isn't that an accomplishment that all free-market thinkers should applaud?

The Media Fog of Science

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Science is Not Science

"Now science is science, and we cannot blame the researchers for the way their data crunched."

Perhaps Gail Collins meant the sentence as just a rhetorical flourish in "Fat Comes in on Little Cat Feet", an amusing commentary in the NYT about the widely publicized obesity study that was also the subject of our own airy post last week, "Fat Cooties". It was may no more than a blithe segue within lighthearted commentary about a light-weight study. Aptly amused, we should maybe just move on to the next thing. But wait. Outside of the context of this editorial and study, too many people understand science exactly this way. They would take the author's statement as an acc description of science and scientists.

The title of the NYT article refers to the other study that the media focused on last week, something about a cat and people dying. The title was also apropos of Carl Sandburg's poem "Fog": "The fog creeps in on little cat feet..." Furthermore, the media creates a fog around science so that the reader can't discern why science is important or what research is relevant. Faith in this idea that "science is science", erodes understanding of science, because no, science is not science.

Obviously, few would disagree that the subject of electrical engineering is different than the subject of mechanical engineering - both EE's and ME's would readily point this out, and that the subject of physics is different than biology, and that biochemistry is different than embryology. The scientific method is intact across the fields, but the tools employed by the scientists are certainly different in different areas, as are premises, standards, assumptions and politics of the education, practice and expertise required for each discipline.

In addition to subject to subject differences, and unique methods, techniques and equipment, research differs between scientists of the same discipline. It differs experiment to experiment for the same researcher. Given consistent results, some research advances are obviously momentous, while the importance of others is not so obvious. Those working in the exact field may understand the significance of a particular experiment that other scientists, not to mention journalists and non-scientists, don't.

Vapid Vamping Vacant Science Journalism

The work of assessing research is difficult to accomplish on the time limits journalists work under. Therefore journalists often focus attention on research they glean through press releases, research that doesn't necessarily merit attention but serves as publicity for a certain institution or researcher.

Real science research competes badly with banal reports of young actresses for instance, helpless malnourished lush waifs wafting about on clouds of narcotic narcissism, money like confetti fluttering about their skinny legs and vamping, vacant, well-mascaraed eyes. Those wobbly, often misbehaving dolls perhaps aren't really humans at all but apparitions, media concoctions confected to reflect back our own collective wisdom and will -- which drifts constantly downhill.

The media needs eyes on all stories for advertising dollars, so scientists and journalists obligingly drum up science that competes with this vapidness. But science that is published because it soothes the eyes and slips down gullets easily but requires nothing of society except lurid, fleeting fascination may not really be 'science that is science' at all.

Data Does Not Crunch

Scientists, however, are probably not yet the passive actors that the quote from "Fat Comes in on Little Cat Feet" represents. They are protagonists who determine "how their data crunched".

The data does not crunch. The scientists crunch the data, after they develop a hypothesis, conceive the study, request the funding, collect the data sets, devise the statistical methods, and interpret the results. They then choose to write up the study and argue the significance of their conclusions in the paper's discussion, as well as (as is the trend), for the public affairs cameras. Therefore when the NYT author says, hopefully jokingly, "Stop sending these guys angry e-mails, people", because it's not their fault", understand that the research really is their "fault", or at least their product.

:.Stupid Science --->Stupid People

There are those that argue that science needs to be simplified for the public. They point disparagingly to stories about movie stars and bemoan the fact that Lindsay Lohan holds more sway in the news than science. Carefully crafted rhetoric and simplified science stories by scientists, they say, would sway people. I don't agree. I believe it's arrogant to judge people's disinterest as stupidity, and to suggest that scientists should be deciding policy and weaving it into their accounts of research.

Science as it is presented in the mainstream media (so many journals are subscriptions inaccessible to the general public) is simplified quite enough, thank you very much. If you were to get all your science news from the mainstream press you might think that the only definitive science research was on the subjects of chocolate, red wine, and obesity. A democracy works because people inform themselves of the issues. The public often seems to be in a fog about science, which may be for many reasons. One reason is that a lot science that we should be exposed to is passed over, while vapid reports posing as science are presented as news.

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