October 2007 Archives

Studs Terkel & Immunity for Wiretapping Telcoms

Studs Terkel writes in the New York Times today, that the current government wiretapping defies a 1978 law. In "The Wiretap the Time", Terkel argues persuasively that the case should be allowed to go to court. Mr. Terkel is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against the telephone companies that conducted broad wiretapping on behalf of the Bush administration.

The administration has been seeking to grant immunity to the telephone companies to protect them from such lawsuits, a move that critics say would set a dangerous precedent. The Senate has spent significant effort fighting the administration to gain access to key documents in order to proceed with the case. Civil liberties groups argue that the government is trying to cover-up possible wrongdoing.'"Immunity suggests that there's been a violation of the law and they want to be absolved from any liability," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters. "I would like to know what happened before I absolve anyone from liability."'

Mr. Terkel, 95, speaks of the wiretapping that he's witnessed in the past century, the Palmer raids in 1920, the Bureau of Investigation raids, the Red Scare McCarthy era of the 1950's, in which Terkel was blacklisted and disallowed from working in television and radio "after refusing to say that I had been "duped" into signing my name to these causes."

In defiance of the 4th amendment, Bush has gutted the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, its "legal structure and social contract", says Terkel. Of his century of experience he writes: "nothing much surprises me anymore. But I always feel uplifted by this: Given the facts and an opportunity to act, the body politic generally does the right thing."

UNEP Report

The IPCC: Worth Its Weight In Gold

Acronym Required previously commended Al Gore's movie in An Inconvenient Truth or Or The Break-Up? What To See. Al Gore carried a message to the public in his movie: you have a moral imperative to act on global warming. But more important than his message to the general public may have the one to business: we have a golden opportunity here. That's the message that seemed to grab attention and excite a buzz in the investment community.

Many people reacted to the Nobel Prize awarded to Al Gore and the IPCC by talking about Al Gore -- the chances he'll run for president (nil), his turnaround from losing the 2000 election, what a great a guy he is...of course there are naysayers asking whether he cares about the environment at all or whether the environment even matters. However the efforts of the other winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the IPCC, for assessing and presenting the science studies which underlie our understanding of climate change, for informing policy makers, and for enabling Al Gore to make his movies, deserve overdue respect and the Nobel Prize.

Unfortunately the IPCC often goes under-recognized. For kicks, we did a Google search of Nobel Peace and IPCC; vs. Nobel Peace and Gore. The result? (Needless to say this is quite unscientific) 687,000 for the Nobel Peace IPCC, and 1,120,000 for Nobel Peace Gore. While Al Gore's communication of the climate change problem was stellar and important, we should be impressed by the efforts of the IPCC, with its hundreds of scientists who convene to issue report after report, no deviation from their science charge, just descriptions of the science and its the potential outcomes.

The journal Nature recognized the IPCC effort in its editorial October 18th, "Rising to the climate challenge". Nature's editors suggested that perhaps more frequent reviews by the IPCC may be prudent to the urgent problems that we face. But the article commended the agency's report process:

"Many climate scientists would like to move away from an IPCC process in which three independent working groups that investigate science, impacts and mitigation, respectively, work almost entirely independently of each other. But the established process is difficult to avoid in drawing up a full-scale assessment, and any suggestion of a merger should be resisted: assessing mitigation is best kept separate from assessing science if only to support the objectivity of the latter.

Nature reminds us: "This Nobel peace laureate is an organization whose strengths include an understanding that, however urgent the challenge, robust scientific advice, like science itself, needs patience."

Scientists Speak, Governments Ignore, Our Peril

Last week United Nations Environmental Program also issued a report, UNEP's Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4). Their last report was issued twenty years ago, titled: "Our Common Future". The current 550 page report, which took five years and 388 scientists urges governments to pay attention to climate change, water shortages, extinction of species, and the overall resource depletion that increasingly challenges a growing population. It says that to date, governments' response has be: "woefully inadequate", and distinctive for "a remarkable lack of urgency."

Science is methodical, and policy should be necessarily separated from science. If governments don't heed the messages of scientists, or their policies in time don't stretch to reflect science, it's not because the details weren't made clear by thousands and thousands of scientists, year after year after year, or because the scientists are or are not adorned with identifying pocket protectors, or because Al Gore said it twenty years ago and he's a Democrat.

Governments fail to listen not because the report was released on the wrong day of the week or for any myriad of the many silly reasons that individuals, communities, and a few scientists themselves -- ever open to a little self immolation -- would like to suggest or accept as their burden. These are not easy problems to fix. But if the governments "don't hear", its because our leaders are funded by entities (including corporations), who don't yet see any economic advantage to sustaining the earth that sustains us. And they don't hear because the public says to the politicians it elects, hey, as long as I have my MTV -- its ok.


Acronym Required frequently comments on environmental issues. We've talked about the subject of cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance of the environment in: Green Spirit, Cars, Buying Cognitive Dissonance, Climate Change Communication, and Sea Change or Littoral Disaster, plus some other pieces. Acronym Required also wrote about the IPCC in Climate Change, Fueling the Debate , and here.

(last edited 11-15-07)

Bush Administration Rewrites Katrina History

The New York Times today, reports that the Bush administration is trying to rewrite the federal government's bungling of Hurricane Katrina to make it a state problem: "A Firestorm, a Deluge and a Sharp Political Dig".

"President Bush long ago accepted responsibility for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. But now his administration and its allies are using the California disaster, with its affluent victims and reverse 911 telephone-warning system, to revisit Louisiana's handling of the 2005 hurricane -- and, in the process, to rewrite the story of one of the Bush administration's biggest setbacks."

Despite the fact that the scale of the the two disasters was completely different (475,000 acres, vs.52 million acres; 1,875 homes vs. 300,000 homes; no power, no communications systems and 80% of New Orleans under water vs. sophisticated communication systems and roads; affluent population vs. poor population), the administration is taking the opportunity contort their Katrina mismanagement into a failure of Democratic leadership at the state and local levels.


Acronym Required previously wrote a number of articles on Katrina and FEMA.

FEMA Fakes It: Learning From Past Mistakes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had a disaster on it's hands in 2005, with all the reporters asking Michael Brown sweat-inducing quesions that he could not answer during Hurricane Katrina. Despite purchasing a new Nordstrom shirt for the occasion and rolling up his sleeves to simulate working, Michael Brown and FEMA became the butt of criticism and lampoon for their blundering mendacity.

During the hurricane clean-up, FEMA tried to prevent the news media from reporting on the New Orleans body recovery, but this tactic was prevented by a lawsuit brought by CNN. Therefore, when disastrous fires struck California this year, FEMA had prepared, figuring out another way around the pesky reporters.

The agency called a news conference about the California fires on Tuesday 15 minutes before the event, and also gave out an 800 number so that reporters could call in (but not ask questions). Then, reportedly because not enough reporters showed up, FEMA staff asked the questions and FEMA staff answered the questions. These questions were supposedly not premeditated: "What type of commodities are you pledging to California?" Detail questions like -- "What's the difference between an "emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration?" could have been plucked from the a FEMA bureaucrats entry examination.

The fake FEMA questioners asked: "Are you happy with FEMA's response, so far?" FEMA's answer? "I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far. This is a FEMA and a federal government that's leaning forward, not waiting to react."

FEMA, having learned from from the Hurricane Katrina debacle that news conferences demand intense disaster preparedness, are so "forward leaning" that they'd prefer not to even have reporters at their news conferences.


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

Public Health, AIDS, Mbeki, and the Media

(This post continues from another, Mbeki's AIDS Legacy and Ours)

Madlala-Routledge's Sacking and the European AIDS Convention

It should have been no shock last summer when President Mbeki, a man who has not tolerated dissenting views in his administration, sacked Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the assistant health minister who very publicly tried to advocate for stronger action on South Africa's AIDS epidemic. Madlala-Routledge had taken the helm of the health ministry from Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who left on medical leave. But after only a short stint at the post, Madlala-Routledge was fired for "unsubordination". Mbeki disapproved of her decision to attend an AIDS meeting in Europe and her outspoken methods for attacking the AIDS problem.

One might wonder though, if outspokenness and a maverick nature were Madlala-Routledge's offensive transgressions, as Mbeki charged, why wasn't she dismissed earlier? How was she ever assigned to the post? How did she so suddenly stop being seen as a "team player"?

The press reacted quickly and instinctively to AIDS news. Predictably, the international spotlight on Mbeki's perennial denial of his country's AIDS crisis illuminated the problems like a firefly on a summer's night, fluttering briefly and intensely to capture everyone's attention, before flitting off over there. International media outlets checked their surprise -- the South Africa's government wasn't turning around on AIDS? -- before perfunctorily broadcasting dissapproval and polite requests that the South African government pay attention to AIDS. Mbeki is quite used to the international critics who gripe about his refusal to deal with AIDS. and he adeptly fends off the outcry.

Mbeki and his naysayers have rehearsed this dance for years. Throughout the charade, Mbeki continues to let the AIDS crisis in South Africa gain momentum, as his compatriots continue to die.

Madlala-Routledge & the Decrepit Public Hospitals

But the HIV/AIDS crisis was not the only issue about which Madlala-Routledge had been outspoken. She had also raised warning flags about the public hospitals.

A six week investigation by the (famous) Eastern Cape paper, the Daily Dispatch reported that despicable sanitary conditions, understaffing, underfunding and lack of equipment at the Frere hospital in East London were causing high rates of infant and neonate deaths. The South African national press focused its attention on these public health problems that were probably more germane to Mbeki's prospects for continuing his leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) party once his second presidential term was up in 2009.

Unicef reports that infant mortality figures for South Africa are about 45 deaths per 1000 babies, and 21 deaths per 1000 neonates. The reporters at Frere hospital spent weeks in the wards, manning the morgue and conducting interview after interview before publishing their expose. They reported that the mortality figures were higher than the official figures and worsening:

"Minutes from weekly management meetings reveal damning admissions by doctors that patients were dying because of outright negligence...Mothers and babies die at an alarmingly high rate, confirmed a former hospital gynaecologist....Last year's figures appear to be the highest on record, when at least 199 babies were stillborn [at Frere]......'I once saw a cleaner doing a delivery while there were students in the ward and she chased the students out because she said they don't know what they're doing,' said a student nurse, a claim corroborated by a veteran of Frere's maternity wards."

Assistant health minister Madlala-Routledge visited the hospital upon hearing of the report, and declared the situation deplorable. The Mbeki fired her. The health minister Tshabalala-Msimang had undergone her liver transplant and she returned to the Health post just in time to summon a committee and report that the conditions at the hospital were just fine.

The press dug in, lambasting Mbeki for reigning over a public health crisis. Mbeki arguably expended more personal effort addressing this issue than he did responding to the perennial accusations from the AIDS activists.

Mbeki's Stand Against the Media "Facts, Fiction & Miniskirts"

In his weekly newspaper column, he penned a meandering 3000 word essay titled, "Facts, Fiction and Mini-skirts", which dismissed the paper's claims. The many-threaded treatise wove through post-modernism, Charles Dickens, Marx, "the truth", and an interpretive course in statistics, not to mention the central mini-skirt theme:

"Mini-skirts achieved their high point as an indispensable item of women's fashion and an iconic representation of the ethos of an age during the 1960s. Even at the height of the craze, when it was virtually a social offense not to show a considerable part of women's thighs, the statisticians remained loyal to their profession.

They spread the notion, not difficult to understand even by the most discreet observer, that mini-skirts showed or suggested more than they revealed..."

The thrust of the mini-skirt-memo seemed to be an attempt to assure readers that the newspaper's six week investigation on Frere's infant deaths was wrong, statistically spurious, and not to be believed. The piece set to sooth the potentially volatile public, but also outlined in so many words the political confines that trademark the president's stance on AIDS. Part of that was Mbeki's steadfast commitment to a neoliberal economic agenda.

"Hoist By His Own Petard?"

The mini-skirt memo didn't silence the tenacious paper, instead the Dispatch counterattacked, charging Mbeki with concocting faux mortality figures that would be uncovered in time, leaving him "hoist by his own petard."

The fray surrounding Frere hospital and other public hospitals in the East Cape roiled in the national headlines -- and the exchange was not merely drama to sell papers. The public health infrastructure in South Africa has been ignored for years.

This may surprise people outside of the country who have heard of the country's cutting edge hospitals and its modern private health care system. Medical tourism is part of the fast growing tourism business in South Africa, a booming, much ballyhooed sector.

You've probably heard of 'adventure seekers' who travel to Africa on "medical safaris", more hair-raisingly known as "silicon safaris" or "scalpel safaris". Prospective patients travel to South Africa's state-of-the art medical facilities to get plastic surgery, fertility treatments, and operations and surgeries that would be more expensive in Europe or the US. This doesn't sound like the most enticing holiday. Fly the 12 hour, 9700 km (6000 mi) flight from London to Capetown on Virgin Airlines, get a nose job or tummy tuck, hop in a jeep with your safari cohort to spend a day bumping over grasslands looking for tigers running down wildebeests, then catch a quick dinner and the 12 hour flight back to London? Fun, fun. But anyway, to our point.

The safari goers and international investors chauffeured to the shinier places may not know of the economic disparities in Africa, acutely visible in the differences between public and private health systems, and even more apparent to anyone who falls ill and enters a public hospital on the Eastern Cape.

Places of Death

Phyllis Ntantala, a former professor of History and English in the U.S., wrote about the Eastern Cape hospital conditions in 2006. The 80 year old woman, who lives in the United States but grew up in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, was rushed to the hospital when she collapsed while visiting her family in South Africa. She documented the hazards of public hospital admission in an essay titled "Places of Death, not Life".

"The state of the public hospitals in the Eastern Cape is horrific", she wrote, after finding broken equipment, dirt, piled up garbage, patients who lay unattended in the hospital for days, and water shortages that forced nurses to dry urine soaked mattresses in the sun outdoors. Ntantala describes her stay at Nelson Mandela Hospital:

"I was stripped and lay naked in bed under an obviously used sheet for two days until a member of my family managed to bring me some night clothes. In all my 80-plus years I have never felt as insulted as I did for those two days and nights lying naked in that bed."

She also inadvertently locked herself in a bathroom on account of a broken door that automatically locked from the outside.The octogenarian reported pounding on the door yelling for help for 45 minutes before someone let her out. When she recovered from her illness she traveled in the Eastern Cape and documented the deteriorating conditions across the province. She relays the story of a young man admitted to Mjanyana TB hospital for suspected tuberculosis:

There was no doctor on duty when he was admitted and he stayed there for three weeks without being examined or having a chest X-ray taken because the X-ray machine was out of commission. His family finally removed him and he was referred to a doctor in East London where he was diagnosed with TB and treated.

She went on to describe the bathrooms at Mjanyana as:

"filthy death traps where germs must be multiplying by the millions. Toilets do not flush, tiles are cracked and broken and there is moisture everywhere. In such an environment, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could come out alive."

We hear more about AIDS in Africa than public health. International health campaigns capture our attention by focusing on one specific issue in order to galvanize attention and raise money. Many agencies fundraise in the name of IDS and children, orphans or babies, to great reward. Children's health programs can make great use of a photo of a child dragging a teddy bear up a desolate looking stairwell, in the name of malaria or AIDS. We commend these campaigning efforts for such a worthwhile cause - in Africa alone over 2 million children will be orphaned from aids by 2020. We very much understand the necessity of NGO's that understand the imperative of facing down pandemics. Marketing campaigns that isolate diseases are essential to fighting disease. Public health, on the other hand, is an unwieldy, nebulous area that doesn't lend itself to private fund-raising, heart-tugging advertisements, or measurable endpoints. But while NGO's carve out a special place for AIDS (as well as malaria, tuberculosis, leishmania etc), in reality, an AIDS crisis cannot be so facilely uncoupled from general public health.

History bears this out. In the late 1980's Romania's many malnourished orphaned children were given blood microtransfusions using unscreened blood. Unsterilized equipment, poor public health, government poverty and denial of the problems caused outbreaks of AIDS among hundreds of the children. Libya arguably had a public health problem before it had the tragic AIDS epidemic among hospitalized children that was then criminally blamed on foreign health workers. China's contaminated blood and plasma banks spread HIV virus to thousands of transfusion patients. In each of these cases, Libya being the most recent, a combination of issues, plus political denial of basic public health problems by a country's leaders led to an AIDS epidemic and tragedy. Conversely, every country where there has been a successful AIDS campaign there has been a public health campaign driven at the highest level of government.

In South Africa, while people die in public hospitals at unacceptable rates, the tourism board promotes private hospitals in brochures abroad. South Africa is not just ignoring its HIV/AIDS populations, it's ignoring all of public health when the results can go unnoticed. A recent Unicef report notes that 5.4 million people were infected with HIV/AIDS as of 2006 in South Africa, amounting to almost one fifth of the total population.

Moreover, South Africa is also not likely to meet the UN's Millennium Development Goal of cutting under-five mortality by two thirds by 2015 -- instead, child mortality rose by "an annual 5.8 percent in the ten years between 1990 and 2000". The country that has one of the highest GDP's in the world, has one of the lowest HDIs (human development indexes) For several months, the spirited South African media diligently kept the hospital debacle in the news.

You're Either With the Revolution....or with the Opposition

Underlying the failure on both inseparable issues is ambivalent leadership on the part of the president's party the ANC. In August, news of the African media's Frere hospital investigation merged with the African media's condemnation of Mbeki's coddling of Tshabalala-Msimang, as the Sunday Times broke a couple of stories based on leaked medical records from hospitalizations of the Health Minister. In one report, "Manto: A Drunk and a Thief", the paper told of the Health Minister's drinking, alcoholism, liver cirrhosis, kleptomania, and verbal abuse of hospital staff during a hospital stays. The Times questioned whether favoritism and power allowed her to receive a recent liver transplant ahead of others. The Times quoted hospital staff who said that Tshabalala-Msimanga's antics were common knowledge among staff, and that 'Everyone here thinks its hilarious that she is today a health minister in South Africa'".

Mbeki responded to the paper's account by publishing another memo in ANC Today, August 31 defending Tshabalala-Msimang as a loyal member of the "democratic revolution". Her approach to nutrition and AIDS was that of the ANC, which he said was dedicated to the "scientifically based pursuit of the goal of health for all". He berated anyone who had the:

"audacity publicly to argue that nothing should have been done to attend to the health of [the sobriety challenged Tshabalala-Msimang] another South African human being, allowing her to die instead as some in our society have argued"

The ubuntu culture which he grew up in, he explained, "valued and values the sanctity of human life". He defended the Minister's place in "the movement" and her 45 years serving the people. Finally he noted that "recent events have brought to the fore the obligation our movement faces, to choose between either ecstatic media adulation, or the defense of the truth as it understands this truth."

Media Revelations...Then Hoist By Their Own Petard?

Since the media has been taking government to task, now the South African government is showing heightened interest in the media. Police are investigating how Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and senior journalist Jocelyn Maker obtained the Health Minister's medical records. Last week the Times reported the two were going to be arrested, then a couple of days later, the Times reported that they weren't yet going to be arrested.

Also, last week the Financial Times (October 16, 2007) reported that activist shareholder Brian Molefe was trying to purchase the company Johncom, which owns the Sunday Times. Molefe runs the Public Investment Corporation "which manages R720bn (Pounds 52bn, Dollars 106bn, Euros 75bn) of civil servants' pension funds and he is the single largest investor on the Johannesburg Stock Ex-change (JSE)." He works to "force traditionally white-run companies to promote more black people on to boards and into top management". According to the Financial Times, this approach has drawn criticism from those who think he should spend more time managing assets, and less time being a "government hit man stepping outside his mandate to enforce black economic empowerment (BEE), which is the "African National Congress government's policy to redress the financial inequalities of apartheid by transferring a stake in the economy to black control." Molefe insists that while he does wish to change the employee incentive system of the paper, he doesn't intend to change the editorial direction of the Times.

Women in Science: Mixed Messages

Why aren't there more women in science? It's a dilemma that receives a lot of attention. There's more than a few ways of looking at this, but reading about the subject, you will first be convinced of a long history of women's contributions to science, for example at the website: "4000 Years of Women in Science". You'll also learn that throughout the millennia, women succeeded as scientists. You can find evidence of this in accounts such as, "Women in Science: A Selection of 16 Significant Contributors". 16 contributors, 4000 years, that's distorted. But if you're interested in seeing women get ahead in science, as an educator or young scientist, the real odds still might send you into a morose spiral, worsened when you realize how relentless the message will be. Year after year the same grants announcing the same basic questions, the same studies launched to puzzle quizzically over the same conundrum, ending up with the same conclusion.

Getting more personal, you could delve into biographies of women, classics of famous scientists like Barbara McClintock, and Rita Levi-Montalcini are readily available. Born in the beginning of the 20th century, these two women are/were (McClintock passed away in 1992) highly intelligent, tenacious and gutsy. Barbara McClintock discovered transposable elements that can introduce DNA into distant parts of the genome in certain conditions. Levi-Montalcini discovered nerve-growth factor. Both received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.The biographies tell of singularly driven individuals who labored deep into the night, who made tremendous contributions to science under conditions we would consider adverse.

If you were going to write a book, you might not consider a biography in this genre, one that tells some variation, some essence, of an American dream, of woman scientists renowned for their 20th century contributions and work ethics. However, "A Feeling for the Organism", Barbara McClintock's biography that was first published in 1984, has now been released in its 10th edition. These are timeless classics, and in their characterizations of women at the bench, struggling with firmed jaw against the odds and naysayers, carry a disconcerting longevity. It's almost ominous, as though these mythical struggling women scientists forever hover about our schools, presented this year and the next by earnest teachers in our classrooms as grim reminders of past struggles. Their ghosts might haunt women in their labs...work later?...um...what would Barbara McClintock do?

It seems that in many areas of public life we are afflicted by memory failures about history that are the bane of international relations, public policy, and banking. But as far as women and science goes, there's almost too much history, an endless recounting of a dark time in not so long ago in never forgotten past. According to the AAAS Benchmarks for science education, by the time a student graduates from 8th grade, they should have internalized the following:

"Until recently, women and racial minorities, because of restrictions on their education and employment opportunities, were essentially left out of much of the formal work of the science establishment; the remarkable few who overcame those obstacles were even then likely to have their work disregarded by the science establishment."[italics added]

The AAAS "benchmarks" were updated in 1993, but are still listed on the site as current. The astute 8th grader might deduce from the evidence as presented in the "benchmarks" that nothing has changed for women in science in her own lifetime -- since 1993. The present 8th grader might wonder what the AAAS means by "recently"? Before I was born she might wonder? An ancient time, like 1992? Or are we talking 1960,1940, or when Levi-Montalcini was born in 1909? Can the AAAS update this to give a date when they think things actually turned around? Or are women in science forever just about to turn the corner of milk and honey and equal opportunity?

Teachers are advised to let make their students understand by leaving 8th grade that "no matter who does science and mathematics or invents things, or when or where they do it, the knowledge and technology that result can eventually become available to everyone in the world." Which I suppose could mean that if you do science, no matter who you are, everyone in the world will recognize your work. Alternatively it could mean that if your don't go into science, you would still be able to access it even if you live in a remote village in Africa. A democratic interpretation either way.

You'll see articles that make it look like things are looking up. Nature last week reported in "Equal pay for women in science is achievable" about a study for the University of Arizona Hospital. (Originally published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine: A. L. Wright et al. J. Gen. Intern. Med. 22, 1398 - 1402; 2007). The U. or A. researchers recounted "administrative changes" at the University of Arizona that equalized pay between men and women and improved upon their previous study: "Unequal Pay for Equal Work in the Annals of Medicine (2005). The first study found that in 2000, the University had a total of 375 staff, men were getting paid $117,598, and women only $105,148, 89.4% of the male total. The new paper reports that by 2004, the University had 445 staff, men were paid $132,770, and women $124,108, 93.5% of the male total. To achieve this, the University gave 21 women raises of an average $17,000 over 4 years. The authors concluded: "This study shows that gender disparities in compensation can be reduced through careful documentation, identification of comparable individuals paid different salaries, and commitment from leadership to hold the appropriate person accountable."

A cynical person might say that transforming basic cost of living allowance into gestures of grand social reform, then parlaying these into an academic publication is probably a helpful recruiting tool for the University of Arizona. And though pay raises always help, a more thorough review of the study doesn't necessarily reveal all you would need to know to feel that the changes were meaningful, or that women will be any more emancipated from the U or A's magnanimous effort. Is 4% more pay equality really such an achievement? It's 2007, after all.

Moreover, academic science and engineering still suffer from inequality. Almost any month, one could find a study on this, this month we can report on a hearing before the House Committee on Science and Technology on Women in Academic Science and Engineering , which happened October 17th. The committee adjoined to hear from university presidents and woman administrators about the state of women in science. According to a 2003 NSF study, women at that time only held 28 percent of all full-time science and engineering faculty positions,18 percent of full professors, 31 percent of associate professors and 40 percent of assistant professors.

During the hearings college presidents including Donna Shalala (President U. Miami), and Dr. Kathie L Olsen (Deputy Director National Science Foundation) testified on the Report of The National Academies: Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the potential of Women in Science and Engineering. According to their accounts women still face "significant barriers in every field of science and engineering", including bias, barriers to promotion, cultural barriers, institutional barriers to women's success, disparities in professional assessments and rewards, difficulty in achieving a balance between work and family and even lingering discrimination. The women who reported to the committee also report some progress, but most was in undergraduate education. Any major University should be able to reach into it's pocket and pull out a couple of dollars to achieve equal pay. But what about these challenges?

Yet science work can be rewarding and women continue to enter science, despite a plethora of other opportunities. So young women are counseled not to lose hope. Despite AAAS's firm reminders of "recent" history, and despite evidence that some of that history still lingers, the "benchmark" recommendations are upbeat on science careers for kids: "Above all, children in early adolescence need to see science and science-related careers as a real option for themselves personally."

American College of Physicians Goes Creepy

The Annals of Internal Medicine fails to explain its cover in its link, "About The Cover". So we'll guess. A face and neck transplant patient? A plug for the American Dental Association? A site hack by the Hell's Angels? Casual Friday at Kaiser? Any 'ole day in the Castro? Rounds on Halloween? Something else?

Watson: Surprising? Predictable? Racist?

Did I Say That?

James Watson is at it again. His "opinions" -- in reality bigoted remarks and racial slurs, were published in a piece in the London Sunday Times. Watson noted that although "social policies are based" on the intelligence of African's being "the same as ours", this assumption is "not really" true. The London's Science Museum canceled an appearance by Watson for Friday's Black History Month event because his comments had "gone beyond the point of acceptable debate".

Despite his appalling comments, some news agencies still tiptoe reverently around Dr. Watson. For instance BBC said, "within scientific circles, the 79-year-old is known as someone who loves debate and discussion."

But in the science circles I run in, his comments don't qualify as "debate", but as racism. The New York Times said: "Famed Scientist Apologizes for Quoted Racial Remarks". "Quoted", they say as if leaving open the possibility that Watson might never had said that. A transcription error perhaps? According to the London Times "Kate Farquhar-Thomson, his publicist, refused to say whether Watson believed The Sunday Times had quoted him accurately. 'You have the statement. That's it, I'm afraid,' she said". The London Times said Watson read the article before it was submitted.

CNN, a paper of increasingly dubious record, yanked reporters away from stories on movie stars long enough to fill in some background information on Watson:

"In 1997, Britain's Sunday Telegraph quoted Watson as saying that if a gene for homosexuality were isolated, women who find that their unborn child has the gene should be allowed to have an abortion.

During a lecture tour in 2000, he suggested there might be links between a person's weight and their level of ambition and between skin color and sexual prowess. "That's why you have Latin lovers," he said, according to The Associated Press, which quoted people who attended the lecture. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."

And in a British TV documentary that aired in 2003, Watson suggested stupidity was a genetic disease that should be treated."

Watson actually has a longer record of insults then their brief history tells, he has been slandering woman and minorities for as long as he's been basking in the warm glow of appreciation for revealing the structure of DNA. This isn't the late life meanderings of a little old man. "I cannot understand", he said. As in -- oh dear, did I say that?

His reputation for deriding women and their intelligence is based on decades of remarks, though every once in a while, fortunately for that 50% of the population, he stumbles across an intelligent woman.

On autism, Watson "hopes that by diagnosing autism early, 'we might prevent some autism-prone families having subsequent children'". [Emphasis ours]. As I see it, he's situated on a bit of a slippery slope, though he may be impervious to it. One of his children was "seriously incapacitated", a fact that he attributes to his age at the time of conception-- 42, not to his original genome. Viagra is one culprit he says. So for him anyway, sterilization would not have helped? A Science writer noted in an 2003 book review that Watson promoted "vintage eugenics".

Watson apologizes now for his most recent comments. A couple of writers quickly leapt to his defense, and admirers who warn that they're canceling their visit to that science museum. Confusingly, the same writers argue that the economic rewards for Watson's ideas should flow unfettered, that his book tour with its museum stop (and profits) should continue. Allow "the debate" they say, feature the evidence. But scientific evidence will not convince racists not to be racists. If it did, and if Watson's as smart as he says he is, wouldn't he have changed his tune by now?

Toeing the Jagged Moral Line

Although most of us would not defend Watson's remarks, we ably justify some level of racism for various self-serving reasons. We're capable of separating Don Imus's rampage or Michael Richards' from James Watson's. At least one individual will no doubt read this paragraph and immediately start listing all the differences between the aforementioned players. But James Watson is Dr. James Watson, they'll say, just think of his contribution to society! He's not just a two-bit celebrity, as entertaining as a racists as he is as a comedic actor--- he's Dr. James Watson.

Do we selectively elevate the opinions of others based on assumptions we make about their status, their power, intelligence, or fame? Of course. Do we sometimes privilege the James Watsons, professors, and presidents to pursue whatever agenda they coyly reveal? Sure. Not that Watson needs to be coy. Watson has learned that audiences will wrap his offensiveness in a cocoon of awe, and may even secretly question whether in all his brilliance, he knows something that they don't about genetics. We're capable of handily interpreting the same spiel different ways depending on whose mouth it spews from and our judgment of the speaker's power.

Why, we ask, has Watson been allowed to get away with this to date, to prosper? Is it Watson's science prestige? He has long floated along unhinged in his outrageous beliefs but unhindered by his habit of unfortunate comments; acquiring grants, lending his name to new buildings, trying to find cancer genes, promoting himself, enjoying the limelight. He's a charming man, blithely tossing out abusive zingers all along the way. Seduced by his power, convinced that his intelligence informs his remarks, we're dangerous because years of entrenched bigotry pass by. Our spurious evaluations collectively become society's schismatic moral code.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Succeed

Collectively and individually, we have spastic notions about what's acceptable. Said one biologist of the Nobel Laureate: "This is Watson at his most scandalous. He has said similar things about women before but I have never heard him get into this racist terrain". As though, women, that's one thing -- but now my dear Watson, you've really crossed the line. The biologist has a confusing moral code.

Many scientists, like Dr. Watson, are afforded "proteges" who listen with rapt attention, diligently recording whatever the master says in their notebooks.The author of the London Times article, introduced as one of his "proteges", said she was "unnerved by his devil-may-care compulsion to say what he believes". Her careful article obviously fueled the current public response. But why only now, after all this time, did she dare to be "unnerved"? Had she had the courage to be a bit more emotive long ago, "aghast" perhaps, which was the Merriam Webster's word of the day for October 18, 2008, would she still be Watson's "protege"? Would she be able to dine in his presence? Would she have the honor of reviewing his book?

There are payoffs to allowing famous people, Nobel laureates, university presidents, politicians, and celebrities who we encounter in our daily lives their little "indiscretions". After all, they may reward us. They may nod in our direction one day if we keep bowing just right. We're careful about "career limiting moves", speaking out at the wrong time, challenging the principal. But the more we excuse these 'otherwise fine men and women', the more we rationalize their aberrant assertions, the more we empower bigots.

These are not intuitive decisions, science politics is brutal. But, how much collateral damage is endured as we practice delicate political sensibilities that benefit the bottom line of only a select few? If minorities and woman suffer to get ahead, it's in no small part because of pervasive racist, sexist attitudes. It's also because those of us who are empowered to speak out, choose to let inflammatory comments slide. Humans are sociologically astute, which leads to our collective success. But as "team players" we can be weak, we're often indiscriminate about accepting the claims of those who charm us with their authority, and as recent history shows, many of us can be conditioned to accept corrupt power.

Perhaps it's this gene, the one for cancerous bigotry induced by reflexive idolatry, for which we should be most hopefully hunting.

Speak Out

As a society we're rampantly inconsistent. We express very little tolerance for similarly degrading physical abuse. The idea of sending Watson to do janitorial public service, which was Naomi Campbell's punishment after she beaned an assistant on the head with a cell phone and drew blood, is laughable not just because he's 80 and doesn't have a cute cap to don while he's sweeping. We wouldn't consider such a thing, a man of his credentials, however, incongruously Watson has maligned an entire continent of individuals.

Watson may be "mortified" by his comments, but he is unscathed. The damage, the deadening of spirit and hope will manifest in young scientists who are compelled once more to double check the science literature on IQ, will effect Africans and African-Americans who endure century after century of the same numbing tirades, and will demoralize women who fear that they'll always be judged on anything but their intelligence.

Some argue that we continue to accept racism because we're "hypocritical racists". That we need to come up with strategies other than pressing fleeting apologies from racist offenders. Otherwise "we find scapegoats in these men...It becomes too easy to deny the fact that [the] internalized beliefs [of distant public officials] might be similar to our own". This is no doubt true. Fortunately though, we're not all racists. Among the many, many, many, people who fight against racism Bob Herbert of the New York Times often, convincingly and eloquently argues the importance of continuing to speak out. We should not hesitate to do so, just because it's Mr. Watson.

Then Forget?

1Now we hear that Watson has been suspended from his "administrative position" and his book tour canceled. Cold Spring Harbor officials said they were "bewildered" by his latest statements. Should we believe their "bewilderment?". Will the "bewilderment" over Watson's assertions pass once the dust settles? Watson is still strongly associated with CSHL and the new, spiffy, well-funded Watson School of Biological Sciences.

Ex-president Summers was taken to task at Harvard for (not only) his comments about women's intelligence. Today, though not the president, Summer maintains his professorship, is allowed ample space in papers the write columns on liberal topics, and is paid handsomely to speak on topics of economic and business import. He has maintained his authority and platform.

2As we're in the height of the row over Watson's comments, we tend to pay less attention to following up on past national racism forums. A broadcasting executive recently announced that it's time for the public "to forgive Don Imus". The radio personality's impending return to the airwaves with his own show is reported in only a handful of publications, according to Google. Yet its only six months after his racists sexist remarks dominated news headlines for weeks and massive public outrage erupted.

We seem to have endless capacity to expurgate the appalling from the biography of any personality judged to be sufficiently important or economically useful. What does this signal? How short our attention? How shallow our indignation? How sheer our values?

Solving Political Corruption with Peer Production & Transparency

A Danish show called "Deadline" hosted an interview with Lawrence Lessig to discuss his new focus on government corruption. Lessig spent the last 10 years working to make copyright law more flexible and founding the Creative Commons. He's now turning his attention to political corruption, which he believes undermined his copyright efforts and subverts progress on monstrous issues where the U.S. lags behind, such as global warming and childhood nutrition. It's a good interview, and he gets to the heart of the problems. When challenged about whether we as a society can actually pull this off he notes that it will be a long project, but says: "Even if I were absolutely convinced we're going to fail, that's no reason not to fight". Optimistically, Lessig points out that a positive first step towards progress is transparency in campaign finance, which is already well under way (he mentions the work of the Sunlight Foundation). Lessig also notes that the internet is only now starting to edge towards its democratic potential and that we are only now beginning to use peer production to solve these sorts of unwieldy problems.

Mongooses & Snakes: Combat Training

Summary: As children we accept stories of history, science, and politics that are doled out to us as simple little lessons. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a children's story about a mongoose, which the National Endowment for the Arts uses to teach about anthropomorphism and the differences between "truth" and "fiction". Yet, despite our childhood training, many grown adults are smitten with syrupy accounts of reality -- simplifications, whitewashes or even outright lies. What about accounts of science? What happens in real life when another mongoose species, the meerkat, meets a puff adder? Does National Geographic's account ring true? Or does research that uses the result to bolster theories about learning in meerkats seem more plausible?

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi: Truth or Fiction?

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is Rudyard Kipling's mongoose in The Jungle Book famous for saving a human family in India from predatory snakes. First the young mongoose takes on a venomous krait ("Karait") when the snake threatens the young boy Teddy: "Rikki-tikki's eyes grew red again, and danced up to Karait with the peculiar rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited from his family". Next the mongoose engages in an epic fight with a family of cobras. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi takes on "Nagaina", of "Nag" and "Nagaina", when the snakes attempt to kill off the humans in order to inhabit their home and raise their own expanding brood:

"Rikki-tikki was bounding all round Nagaina, keeping just out of reach of her stroke, his little eyes like hot coals. Nagaina gathered herself together and flung out at him. Rikki-tikki jumped up and backward. Again and again and again she struck, and each time her head came with a whack on the matting of the veranda and she gathered herself together like a watch spring. Then Rikki-tikki danced in a circle to get behind her..."

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi may be agile, however the animal is naive at first, taking cavalier risks like following after Nagaina when she plunges down into a rat hole during battle. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi reckons with his youthful inexperience:

"...just under him whizzed by the head of Nagaina, Nag's wicked wife. She had crept up behind him as he was talking, to make an end of him. He heard her savage hiss as the stroke missed. He came down almost across her back, and if he had been an old mongoose he would have known that then was the time to break her back with one bite."

Rikki-tikki-tavi is fiction of course. Mongooses and snakes don't converse or plot to kill each other. But although it may be fiction, the story holds many lessons, some of which the National Endowment of The Arts (NEA) -- funded by the U.S. government -- sees fit to teach. The NEA created a learning website for teachers that uses the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi for lesson plan called "'Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi": Mixing Fact and Fiction'". The site cues teachers about appropriate background information to impart to the students. "You may also wish to tell your students that, like the United States of America, India is no longer a British colony....". Of course one could also say, "like Britain once, the United States of America sometimes attempts at empire-building", but no, that account of history wouldn't win favor.

The NEA links to maps, and suggests lesson questions and answers. Lesson number 3, "Fact, Fiction, and Personification", notes that it's a "fact", that Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, like many mongooses:

"....[l]ives in India, has a pink nose and eyes, has a fluffy tail, hunts snakes, lives in a burrow, eats meat, has a rocking gait when about to attack, makes a ticking sound when aggressive."

But NEA notes that it's "fiction", that Rikki-Tikki-Tavi or mongooses, "have conversations like humans do". And when Kipling has the female cobra Nagaina say to resident bird and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi ally, Darze:

'"You warned Rikki-tikki when I would have killed him. Indeed and truly, you've chosen a bad place to be lame in." And she moved toward Darzee's wife, slipping along over the dust."'

The NEA website says that students should be taught:

"Animals do not try to have their revenge on other animals; vengeance is a human invention. A snake would hunt a bird for food, but it would not seek to kill the bird for revenge. To assess students' understanding, you may wish to have your students find one or more other passages in which an animal thinks or acts like a human being."

If only it were so simple. Indeed, snakes don't seek revenge, "a human invention", nor do mongooses express scorn or pride, as Kipling's hero does. But scientists are finding that some animal behaviors, like learning and teaching young, do look like human behaviors.

Oh Meerkat, You're No Rikki-Tikki Tavi

Mongooses, of the taxonomic family Herpestidae. There are 35 various mongoose species that can differ in appearance and behavior. Meerkats, Suricata suricattais, are a smaller mongoose, with a thin tail that they use for balance. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, by comparison, "...could fluff up his tail till it looked like a bottle brush, and his war cry as he scuttled through the long grass was: "Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk".

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi washed up on his hosts' doorstep after a storm and took it upon himself to protect his host's home single-handedly. Meerkats, by comparison are always described as "gregarious", spending much of their time in social groups where they together face down foes and handle prey, and perhaps assess dangers. Meerkat groups of several families band together to form "mobs". The word conjures images of roving gangs of thugs with dubious purposes, sneers and leather jackets, but meerkat mobs on the lookout for predators stand-up in sentinel position looking more like a gaggle of girls or chattering tweens. They're so fetching that they undoubtedly need to gang up together to get any traction whatsoever on the rough and tumble Kalahari.

The meerkat social structure and the ease with which they can be habituated to humans makes them attractive research subjects, and more science could help us all understand just what meerkats do and don't and can and can't do. However in the course of studying meerkats, scientists have captured hours and hours and hours of meerkat interactions on film. What to do with that? Enterprising producers make television shows, one of which is the well-known Meerkat Manor on Animal Kingdom.

The show offers audiences a lot of anthropomorphism, or "personification" as NEA would have it, as it follows the life and times of a mob of meerkats centering around a family called "The Whiskers". Now in its third season, the show keeps viewers as engaged as any soap-opera. This is a win-win situation, since researchers at the Cambridge University Kalahari Meerkat Project might well benefit from having their hundreds of hours of observation tapes turned into a hit television series -- and audiences are smitten. But does the creation of soap operas starring characters like "The Whiskers" family encourage further anthropomorphism of the carnivores?

Many people fell for a recent hoax reported by the Telegraph, when wardens at the Longleat Safari Park released photos that were described as meerkats taking family snapshots. People thought it was so cute, and apparently believed that a meerkat would be motivated to take portraits of its mob. The scam was only exposed once an Amateur Photographer's magazine threw doubts on the tale, forcing folks to face the fact that it's "fiction" that meerkats take snapshots of their families with Canon cameras.

Meerkat Mobbing, A Purpose Driven Life

Animal learning has always fascinated scientists, and on a smaller scale anyone can play at it. For instance, when dogs hear the mailbox clatter open on the front porch, do they bark so ferociously because they forgot the lesson from the day before -- that the mailman is not a threat? Or does the dog think its barking makes the mailman going away, which therefore reinforces the ritualized barking frenzy in its little dog brain? Or is it something entirely different? Does one's human brain limit ones ability to interpret a dog's behavior? I don't know. But how do animals learn? Cooperate? Evolve to learn? These are all interesting questions.

Last year Science (summary) published research by Alex Thornton and Katherine McAuliffe, who observed that meerkats were learning survival skills from their older kin. Adult meerkats would respond to unique age dependent calls of meerkats by preparing scorpions for the young meerkats according to the youngster's developmental ability to deal with the scorpion and its poisonous parts. The older meerkat would then present the age-appropriate, dead/non-poisonous, half-dead or live-ish scorpions to the young meerkats. The research is briefly described in this blurb from NPR.

Meerkats don't engage in the single-handed acrobatic mortal duels that made Rikki-Tikki-Tavi famous, and they seek out prey smaller than cobras -- insects or lizards or venomous scorpions perhaps. But that doesn't mean that the meerkats don't have run-ins with large snakes. The Meerkat Manor clan has quite a few encounters with snakes, and they don't always end well. The show left viewers hanging at the end of one season after a meerkat called Shakespeare (a viewer favorite) had a run in with a puff adder. It was a life and death situation for Shakespeare, who remained unaccounted for when the show resumed the next season.

Similarly, researchers record encounters that meerkats have with snakes all the time. A study in Animal Behavior last month, called "The function of mobbing in cooperative meerkats", sought to learn whether mobbing behavior is used simply to deter predators or for other purposes. Animal Behavior doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2006.11.021, online August 17th. Also available via this direct link at ZORA (Zurich Open Repository and Archive) The authors first established previous thinking on meerkat mobbing:

The three main functional hypotheses for mobbing, namely predator deterrence, predator risk assessment and transfer of information, as well as the self-advertisement hypothesis, all predict that mobbing intensity will be correlated with threat level and the recruitment of others.

Then the authors frame their research question. Here's an excerpt:

"If meerkats mainly mob to deter predators, they should show a strong response to predators but not to non-dangerous animals, and continue this behaviour until the predator leaves the vicinity. Additionally, meerkats should only mob in situations where a predator is likely to leave, and avoid mobbing in situations where this is unlikely, such as on encountering predators hiding in boltholes or hollow trees...."

The authors looked at 564 natural mobbing encounters that recorded over six years. In these instances, did the meerkat lose interest in the subject? Or did the snake or hawk or other animal retreat? These two options were observed in only about 72 of the 564 cases. In all other cases, however, the outcome of the encounter is unknown. The researchers also rounded up various snakes, a pet cat, a pet squirrel, a dead squirrel and other miscellaneous animal subjects and presented them to the meerkats in a cage that the meerkats had been habituated to. The authors concluded that mobbing behavior in meerkats differs according to variables like the age and sex of the animal as well as the threat of the animal being mobbed. They wrote:

"The observations from natural encounters and the experiments showing that meerkats not only mobbed potential predators, but also frequently herbivores, suggest that this behavior is not only to deter predators. They also spent regularly a considerable amount of time mobbing predators that were unlikely to leave the area, such as predators sheltered in burrows (Kalahari Meerkat Project, unpublished data) and puff adders, which were never observed to move in response to meerkat mobbing. This supports that the purpose of mobbing in meerkats, besides deterring predators, is likely to be assessing the risk of the encountered animal and recruiting other group members to the stimuli, which may also serve to transfer information to the others."[emphasis mine]

The authors concluded that the adaptive behavior of the meerkats is used to "chase away predators", and to "gather information about the threat and/or motivation of a predator", which allows the meerkats to "coordinate group movement and group vigilance accordingly". In addition, they concluded "young meerkats learn to recognize predators and to respond to the varying degrees of threat". The final conclusion is arguably the most exciting because it supports the idea that (like humans), meerkats teach their young.

Puff Adders Retreat For National Geographic But Not for Researchers?

The author's puff adder data consisted of 106 observations, and in 94% of those the mongooses mobbed the puff adders. In 12 encounters the meerkats lost interest, and in 0 encounters the puff adder retreated. But in all of the other puff adder mobbing instances, which is as far as I can tell around 88/100 instances of mobbing, the outcomes were unknown. What happened?

The researchers use their evidence that the puff adders never respond to meerkat mobbing to help build their theory that mobbing behavior must be for a purpose other than meerkat saber rattling....so to speak. But here in this video, National Geographic films a puff adder retreats as a mob of meerkats kick dirt at it. How does National Geographic manage to capture this puff adder behavior when the researchers can't? How many takes did it take National Geographic? Perhaps meerkats were having some off days for the researchers? What's real? Did National Geographic stage the story? Is it a puff piece? (Did they even use a real sportscaster to narrate the snake-meerkat stand-off?) Maybe the puff adder slinks away every 13th encounter with a meerkat? Would this new evidence be a snag in the meerkat learning story?

We scoured the National Endowment of the Arts site for lessons that might help us understand this, but to no avail. Unfortunately we may never know why the puff adders caught on National Geographic cameras readily slink off when dust is kicked on them by the vigilant meerkats, whereas for the researchers puff adders "never" retreat.

There are other things we don't understand about the meerkat study in Animal Behavior. The meerkats continue to mob herbivores despite the fact that the animals are no threat. The authors say indicates information transfer -- a teaching moment. But couldn't it just be a senior moment? Perhaps meerkats just perpetually forget about which threats are which? Or, on the other hand, if young meerkats mobbed innocuous squirrels more than older ones do, which the author says means they're naive, maybe young squirrels are just confident about their squirrel mobbing abilities-- like the fierce dog marauds the mailman safely behind the front door. Could meerkats be teaching themselves with and without the adults? Clearly I haven't been out there on the Kalihari with my notebook so you'll have to read the study yourself -- it has far more information of course, we've only skimmed the surface.

In concluding that mobbing serves as a classroom for young meerkats the authors build on previous animal behavior research, as well as their own. Perhaps it seems intuitive (wait--that's not science) that young meerkats would learn from their elders and indeed previous studies have shown that. But how does the puff adder data support their hypothesis? Given that meerkats do learn in these tight social interactions as has been shown, when did mongoose species evolve as independent self learners? How is that meerkats seem to need so much special tutoring? Do mongooses like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi engage in fewer interactions, that are just as relevant to learning in their unique species or are they truly independent learners? We await future research.


In "March On Penguins", March, 2005, we wrote about anthropomorphism in penguin movies.

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