November 2008 Archives

Thanksgiving 2008

If you find Acronym Required's 2008 Thanksgiving fare too glum, here's an excerpt from 2007:

The Spaniards fancied the turkey when they invaded Mexico where turkey was indigenous, and then introduced the bird to Europe when they returned in the early 1500's. However, during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, turkeys were thought by northern Europeans to be a product of Turkey.

Europeans also for a time called turkeys "India fowl", then confused the turkey with "Guinea fowl" and gave turkeys the same Latin genus name: "Maleagris". The species name that they settled on, "gallopavo" combines the Latin for rooster and for peacock. From these confusing origins turkeys have long struggled with their identity. First they were put in their own family, Meleagrididae; but now scientists consider turkeys to be part of the pheasant family, Phasianidae, in the subfamily Mealeagidinae.

More on the history here at Thanksgiving, All Things Ottoman. Best wishes to all and Happy Thanksgiving to those readers who have a holiday.

Everyday Giving

Starbucks will give 5 cents to the Global Fund for every "RED EXCLUSIVE" beverage you buy. That would be 35 cents donated for a week's worth of hot beverages. Here's a nice Ted Talk essay on consumption that mentions the number of coffee cups discarded every day. If everyone instead gave up one coffee a week they would both spare the environment and be able to donate ~ $2.50- $3.50 a week to the Global Fund.

Live Richly Today

Some are Hungry

Last weekend the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the overwhelming number of people lining up for free food at food banks. It was the type of story that newspapers seem to specialize in -- a story that confirms a hunch you have -- the media equivalent of comfort food.

It's a Thanksgiving tradition for TV and print media to feature stories on food banks. But times are rough, you might be thinking, I wonder how food banks are handling the Thanksgiving rush? The answer? They're overwhelmed the Los Angeles Times reports last weekend. as you rightly expected.

No surprise. But two photos accompanying the LA Times print edition caught my eye. Those in line were ample people. No sunken cheeks, no starving, pleading eyes. These wasn't the prototypical collection of hungry people, all bones and rags and outstretched hands with empty porridge bowls -- a sight seen in depression era or developing country photos that makes you wonder about the state of the world. Instead the LA Times photographer snapped groups of predominantly chubby, fat or obese people with shopping carts -- which made us wonder about the state of the world. Not to say overweight people can't be poor or malnourished, and not to say the photo didn't editorialize. But it stll gave us pause.

Some Feast

We may be a poorer nation today, but we're not on-average underfed. For the luckier Americans not standing in the food bank line there's Thanksgiving dinner and lots of choices. Which vegetables, what stuffing, how will you prepare the turkey? Will it be free range? Organic?

Smart Money featured an article recently, "Organic Thanksgiving: What You'll Really Pay", about how much you would spend on groceries if you served an all organic Thanksgiving dinner. You'll know exactly where they're going with this by looking at the link URL: ".../spending/rip-offs...". "Hold on to your wallet", they write.

You'd better hold on to your stomach too. The magazine shopped for organic and non-organic Thanksgiving food in Manhattan, to serve "eight people". Here's excerpts from their list: A 20 pound turkey, 5 pounds of yams, stuffing, 8 cups of chicken broth, a bag of cranberries, arugula, and an orange, large amounts of flour and sugar, three pears, 2 cans of pumpkin pie filling, croutons, a bottle of salad dressing, not to mention 3 bottles of wine. In addition this burdened group of 8 people will eat lots of dairy:

"3 quarts of vanilla ice cream (12 US cups), 1 gallon of milk, 2 pints of heavy whipping cream, 1 can of evaporated milk, 8 sticks of butter [1 per person], and a dozen eggs."

Oh, and 5 cups of broccoli.

The group of 8 will be all set to don they're stretchy pants and go on the dole next month.

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Acronym Required wrote on obesity previously in these posts and others:
"Childhood Obesity, The American Way"
"News of Lightweight Study: "Obese Should Walk Slowly"
Why So Fat? It's System Wide", "Obesity, Worlds Collide" and others, as well as on organic food at
"Organics Disdain in the Media -- Surface Tension"

Notes on Thanksgiving Eve

  • Outsiders in a Networked World: In Bangkok, protesters brought airport traffic brought to a halt. In Mumbai terrorists attack. Indian newspapers have jumped to blame the attacks on Pakistan, India's nuclear armed neighbor, while the Prime Minister has said it was the work of "outsiders". Outsiders -- the universal troublemaker.

    Whoever it was, sought out people with British and American passports. [update 11/29/08, this is now disputed] The majority of people killed were Indians.

  • Actions Have Consequences: South African president Thabo Mbeki spent his entire administration denying the link between the HIV virus and AIDS. Even when drugs were available, he encouraged people to fortify their immune systems with beetroot and garlic. A group of Harvard researchers reports (PDF) that Mbeki's failure to invest in antiretroviral drugs cost the country 365,000 lives, and 35,000 babies lives, a total of 3.8 million human years from 2000 to 2005. Says the soft-pedaling New York Times:

    : "the report has reignited questions about why Mr. Mbeki, a man of great acumen, was so influenced by AIDS denialists."

    Mbeki was so influenced by AIDS denialists, because he was so influenced by economists of a certain philosophy. Public health is almost always a casualty of a neoconservative-like agenda. Mbeki clearly rationalized how some lives were worth saving, while others weren't. A philosophy that can be born out by people of fine acumen.

    Barbara Hogan who is now the Minister of Health stated that the age of denialism is over.

  • Living in Financial Times: We previously wrote about the plight of the underpaid, overqualified science-post doc. A recent Science feature explores financial careers for scientists. Scientists are still being hired in "droves" as quants and advisors for technology and science investments, notes the introductory article. Go forth to Wall Street armed with a Ph.D. How's that for optimism and opportunity? Also try film making, a low paying career with very few opportunities that we profiled last year.

  • Turtles -- Swimming Out of Their Shell: Nature reports on an interesting paleontology find in Southeast China. The turtle fossil dates a new species of basal turtle, Odontochelys semitestacea, to 220 million years ago. This turtle is 14 million years older than than the oldest turtle fossils found in Germany. Analysis of previous fossils suggested that turtles had a land based evolution. These new fossils provide a different hypothesis for turtle evolution, that they were water creatures first. The researchers deduced this from evidence of a fully developed plastron (the lower belly shell), but no carapace (the upper flat part of the shell). The turtle of this fossile also had teeth. Scientists will chew over these new findings for a while.

  • Crackberry Presidency: Obama's trying to convince various agencies to allow him to keep his Blackberrry, according to various news reports, and as he told Barbara Walters last night. He said he doesn't want to become isolated, surrounded only by a few advisers.

Science in the Court: Guns and Oil

The Exxon-Valdez and Whales in the Supreme Court

The New York Times recently published a story about the Supreme Court decision in the Exxon Valdez case. In 1989 Exxon's tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, piloted by an overworked seaman and his drunk master. The ship spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil over 1,200 miles of Alaska shoreline. The livelihoods of 32,000 plaintiffs were ruined.

The jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 billion in damages, a sum the district court reduced to $2.5 million. The Supreme Court then lowered the punitive award from "$2.5 million to $500 million. Exxon-Mobil made about $40 billion dollars in profits in 2006. $5 million accounts for about 4 days of Exxon-Mobil profit. By the time the Supreme Court ruled on the case, in June of this year, 20 years after the accident, about 20% of the plaintiffs had died.

From the title of the NYT article, "From One Footnote, a Debate Over the Tangles of Law, Science and Money", I thought that the Times story would have similar themes to the recent case about Navy sonar testing off the California coast. In that case, Winter vs. NRDC, (we wrote on this in "Whales in the Supreme Court"), the justices seemed to take at face value oral assertions by the Navy that their sonar caused no harm to whales, despite government funded research proving sonar did indeed cause significant harm to marine animals. In fact the Navy's own research -- both published and suppressed -- also found risks for significant damages to marine mammals. The damning evidence was significantly downplayed in the Navy's arguments.

The science in Navy case, Winter vs. NRDC also seemed for the most part to be explicitly ignored by the Supreme Court. Said Justice Breyer: "you are asking us who know nothing about whales and less about the military to start reading all these documents to try to figure out who's right in the case where the other side says the other side is totally unreasonable." The court appeared to perfunctorily reduce the case to a question of national defense vs. an incidental whale, and naturally ruled in deference to defense.

The ruling in the Navy training case was narrow, which environmentalists like NRDC and the Sierra Club took as a good sign. Despite NRDC's sanguine public relations statements in face of their defeat, however, it is not clear to me that the court's decision was even any real calculation of the risks the Navy's training efforts would face by making efforts to spare whales. Rather, it seemed more simply to be a nod to the Bush administration and its callous approach to the environment when it comes to the military, commerce (or, well, anything else)?

Scientific details which could have influenced the decision were ignored. While the court didn't say that the military would never have to do environmental impact statements, the ruling hinted that they were thinking in that direction.

When Exxon Recruits Researchers

The Times article on Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker ended with a quote from Prof. William R. Freudenburg, who teaches sociology at UC Santa Barbara: "The legal system and the scientific method, he said, co-exist in a way that is really hard on truth."

Freudenburg had been recruited by Exxon to do sociological research showing (basically) that juries are too generous in awarding damages. His initial research apparently offended people at the company, so Exxon terminated his contract. Exxon than paid other sociologists and legal experts to do the work and published their findings in two prestigious law journals. The Supreme court read these articles, and wrote the following footnote to their decision.

"The Court is aware of a body of literature running parallel to anecdotal reports, examining the predictability of punitive awards by conducting numerous "mock juries," where different "jurors" are confronted with the same hypothetical case. See, e.g., C. Sunstein, R. Hastie, J. Payne, D. Schkade, W. Viscusi, Punitive Damages: How Juries Decide (2002); Schkade, Sunstein, & Kahneman, Deliberating About Dollars: The Severity Shift, 100 Colum. L. Rev. 1139 2000); Hastie, Schkade, & Payne, Juror Judgments in Civil Cases: Effects of Plaintiff's Requests and Plaintiff's Identity in Punitive Damage Awards, 23 Law & Hum. Behav. 445 (1999); Sunstein, Kahneman, & Schkade, Assessing Punitive Damages (with Notes on Cognition and Valuation in Law), 107 Yale L. J. 2071 (1998). Because this research was funded in part by Exxon, we decline to rely on it."

However the court's decision concurred with this Exxon funded research, despite the footnote saying the opposite. This, combined with the fact that the court misinterpreted non-Exxon funded research to show that jury awards were generally fair compensation, led Freudenburg to comment on science and the court.

The Supreme Court's footnote has led to a maelstrom in the legal world over both the validity of the sociological research and the court's treatment of it. After the June decision, some writers were alarmed about the court's assertion since they considered the legal research in question ""top notch work". Others voiced a completely different concern -- "skepticism about these particular mock jury trials."

These two vastly different interpretations of the validity of sociological research and its place in the court distract from a different problem evident in both the Navy and the Exxon-Valdez case. Science brought before the courts can easily be sidelined as it was in Baker in favor of sociology research, or denigrated, as it was in the Navy case when the court simplified the question to one of national security. The environment lost in both cases and the plaintiffs lost in the Exxon Valdez case.

Of course sociological research is different than science research. Exxon is well known for supporting "anti-research", for example stating that global warming doesn't exist. In the current case, Exxon didn't deny damages to the plaintiffs rather they supported research claiming that juries are rather simple-minded and over compensate, research that doesn't hold up in other studies. This is more useful to them in the long run and allows them to skirt the real questions.

Despite my initial impression, the Exxon case did not resemble the NRDC case in a simple way. But the two cases are similar in how predictably the court seems to decide, despite whatever science research is out there. The footnote is a puzzle, and seems politically motivated rather than anything else. It's either cover for a court decision that actually was influenced by Exxon's research, or evasive action based on the acknowledgment that the reader might suspect this.

It's hard to ignore the fact that corporations have long worked to eviscerate the ability of the public to impose financial damages because of bad behavior. Corporations have also long worked to reduce consideration of the environment when doing business. The court seems merely to be codifying these goals.

Obama Addresses Governors' Global Climate Summit

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Obama On Climate Change

Barack Obama spoke to the bi-partisan Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles today. In Obama's recorded message he said his administration would act immediately on climate change. Everyone dismayed by the Bush administration's serial denials of climate change and ongoing combativeness with environmental policy leaders welcomed Obama's words.Fairy.jpg

The President-elect listed some of his plans:

  • Establish a federal cap and trade system with strong annual targets, to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and an additional 80% reduction by 2050.
  • Budget 15 billion dollars each year in "catalyze private sector efforts" on 'safe nuclear power', wind power, solar power, next generation biofuels, and "clean coal technologies".
  • Provide "500 million new green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced"

Obama said: "When I am president any governor willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House in government." California has been repeatedly thwarted by the Bush administration in its attempts to pass stricter emissions rules than those laid out by the federal government.

Likewise, Obama noted, any company investing in clean technology will have an ally in Washington, as will any nation determined to combat climate change. Addressing those who have been clamoring that he attend the UN meeting on climate change in Poland next month, he reminded that he's not yet acting president, but would keep abreast of the progress via observers. Obama promised that the U.S."will engage vigorously in these negotiations" in the future, and lead a "new era of global cooperation on climate change".

New Home for Maldivians? Or All Scuba All The Time

There's no time to waste. In related news, the government of the Maldives Islands is looking to buy land on higher ground. Approximately 300,000 citizens call the 1200 islands of Maldive home. The human rights activist president, Randeep Ramesh said he had broached the idea with India and Sri Lanka, because they have the same culture, cuisine and climate -- and Australia, because it has open land. According to The Guardian the president said he was starting a relocation fund, by planning to sell of some state assets, turning the government palace into a university, 1 and saving money earned from tourism.

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Acronym Required writes regularly on environment and public policy, and occasionally on island living in the age of anthropomorphic global warming.

1 Scuba School at Maldive U?

Notes on Science - Post-Election, Pre-Thanksgiving

Some recent news stories:

  • Whales:

    The Supreme Court ruled that the Navy trumps whales. Acronym Required commented on the arguments presented to the court in "Whales in The Supreme Court".

  • Corn Conquistadores: (?)

    Nature writes this week (doi:10.1038/456149a) that a paper to published in the journal Molecular Ecology reports on transgenes from genetically modified corn planted in Mexico found in tradition maize. The work confirms the findings of a disputed 2001 paper published in Nature. The new paper found that 4 of 23 sites reported in the 2001 work had evidence of genes from the GM corn in the native maize.

  • Mars Lander, No Goodbye, Just Kaput:

    NASA is ceasing operation of the Phoenix Mars lander. The $428 million dollar mission began operations in March of last year, outlasted it's scheduled usage, and died in a dust storm of Mars winter. Winters don't provide enough solar energy to keep the lander running.

  • Plasticware In the Lab:

    In last week's Science, McDonald et al, report that plastic labware can leach manufacturing agents into dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and ethanol solutions. As polycarbonate plastic leaches bisphenol A into water, for instance, other plastics can leak manufacturing agents into solutions. This could possibly change the outcomes of experiments.

  • Your Secret's Safe, or Not:

    Google Flu trends tracks flu outbreaks before the CDC, the company reports. A study by Yahoo and researchers at the University of Idaho confirmed that search engine results produced a faster indication of disease that traditional tracking methods. This is pertinent news for tracking deadly pandemics. So if one typed "itchy bottom" into the computer, would Google be tracking the data in some database, say Pinworm Trends across the US? Don't worry. The researchers scrub the data of personal information.

  • Old, Older, Oldest:

    Gobekli Tepe is in the news again. Archeologists continue to excavate the temple site containing 11,300 year old carved stones in southern Turkey. The pillars were built in circles in with pillars up to 16 feet tall, some carved with foxes, lions, scorpions, and vultures. One of the sites lead archeologists, Klaus Schmidt, suggests that culture and building proceeded and then necessitated farming. Scientists have thought that the domestication of nomad hunter societies to farming societies proceeded the building of communities.

The 43rd President's Grand Finale of Rulemaking

The Bush administration is busy trying to push through 90 new laws with abbreviated public comment periods and accelerated rule-making procedures. Many of these last-minute laws would benefit industry by reducing regulation. Earlier this month OMB Watch summarized some of the action items the Bush administration is trying to roll out before the end of the 43rd presidential term. Some of the alarming changes would devastate certain environmental protections and affect the EPA's oversight of the environment. The proposed changes include:

  • Allowing mining companies to dump refuse into rivers and streams.
  • Weakening the Endangered Species Act.
  • Allowing factory farm run-off to pollute streams.
  • Loosening regulations on placing power plants near national parks.
  • Exempting factory farms from reporting air pollution.
  • Loosening ocean fishing management regulations.
  • Doing nothing about oil refinery toxic emission control which Congress mandated.

In other odious news, a Department of the Interior rule proposed at the beginning of the year would get rid of the ban against carrying loaded firearms in National Parks. 77% of retired National Park Service employees oppose this change. The Park Service might be thinking along the lines of, how would you like to run into a retired Vice President Cheney taking popshots at birds while you're hiking with your family though the Grand Tetons? The other danger is that lifting the ban would increase "impulse" kills of wildlife by gun-toting hikers.

Some more Bush rules, these from the Department of Health and Human services, would allow healthcare workers to deny certain services that they morally oppose, and would strengthen the requirements on certain HIV and AIDS grantees to explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. These populations are the very populations that most need the services and education about HIV/AIDS, and who are at risk of spreading the disease throughout the population.

The only good news is that some of these rules are the type of regulations that the Obama administration plans to reverse. The administration appointed Susan Wood to be co-chair of the president-elect's advisory committee for women's health. She recently told Bloomberg News: "We have been going in the wrong direction and we need to turn it around and be promoting prevention and family-planning services and strengthening public health."

However OMB Watch warns:

The next president will be unable to repeal or reverse any Bush-era regulations that are final and in effect. Short of actions taken by the courts in the face of potential lawsuits, the new administration's only option would be to restart the rulemaking process. A typical rulemaking can take years to complete.

The Washington Post reports that the Obama team is targeting administrative actions and executive orders that would be quickly undone "to reverse White House policies on climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights and other issues, according to congressional Democrats, campaign aides and experts..."

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Acronym Required Wrote on Susan Wood's resignation from the FDA over the agency's handling of Plan B in 2005 and 2006 in "FDA -- Calling Off The Dogs" and The FDA's Medical Ideology". Acronym Required writes often about environmental regulation, or the lack thereof, and about the EPA.

"Real Careers" for PhDs and Post-Docs

More on Joe the Scientist

A couple of weeks ago we wrote in "Joe the Scientist Takes His Hits" about the middling wages of science post-docs. In a related article published by Science last week, Beryl Benderly notes in "Taken for Granted: Joe the Plumber and the Postdocs", that becoming a science graduate student used to mean a 4-6 year apprenticeship with a Ph.D. and academic job at graduation.

These days Ph.D. training is followed by one or more 1-4 year post-doc positions. Some time in the future, a position follows, usually 6-10 years later -- and most likely not in academia. That "implicit contract" is broken, says Benderly. She writes on the movement by Ph.D. candidates and post-docs at some universities to join labor unions. The protections these scientists in training seek from the labor unions used to be offered by the "craft unions" the students joined as graduate students, writes Benderly. Graduate students and post-docs are no longer "promising aspirants to a prestigious trade", she says, but "employees of large organizations" -- universities.

The reality of the situation is well-illustrated by employment statistics. According to Georgia State economist Paula Stephan's 2005 analysis of data from the National Science, the number of graduated biomedical Ph.D.'s younger than 35 grew 60% from 1993 to 2001. However the number of tenure-track academic positions grew by only 7%. The probability that a young Ph.D. holds a tenure track position is now 6.9%. Yet 40-50% of incoming graduate students in biomedical research hope to get tenured faculty positions. These number don't factor in the increase in non-academic positions, however Stephan says that these openings don't accommodate all graduates either. 1

Ph.D., Postdoc Training? Now For Your "Real" (ha, ha, ha) Career.

Despite the cries of from high-tech executives about lack of talent, the real problem, according to Stephan, is the lack of both federal and industry opportunities, not only in the US, but in other western countries. As many people know, there's a fine supply of scientists, biomedical as well as engineering, physics and other sciences. Here's a good summary of the situation (with humor) from a few years back. Industry constantly lobbies to hire more foreign labor in order to keep wages and benefit costs low. But there's a a real lack of demand that keeps many highly trained professionals underemployed, and persuades many a would-be-scientist to pursue other careers.

There's no pressure to change the system, where the many students trained very specifically in sciences will never use those skills. As Stephan's sees it, the post-doc system takes the pressure off faculty who take on Ph.Ds to amend the system. If all US students bowed out of science graduate education there's still plenty of supply from international students, for whom a US graduate degree is very valuable without a US faculty job at the end.

The "implicit contract", has actually long been dead. Back in April, we wrote a post, "For Glory of State, Primacy of Science", commenting on Charlie Rose's show about the state of science called "The Imperative of Science". The speakers agreed that all citizens should be more conversant in science. Some even went as far as to say that all citizens should have lab experience.

Dr. Harold Varmus, one of the speakers, spoke on expanded roles for trained scientists. He said that more and more scientists trained to the Ph.D. or post-doc level were now pursuing "journalism, biotech, law, and policy". He said that these were often referred to as "alternative careers"; which, he said, laughing, was a "somewhat disparaging term"; but, Varmus insisted, they're "real careers." It was the laugh that proceeded his insistence that puzzled me. Is it a "real career" -- or not? If so, do you really need 10 years of benchwork in a faculty science lab to get there?

1 "Job Market Effects on Scientific Productivity." Presented at Programme 2005-2006 Du "Seminaire D'Enseignment Superior"

On The Frontier -- Not The Science Frontier, The Other One

Palin's Future Amongst Us?

Last week it seemed like we turned towards a new, less dark era. In the US, about 62% of the population voted on Tuesday the 4th. However fleeting, the optimism invigorated us like a fresh, ocean breeze on an improbably bright day after a Nor'easter. The New Yorker captured the feeling with its weekly cover. A long tunnel-ish hall painted dark red commanded most of the page, and at the end of the vast red hall was a very small bright blue door. (Perhaps I'm supposed to be all PC purple now, I'm just not quite there yet.)

The end to the long presidential campaign finally came. Contender John McCain gave his concession speech, drawing out his time at the podium with a global audience looking on. As he told the Financial Times "You can't imagine, you can't imagine the excitement of an individual to be this close to the most important position in the world...I'll never forget it as long as I live. From his penultimate place, he savored those last moments than drove away in his own car.

Sarah Palin, disallowed from making her own speech, departed in a long convoy of limos and security forces, promising that she'd return as a uniter. She also said she'd like to improve journalism. If the secession plan her husband had brewin' doesn't come to fruition, some people chant for Sarah in 2012. Uniter, 2012? Given the scandalous rumors about outrageous clothes budgets and miscellaneous improprieties, such forward looking statements about 2012 seem presumptuous right now -- perhaps preposterous?

Or Back To The Frontier?

Robert Lang from Virginia Tech writes about Sarah Palin's image and asks -- despite how much McCain wished it were so, was Palin ever a "typical suburban voter"? Was she was ever "quintessential Everywoman"? Or just a "cultural alien"?

The whole hunting thing for instance -- suburban mom's never related to that. Palin tried a little too hard to connect with the moose hunters in New England, considering how small the constituency was, Lang observed. Furthermore, Palin was "openly hostile to the popular furry animals, such as polar bears and wolves, that populate Alaska's wilderness". The problem with shooting wolves from helicopters, says Lang, is that wolves look too much like Huskies, which a US population of exurb voters see as "the stars of the dog park". To this GOP target group "Palin goes from a goofy, fun-loving mom to a brutalizer of man's best friend".

Palin is too "frontier" for lower forty-eight states, Lang writes, citing Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner formulated the "frontier" thesis in the 19th century, proposing that America consisted of the "civilized" heartland, and the "frontier". He applied his idea to the 1896 election which saw Democrat William Jennings Bryan run against Republican William McKinley. Lang comments on the outcome:

"Turner described Bryan, who hailed from the then-barely settled Nebraska, as representing the frontier. By contrast, McKinley came from the heartland state of Ohio. McKinley of course won the election, as did a string of fellow Ohioans in the late 19th century."

The lesson, Lang says, is "stick with the heartland", appeal to what David Brooks dubs the suburbanites -- the "Patio Man". The only thing "Patio Man's" going to be hunting is "parking spaces in the mall", Lang says. (Sarah does like to shop though.)

Speeches? Or Shoppin'? So Little Time 'til 2012

Lang puts forward an optimistic view of things vis a vis the future of Palin as it mirrors William Jennings Bryan. But Bryan's first presidential campaign was in 1896 and Jenning died in1925, giving the man over a quarter of a century to wrack havoc. We can't underestimate that influence. Even though he never made it to president, even though quite a few people thought he was nuts, his populist ideas won him audiences all over the country.

William Jennings Bryan lost not only one presidency but two more after that. He was Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. He had a not all bad legacy, supporting women's suffrage for instance -- but helping push through Prohibition. Bryan famioulsy opposed evolution in favor of Christianity. The movement that he spearheaded culminated with the Scopes trial and he died in 1925 following his defeat in the trial. But he mobilized a lot of inanity in the meantime. He spent years writing syndicated columns and toured the country giving up to 15 speeches a day, delivering perhaps tens of thousands of spoken words each day.

Granted, Palin might tie herself in knots trying to reach the kind of 15,000/day word count Bryan may have attained. But 25 years is a century of high cost makeovers in 21st century time, especially for "frontierswomen" like Palin. This election showed us that we shouldn't underestimate the American voter. But we've also learned harsh lessons about not overestimating him either.

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Acronym Required writes occasionally on science and religion, including Evolution vs. Not Evolution on the historical Scopes trial and its modern counterparts.

It's Back...The Rain Theory of Autism

Autism's Dubious Research

They're back with an updated theory!! In "Autism, TV, Precipitation: Dismal Science", we wrote a farcical post about a study by economists Waldman et al. at Cornell, who posited that television watching and rainfall caused autism. The lead author attempted to stoke interest in a theory he developed while raising his autistic son by publishing a study. The team collected sketchy data sets and resolved the gaps with statistics, achieving tenuous results and conclusions.

Mark Waldman's paper caused the stir he probably wanted, eliciting ample coverage from the press, lay audiences, and patient families. But some scientists and economists felt the study was not properly rigorous or peer-reviewed. 1 Joseph Piven, director of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said of the study and underlying data, "It is just too much of a stretch to tie this to television-watching...[W]hy not tie it to carrying umbrellas?"

So a year later, Waldman did exactly that. Instead of linking autism to television and rain, the authors linked autism only to rain, using data presented in their original report. This version is called "Autism prevalence and precipitation rates in California, Oregon, and Washington counties". It was published it in the medical journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine -- a nice coup for the authors.

Stay Tuned

Noel Weiss, MD, wrote the accompanying editorial in, titled "Precipitation and Autism: Do These Results Warrant Publication?". Yes, said Weiss, even though in "my opinion that this observation may well not lead to any insights into the etiologies of autism". He added: "the authors' analysis and the editor's decision to publish it are to be lauded, despite the uncertain ultimate contribution of this work and the possibility (likelihood?) that nonprofessionals are going to misinterpret and misuse it." The research isn't for parents, he indicated, who only need to "stay tuned" -- it's for researchers. Apparently over 100 news media who published the findings to the public didn't get the message.

Someone on the Huffington Post recently embellished Waldman's thesis by adding the discounted mercury theory of autism to the dubious rainfall theory, then proposing that the rain pulls the mercury out of the atmosphere, causing higher rates of autism.

Adjust your antennae for updates.

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1 We also wrote "Autism Research Revisted", commenting on a a Wall Street Journal article that asked if economists were qualified to study autism. We suggested this was the wrong question.

BARACK OBAMA WINS

YAY!

It's a new day.

"...His triumph was decisive and sweeping, because he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens. He offered a government that does not try to solve every problem but will do those things beyond the power of individual citizens: to regulate the economy fairly, keep the air clean and the food safe, ensure that the sick have access to health care, and educate children to compete in a globalized world..." (NYT)1

Yes, there's work to do. Yes, it will be difficult. But today we recognize how much America's just accomplished.

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1Obama won despite warnings about possible GOP ballot fraud stemming from information dribbling out of the Ohio trial concerning 2004 Ohio ballot fraud. In the latest episode, Michael Connell, a consultant whose firm has been accused of computer manipulation, denied knowing anything about GOP rigging the 2004 Ohio election results. Connell works for Randy Cole. Cole owns 15 companies that work simultaneously on GOP election campaigns (Bush/Cheney 2000/2004, McCain 2008, many others), anti-Abortion groups and churches, GOP mass mailings, government contracts, etc. Stephen Spoonamore, a key witness in the trial brings the allegations, explains in a multi-part series starting here.

Fruit Flies, Astronomy, DNA...There Goes The Economy.

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When Sarah Palin took a rhetorical whack at a research grant worth $211,000 last week, scientists angrily reacted to her characterization of research as "pork". Palin's tip came from Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), who in 1997 raised funds to rid the taxpayer of science research expense. The group enjoys a collaborative relationship with John McCain and was the source of McCain's comments on grizzly ecology research and planetarium equipment. So, we ask, why does olive fly research rate special attention from CAGW? Who is CAGW? Does any of this matter if McCain isn't elected?

Science Jokes for Dummies

As Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin put it: "Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not!" The audience snickered. Palin's fruit fly joke continued a GOP candidate comedic run that McCain began with his "grizzly bear DNA" comment and his "overhead projector" joke. They could author a book.

It's theater, some say, arguing that McCain always trash talks science like this but doesn't vote against the measures. Case in point, some say -- incongruously, Adler Planetarium's equipment grant got rejected, but McCain keeps it as a talking point. Trash talk or not, the fact is, the GOP campaign team relegates science to political joke fodder used to misinform the masses. This doesn't endear them to Acronym Required as we previously commented. Will electing Obama put an end to this silliness?

Entomology Etymology

The "fruit fly", as every science blogger has dutifully pointed out -- (and, on a positive note, so did tons of non-science bloggers, writers, and reporters) -- refers to the Drosophila melanogaster, an important model organism that scientists have employed to further research in such things as human development, disease and genetics. Fine, if you want a line drawn to something even more relevant, this research is then used to develop medicines to treat diseases the GOP candidates get,as well as you and me. As you can imagine, scientists reacted ferociously (scientist ferocious) to Palin's fruit fly research talk.

However, confusingly, Palin was actually referring to the olive fruit fly. The olive fruit fly is indigenous to the Mediterranean and only became an invasive species in the States after arriving on California soil in the late 1990's. The fly poses an economic threat to California's olive crops. Olive trees are usually protected from olive fruit fly with insecticides, but from their olive fruit fly research, scientists now know of at least six natural predators to the olive fruit fly.

The research station in France gives US based researchers a chance to study the olive fruit fly in its native territory, where scientists have been dealing with the pest for years. Their research is beneficial because it will explore ways that these predators could be used as an alternative or extension of insecticides. Insecticides are a thriving part of the chemical industry though, so of course not all lobbyists will appreciate this new research.

So before focusing on the meta-message of Palin's attack, scientists took some time to explain that Drosophila melanogaster, wasn't really a "fruit fly". They were technically correct. This labeling confusion probably occurred sometime in the early 20th century or maybe even, depending on which source you light on, with Aristotle. So now "fruit fly" is a well-established part of scientists' and lay persons' vernacular. Even the staid Entomological Society of America calls them "fruit flies". The real point that this tangent confused was that Palin was referring to the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) -- a tephritid -- not THE "fruit fly".

Of course Palin supporters swarmed all over the fruit fly labeling mix-up and went on about how scientists didn't do their research, totally missing the fact that scientists really, actually do call the ubiquitous Drosophila melanogaster "fruit fly". Acronym Required doesn't want to diminish the importance of accuracy, but in this case the label is superfluous to the larger crime of denigrating science for fun. 1

Plus de hits, Plus de fun

Why does this story have legs? Does it contain just enough poll-tested key words -- "fruit fly", "French", "California" that Palin can elicit an audience reaction? Is there a larger purpose, that could perhaps be illuminated by trying to guess who's is behind it the attack? Clearly the French olive industry isn't behind the lobbying.

The olive fruit fly funding story originated with Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), an organization that started by J. Peter Grace, heir to founder of the W.R. Grace & Co, the chemical company. W.R. Grace & Co. is rather famous for polluting and environmental damage (as well as not paying taxes). Jonathan Harr chronicled one of W.R. Grace's pollution debacles in the memorable book "A Civil Action". Peter Grace got into politics when President Reagan appointed him to an internal government agency aimed at decreasing the role of government. This government agency eventually morphed into CAGW. CAGW has in the past attacked teenage alcohol education, science education programs and lots and lots of science research. The organization purports to target "meritless" science research by government agencies.

However, if you're trying to figure out why CAGW opposes $200,000K for olive fly research, and why such research has been deemed "meritless", you'd probably be on the wrong track. CAGW and their catchy anti-government hotline --1-800-BE-ANGRY -- works doing targeted lobbying when they receive corporate donations. CAGW funding comes from companies like Merrill Lynch & Company Foundation, Exxon Corporation (now ExxonMobil), Ingersoll-Rand Company, Johnson & Johnson F.M. Kirby Foundation, Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco (now part of the Altria Group) Sears Roebuck & Company, John Deere Foundation, Eaton Charitable Fund, and Columbia/HCA Foundation.

Shooting Down Science, Contract by Contract

Among the thousands of campaigns CAGW runs, only occasionally does the media uncover or even pay attention to the source of funding. CAGW was behind a Northrup Grumman case and Microsoft's funded lobbying and astroturfing in the anti-open source.

Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times's did some great investigative stories on CAGW in April, 2006. In "For Price, Watchdog Will be an Advocate", Adler described how $100,000 from the Mexican avocado growers motivated a CAGW "public relations" effort against the California Avocado Commission's resistance against the import of Mexican avocados. It's almost as insignificant as olive fruit flies you see.

In another case, Public Citizen revealed that CAGW worked with PhRMA, a lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry, to scuttle efforts for a government health care plan.

CAGW and Tobacco

For years, CAGW worked with the tobacco industry. In 1997, the group lobbied the Tobacco Institute for $25,000 for the production of a publication called "Weird Science." The goal of CAGW, according to internal Tobacco Institute documents was to:

"...'expose federally "taxpayer-funded research projects that have little or no scientific merit.' The group will target agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to researching agency spending, the publication will look at the issue of risk-assessment."

The Tobacco Institute memo recommended giving CAGW $5,000, instead of $25,000, because in the "wide array" of subjects CAGW proposed, "our story could get lost in the mix." You can find anti-regulatory rhetoric about tobacco and alcohol on CAGW's website.

Thousands of CAGW campaigns and their donors remain unknown. A St. Petersburg Times article in December, 2006 described how the group's tax exempt status hides their defacto corporate lobbying role. The IRS code allows them to keep private records. Therefore who funds them (which is tax deductible), and other important details are not available to the public.

But you can get the gist of the CAGW game reading Adair's account. In "When Tobacco Needed a Voice, CAGW Spoke up and Profited", the St. Petersburg Times described how the tobacco industry donated at least $245,000 to CAGW to target movement put the FDA in charge of regulating tobacco.

McCain, Swindle, CAGW....

Earlier this year, Democrats, labor unions and concerned Americans criticized McCain for snubbing Boeing (headquartered in Chicago) by awarding a $40 billion contract to Northrup Grumman and European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company EADS. McCain struck back at his Democratic critics through CAGW.

CAGW has worked very closely with John McCain since at least 1990, when they collaborated to initiate a presidential line item veto. From all accounts its been a fruitful collaboration. Orson Swindle, a fellow Vietnam veteran, works for both CAGW and the McCain campaign.

Defining Cynicism.

In their annual 1995 "Pig Book Summary", the CAGW nominated Senator Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, as one of the 14 worst offenders their so-called "Oinkers", for securing a $400,000 grant through the EPA to study algal blooms in Hawaii. The blooms are important to understanding the ocean ecosystem and even climate change.

Senator Byrd, also called out that year by CAGW, commented on the report: "It is old propaganda. It is a yawn and a boar." (an intentional misspelling) It may be a bore, but it's a persistent one. CAGW has only increased it's influence in the last 13 years, working hand in hand with John McCain as well as some illustrious lobbyists.

A senate report by Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), condemned Citizens Against Government Waste. Grassley singled the organizations out as a member of 5 tax exempt groups who

"violated their tax exempt status 'by laundering payments and then disbursing funds at Mr. Abramoff's direction; taking payments in exchange for writing newspaper columns or press releases that put Mr. Abramoff's clients in a favorable light.."

The Washington Post wrote about the incident: "The e-mails show a pattern of CAGW producing public relations materials favorable to Mr. Abramoff's clients."

CAGW not only denied the charges but did a little PR on its own behalf. Then when Senator Steven's (R-AK) was found guilty of accepting $250,000 in bribes last week, CAGW sent out a press release that read: "The Stevens trial will go down in history alongside the trials of lobbyists Jack Abramoff...as just another sad, but not surprising spectacle of corruption and cynicism in the nation's capital."

Does It Matter?

John McCain mentioned "Citizens Against Government Waste" in each of the three presidential debates. In return, the group's political action committee called McCain a "taxpayer hero" in TV ads airing in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. CCAGW, a PAC associated with CAGW, ran the television ads for the presidential candidate.

But if John McCain isn't elected does it matter? Clearly I'm not going to say no. In our last post we quoted Studs Terkel, who once said, "given the facts and an opportunity to act, the body politic generally does the right thing." But as Winston Churchill once said: "Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives." If Congress doesn't ensure that the people can get the facts, then we have no chance of ever doing "the right thing".

Acronym Required agrees that not all science research is beneficial -- for the economy, for science, or for education. Furthermore, who could malign CAGW's ostensible mission? As people have said before us, who does support government waste? And while earmarks may be an expeditious route to funding, should we all have to pay for that? But two points. One, the agency and the politicians who plug it, most publicly, presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin, clearly don't seem to get that if science research stops, industry and medicine stop. Two, if CAGW's projects are primarily motivated by donors, and they definitely seem to be, who's to say which of the group's targets is fair game and which are solely contracted political targets?

Lets explore how $200,000 fruit fly research could be so outrageous as to waste a candidates time. Consider that Goldman Sachs set aside $6.85 billion for this year's employee bonuses. According to CAGW, the downside of the bank bailout was that it would, "draw socialist vampires to Washington for decades to come." The lashing of olive fruit fly research was far more ferocious considering that the cost of the research was about .003% of the multi-billion dollar bank bailout.

CAGW has been around since the 1980's and their work will continue unless we change the laws and demand greater transparency. There's been only occasional chatter about discontinuing the veiled lobbying, despite the wisdom of Senator Byrd and others that "it is old propaganda." At the root of the McCain campaign's choice to play enfant terrible to scientists and science, there's a very popular ideology at work that will not die with an incoming Obama administration.

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1 Unfortunately scientists don't have comedy prank team at a radio station like CKOI ("Plus de hits, Plus de fun") at our disposal. 2. Palin's naivete about the latter bit her later when she didn't recognize the Canadian comedy team's faux President Sarkozy, with his faux Fraauunch accent -- even when he asked Palin to take him up hunting by helicopter: "I just love killing those animals. Hmm-hmm. Take away a life, that is so fun." "Kill two birds with one stone", she responded gamely. Palin exclaimed to "Sarkovy" "we love [the French]!".

In Memory: Studs Terkel

Stud's Terkel passed away October 31st at the age of 96. Robert Ebert, who had known him for years, described him as a man of "boundless curiosity and bottomless memory" -- a great listener. He was blacklisted during McCarthyism along with his wife -- Hoover thought he was subversive. In turn, Terkel suspected that Hoover "had a lifelong suspicion of those who thought the Constitution actually meant something". As Ebert put it:

"Was he the greatest Chicagoan? I cannot think of another. For me, he represented the joyous, scrappy, liberal, generous, wise-cracking heart of this city. If you met him, he was your friend. That happened to the hundreds and hundreds of people he interviewed for his radio show and 20 best-selling books. He wrote down the oral histories of those of his time who did not have a voice. In conversation he could draw up every single one of their names."

Ebert writes on Terkel here. Studs Terkel's recorded conversations with people across the U.S. bringing poignant humanity to subjects that many people would have just as soon dodged. He wrote books -- Division Street , on Chicago and immigration; Hard Times, on the great depression; The Good War, on World War II, Race, Coming of Age, Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, and more. His radio show ran for 25 years, and each night he signed off "Take it easy, but take it."

Terkel was always up to something. Last year, among many activities, he joined a suit against telecoms for wiretapping done at the bequest of the Bush administration. Acronym Required commented on his commentary in the New York Times concerning granting the companies immunity from lawsuits. We quoted his comment about living in the last century: "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." As Ebert said, he missed the upcoming election, but he didn't miss much else.

Growing Threats to Biodiversity

Several recent studies measuring biodiversity have found significant losses due to global warming and human activity. We know of course, that this has been happening for a while, but its good to be reminded of the path we're headed down. The scale of these species losses is challenging to fathom, and will be challenging to stem.


  • In the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group of Stanford scientists found significant amphibian decline in Yellowstone National Park. The researchers found that the number of permanently dry ponds in the northern end of the park increased 4-fold due to changes in the park including rises in annual temperature and decreases in precipitation and snow packs. McMenamin et al found in "Climatic change and wetland desiccation cause amphibian decline in Yellowstone National Park" (doi: 10.1073/pnas.0809090105) that three amphibian species suffered significant declines in numbers since the 1990's. Ambystoma tigrinu decreased by 50%, Bufo boreas decreased by 68%, Pseudacris triseriata; and Rana luteiventris decreased by 75%. The numbers of a fourth species did not decrease -- Bufo boreas however, the scientists found only eggs or juveniles of that endangered species.

  • In another PNAS article scientists from Boston University and Harvard found that 27% of the species documented by Thoreau in his studies of Walden Pond in Concord Massachusetts in the 1850's are now gone. The article "Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau's woods are driven by climate change" (doi: 10.1073/pnas.0806446105) Another 36% were found in low numbers. The temperatures in Concord rose 4 degress Fahrenheit during that time.

  • In the UK, the Department for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs found that the number of "breeding pairs of farmland birds" is down 62% due to changes in agricultural processes including the use of chemicals and the decrease in mixed farming. Some species have decreased by more than 85%, and the several are now extinct.

Biodiversity is important for many reasons, some of which are documented in the book: "Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity". Eric Chiverian and Aaron Bernstein edit the book, with contributions by 100 scientists. The book takes the perspective that losing species will impact humans in many ways, including incidence of infectious disease, medical research, and food supplies.

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