Notes in December - Development and Evolving Attitudes

  • Copenhagen: Despite walking past sculptures of skeletons and eerie melting ice polar bears and mermaids daily, the climate change delegates collectively refused to come up with anything substantial in Copenhagen. President Obama curtailed his much awaited visit, altogether minimizing his association with what was by most accounts a failure, but also known as an accord, in order to fly home early and beat a snowstorm. If we are one world we are also many countries with our own economic interests in mind.

    Is there a better way? The Economist suggested in an article last week that the talks may have gone better if different regions and pollutants were considered separately. While the idea is interesting, this sort of regime is also how fishing interests repeatedly fail to establish effective ecological safeguards and effective quotas.

    Although the talks weren't considered fruitful, an interesting sidenote is the inability of very tenacious climate change deniers to convince delegates or the thousands of protestors in Copenhagen that climate change is a hoax, and that nothing's at stake.

  • The Ice Floe Debate: Last month, in our Notes on Science Dust-Ups and Dirty Laundry, under "Curly-haired Science Populizers Spar" we wrote about what we'll call the IQ nurture:nature debate between two science popularizer giants, Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell. Pinker had criticized Gladwell for what he cuttingly labeled the "Igon Value Problem", defined as, "when a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong."

    In return, Gladwell wrote that Pinker might be "unhappy" with him for not joining him on the "lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism", and criticized him for quoting bloggers. (Although if not for bloggers there might not be people in science of lower regard in the research hierarchy than some of Gladwell's mashable social scientists -- just saying.)

    After we left off, Pinker responded to Gladwell that IQ was related to "many important educational, economic and social outcomes" according to "52 signatories" and "a unanimous blue-ribbon panel". Gladwell then raked over Pinkers' sources, detailing how 15 of those 52 signatories belonged to a group founded by a eugenicist -- whose members are racists, eugenicists and sexists. After substantiating his response at length, he concludes:

    "The fact that ideas are sometimes supported by people with unsavory connections does not make them invalid. An ice floe is not necessarily a bad place to be. It's just that if you are plainly floating on one, it doesn't make much sense to insist that you are standing on solid ground."

    Although both science popularizers are getting more popular via the dispute, there are important issues at stake here. (Acronym Required previously wrote "Watson Uncut: Surprising? Boring? Racist?)

  • Racism Persists: Psychology researchers at Yale University found that racism persists, despite US society's more tolerant overt attitudes. The psychologists studied nonverbal interactions between white and black characters on television shows, then surveyed study participants for their responses to the actors attitudes (complicated methodology). They concluded that nonverbal behavior towards minorities on television influence the attitudes of millions of viewers.(Dovidio et al Science(326) 1641 - 1642 DOI: 10.1126/science.1184231)

  • Larry Summers Summons the Economy to Man-Up: Larry Summers is overly optimistic on jobs says a guest blogger on Naked Capitalism in the article titled: "Larry Summers Is Like a Guy Who Yells That the Sun Really DOES Revolve Around the Earth and that the Current Orbit is Just a Temporary Aberration . . . and That If We Just Wait a Little While, Everything Will Return to Normal". We last reviewed Summers's history of unfailing optimism in Mission Accomplished: Summers Ends Economy's Free Fall.

  • Coaxing The GOP To Eat Arugula: Michael J. Petrilli questions the GOP vote getting strategy in Wall Street Journal. The Hoover Institute Fellow observes that "with the white working class shrinking and the educated 'creative class' growing", Republicans such as Sarah Palin, "whose entire brand is anti-intellectual", and GOPers who brand themselves for "working-class families", "Sam's Club Republicans", and "your co-worker not your boss", might be miscalculating. Petrilli's assessment of those who criticize "Eastern Elites"? "Playing the populism card looks like a strategy of subtraction rather than addition". Instead he suggests: "What is needed is a full-fledged effort to cultivate "Whole Foods Republicans" - independent minded voters who embrace a progressive lifestyle but not progressive politics."

  • South Africa's Ex-Health Minister Dies: South Africa's Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang died of complications from a liver transplant she had two years ago. As Health Minister during the Thabo Mbeki administration, she was known as "Dr. Beetroot" for her suggestions that lemon, beetroot and garlic would protect AIDS patients against the deadly effects of the disease in lieu of antiretrovirals. Mbeki's administration oversaw the fraught handling of the AIDS crisis in South Africa, and the former president went to great lengths to protect his comrade Tshabalala-Msimang, who attracted international attention for her positions.

    Even the Minister's liver transplant was controversial. The Times wrote in Manto: A Drunk and a Thief, of a Health Minister who was an alcoholic with liver cirrhosis -- a kleptomaniac on bad behavior while in hospital. One hospital employee told the paper that Tshabalala-Msimang's "antics were common knowledge among staff.'Everyone here thinks its hilarious that she is today a health minister in South Africa'". The story questioned whether favoritism and power enabled her to receive a liver transplant ahead of others.

  • Sickle Cell Anemia Not the Only Genetic Mutation to Protect Against Malaria: We learned in our biology courses that the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell anemia is an adaptation to the malaria causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Recently, scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris have shown that a less common malaria causing strain, Plasmodium vivax, has also caused adaptive pressure on the genome. The scientists found a gene variant associated with an enzyme deficiency which seems to protect against infection by P. vivax in Southeast Asian populations. The variant causes a deficiency of the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), associated with neonatal jaundice and hemolytic anemia after exposure to certain infections, foods, or medications. (Sakuntabhai et al Science 326, 1546-1549 (2009)DOI: 10.1126/science.1178849)

  • Cookstove Technology: Indoor pollution causes 1.6 million deaths per year. Cookstoves contribute significantly to indoor pollution, especially in developing countries where morbidity and mortality from cookstoves disproportionately affects women and children. The New Yorker recently published an article about an Oregon company (one of many) working on cookstove technology for developing countries. An efficient cookstove will vent smoke out of the dwelling and will also burn fuel effectively, saving both lives and forests. But as the article shows, it's about more than technology -- there's many ways a cookstove can not work in developing countries.

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