January 2010 Archives

News: Fit To Print or Print to Fit?

Twitter Changes Our Brains:

In "Cut This Story", Michael Kinsley writes that "newspaper articles are too long", whereas internet news stories "get to the point". In 1,809 words Kinsley calls out the vagaries and customs of print journalism, sniping at long articles filled with what he judges useless information. In one 1,456 word The New York Times story, the fluff surrounding the facts about the House Health Care Plan annoys him: "Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened", says Kinsley. He runs a tally of words he judges wasteful in various news articles: 1,2

"The quote is 11 words, while identifying Miller takes 10"..."Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words"..."Quote: 16 words; identification, 19 words"..."The first 13 words of the piece with tired rhetoric"..."56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author's point."

Is it a Twitter induced compulsion, first editing down to 140 characters, then getting stingy about words? As you can see, Kinsley's especially peeved about the use of quotes from experts, which he calls "unnecessary verbiage". He cites a NYT reporter who quotes compensation expert "Jesse M. Brill" -- a "total stranger". Reporters should just state their opinions, he says, instead of running them through proxy "experts", noting we only trust Brill because we trust the reporter, the editor, and the paper. In fact, we should cut out Brill, the "middleman", and other experts.

So then we'd be talk radio for readers?

Journalists tend to disagree with Kinsley. One Columbia Journalism Review writer argues that quotes from experts show a reporter has done their homework. Like Kinsley I have issues with experts, though I disagree with CJR's idealistic interpretation of their implementation. But "experts" serve many purposes, even if papers often deploy them egregiously.

As Kinsley points out, the use of experts often fails to ensure any reporting standard. But experts provide journalists with a dependable structure for stories, that they can file under deadline. Expert quotes in stories also give readers of varying opinions something to latch on to, which guarantees papers more subscriptions. One negative outcome of dependence on experts is that we're left subject to manipulation, experts can be used as tools by papers, lobbyists and politicians. But with careful attention to experts' backgrounds, smart readers can quickly understand the particular slant of the story. All to say that the use of experts doesn't waste newspaper space and it would be simplistic to conclude readers move online because articles are too long.

Balance of Evidence vs. Journalistic Balance

In our area of science and technology, journalists report the science in public policy stories like global warming and bisphenol A safety, with necessary journalistic traditions of "balance", "both sides", and statements from "experts". But most often they fail to relay important keystones to understanding science, like the more important "balance of evidence". For example, the balance of evidence supports global warming, although scientists disagree about some details and likely outcomes.

Furthermore, papers routinely identify policy advocates or lobbyists as "scientists" with dependable expertise because they hold a Ph.D., M.D., or other credential, but pay no heed to experts' affiliations or politics, which often provide the only meaningful information. Lobbyists in the global warming arena appear often in newspaper stories, although an opinion from Exxon-Mobil often doesn't offer credible science, rather an opinion as an "expert" on a certain policy preference.

In any area of science there is always valid disagreement, even when the preponderance of evidence tips to one high-level conclusion. But smaller disagreements don't necessarily make a "side" or provide "balance", except in the world of journalism. Journalistic balance seen through scientists' eyes often fails because it abandons accuracy and amplifies trivial opinions, seemingly on account of an editor who lacks the time or guts to report the balance of evidence.

The Cut-throat Non-buyer's Market

Kinsley writes that attributing journalists' opinions to "experts" is as useless as "legacy code" in software programs. However true that expert opinions sometimes fail to hit the mark, sometimes it's critical to leave legacy code in the program, and if we're using analogies, some introns, "non-coding" or "junk" regions of DNA sequence, turn out to be important. Similarly, in more ways than one, the use of experts quotes is also important.

Like many papers that serve(d) as community anchors, New York Times serves as more than a source of "news" or a collection of facts. Rather, readers see it as a faithful morning companion, a little arts and entertainment, some sports maybe, business. Faithfully, whenever some meme floats around, the Times picks it up and ferrets out an expert somewhere to tell you that yes, what you suspected/heard/rumored/hoped/feared is true. The paper grounds stories with quotes and uses experts of opposing views to give readers choices and validate those choices with authority.

Global warming may wipe out your vacation home, but the NYT won't feed you that news with your morning coffee without some "balance". Can't stand the idea of your seaside resort washing away? Don't worry, the NYT has an expert just for you. The right expert, no matter how unreliable, can soften what would otherwise be scary news. Faux conflict that drives scientists nuts about media coverage, reassures readers and reinforces the status quo.

Also to maintain expectations and satisfy readers, papers sometimes add flourish to stories that say nothing. Kinsley rakes through Times and Post articles about healthcare reform, mocking the "sweeping" this and "hard-fought" that. He chastises one author for including what he judges unnecessary quotes from Republicans who unsurprisingly oppose reform. Funny enough, but what else would the paper tell readers? "Congress struggled for months and ended up with a meaningless bill that won't go anywhere? Wake up and smell the coffee?"

And of course if you're 50% of the population who counts yourself as a Republican, you don't want Kinsley's stripped down version, the "duly reported fact that all but one [Republican] voted against [healthcare reform]". You want the paragraph Kinsley would delete, the one with a Republican citing their talking points on healthcare: "more taxes", "more spending". You're glad to read that a Republican "relentless criticized" the "Democrats' plan", because later in the day, you'll do the same, listeners willing. The NYT can't cut out these bits because it needs to assure whatever conservatives it can cling on to, that it's a good morning in America.

Andrew Cohen, of The Atlantic Monthly also takes exception to Kinsley's assessment of experts. Brill's expertise is valuable, he writes, as is his own (Cohen frequently serves as a legal expert), and "straight news articles should include analysis from experts like Brill" (and him). Speaking as a legal expert he enjoys both being quoted and knowing the politics of other quoted legal experts, his peers. His seems like a defense of the Times as the Facebook for middle-aged lawyers, which reinforces my point. The NYT is a comfortable gathering place where you can feel good about yourself. Republicans may call it a liberal rag, but they still get representation.

Happy readers, even ones with unjostled minds are valuable. There are other sources if readers want to bang their heads against walls with harsh, uninsulated facts, but the NYT needs subscribers.

Years of Magical Thinking

Keeping readers and selling news doesn't necessarily bode well for informed civilian participation, don't get me wrong. Watered-down science, politics, and economics news can obscure or belie urgency and misrepresent the grinding difficulty of policy-making.3 Of course talk-radio and TV networks do far more to manipulate and polarize citizens, and dumb down difficulty, but newspapers contribute to the problem.

The use of experts hit a nadir when the New York Times ran stories detailing WMD evidence used by the US to justify declaring war on Iraq. George W. Bush convinced Congress and a good part of the US population that Iraq had WMDs. The president is an "expert" we trust. The Times and their reporter Judith Miller helped justify the urgency of invasion by quoting other "unanimous government experts and Iraqi sources. High level government authorities in turn quoted the New York Times to wider audiences watching weekend talk shows. Miller's sources turned out to be unreliable, vaporware, if you want to continue with software analogies.

The WMD deception worked because we're practically hard-wired to depend on "experts" who feed us the bottom line on what to watch, wear, think, espouse, etc. The White House manipulated us via the Times, a trusted Times reporter, and some experts. Kinsley is right. The "experts" were merely middleman. But their presence in the story was critical to its persuasive power.

On the other hand, the presence of experts gives us valuable insight, even though readers often ignore it. Like footnotes in research and links in blogs, we can look up experts backgrounds to help us judge the quality of the story. Unfortunately, too few people do.

Rising out of "Comas and Coal Mines"

When Kinsley criticizes newspaper stories "written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine", he ignores scads of fooled readers in our midst.

Maybe readers aren't emerging from in a coma, maybe they're stuck in a media trance. TV feeds people constant advertising about how their clothes will sparkle by switching detergents and how the loves of their lives will materialize if they drive the right car or sip the right cocoa. When fairies flit out of TV's morning cereals, a little bit of the brain pays attention (or atrophies, I'm not sure which), and over time we all start to believe the magic.

We buy lots of stuff because someone tells us it will solve out problems -- we buy and we bolster economies. But also 50% of Americans buy that global warming is a hoax. 50% believe that God created the earth a few thousand years ago. In staid, sensible Massachusetts half of voters believe that a Cosmo centerfold with a head of hair worthy of a Rograine ad will deliver them from their problems. And over 50% of Americans voted for an articulate capable president from Illinois, but now want to fire him because he didn't magical action figure they imagined. "Experts" in church, on TV, and in newspapers, spawn and encourage these beliefs.

The constant onslaught of fairy dust diminishes our attention span (Twitter-mind) and analytical abilities. Newspapers are the least worrisome of culprits. We don't vote for charismatic puffballs who drive pick-ups because of newspapers. But newspaper editors to swath the facts of stories with hoopla and hand waving to snap us out of our media trance, and momentarily hold our attention when, it's true, many people would rather be watching a cat video on YouTube. Too many facts too fast, maybe even the who, what, where, when how, would wreck our mood, so newspapers need to be cautious, need to slip the truth in judiciously.

Readers will turn online for many reasons. But it's not because the news is more concise, as Kinsley suggests, rather, because in addition to being convenient, immediate, and interactive, there's unlimited escapist distraction, and far less news, per glance, than in the Washington Post or New York Times.


(1) As of this week, Kinsley is not longer associated with the online business site to be launched by The Atlantic Monthly

(2) Not necessarily true. Some blog posts are very long, longer than ours. And why should they be short? It costs very little to extend a 2,000 word article into a 10,000 word article.

(3) A few years ago we wrote about the New York Times' weak coverage of former President Thabo Mbeki's policies on AIDS in South Africa. Despite unrelenting illness and death Mbeki denied science, and rejected medicines, while the Times served Americans softball platitudes about Mbeki's thought processes that reflected, rather than criticized, US foreign policy. We've also written extensively about mambypamby coverage of global warming" -- there are many other issues.

Air America, Unfortunate Name, But Good Run

Does it seem like Democrats, time and again throwing themselves into a dither at the slightest G.O.P. provocation, are suffering severe post-traumatic stress after eight years of Bush and just need to calm down? Fresh off the Massachusetts upset, they seem distracted from their mission, busy future-tripping that their worst nightmares will come true. To fuel the angst, the G.O.P. postures in Illinois. Then Air America just ups and goes off the air, which of course causes the right-wing talk show cabal to scream a death knell for liberal anything -- media, politics, commentators...

"Air America", Auspicious Name?

Looking at it objectively, "Air America" did quite well given the odds. Consider first that they dared name it "Air America". Look at the history of previous organizations with that name (actually at first they called it Air America Media, then shortened that). Longevity-wise, the network lasted far longer, six years, than "Air America" the charter airline, described as "a short-lived charter airline founded in 1989, but discontinuing service in 1990".

Reputation-wise about the worse I ever heard was from Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitas, who expressed surprise when a reporter told him the network was doomed: Air America is "still really on the air?"

Personally, I never listened to the network, for no particular reason, but whatever Air America did or didn't do (and of course, just like Massachusetts, everyone has an opinion) Air America the network couldn't be more controversial than "Air America" the CIA airline which ran for sixteen years in Southeast Asia conducting logistics and recognizance missions, transporting civilians and refugees, and perhaps smuggling heroin, and opium for Asian despots.

Progressive Media's Place

Air America Media started during the Bush administration, when FOX seemed to have its hand around the throat of the public airwaves. Rachel Maddow got her start at Air America, and Senator Al Franken also played a central role for the network before becoming a senator. The network previously went bankrupt in 2004, before being bought and revived, and filing for bankruptcy again. I'm not sure what really happened, but Air America proved to be a worthy effort, if not a viable business.

Liberal or progressive media is not "dead", as FOX would have it, just because Air America did not succeed as a business. Nor does one business going off the air signal that the country is "moving right", as some commentators would have it.

Democracy Now, for one, is stronger than ever, broadcasting to over 800 stations around the world. Here's Amy Goodman in an interview with KCTS TV talking about media's job to hold politicians accountable, the place of the media as sitting around a huge kitchen table and having an "open discourse", a "lively" discussion, a "robust debate" about the "critical issues of the day"; and the "mainstream media" in general -- "What do I think of the mainstream media? I think it would be a good idea".

Where The Science News Goes

The Los Angeles Times Science section is a-ok. Except, worryingly, the LA Times now puts Science in a subcategory under the category "US and World", in one of the top ten categories that editors use to divvy up the news: "US & World", "Local", "Business", "Sports", "Entertainment", "Health", "Living", "Travel"", "Opinion", and "More".

LA, Hungry for Hotlist, Brand X and The Envelope?

Let's look at how this works.

  • Under the category "Entertainment", the LA Times has these subcategories: Movies, Television, Music, Celebrity, Arts & Culture, Company Town, Calendar, the Envelope, and Hotlist, in that order. Don't think they missed any "Entertainment" "news".

  • Under the category "Living", the paper assigns these subcategories: Health, Home, Food, Image, Travel, Autos, Books, Hotlist, Brand X, Magazine and "Your Scene". Can't imagine they've missed much "Living" "news".

  • Then, under the category "US and World", the paper puts these subcategories: Washington, Nation, Afghanistan, Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Science, Environment, and ominously, Obituaries -- again, in that order.

The LA Times has put "science" on the same level of "brand X", "the envelope", and "company town".

Bucket List

Get it? All the real news, all the stuff that really might impact us; like the whole rest of the world beside LA; two killer, budget decimating wars; 51 US states; global warming; stem cell research; microbiology research; astronomy and the universe; on and on -- all live in one convenient news bucket beside biographies of the dead.

Technology is in "Business". And where is "Europe"? I can't find it. Completely missing from the line-up? Perhaps so old world, that some editor shoved it into Obituaries? Does the Los Angeles Times have a grudge against all of Europe? Does that include Russia? Or is "Russia" in "Asia"?

I'm worried. Because if the LA Times can get rid of all of "Europe", then it looks like the editors and managers have placed the two categores Science and Environment disconcertingly close to Obituaries. Say a little prayer for Science News, one banana peel away from the grave?

Stop The Carp, Or Eat It

Carp, a Problem -- And The Government Solution

A couple of weeks ago we reported that scientists feared Asian carp had invaded the Great Lakes. Sure enough, scientists recently found carp DNA in Lake Michigan, an ecological problem considered so serious that the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue last week. (The Supreme Court said NO to Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Ontario, who together requested that the court allow the locks be closed to prevent the carp from impacting the $7 billion dollar fisheries industry).

Who could suggest a solution? Fortunately, the entrepreneurial government of the United States (but not SCOTUS) can tackle this kind of stuff. Now, some government go-getters suggest marketing the carp as "Silverfin" (not to be confused with "silverfish", an insect pest) to strengthen the filter-feeder's appeal to diners.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries hatched the carp plan, identifying eleven "activities" to help rebrand the invasive fish as a delicacy.

The Media Could Actually Be Helpful

Number one on the list is surprisingly obvious: "determine if silver and bighead carp are suitable for human consumption". Apparently Chef Phillipe Parola (famous for trying to push other distasteful creatures on diners, like alligator and nutria) already tested the fish with consumers, and found that the only barrier to epicurean success is "a series of floating bones that are not easily separated from the flesh". The US Geological Survey got right on it, promptly producing a video to teach chefs and sports fisherman how to clean the invasive fish.

The agency also planned various promotional activities, and here's where journalists play an important role. In a series of events, producers plan to: "present the fish products to the media...", who will be "given samples of fish and fish products to eat". Providing no journalist chokes on the floating bones and dies, apparently the US Geological Survey will move on to Stage II Clinical Trials.

The Geological Survey also suggests "large media events", where attendees will be habituated to the idea as carp as food, since "videos showing the fish and cleaning methods will be continuously playing".

And Scientists Could Help Too, Doing What They Usually Do...

When the Supreme Court chooses to be unhelpful, maybe scientists can aid the cause. Salon Magazine interviewed "the energetic Parola", who's pushing hard to change the fish's name from "carp" to "silverfin".

Parola illustrates how some government agencies work at cross-purposes -; as he explains how the carp got its undelicious name:

Parola: "Some clown from the USDA classified it as a carp. Carps are a bottom feeders and this is a filter feeder. The shape of the fish, the way it grows, the color: Literally there is no similarity to the carp. There's no other species named the silverfin, so what's the problem?"

Salon: "Well, off the top of my head, shouldn't it be up to scientists to name the fish?"

Parola: "But what I'm saying to you -- very loudly - is that this fish doesn't have any similarity with the carp. I want somebody out there to redo that research and help us out."

There you go. Team effort. Scientists? Change the research. Ichthyologists what do you think?

Obama, The Disappointment?

Many people who are now disappointed by the Obama administration didn't pay close enough attention during his campaign and election. It's the same with all presidents, really -- the promise of a new president brings at first a golden era of hope during which people seem to cavalierly shed their analytical abilities; then the denial phase as the president comes into his own; then the rude awakening when they're shocked, shocked, shocked at the scale of the deception.

Remember the Bush presidency? Mr. Compassionate Conservative? People barely twitched when he invaded Iraq, then slowly awoke to his mendacious governance -- the fact that there were no WMDs, there was global warming, arsenic levels weren't safe, Guantanamo prisoners were tortured to within an inch of their lives the end of their lives -- etc.


But before presidents are elected there's time to profile their past, time for people to shake themselves out of wishful thinking into clarity. Usually at least one enterprising journalist digs into a candidate's history and accurately predicts their presidency. For instance, during the George W. Bush presidential campaign of 2000, Harper's author Joe Conason wrote an excellent, disturbing article about Bush's tenure in Texas politics called, "Notes on a Native Son: Part I. "The George W. Bush success story: A heartwarming tale about baseball, $1.7 billion, and a lot of swell friends." (Feb. 2000) The article disabused people of their ideas that George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore were very similar. Conason nailed Bush's future leadership proclivities. Perhaps some of it was luck, and I'm sure Conason wasn't the only one who caught on early. But the Harper's article showed that some people really can get a bead on leaders, and that if we pay attention we could too. That, at least, is reassuring to know.

Forward to the Obama campaign, in July, 2008, when New Yorker magazine shocked the world with a cover cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama pictured with radical accoutrements and dressed -- as Al Jazeera put it -- "in what many [Americans] see as 'Muslim clothing'". We think fewer people read the accompanying article, which we touched on back then in "We The Thin Skinned, The Public and The Media".

The New Yorker cleverly juxtaposed a detailed political biography of Obama by Ryan Lizza against their cartoon cover depiction. In Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama, Lizza portrayed Obama as a pragmatic politician alert to the vagaries of politics, who proved himself more than adept at maneuvering through the political quagmires of Chicago and Illinois to emerge unscathed, all the while governing blandly. We quoted this from Lizza's profile:

"Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions..."

Liberals now realize that Obama's "existing institutions", as Lizza put it, were in many cases set up by the George W. Bush administration. The public didn't seem to get the New Yorker's sly joke back then, the paradox of the cover story versus the true inside scoop. The public went apoplectic over the cover. And only now are people starting to catch on to the fact that the Obama they compiled in their head isn't the Obama who's leading the country.


If liberals and independents are unhappy -- Bush at least went full tilt with his base-- so too are conservatives. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat sought to explain the Obama paradox recently. He wrote: "In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker", then quoted Lizza's two sentences ("Perhaps the greatest misconception...institutions"). Douthat's "The Obama Way" explained that everyone vilified Obama differently but the president fit no particular mold. The most discontented people were the liberals -- as Douthat said:

"The left has been frustrated, again and again, by the gulf between Obama's professed principles and the compromises that he's willing to accept, and some liberals have become convinced that he isn't one of them at all. They're wrong. Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue."

There goes Douthat, first heartily agreeing with Lizza's New Yorker quote describing Obama as a political accommodator, next labeling Obama a flaming liberal who's only tenuously tethered to some middle way -- as if to warn conservatives not to relax. Well, which is it, young feller?

Does Douthat peg Obama as impossible to categorize but at his core very liberal? Or does he fall for the same fallacies of judgement he's just finished explaining to us?


How liberal is Obama, deep down inside? Honestly, we don't know. But look, for instance at the politics of one of his long term advisors, the only person with a more quixotic image than Obama himself, whose intentions are even more difficult for observers to pin down -- Cass Sunstein. Sunstein leads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). OIRA reviews regulations from all rule-making agencies in the Office of Management and Budget, regulations for banking, air and water quality, food, drugs, transportation...in other words, Sunstein's philosophy affects us all, and he's supposedly a close counsel of Obama's .

We've somewhat regularly followed Sunstein's progress in the Obama administration and his amazing ability to attract venomous critics as well as admiring followers from both the left and the right. There wasn't always such focus on OIRA administrators. Sunstein's very driven regulation-allergic conservative predecessors at OIRA, John Graham and Susan Dudley, attracted only the sparsest attention as they weakened regulation, ignored science, and developed symbiotic relationships with industry.

Sunstein often quotes John Graham and shares and builds on Graham's cost-benefit analysis legacy, yet people often label him, like Obama, as an out of bounds liberal. Sunstein's nomination was supported by conservative groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and by the Wall Street Journal. Yet wildly preposterous rumors about his views, for instance on animal rights, held up his OIRA nomination for months. Republican senators stymied his appointment, as hunters and factory farms hijacked meaningful deliberation about Sunstein's most controversial ideas -- on cost-benefit analysis, for instance -- by focusing on the false notions that he might ban hunting, something that he had actually convincingly argued against.

The other thing that's interesting given Sunstein's well-documented ideas, is how pundits from both sides seem to ignore history when they periodically burst out over one thing or another they unearth in his writing. Of course some people, like Rena Steinzor of the Center For Progressive Reform, have long focused on environmental law, cost-benefit analysis, and the likely impact of Cass Sunstein heading OIRA. But to my point, recently Glenn Greenwald popularized a flurry of concern about Sunstein with his Salon article, "Obama Confidant's Spine-chilling Proposal". Greenwald's focus is not on Sunstein's cost-benefit machinations or environmental stances, but on Sunstein's exploration of government control of "conspiracy theories".

The Mirror, A Gift or A Curse?

Greenwald takes Sunstein to task for advocating in a 2008 paper that the government ought to do things like anonymously infiltrate groups to dissipate conspiracy theories. The Sunstein paper is really interesting (and funny, to me), and Greenwald competently attacks the ideas Sunstein presents. But just like Bush and Obama, Sunstein's proposals in 2008 proved consistent with what he has publicly explored/advocated for years.

In his 2001 book Republic.com, for instance, Sunstein argued that the government (he later changed this to private companies) could fight internet "hate-sites" and polarization that 'threatened democracy' by enforcing things like cross-linking to politically opposing sites. What did Thaler/Sunstein's book Nudge urge but for the government to "architect" our "choices"? If you circle through his books and papers you'll find that one way or another, either by infiltration or nudging, Sunstein's quite pre-occupied with government control of "undesirable" information, voices and outcomes, as judged by the government. These aren't terribly liberal obsessions, and it would be hard for me to call Sunstein a liberal.

Back to Douthat's point, I would also be hard-pressed to call Obama a liberal, either by his associations or his Illinois and presidential records. I'm surely biased, but so far he's a pragmatist, (though not a "centrist" Douthat says), and we were adequately and accurately warned. How many years does someone need to act like a centrist/pragmatist before people stop labeling them a liberal?*

Obama gets everyone together, he does. And they're all suspicious. During his campaign, people would say that Obama's campaign gift was that he made everyone see a bit of themselves in him. Perhaps now he has the opposite effect. No one can see any bit of themselves in him. Is that a curse?


*And btw, as an aside, what is a liberal? And does the country need a "liberal" president, anyway, liberals?

The FDA Equivocates on Bisphenol A, Why Do News Headlines Applaud?

Bisphenol A, Trees on Mars, and Riveting Headlines

Headlines can be deceiving, as well all know. But we often fall for them anyway. "Are Those Trees on Mars?" asked FoxNews and 150 other news outlets last week. So I squinted at the photo, trying to imagine how those could possibly be trees...maybe if a small city like Le Mars, Iowa shipped all the old Christmas trees collected on January 8th to Le Other Mars, instead of chipping them?


A fool I was, but you can't imagine my disappointment when the article attached to the NASA photo explained that there were No Trees On Mars, only dark sand illuminated differently than the surrounding carbon dioxide ice(1) -- (Tricky editors! - 'HA, made you look'). I guess readers' attention was elsewhere last week because closer to home, more subtly, but equally misleading, news headlines announced: The FDA "reverses" its position on bisphenol A (BPA), the FDA "backtracks" on BPA, the FDA advises consumers to "limit exposure" to BPA.

These headlines seemed like real news, since the FDA has for years faiiled to come out with either actions or public statements reflecting the growing research evidence for BPA toxicity. During the Bush administration the glaring gap between the FDA's position and BPA research propelled scientists to publicly criticized the relationship between the FDA and the industries it was supposed to be regulating. Acronym Required wrote about the fraught regulatory environment in the FDA vis-à-vis BPA, in "Scientists Criticize FDA Methods on BPA", in "Conflict of Interest in the FDA?", in "FDA Panel Offers Corrections to BPA Draft", in "Bisphenol A, The FDA, Industry -- Whassup?", and others.

Given the FDA's lackluster BPA regulation history, plus the fact that BPA is almost a household word, the newest headlines on BPA and the FDA attracted everyone's attention. The New York Times listed its story "F.D.A. Concerned About Substance in Food Packaging", as one of the "most e-mailed" articles one day. But underneath the headlines, what did the stories really report?

FDA -- Aging Cheerleader?

Despite the headlines, the FDA announced no "guidelines", and no new news. The LA Times quoted a statement from FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein under the title "FDA issues BPA guidelines". "For the present", Sharfstein said", the FDA does support the use of baby bottles with BPA.'" (emphasis ours)

So in essence, the FDA has offered the same counsel for years, ever since it started studying BPA. In 1995 for instance, FDA scientists found that BPA migrated from heated plastic containers. The agency remained unalarmed. In 1997 the FDA began pondering how to change regulation to reflect evidence that endocrine disruptors altered physiology at low doses -- but barely flinched.

In 1999 several consumer groups, environmental safety groups, and scientists, petitioned the FDA to ban BPA in plastic baby bottles, because research then showed without a doubt that the chemical could leach out of polycarbonate, and indicated that BPA caused sex organ problems for male babies of exposed pregnant mice. At the time, the FDA deployed Dr. George Pauli to quell rising consumer concerns and Pauli assured families that polycarbonate bottles didn't leach under 'everyday' conditions, only at high temperatures; infant formulas required only mild heating, he said. (Although, alarmingly, parents typically microwaved the bottles.)

Now, over a decade later, despite dozens more studies, the FDA is still equivocating on baby bottles, although bottles present one of the riskiest sources of BPA because of babies' vulnerability to endocrine disruptors during development.

The FDA's statement becomes all the more difficult to swallow when you know that all on their own, without any encouragement from the agency, manufacturers voluntarily pulled polycarbonate bottles for babies and adults off the shelves.

The FDA did manage to bring its assessment -- that there is "some concern" about BPA health risks -- in line with the National Toxicology Program's (NTP) assessment. Although this is no small feat given the FDA's history, the agency didn't do much else, despite delaying this announcement three times.

From the FDA website, here's what the FDA committed to:

  • "supporting industry actions" to stop making BPA containing baby bottles
  • "faciliting the development" of BPA alternatives for formula cans
  • "supporting efforts" to replace BPA in food can linings

Such mealy-mouthed statements give the impression that the FDA has little more persuasive authority than Acronym Required. The agency also said it would work with other agencies like the National Toxicology Program (NTP) in the NIEHS/NIH, and with foreign governments (legislators have aggressively questioned the FDA why it hasn't taken action when the Canada has banned BPA).

What Should Consumers Think?

The FDA is also seeking "external input" on the "science surrounding BPA", and will solicit "further public comment". Acronym Required commented on public comment periods used by agencies before. We wouldn't want to appear cynical in saying you can never have too much "public comment" or assume that the FDA is using the comment period to stall regulatory action. But since the FDA is now working with the National Toxicology Program in the NIH (NTP), it could review the numerous public comments solicited by the NTP during its assessments of the chemical in February, 2006; April, 2007; November, 2007; and April, 2008. (2)

The FDA is also "supporting a shift to a more robust regulatory framework for oversight of BPA". The FDA explains that a 40 year rule limits the FDA's ability to regulate BPA (as a food additive). The FDA can regulate new substances under a 2000 rule, but that doesn't help with BPA. So the agency will "encourage manufacturers to voluntarily submit a food contact notification for their currently marketed uses of BPA-containing materials." This is interesting because for years the FDA has been researching BPA and has declined to regulate the chemical because the agency found the science unconvincing; for some reason it hasn't brought a lot attention to its legal inabilities to regulate.

Does the FDA's latest announcement clarify its previous confusing position? What should consumers do? As my favorite headline, by "Beforeitsnews.com" byline has it: "It's in Your Urine But Is It Safe?".

More to the point, what should citizens do that they haven't done already? They've stopped buying polycarbonate, so much so that manufacturers have pulled bottles off the shelves, they've sued, they've urged local and state ordinances. By all measures, consumers have made the most credible effort to regulate BPA.

The FDA -- Nudging Itself Out of a Job? Drowning Itself In the Bathtub?

Other non-governmental organizations have responded with none of the ambiguity of the FDA. For instance spokespeople from the Breast Cancer Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union, Clean New York, Center for Health Environment & Justice, and others, all urge the FDA to ban the chemical.

Even the National Council of Churches offers a suggestion for the FDA, saying, "As we celebrate the Christmas season, we are reminded of Jesus' commitment to those in poverty. We hope that the FDA will take measures to ensure that canned food is BPA-free through the use of safe alternatives in the future."

The FDA has been researching the chemical for over a decade. Their most recent statement followed delays -- not just three delays, but years of delays. Naturally the FDA, along with the CDC and NIH will support further research, in addition to supporting a new regulatory framework. The research will add to the already substantial body of research showing BPA dangers. And I guess that's how it is. The FDA is obviously hesitant to impact a multi-billion dollar industry, so the research needs to be far more conclusive than, say, if you were putting a potentially profitable pharmaceutical drug on the market.

In the meantime, as the FDA maintains relevancy by "supporting", "facilitating", and "encouraging" -- cities, towns and states across the US will continue to be at the forefront of 'patchwork' BPA regulation, pushing manufacturers to use alternatives.


1 From NASA: "At that time, dark sand on the interior of Martian sand dunes became more and more visible as the spring Sun melted the lighter carbon dioxide ice. When occurring near the top of a dune, dark sand may cascade down the dune leaving dark surface streaks -- streaks that might appear at first to be trees standing in front of the lighter regions, but cast no shadows."

2 As a side note, the progression of public comments is interesting because it also shows growing awareness of BPA. In 2006 the only public comment was from the American Plastics Council. By 2008 almost 50 individuals and agencies commented.

Healthcare Checklists


Atul Gawande's latest book, The Checklist Manifesto, advocates checklists to systemize the complexity of healthcare delivery and reduce medical mistakes. Making the media rounds, Gawande spoke for an hour recently on Democracy Now. He also testified before the President's Council on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Checklists, you ask? Certainly they're not new. Indeed, a few years ago, another physician, Dr. Peter Pronovost presented research showing the utility of checklists to tackle infectious disease in hospitals, and of course they've been used by airlines, oil change places, pizza delivery people, families going shopping, etc. Gawande's rendition appeared in this piece for The New Yorker in 2007. But his book is especially timely, given the current focus on healthcare reform.

The amount of information in medicine is vast -- 68,000 different patient diagnoses, 4,000 different surgeries, thousands of medicines. But despite our knowledge and exorbitant spending, healthcare outcomes in the US are lower than other industrialized countries -- 37th lowest, in fact, and sinking.

The fee for service incentives derail efficient healthcare, for instance by encouraging surgery. There are 230 million surgeries a year, 50 million in the US. Problematically, more surgeries means more surgical complications. The number of surgeries outstrips childbirths in the US, according to Gawande, but with 10-100 times the death rate. As he puts it, "150,000 people who die of complications of surgery, die within thirty days following surgery. And we know at least half are avoidable."

Gawande et al conclude that checklists help reduce mortality and morbidity from surgery and infections. Gawande also says they increase teamwork during procedures, for instance, by empowering nurses to point out missed checklist items. Better teamwork in turn increases success rates.

Checklists are not the complete solution to avoiding deaths, but when Gawande conducted research using checklists in eight hospital centers and 7,688 patients across the globe, the researchers found that deaths decreased by 46%, which, as a percentage looks quite dramatic, but according to their research surgical teams reduced deaths from surgery from 1.5% before the checklist to .8% afterwards. Serious complications fell from 11% to 7% according to the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) last year.

Checklists as Partial Solution

But if the improvements observed by the research teams aren't artifacts, checklist implementation is still not without other issues. Harold Varmus pointed out in the PCAST panel that checklists could impede creative solutions, and noted that investigations into best practices inevitably unveil multiple equally effective ways of solving medical challenges.

As well, according to Gawande, sometimes checklists impede profit. There are strong financial incentives encouraging doctors to do procedures like surgeries. Gawande wrote last summer about the high cost of healthcare in McAllen Texas, where Medicare spends $15,000 per enrollee because entrepreneurial doctors have found ways to profit mightily within the fee for service system. In Boston, although the checklists reduced emergency asthma admissions at Boston Children's Hospital by 80%, asthma admissions were the number one revenue source for the hospital admissions. The surgeon stressed that payment systems need to be adjusted when necessary, checklists won't work on their own. The problem of keeping costs down he told Democracy Now, has not been accomplished by insurance companies.

Checklists: Simple and Cheap, Dumped into a Technology Centric World?

One of Gawande's chief points is that checklists are simple and cheap to implement compared to proposed solutions for healthcare which involve ever more complicated technology that doesn't necessarily scale. As Gawande says: "There are technologies that we've tried to introduce. We've pursued very expensive solutions. But what we've not recognized is that we can pursue an idea like checklists...".

When Gawande presented these views to the President's panel, he ran into some interesting opinions from some in the IT sector who sit on the panel. His low tech solution elicited questions like: "Will physicians accept technology?"

Gawande observed that there "can be a sense of seeing the technology almost as a panacea". Problematically he says, although technology can be beneficial, "we have not really gathered evidence on what the components are that make it a successful implementation versus unsuccessful". Two systems in two different organizations can save lives and money in one institution and be a total failure in another, as was the case with a physicians' order entry system that Brigham Women's successfully implemented, which then failed to deliver cost savings and life saving benefits when implemented at Cedar's Sinai.

No sooner had he said this, when Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO who sits on PCAST, asked him why doctors didn't use technology more. Schmidt tried to get some insight for "the model of healthcare that we'll have five or ten years from now."

"It's pretty clear that we'll have personal health records and you'll have the equivalent of a USB stick or cloud based medical history. You'll show up at the doctor with some set of symptoms. And in my ideal world what would happen is that the doctoor would type the set of symptoms that they see as a doctor and they would be matched against this data that is a repository. And then a knowledge engine would use best practices and all the knowledge of the world to then give the physician some standardized guidance. This is a generalized form of your checklist mechanism. As a computer scientist, this is a platform database problem...And it's also knowledge engineering problem.

We do these very, very well, as a general rule in computer science. And it befuddles me why medicine has not organized itself around this platform opportunity. Do you have an opinion as to why not? Do you have an opinion as to how such a system would evolve so that the doctors would use it, it would standardize practices in the way you described and ultimately lead to presumably debates over healthcare and what the right outcomes are and all the kinds of incentives. If you don't have such a platform you'll never measure it to scale...

There are a lot of assumptions implicit in Schmidt's statements, we won't go through them all here, although some physician/commentators on the internet have already had a field day. Gawande started out responding that the people who make those systems "don't know how the clinical encounter works" -- six problems in 15 minutes per patient, for starters. He ended up more conciliatory towards the idea of computerized checklists. But he emphasized that his checklists involve understanding systems engineering issues involved with ensuring well-functioning teams. That checklists were not simply a challenge of listing as Schmidt put it "all the knowledge in the world".

Gawande also proposed to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology a new "science of health delivery" to study systems innovations, team organization and motivations, and coordinated deployment of healthcare. He even suggested a "National Institutes for Health Systems Innovation" to stand apart from the NIH (although such new agencies are fun to dream up but practically improbable).

Moving Forward on Platforms

For all the issues brought to the fore in "Checklist Manifesto", and for the all the issues at stake in healthcare, and to Gawande's warning about technology panacea's, it was interesting that the panel ended up quickly focusing on healthcare records. It's easy to imagine the temptation to look to health care records as that very panacea. A lot of the failures in medicine are also failures of communication, between the patient and doctor (15 minutes is often generous), between doctors, between facilities. Certainly technology already helps a lot of this, but for all the improvements in medical information technology to date, medical care is still fragmented, expensive, fraught with inconsistency and at times dangerous to the patient. Still, technology is necessarily part of the solution, and building the platform is critical.

So how would a new healthcare IT platform change the current medical system? There's a lot at stake for doctors and for patients. Any major change to the system could rearrange profits. Much of the routine patient care could be accomplished via a computer and a nurse or administrator. Why does a doctor need to charge $200 to tell you to take aspirin and drink fluids? Both Google and Microsoft are positioning themselves well -- it's hard to imagine either not grabbing the opportunity to root itself themselves into healthcare, they have a lot of mouths to feed back on their campuses.

It's troubling that the primary recipient, the patient, isn't very well represented in any of these discussions except by proxy of Google and various university doctors. 'We know what's good for you and we'll tell you what that is.' Everyone is advocating for "the patient", but Google is advocating for itself as well, as is Microsoft. And do university doctors in the upper echelons really experience the same problems with healthcare that your average patient does? That's what you get with 3rd party healthcare payers? The primary customer perhaps is not patients but insurance companies, who will no doubt benefit from the knowledge in more comprehensive databases of patient information.

The challenge perhaps is to improve healthcare (behind the patient's back), to not make it worse (no small feat), and to avoid simply adding another layer of expense and bureaucracy, to the gigantic Dagwood sandwich that is modern healthcare. It would be too easy to add more layers, to the layers and layers that comprise healthcare services, insurance, and companies that administer benefits, each one yielding profits from their slice, who in the end complicate healthcare and add costs for ambiguous ends.

Notes in a New Year, 2010


Help, donate: Partners in Health, or Medecins Sans Frontiers, or the Clinton Foundation, or the International Red Cross or text-to-give.

  • PLoS and Elsevier: On the Same Page?

    One of our favorite things, in the Obama era, is to see would be foes band together. So we look fondly upon the unlikely albeit fragile "alliance" that PLoS and Elsevier ended up in at a recent open access publishing roundtable. The occasion was a meeting around the report issued by the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable. The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) convened the meeting of a group of fourteen publishers, university leaders, librarians, and other experts at the round table, who drafted basic agreements about how public access to journal publications. They emphasized:

    "the need to preserve peer review, the necessity of adaptable publishing business models, the benefits of broader public access, the importance of archiving, and the interoperability of online content"

    However, the Elsevier and PLoS representatives refused to join the other 12 members in signing the consensus agreement, although both agreed that points of the agreement were "positive". PLoS and Elsevier apparently both have a lot a stake, since they each sent extra representatives to the panel. Elsevier sent their General Counsel/Senior Vice President, and PLoS sent their Managing Editor as well as their CEO.

    Predictably, YS Chi, speaking for Elsevier, stated that he couldn't sign the agreement because it "supports an overly expansive role of government and advocates approaches to the business of scholarly publishing that I believe are overly prescriptive." No question about where giant, monopolistic, Elsevier ever stands.

    PLoS representative Mark Patterson's statement was a little more difficult to unpack. He said that the agreement "stops far short of recognizing and endorsing the opportunities to unleash the full potential of online communication to transform access to and use of scholarly literature." What did he mean? He didn't include "the need to preserve peer review" as one of his "positive" points of agreement....But does PLoS want more Federal support for PLoS? Explicit endorsement of pay to publish? A more "expansive role for government"? Who knows.

    For more information on open access and this agreement in general, there's a great public access policy forum here at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the "ever-enthusiastic public access policy team" at OSTP has extended the comment period. So you can comment, and there's lots to read.

  • H1N1

    The World Health Organization (WHO), has hit back at accusers who say that the organization, along with pharma companies, created a "fake epidemic" in H1N1. WHO reiterated its role to balance urgency and expediency with the uncertain nature of the epidemic. In an editorial generally praising the organization's response, Nature wrote this week:

    "The danger now is that last year's relatively mild pandemic will create a false sense of security and complacency. The reality is that next time we might not be so lucky -- especially given that this time most of the world's population, living as they do in developing countries, had no access to either vaccines or antiviral drugs."

    It's apparently easy for otherwise smart people to be cynical about the H1N1 pandemic. It is truly a challenge to explain risks and uncertainty of pandemics and the fact that the scientists and public health organizations are actually doing a great job.

  • Judge Overrules FDA on Electronic Cigarettes, Whatever They Are

    Some people believe that a president's most lasting legacy is in the judges he appoints; George W. Bush appointed judge Richard Leon of the Federal District Court in Washington. Leon recently moved to stop the FDA from regulating e-cigarettes, on grounds that they aren't tobacco. In fact, e-cigarettes are battery-powered tubes that vaporize nicotine with tobacco flavoring, that simulate cigarette smoking for the user. I can't make that sound good. Seems like the next best thing to sex robots. But anyway, these devices deliver addictive nicotine to the body, but the judge says the FDA can't regulate e-cigarettes as devices anymore.

    In other tobacco regulation news, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) discusses opposition to the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act on First Amendment grounds. Even the ACLU objects to the Act, which prohibits the use of certain words by cigarette advertisers, saying that

    "regulating commercial speech for lawful products only because those products are widely disliked -- even for cause -- sets us on the path of regulating such speech for other products that may only be disfavored by a select few in a position to impose their personal preferences."

    Instead advised the ACLU, "the antidote to harmful speech can be found in the wisdom of countervailing speech -- not in the outright ban of the speech perceived as harmful." But as the NEJM authors wrote:

    "How did we come to believe that the exchange of commercial appeals in the marketplace of goods and services should be equated with free exchange in the marketplace of ideas? Are our freedoms really secured by a constitutional doctrine that would limit our capacity to inhibit the promotion of toxic goods? This is an opportune moment to reflect on these questions and their implications for the relationship between public health goals and the rules that should be foundational in a democracy."
  • EPA's Updated Smog, Ozone Standard

    The EPA proposed new standards for smog last week, which would update the Bush Administration standards. The agency will set the "primary" standard, which protects public health, at a level between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million (ppm), measured over eight hours, and will also propose a new secondary standard. These standards were recommended by scientists years ago to decrease deaths and smog levels dangerous to children, the elderly, and those with asthma and respiratory disease. As we wrote earlier, the Bush's EPA pushed the weaker standard of .075 ppm. We also wrote about the Obama EPA's stated intention to change the standard last fall.

  • Airport Screening to Double as Healthcare?

    "We are headed toward the moment when screeners will watch watch-listers sashay through while we have to come to the airport in hospital gowns, flapping open in the back", wrote Maureen Dowd recently, commenting on holes in airport security processes. But I think she's seeing a cup half empty. We may well be headed for a moment when airport screening, reviled as a breach of privacy to some, is the closest thing to healthcare people can get.

    The public option has fallen "off the table" again, by now "fallen off the table" so many times that even when it intermittently appears back "on the table", it's obviously shopworn, if not smashed to bits.

    But the glass could still be half full. Think of the savings, if airport screening could double as healthcare screening : "You're cleared for flight sir, and don't worry about that lump..."

  • What to Call It? Science Terminology

    For various reasons, political, scientific, logical (or not) or historical, people refer to the same thing using different terms. Here are two examples.

    Canada does not call the tar sands "tar sands", anymore, they're "oil sands". Of course "tar sands" is more descriptive of the energy-intensive process, of extracting oil, but "oil sands" sounds like something that you would naturally siphon some oil out of, it sounds better.

    In 2005, physicist Lisa Randall urged that "global climate change" was the appropriate phrase to use, because "global warming" would lead people to argue that their winter was actually very cold. Others argued that "climate change" sounded less dangerous, so therefore would be used to manipulate people who would be fearful enough about "global warming" to urge policy changes, whereas "climate change" seemed benign. But it gets even more complicated for some agencies. NASA differentiates between "global warming", which is surface climate change, and "climate change", and "global change", and "global climate change", which deems the most accurate term. I think everyone pretty much knows what everyone's talking about now, though I dare not make conclusions about that.

  • Oh, and Happy Not-So-New Year

    Did you travel over your break? Have fun?

    In the US, marketing aimed at tourists is off the rails. Perhaps marketers have learned that people who travel in a heightened state of orange level stress will sooth themselves by buying absurd products. You may argue that it's a global trend, and indeed, the badminton set peddled to me by a man on the muddy backroad of a major city in Asia seemed ridiculous, until I flipped through Sky Mall Magazine and spied the "King Tut Life Sized Sarcophagus Cabinet" that can be "delivered curbside" (to impress your neighbors). Personally, I would rather pay to bat around a little white badminton birdie in a mud puddle, while talking baksheesh with kids who speak, at will, touristica French, German, English or Japanese. By comparison, traveler oriented products in the US seem conceived by desperate marketing departments who've lost their wits. Case in point -- the sarcophagus cabinet. Or:

    • If you were assigned to seating group 2 or above recently, on my least favorite airline I still fly on, you heard this announcement: "Board now. Enter via aisle closest to the wall, NOT THE RED CARPET." Because "the red carpet", actually a two foot doormat, is reserved for first class customers.

      Some people bemoan the lot of the economy passenger, the so-called "poverty parade", and the herd animal like treatment. But as a first class customer you pay an extra few thousand dollars to traipse across a red mat with bars on each side to keep you in bounds. Sure the legroom's nice, I won't argue, but you have to walk "the red carpet" to get there, and once there in that bigger, comfier seat, you're subjected to complimentary cheesefood snacks. Supposedly smart people actually buy this privilege.

    • At your hotel, you will be sold the usual-- rooms, room service, laundry services, shoe shines and upgrades, not to mention the mini-bar. But what if the five dollar peanuts in the mini-bar are too devilish a temptation for you and your New Year's resolutions? No worries, there's a market-based solution. Pay $50 to have the mini-bar hauled away at one hotel I was recently at.

    • Want to use the hotel refrigerator for your water? $50 fine at another hotel. And the same people who stay at these hotels complain that the EPA's bureaucracy confines their business style.

    • Maybe you actually love business travel and want to bring home a bit of the experience, like the "pulsating" showerhead that your can actually buy from one hotel's glossy catalogue. The catalogue carried other mundane household hardware and dog cushions stamped with the hotel's logo. Pretty special.

    Couldn't we just travel unsolicited sometimes? Definitely not in 2010. Happy New Year.

Letter From Berkeley, California -- The Cliche

Letter From Berkeley

In March, 1965, Calvin Trillin wrote about the Free Speech Movement (F.S.M) at the University of California, Berkeley. His New Yorker essay, "Letter From Berkeley, covered the trial of the 800 students arrested during the 1965 protests. Of the 4000 who occupied Sproul Hall, the police managed to carry-out 800. As Trillin wrote, the police heaved the students, "wearing blue jeans and singing hymns", out of Sprout Hall by their arms and legs, one by one.

When Trillin arrived at the courtroom, the scene was much more staid and there was no hymn-singing. The students "conscientiously presented themselves, in quiet, well-dressed groups of fifty, in a make-shift courtroom", to enter their pleas. The now compliant and somber students had while protesting "attacked the computer as the symbolic agent of its followers' alienation", but for court they were "borrowing the university's I.B.M. machine to keep track of all the people [including 20 lawyers] involved in its legal affairs".

Trillin's description of the protestors in the 1965 Berkeley court is pretty much how students in the Berkeley are today -- organized, smart, generally good-natured, and obedient. Despite that, they're more often depicted as carrying the torch of the 1960's era "rebels".

The C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the F.S.M.

The student protests in the 1960's were movements, they actually moved things and people -- the students moved cars and the police moved people -- but they also moved ideas to powerful people. The federal and state governments looked at the F.S.M. as a force to be reckoned with -- a threat. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. attempted to associate Berkeley's FreeSpeech Movement with an imaginary Bay Area hotbed of Communism in order to turn everyday citizens against the "unruly" youth.

What Reagan Saw In the Students - An Opportunity

Reagan and the conservatives ran election campaigns that leveraged what he depicted as the corrosive nature of the F.S.M. and student activities at the University of California. In one speech Reagan declared that the F.S.M. leaders should be thrown out by "the scruff of their necks". He decried the shocking occasion of "a dance" held on campus featuring acts so reprehensible that he couldn't talk about it, he said, for fear of shocking his audience. He then proceeded to read a list of the shocking acts to his audience anyway: three "rock and roll bands playing simultaneously" and movies where "persons twisted and gyrated in provocative and sensual fashion". How shocked! shocked! was he?

Reagan, the future governor and leader of the free world presented himself as a complete square. But keep in mind that Reagan, Greenspan and other budding neoliberals had been poring over bodice-rippers like Ayn Rand's, "The Fountainhead" for years. So perhaps it wasn't the threat of "persons twisted and gyrated in provocative and sensual fashion", that bothered them, as much as the threat to political economics -- the "free" next to "speech", instead of next to "markets". But rhetorically, they were on to something. Reagan and the ascending neoliberals framed the 60's as being about sex and drugs and rock and roll -- they successfully painted the angst over human rights as a 'culture war'.

The Free Speech Movement, What It Is

Despite conservative outrage and Reagan's condemnation, the F.S.M. actually succeeded. How did it succeed you ask? Today at UC Berkeley, students have the right to set up card tables in one area of campus and give fellow passing students information about churches and student clubs they may join. Yup, that's what they wanted, way back then. It was that radical. They students accomplished exactly the goal they set out to.

But although in the end the F.S.M. prevailed, the movement seems altogether impotent compared to the power of neoliberal ideas that took root during Reagan's acts as governor andpresident. Regardless of the relatively weak power of Free Speech Movement, however, UC Berkeley the university has never really shaken its reputation as the somewhat sinister, hippy-dippy, center of California radical left-wing ideas.

Today's Protests, and Those 40 years Ago

When people think of UC Berkeley and today's protests, they automatically think of the 60's protests, overturned cars, national media paranoia, and attention. But look closely at recent campus protests. On the occasion of BP's massive energy collaboration with the university in 2007, for example, there on the steps of California Hall, 40 students held signs and gave speeches. Things then got out of hand when the protestors spilled a little bit of organic molasses ("oil") on the steps. Forty strong, the protestors proved they meant no harm by licking molasses off the steps of California Hall, prompting police in riot gear and wearing shields over their faces to surround them. With much fanfare and cameras clicking, the police then called a biohazards team to clean up the molasses, despite the students offers to clean it up themselves.

That's the nature of the nice, if limp spirit of today's student rebellions. But people still think Berkeley as radically "left wing". They tend not to associate "Berkeley" with its conservative influences, like John Yoo, who took leave from his law school faculty position to write the Bush torture memos, or the law school that defends Yoo's position in the name of "academic freedom". They ignore the power differential that makes protests such as the BP one totally anemic.

People think of UC Berkeley and think science and politically liberal values. They tend not to think of retired law school professor Phillip E. Johnson, conservative born-again Christian, who is the father of the intelligent design movement, who, along with Berkeley science professor Peter Duesberg, denies that the HIV virus causes of AIDS. People ignore the existence of the vibrant libertarian and student Republicans groups -- the student Republican group is the largest student organization on campus. People probably don't know about the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements, established last year. What prevails when people think of UC Berkeley is the cliche of a subversive, pot-smoking, Birkenstock wearing, long-haired, provocatively liberal university. The fact that this depiction is totally wrong escapes them.

Letter From California, The Reality

Nevertheless, last fall, the cliche was reinforced when students took over Wheeler Hall, protesting increases to student tuition. The erosion of state support for the University is a travesty, but the students protests were very personal. Their cries were not about wars (either of them), or free speech, in fact in many cases they were not even about higher education. Some negotiators had a hard time figuring out what the students demands even were -- something about janitors jobs being reinstated?

No, this 21st century student uprising concerned the increased costs of higher education that would be in part coming out of their (or their parents') pockets. It was a protest not without irony. Tours of campus routinely compare Berkeley to Stanford University, as in, Berkeley is just as good, in every sense, as Stanford. The sense of competition is so fierce, apparently, that some Berkeley denizens will not wear any article of clothing that is maroon (Stanford's color). Yet differences are large, especially the fact that Stanford is a private school and far more costly than Berkeley. The cost hikes were severe, but like the rest of America, were these 21st century protestors basically angling for Bergdorf Goodman quality at Walmart prices? Not to mention, that even as they protest now, some of the students' parents no doubt voted for California Proposition 13, which gutted the state's ability to raise taxes and support things like higher education.

There was mixed tolerance for the protests on campus. Certainly some students participated, as did some faculty, like negotiator Ananya Roy, who the New Yorker recently profiled in a column "Letter From California". Some faculty and students were very sympathetic to the students, some of whom were in fact savagely batoned by police. But most students and certainly most faculty didn't protest, they were too busy with their own affairs.

Other onlookers complained about the student's behavior in Wheeler Hall, because apparently they "partied"" and "ordered pizzas". I asked one critic: "What should they be doing?", thinking about how boring it must be to sit in an administrative office building for hours on end -- I mean, even back in 1964 they had music, such as it was -- Joan Baez singing "We Shall Overcome". They should be "writing manifestos", came the answer, rather sternly.

Indeed, today's protests somehow fall short of expectations and cliches -- no manifestoes, and students marching against fee increases rather than for world peace or the weighty issues of the times. In the November 2009 protests, a piddly sixty-six protestors were arrested, not 800, like back in the day.

Not to say certain actions can't stir up memories of students behaving very badly. Once police cleared protestors from Wheeler Hall (and not by blaring Joan Baez into the building, but with some bone breaking), a fringe group got out of hand when they marched to the home of Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Here's how the New Yorker wrote about this subsequent act of violence in the last paragraph of their newest "Letter From California":

"That night, more than forty people carrying torches marched on Birgeneau's residence. A handful of the protesters smashed the outdoor lights and threw cement planters and burning torches at the house, scattering only after the chancellor's wife, who was writing Christmas cards, woke her husband and he called the police."

The New Yorker paints a good picture, but it's inaccurate. Since Birgeneau is well-respected for his leadership and contributions to this and other campus problems, such acts would be (and were) universally reviled. A correct account would have said that only eight "protestors" were arrested at Birgeneau's house and only two of those were students, and subsequently none of them were charged. While the act was reprehensible, this wasn't quite the scary spectacle described. It had nothing to do with Berkeley protests, and motivated a professor who witnessed the event to question the official accounts.

Inflation: Concert Tickets and The Cost of a Credit

All and all, this wasn't thousands of students convening in 1964 to make speeches about free speech while standing on a police car, any more than the Wheeler protests in November at all resembled the Sproul Hall protests in the 1960's. December's protests, for the most part promptly shut down by police, culminated in a handful of misaligned adults (some in their 40's) committing random and spontaneous acts of violence against someone who is actually working very hard on behalf of higher education. It was pathetic.

But the New Yorker's coverage in the "Letter From California" was also pathetic. Today's protests aren't a continuation of the Berkeley of the 60's. The facts actually reflect the ennui of the noughts. The 2009 protests weren't a movement, and it wouldn't impede the changes in public education or privatization. Politicians barely batted an eye. Most people favor privatization, students included. The nature of the protests differs significantly from 1964 when Mario Savio spoke about "the operation of the machine -- so odious...".

The 1960's were the cusp of major social-economic change, but in 2009/2010 everything that was novel and threatening back then -- from computers, to privatization, to liquid colors moving across movie screens, is part of who we are. It's outdated to fight against privatization, whether your aged or youthful. Increased fees, increased tuition? How is that any different than higher housing costs, more expensive medical care, and $150 concert tickets?

A Different Master Plan

Berkeley the University is clearly not the place it was in 60's, when the state provided much more education funding. Today the state only provides 28% of UC Berkeley funding and that's shrinking rapidly. Although the funding cuts have been damaging overall, the change in Berkeley is often viewed as a '21st century "good"' -- public institutions need to keep up with the times. California is privatizing its education system just like other states such as Virginia and Michigan. And higher education is ripe to be privatized, even though you may argue for the need for affordable public education and indeed those arguments are valid.

Of course the question remains, how will these inevitable changes alter the institution of higher education, and how will that benefit society? Moreover, can California remain an economic powerhouse, one of the top ten universities in the world, without the commitment to education it had in the 1960's under the original Master Plan?

There's a different "Master Plan" now. California is a state that's perennially burdened by a government that promises the quintessential American dream to naive citizens who demand the whole pie for nothing -- safety nets, education, comprehensive services, and low taxes. California state government is ahead of the federal government in assuring citizens that there's no conflict in citizens' wishes -- but how will this work out?

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