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Science Blogging: The Better Journalism?

Science Journalism Debauchery

Has anyone aside from science bloggers had so many rules imposed on them? OK, maybe science journalists. In the 1990's, when the debate over genetically modified (GM) seeds motivated the headline: "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU" (Express February 18, 1999), the British government attempted to correct the fear-mongering headlines. That didn't work, so to stem future journalistic liberties of that sort, the Parliament tried to subdue the culture that propagated such rumors.

They issued a a lengthy report warning of further journalistic depredation from "the approaching era of digital TV" and the "increasing ghettoisation". (No mention of the internet.) More journalists needed to be "scientists", they said, after surveying GM stories put out by all of eleven UK publications over two days. Only 17% of the stories were written by science journalists, they found, and not any of the commentary came from "science writers". The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons, the Royal Society, and SmithKline Beecham suggested punishing future misbehavior, especially for getting the facts wrong:

"media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a Code of Practice which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission."

Of course an editor at the Independent responded describing how writers could conquer the facts but still mislead the reader. Thankfully, there's often a compelling counterargument. So in the end, the report's authors settled for a rather bland collection of guidelines dealing with Balance; Uncertainty; and Legitimacy.

And of course while the Parliament fretted about the fate of genetically engineered crops, over at News of The World...

Digital Science Journalism - Publishing Freedom

When science blogging came along it seemed to offer an alternative to the maligned mainstream media science journalism. But despite its growing stature, it too has been besieged by criticism. Some of this came from mainstream media, especially in the beginning.

But interestingly, while traditional science journalism often gets attacked from the outside, online science journalists indulge in lots and lots of self-flagellation. Perhaps this is to be expected from people who labor at the frontier of the often masochistic bench science, replete with high rates of experimental failure. Or perhaps self-criticism makes it easier for science bloggers to generate conversation? Work out their identities? Get traffic?

Of course there's much more to online science journalism then blogging, but I'm going to limit my comments to that. Acronym Required started about seven years ago, and from the rather echoey halls of 2004 science blogging, the medium exploded. Now it impressively fills some of the gaping holes in other science journalism.

We last commented on the state of "science" television programming in 2007 -- and why comment further? The science blogging world offers an amazingly vibrant alternative, filled with witty, reflective, analytical, smart, and generous writers -- especially considering the frequent debauchery of mainstream journalism. Which makes the persistent whine of self-criticism all the more puzzling. Is it some evolutionary thrust gripping science bloggers to impose governing rules on their peers?

This is especially amusing in the context of how blogs started, to augment search. Search itself started in a era that included the (albeit, totally unrealistic) perception of internet as free of boundaries, regulations, and governments. Consider this piece from early 1996:

"We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity."

Radical, but the philosophy is actually alive and well among quite a few technologists today.

Search back then was pretty rudimentary, thus the role of blogs. To understand just how rudimentary, look at this old Yahoo page with its awesome user interface. (Accompanied by the great ad with a winking person who looks photo-shopped from two different faces, asking awkwardly: "So, My Yahoo! or yours?".)

My point is, the world in which blogging started was simple. For one, an early blog was often not much more than some geek saying -- "hey I found this cool site": link -- so I'm cool too, right? These "trusted links" made a prehistoric stab at "community" and "personalization" -- because who could trust something called the "World Wide Web", with its random collection of and unknown "links"?

Secondly, through innovation if not mindset, the Internet and blogging celebrated independence from tradition. As the internet expanded, many bloggers took to the medium in defiance of the exclusive world and onerous rules of offline publishing. The audience for blogs in the beginning was a very small group of internet users, frontiersmen strongly connected by their independence, who were by default "the community".

Page Views

As the originators of the real commercial internet intended, soon people realized they could make advertising money on the internet, and "pageviews" became an all important metric. The number of people publishing on the internet grew and bloggers were then advised to "keep it short". This advice about post-length was couched as insight about readers short attention spans. But it was as much about drawing pageviews and revenue. "Keep it short" and the unspoken "make us money" became compulsory over 'make it interesting'.

When Tumblr and Twitter arrived on the scene with truly short-form platforms, some of the same organizations then suggested that blogs could actually be a venue for "long-form" writing. Finally, just as the fashion industry moved away from dictating skirt lengths sometime in the 1980s, people eventually stopped dictating ideal post length. Of course they still told people what to do, they just moved on from making demands on post length.

To Join Or Not To Join

It's my impression that science bloggers find more rules to bandy about than others, but granted, I don't have enough data to swear that economists, say, are really more laissez-faire. I couldn't possibly document all the various rules that science bloggers have proposed for other science bloggers over the years, but to illustrate my point, I'll mention a few.

First there's the question of where to host your blog. Some insist that science bloggers should join a science blogging network. This came about when the number of online science bloggers reached a point where they could actually form a group. Those advocating joining offer compelling reasons -- traffic, exposure, "community". Now, the number of such science blogging "communities" has surpassed our ability to keep track of them. There are still pros and cons to joining of course, depending on your goals, technical abilities, impressions of the different online venues, how your schedule might accommodate blogging, etc. But your agreeable answer to join is existentially far more critical to a potential host than to you. After all, the hosts wouldn't exist without the bloggers.

Of course the notion of "online community" includes many possibilities. Communities can be collaborative, nurturing, educational - great; or, if you've observed them in action, joining such an online science community can be like joining the military, where participants -- "travel to exotic foreign lands, meet interesting and exciting people, then kill them."

Proving Your Worth

Once the blogger decides where to put their blog, a barrage of other considerations and demands will follow. For example, in 2007 bloggers for peer-reviewed research reporting (BPR3) emerged, proposing

"to identify serious academic blog posts about peer-reviewed research by offering an icon and an aggregation site where others can look to find the best academic blogging on the Net."

While interesting as a business aggregation proposal, the blog "Peer-To-Peer" diplomatically commented on the idea, saying it would be impossible for such an icon to assure the "quality of the blog post itself". Or, we might add, to insure the quality of the writer's analysis, the quality of the science journal, the quality of the science research, and so on.

Questions of ethics in science blogging are constant, carrying on from earlier discussions of ethics in blogging and science journalism. Way back in 2003, bloggers started wondering whether they should adopt journalists' standards. Perhaps journalism in 2003 was wrapped in mystique that shrouded realities like "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU", but the drumbeat of ethics has since trailed science bloggers. I can't see how this could be useful people have written strong arguments noting that blogging wouldn't exist if bloggers weren't ethical. Nor has the whole ethics thing really led to changed behavior as far as I can see, but those who push "ethics" will forever peer over our shoulders.

Still other people demand, as the Parliament did 1999, that science bloggers/journalists only blog about things they know. Quite a qualitative statement considering variations in breadth and depth of knowledge among both scientists and journalists. A comment here provides a good rebuttal to that idea. You could also reason that writing solely about what you know at any moment, like the biomechanics of kangaroo tendons, for instance, despite how interesting that may be to you, might be a good way to become a lazy, narrow minded, outdated, and one bored stiff writer to say nothing of your readers'.

Recently the subjects of anonymity and pseudonymity re-emerged and preoccupied many science bloggers. I'm not going to weigh down this post talking about that, except to note 1) that the discussion has largely revolved around the value and necessity of a particular type of individual authentication, and 2) that the discussion has largely ignored the politics and economics driving such individual authentication.

Other people try mark out precise roles for science bloggers/journalists. Science writers should be "educators", they say, or "explainers", or priests of "how things work". Each such suggestion is an invitation for extensive discussion and cogitation, and naturally other people will vehemently disagree with every proposal. So then why don't bloggers just do what suits them best? Or does the constant criticism and re-definition create "community" (and pageviews)?

Getting The Details Right

We've touched on some general instructions to bloggers about how to blog about science. There are more detailed demands too, aimed at all of science blogging and journalism, as the divisions between online and offline media blur. For instance:

  • 2005: Don't use the word "Global Warming": Thus implored some scientists reasoning that people would confuse climate change with their local weather.
  • 2006: Don't use big words: So lectured the film "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus". The version I saw at Tribeca, 2006 highlighted words used by scientists in dialogue that were "too big", while characterizing Intelligent Design folks as small word people, i.e. comparatively approachable and understandable. It employed character assassination on all fronts by advising scientists to drop their testy, pompous attitudes, while basically infantilizing people who were religious. Some scientists took this whole thing to heart, overlooking how the movie slyly played to both audiences. People who knew the fairly simple polysyllabic words could be secretly smug that they knew the words when the definitions flashed on the screen like some weird spelling bee; and the other side of the audience could be smug about the portrayal of scientists as surly and smug.

  • 2007: Don't publish on Fridays: The IPCC panel and hundreds of scientists took flack from the communication "framers" for publishing their 2007 report on a Friday (link accessed 04/11) because 'any veteran journalist would know better'. The same post chastised the report for lacking "drama" like portraying "polar bears on melting ice". The authors gave another paper kudos for "reframing the IPCC report" with a "corruption angle" that gave it "more legs". In other words, said the framers, don't be scientists or reporters be PR ringmasters.
  • 2008 "Don't use the word "denial", "denialist", or "denier": Some scientists said that labeling climate change denialists as such was pejorative.

At the time, each of these instructions drew passionate discussions. But times change -- or don't change. Today it's fine to use "global warming" and "denialist". Science Friday still airs to large audiences on Fridays, and Science Magazine successfully publishes, Friday, after Friday, after Friday.

As charming as "Flock of Dodos" was - do big words really make science/scientists extinct? If we believe that message, should we then be discouraged that in 4 years, the Flock of Dodos trailer has 13,376 views on Youtube, while Hoax of Dodos, the Discovery Institutes pathetically best response, has almost as many -- 11,405 views? OK true, the "Pulled Punches" video (cut scenes from Flock of Dodos) has 18,605 views. But for perspective on what 18,605 views means on YouTube, the video "Emma Watson Punches Interviewer" (Jan 19, 2006), has 4,159,895 (all view numbers as of 05/11). Despite the fact that "Punch" is a catchy keyword to put in your comparatively boring science video, what does all this mean for science and science journalism?

"Blogging" is Worthy

What if none of these rules and instructions make science blogging "better", whatever better is? What if people still deny climate change for example, no matter what the facts and no matter what manner we convey them? While pursuing better communication is incredibly important, as is presenting ideas compellingly, how much of science knowledge lost by miscommunication is really any responsibility or fault of scientists and journalists (online or offline)? How much should be attributed to the political inclinations, personal distractions, and various passions of our audiences?

In reality most science journalists have zero time to write stories, whether or not they have generous deadlines. Those stories must always be very compelling just to get read. The extreme example of this fact, illustrated by a UK journalist, applies to most writing:

"You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson's Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second.

We may not like this. We may wish readers didn't prefer reading science only when it's infused with sex or violence or something that 99% of the population have some opinion on. We may wish that journalists really comprised some "fourth estate", or could make a difference, or could educate readers. What if science writers could just all write about their own fascinating interest, rather than about something dictated by advertising? And what if the audience would just read, and not worry about about ethics, badges of legitimacy or whether education was happening as they read?

But until science journalists make a lot more money or have a lot more time, that won't happen on any large scale basis. But most science bloggers write for free or pittance. And if you write mostly for free on a blog, shouldn't you just write? Or does it have to be for some higher purpose (agreed upon by the consensus of one of many "communities")? Because wasn't that the whole purpose of blogging?

Science bloggers should keep in mind what their up against. The lifeblood of mainstream media consists of headlines the likes of this week's "GM Blunder Contaminates Britain With Mutant Crops", about "Frankenstein" crops.

So I'm sure whatever you write, dear blogger, will stand up just fine. And until "offline" journalism reaches different standards, can we stop insisting/demanding/pleading that bloggers "ARE journalists too"? Maybe science blogging could stand on its own apart from journalism if the community of science bloggers trusted themselves.

Obama's State of the Union, and the Economy

On the eve of Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, the internet was aflutter. What tone would he take? Would he impart some lesson from the Tucson shooting? What would he say about the economy? China? How would energy and the environment fare now that Carol Browner had departed? People passionately speculated about the agenda: The right for everyone to marry? Nutrition? Social Security? As if the president were entering to-do items in his day planner, not delivering a rhetorical soothing for the left and the right on a cold February night.

As president, Obama maintains the aura of inclusiveness that he radiated during his campaign - up to a point. He promises the barnyard, but delivers ham sandwiches, a mediative style that has irritated both Democrats and Republicans. After the Tucson shooting, however, the criticism from both sides became softer. Independent voters in particular stopped demanding that Obama deliver fierier bang for their buck. Suddenly, conciliation seemed like a wise route. So for the State of the Union then, the President's innate and apparently immutable style coincided with the subdued mood of the country.

Representatives sat together, a gesture and process commentators mocked as prom-like and silly. But it meant a speech without the grandstanding and jeering, and to me, set a more serious, deliberative - and dare I say - appropriate tone for the State of the Union. Really, people need to just settle down, it's not a rugby match. They're not all that different in their positioning, and after a point all the "deliberation" is just obstructive. Lobbyists mostly write the laws, and give to Democrats and Republicans equally. In truth, Democrats and Republicans all spend most of their time jousting, simply so one or the other can get closer to the federal dollar spigot.

Obama denied re-election was anyone's goal-- "At stake right now is not who wins the next election -- after all, we just had an election". Of course, that's a syllogistic fallacy. And wait -- did Obama snicker when he said it? Wink? Anyway, if the US fails to thrive, it stems from our inability to win in the international economic arena that both parties and business helped architect over the last half century, not in differences between the "two parties".

The Economy, The Nation

During his first campaign, Obama promised everything to everyone, as campaigners must. In this State of the Union he focused on the economy and asked Americans to focus on it too. Therefore, no marriage, no gun control, no immigration, no disturbing science phrases such as "climate change", just a joke about "smoked salmon" a la McCain, that the average American apparently thought was the most memorable part of the speech.

As for the economy, corporate profits are rebounding, but employment and housing statistics fail to impress. That left the president assuring the citizens that the country is on an upward, prosperous swing. Indeed, by some measures it is. Today, the Dow bounded up agreeably. So if re-election were his goal, between his appointment of GE's Jeffrey Immelt, his SOU suggestion about business tax cuts, and his restriction of incendiary terms like "climate change" in favor of vague hand-waving about "energy technology", he should by leaving Republicans worried and scrambling to distinguish themselves.

But will re-election stances turn the economy around? Sway voters? The fact that US citizens can't earn the living they're used to in today's global economy won't be easily solved by either Republicans or Democrats. Obama hardly said anything about China, but workers are concerned. Amy Chua tweaked our national psyche by clanging us over the head with her book "Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother" (or, in China, "Being a Mom in America"), claiming the superiority of Chinese parenting, of course ties into test scores, career success, and our national competitiveness, if not supremacy.

Chua's unsettling book coincided with the choice of the Chinese piano piece "My Motherland", for the recent US-China state dinner. Chosen for it's melody, the song was reportedly from a movie story about China conquering the US. Officials called it "a Chinese folk song". It could have been worse. They didn't hire Pete Seeger to offer up an American folk song like, "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land". They didn't hire a jester to entertain by reciting test scores of a recent international test, where Shanghai and Hong Kong came in first and third in math, science and just about every other category, while the US came in somewhere between about 20th and 30th.

As Americans are wont to do, Obama differentiated the US education system as one that's creative, that discusses important ideas, like: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" But how many eight year old kids prompted to say "a doctor" will actually succeed in the public school system then find an workable health system when they graduate? Obama stressed (like Chua) that it was the parents that made a difference. But it's also the initiatives of a robust government that helps assure competitive schools and a good health system. But that's tough since the issues surrounding schools and health are hard to discuss around an election cycle, or in a State of the Union, or anytime.

China is not really the reason the US has high unemployment, but it makes people insecure, as did Russia and Japan. Perhaps Chinese energy technology and high speed train systems will spur the US on, and like the need for renewable energy or the need to revive a faltering economy, motivate some "Sputnik moment".

Obama himself did not dwell on China in this year's or last year's address. But China pays attention to the State of the Union. Liu Ge, a Chinese political commentator recently observed that the President didn't meet last year's State of the Union promise to bring unemployment to 8%. (Tiger commentator.)

Hopefully the elected officials will come up with solutions after the State of the Union 'sitting together' gesture. Or else the US politicians will be fated to argue dramatically among themselves in global obsolescence just as heartily as the British Parliament.

Challenging Healthcare Reform - Hints of Outcomes from Campaign Snippets

Challenging the Healthcare Bill

A judge recently ruled that 19 states challenging the federal healthcare bill had grounds to bring it to court. Of course not all of these states are totally behind the suit. The Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, for instance, is a Republican who enrolled his state in the lawsuit. However, Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire is a Democrat who strongly supports Obama's healthcare bill.

The judge, a Reagan appointee, suggested in his decision that the federal government may have overstepped its authority. But of course, shouldn't we expect this? If a group of religious zealots can halt potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research funded by federal grants by successfully claiming their non-existent research will be infringed by competing research, then perhaps anything might fly up the flagpole in the courts. And will this challenge fair even worse in the courts than in Congress?

How Will Reform Fare? "Snip...Go Up...No More...Pink Ribbons"

Most policy debates play out on the national stage, with politicians vying for personal political points by soundbiting appealing messages for big funders. Knowledge of the issues? Intelligent discussion? It exists, but often gets swallowed up in banal point parrying. The following is an exchange between Harry Reid, a Democrat and Senate majority leader from Nevada, and Sharron Angle, his Tea Party challenger and a "mean-girl", according to Maureen Dowd. Dowd reported an exchange, precipitated by Angle, who asserted that health insurers should not have to cover anything. Reid responded that it was important that mammograms and colonoscopies be covered:

"If you do colonoscopies," he said, "colon cancer does not come 'cause you snip off the things they find when they go up and -- no more."

"Well," Angle replied tartly, "pink ribbons are not going to make people have a better insurance plan."

Anyone looking for intelligence at that Las Vegas debate would be hard pressed to sift out anything coherent there. Will the courts do any better?

Embryonic Stem Cells Part II: Embryo Adoption, the Dickey-Wicker Sticky Wicket

Faustian Bargain: How The Federal Government Funds Anti-Science as Well as Science

In 2001, "pro-life" plaintiffs sued the federal government to stop the funding of human embryonic stem cell research. In response, the US government started the "Embryo Adoption Public Awareness Campaign" program, evidently to appease the pro-life evangelizers. Since 2002 then, HHS has granted $20 million to mostly fringe Christian "embryo adoption" programs that promote an extreme anti-science view of human development. In this way, the US government funnels tax-payer dollars to sell pro-life ideas that challenge and attempt to overwrite science.

In our last post, "Shock and Awe Strike Again, Embryonic Stem Cell Research Part I" we discussed the ongoing lawsuit by evangelical groups to stop stem cell research, specifically, Judge Royce Lamberth's preliminary injunction to stop Obama's reinstatement of some federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research (hESC). Lamberth used the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to stop any "piece of research" involving the destruction of human embryonic stem cells from getting federal funding. We asked whether scientists should have been "stunned" by the move, and pointed out that the same group of fringe plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against HHS in 2001. In this post we pick up where that post left off. We explore the concept of "embryo adoption" being advanced by agencies like Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which just sued HHS again.

Of the many Americans who self-identify as Christians (many don't), most recognize the value of science, the process of embryo development, the difference between a baby and a cell, the value of stem-cell research to saving lives, and finally the value of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in helping couples have babies.1 As we wrote in 2006, several highly respected theologians and scientists, including the head of NIH Francis Collins, have written books about how to be Christian while at the same time living in the modern science and technology world as a modern human being.2

On the contrary, the "pro-life", HHS funded "embryo adoption" agencies do the opposite. Although nothing but science has made their business possible, they try to pretend science is irrelevant. The agencies claim that they have the right and authority to decide who qualifies to try to bear an embryo/child. They make each childless couple who wants their services go through extended screening - as if the embryo were a child.

Interestingly, while they self-servingly label embryos as children, they then seem to have no bioethical qualms about selling them. Of course embryos are not children, nor are they aborted fetuses, as some people mislabel them. They come from petri dish derived egg and sperm embryos donated by couples who couldn't conceive naturally. The couples choose to donate to research rather than discard the embryos. The embryos do not come from inside a human, and many of them, because of the health of the parents, or the process of laboratory in-vitro fertilization, are unhealthy, nonviable and will never develop. This is a point that many people on all sides miss, so I'm going to say it again. Most of these embryos are not viable. By signing up to their embryo adoption program, couples implicitly or explicitly accept the agencies' misleading anti-science marketing, but then paradoxically undergo cutting-edge scientific procedures to try to have a child.

These "embryo adoption" groups call this fringe thinking "Christian", and unfortunately, HHS funds them -- apparently they'd rather mainstream these anti-science beliefs then risk telling the truth in this heated political climate. Stunningly, while collecting their millions in grants, these same pro-life agencies then sue HHS to halt life-saving stem cell research.

No matter what religion you claim, whether you're atheist or agnostic, whether you know or care about IVF, fertility, or adoption, you should wonder why the federal government is giving millions of dollars to evangelical groups so that they can inculcate people with these medieval notions of science, human development, and family building. Furthermore, why is the HHS, dedicated to promoting science and the health of Americans, funding groups that turn around and sue them to stop that science?

Biting The Hand That Feeds

You may remember Nightlight Christian Adoptions from former President George W. Bush's Stem Cell Address to the nation in August, 2001. By then, the lawsuit against Health and Human Services (HHS) on which Nightlight was a plaintiff had been stayed, pending Bush's review of stem cell policy. In his address, Bush gave Nightlight special kudos and flanked himself with children born through frozen embryo transfer (FET). He called them "snowflakes", which coincidentally or not happened to be the name of Nightlight's "embryo adoption" program.

Shortly thereafter, Nightlight Christian Adoptions started receiving what now amounts to millions of dollars in grants from the very agency they had sued, HHS. Nightlight uses these funds to promote "embryo adoption", which is the explicit purpose of the "Embryo Adoption Public Awareness Campaign" run by HHS's Office of Population Affairs (OPA).3 Among other activities, Nightlight sponsors bioethics essay contests for law students, makes videos about embryo adoption, sends mass mailings to IVF clinics, holds skating parties for former "snowflakes", and advances notions about reproduction and development that fit its pro-life agenda. Nightlight has opened branches across the county and has raised their fees, thanks to HHS and >$2 million in funding. (Christian Newswire "Massive New Media Campaign Raises Public Awareness of Embryo Donation & Adoption to Remarkable Heights, May 28, 2008). So is this lawsuit all the thanks HHS gets?

Nightlight's Public Business Proposition: Failure is Success?

In their lawsuit, plaintiff Nightlight Christian Adoption said they oppose life-saving human embryonic stem cell research (hESC) because their business would suffer when frozen embryos are used for research.2This is misleading for several reasons. One, although Nightlight Christian Adoptions says 500,000 frozen embryos are available for adoption in clinics, their number is not accurate. Many of those several cell embryos aren't viable because they've been frozen too long. Many more aren't viable because most embryos that are only several days old won't develop because of genetic defects, implantation problems, or other issues.

Furthermore, multiple studies have shown the only between 2-3% of couples choose to give their embryos to other couples, as this 2007 Kaiser Network study shows. But despite this research showing couples' reservations about giving up their genetic material, Nightlight's (HHS funded) promotional materials advertise that in their poll, "they asked Americans" if they would give up their embryos and 70% said yes. And despite the high enthusiasm they polled, they receive HHS funding for "awareness" campaigns.

Even if hESC were a threat to their business, this shouldn't matter to Nightlight. Their awareness campaigns and expansion conflict with their website's FAQs. For instance, in one hypothetical question, the agency asks itself - then answers:

Question: "Does Nightlight encourage the creation and freezing of embryos?"

Answer: "No, we are trying to provide a loving option to the families of the 500,000 (estimated) embryos frozen in clinics throughout the United States...We would really prefer to work ourselves out of a job!"

So lets review. 1) They're spending money suing the government with claims that human embryonic stem cells are going to put them out of business; 2) They're suing to get more HHS funds for awareness campaigns and expanding their business with those funds; and 3) claiming on their website that they're trying to use all the embryos available to work themselves out of "a job". Head-spinning.

How $20 Million Dollars From HHS Funds The Controversial "Embryo Adoption Awareness"

Nightlight's Snowflake embryo adoption program was pretty obscure until a few years ago. In August, 2002, the program had been in existence for 8 years, and only 18 children had been born, about 2 per year. Couples were obviously not convinced this was a good option. And thus it wasn't a good business model either. Nightlight was charging "$4,500 to broker an embryo transfer between couples. (Meckler, L., Aug 20, 2002, AP). That year Senator Arlen Specter inserted into a Health and Human Services spending bill a grant that distributed almost a million dollars Nightlight Christian Adoptions between 2002 and 2004. The agency received another $1.1 million dollars between 2007-2009 according to the US government tracking tool at transparency.gov (accessed 09/2010) (the tool is very disappointing on this matter because it has incomplete records for 2007-2009 and no records of previous years). In total, here's how much HHS's OPA publishes it has spent on the "Embryo Adoption Public Awareness Campaign" (accessed Sept. 2010):

FY 2002 $ 996,000
FY 2004 $ 994,100
FY 2005 $ 992,000
FY 2006 $ 1,979,000
FY 2007 $ 1,980,000
FY 2008 $ 3,930,000
FY 2009 $ 4,200,000
FY 2010 $ 4,200,000

In addition to Nightlight Christian Adoptions, HHS also funds Bethany Christian Services, Baptist Health System Foundation, and the National Embryo Donation Center -- all "embryo adoption" organizations that evangelize "pro-life" agendas. Recently, a far smaller number of grants have gone to secular organizations, but importantly, since the federal government initially funded exclusively religious organizations, HHS helped the pro-life agencies secure a foothold in the market. In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services basically made the market for these pro-life agencies. (Note that although the HHS Embryo Adoption Public Awareness Campaign budget has increased, Transparency.gov only lists "New Grants" for 2007-2009. These amount to a fraction HHS's published budget, which makes it hard for us all to figure out where the money goes.)

Changing the Meaning of the Words "Person", "Embryo", "Adoption", "Donor"

In order for embryo adoption organizations to succeed they need embryos, which are in scarcer supply than they advertise, for reasons outlined above. The embryo adoption agencies also need to change perceptions, that is, change the meanings of words long defined by science and secular organizations. This is how the Department of Health and Human Services grants help.

These fringe groups start by using the phrase "embryo adoption", instead of "embryo donation". This is subtle, but important. The procedure of embryo donation has been around forever, offered sparingly by IVF clinics, available with a simple contract. Embryo "donation" as offered through fertility clinics meant: "you can donate these embryos to another couple". There was no religious intermediary collecting a fee and deciding who qualified.

The US government HHS funded campaign has served to advance the phrase embryo "adoption", instead of "donation". In their campaign, pro-life groups and "embryo adoption" agencies hijacked the term "donation" and now use it to refer to what IVF patients, who pay tens of thousands of dollars per IVF cycle, must donate (embryos) to the "embryo adoption" agencies -- ie: 'you donate your very expensive and dear embryos to us, and we put them up for (Christian) adoption" and profit from it.' That's an "awareness" campaign.

"Microscopic Americans"

The American Society For Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) writes here about the biologically and ethically deceptive practice of changing the labeling of embryo "donation" to "adoption". The phrase embryo "adoption" imposes the false notion that these few day old embryos are people. This mischaracterization is promoted by politicians, the media, and those receiving HHS funding. For example:

  • "I believe every embryo is a child that deserves a chance to be born", the director for Nightlight Christian Adoptions embryo adoption program told the Associated Press. "This is more than mere tissue. They need an option they haven't had in the past." (Meckler, L., Aug 20, 2002 "Bush administration distributing nearly $1 million to promote embryo adoption", AP) [The "they" refers to the non-sentient embryos, many that have no chance of being viable]
  • "Frozen embryo adoption offers hope to microscopic Americans". (Murdock, Deroy, August 27, 2001 The Adoption Option, National Journal ) (hat tip Salon)
  • Senator Arlen Specter: "If any of those embryos could produce life, I think they ought to produce life." Calling his grant a "test", Spector said: "Let us try to find people who will adopt embryos and take the necessary steps on implanting them in a woman to produce life".

Like many other proponents of embryo "adoption", these people skip over, ignore or just don't know the actual viability of embryos, as I mentioned above. It's misleading to say that these are simply "unborn people", as the head of "Nightlife Christian Adoptions" called them, which need a warm cozy womb to be "implanted". It's misleading to say that a clump of nonviable cells are in need of "an option". Such rhetoric is a disservice to potential recipients, to science, and to the American public.

The embryos in question are the product of IVF. About 1 in 10 people seek fertility medical intervention, often in-vitro fertilization (IVF), because some part of their reproductive anatomy or physiology isn't working. The IVF embryos produced are therefore often flawed and don't develop. The recipients also have fertility problems, and a portion of these issues involve receptivity of the womb to embryo implantation. Doctors don't simply thaw an embryo out and plunk "microscopic Americans" into a uterus 'to let them thrive'.

Unlike the perception given by Senator Spector, Nightlight, and the conservative columnist, the doctors don't "implant" the embryos. After thawing, they're "transferred" into the woman in a process called "Frozen Embryo Transfer" (FET). They'd like to make you think it's like thawing a pie and popping it into the oven. It's not. Implantation is a sensitive physiological process, dependent on different factors and a different process then thawing. 50% of the embryos will not survive thawing, and most of the remaining 50% won't implant in the uterus, won't develop, and won't be born.

What Happens To All Those Other Homunculi?

Nightlight's "Snowflake" program "matches" frozen embryos of IVF patients with recipient parents, and requires a homestudy and counseling to assure that the parents are fit to purchase the embryos, Nightlight also promotes the idea that frozen embryos (most ~2-9 cells) the majority of which are not viable, are children.

The program fee is currently $8000, which doesn't include things like the homestudy -- $1,500-$3,000, medical costs (hormones, FET cycle and doctor's fees), etc. The $8000 fee will buy one batch of embryos, unless those cells do not result in a birth, in which case the couple gets another batch, and if those don't result in a birth then the couple will get a third. If none of those work the couple can pay another $2,500 for some more frozen embryos. You may be asking yourself, why would they need so many batches of embryos if each frozen embryo is a "microscopic American"? You would be asking an excellent question.

The actual FET success rate is difficult to discern from Nightlight's FAQs, but here's what they say (August, 2010):

  • "To date Nightlight has matched 454 genetic families (with approx. 3314 embryos) with 312 adopting families."
  • "2474 embryos have been thawed for transfer of which 54% (1328) were viable."
  • "There are 225 Snowflakes children and 25 adopting families are currently expecting 32 babies"
  • "About 1/4 of the Snowflakes moms who have achieved a pregnancy have carried multiples."

We could add 225 Snowflake children +32 expecting babies and get 257 births of 2474 embryos thawed, which would make the birthrate about 10% (lower than I would expect). That number is surprisingly low. But also note that apparently 2/3 of the genetic families had embryos, and about 1.4 of the 3314 embryos only gave 2474 thawed. This looks like many that somehow didn't even get to the thaw point. At any rate there's a reason why the company offers multiple batches for one price. But the agency fee is only one a portion of the price. Each time a couple goes to the fertility clinic for a transfer, they pay another fee. Each time a couple needs to do another cycle, the women subjects herself to powerful hormones. So sub-par embryos and inaccurate marketing, costs these childless couples money and create an extra health risks for women.

Although many Americans are being taught (because of HHS) that these embryos are "unborn children", the fact is, embryos are not children, just several day old cells with a small probability of being able to develop into children with the help of decades of experiments in IVF science.

It's Not Only About Semantic Changes, IVF and Embryo "Adoption"

"Embryo adoption" is a pretty middle of the road concept when you look at the what some pro-life people and groups lobby for. Christian Brugger Ph.D, wrote at the site culture-of-life.org, (Village Voice) about a 2008, HHS funded conference on embryo adoption attended largely by "devout Protestants" and Christian embryo adoption "facilitators". He reported that these two camps agreed that the embryos "stranded in U.S. concentration cans" were a problem. But some Catholics and "committed Christians" also spoke about the "intrinsically evil" problem of heterologous embryo transfer (HET), stressing that women should only get pregnant through marital intercourse. That is, as Brugger reports, many people say that this whole "embryo adoption" campaign is an attempt to give embryos legal rights by granting them legal "personhood", which would then bring into question fertility treatments, abortion, and certainly embryonic stem-cell research.

Fundamentalist Christian intervention into fertility and family building may seem patronizing, but it could be worse, as this exchange reported in the Village Voice shows:

'In July 2001, JoAnn Eiman, then-director of the Snowflakes program, traveled to Washington, D.C. to address Congress. At one point in the panel discussion, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, (D-New York) asked Eiman if she was in favor of actually forcing people to place their excess embryos up for adoption. Eiman said no. But later, in California, after the Congressional office sent her a transcript of her testimony and asked her to make appropriate corrections, Eiman changed her mind.

'We force people to put their kids into foster care if they're not good parents,' she says. 'If parents aren't parenting their children, aren't we responsible for making sure they do? Do we leave them frozen forever?'"

Thus, the Snowflakes director goes one step further in characterizing unviable clumps of cells as frozen children, she claims they're actually victims of negligent parents. If you scan through the evangelical Christian media on this, and public comment forums like this, where 50,000 people left comments about stem cell research for the NIH, it's easy to see that many people don't have the faintest idea about human development, about what a "stem cell" is, about what an embryo is, or about the potential of embryonic stem cell research. These people are obviously swayed quite easily, and they are being sold a false vision of an embryo not as a few cells in a petri dish with a small and precarious chance of healthy development with the help of science, but as a "unborn baby". Because of various pro-life campaigns, these people actually visualize an embryo as a "microscopic American", a preformed human, a homunculus. The "Embryo Adoption Public Awareness Campaign" of the US Department of Health and Human Services promotes this deception.

To summarize, scientists have developed fairly effective IVF through the rigorous application of the scientific method over many decades. Many embryos are not viable and do not survive. The procedures are still evolving, that is, they're still experimental. But in hopes of having kids, families spend tens of thousands of dollars on IVF -- they re-mortgage their houses to pay for these very expensive procedures. Then some fringe "embryo adoption" evangelists get these same couples to "donate" their embryos, obtained through these expensive, difficult and experimental scientific procedures. This, so that these groups can make money off the embryos while claiming to be "saving little human lives". Then these same "embryo adoption" groups sue the government, the very same Department of Health and Human Services which is supposed to be assuring the science and health of Americans, the very same HHS that has largely enabled their "embryo adoption" businesses. Millions of dollars in federal grant funding is being used to basically defile science and control how people build families, by promoting a view of human development that happens to be dead wrong.

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1 It's true, as the NIH wrote recently, that halting hESC research funding as the judge ordered on as a result of Nightlight Christian Adoptions et al, will stop critical research on diseases like cancer and Parkison's, which the NIH has invested millions of dollars pursuing. But although Nightlight sues to halt lifesaving research, paradoxically Nightlight is all about leveraging some of the very same research, IVF research, that their business depends on.

2We don't often talk about religiously contentious issues, in fact perhaps the last time we did was in 2006, in "Science, Faith, and Books", where we wrote: "Acronym Required generally veers away from discussing of religion and science, except when religious fundamentalists tromp into science territory and we feel compelled to join the crowd and give them a bit of a swat."

3 This is housed in what was until 3 days ago the "Office of Public Health and Science (OPHS)" -- it's now the "Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health" (OASH).

Embryonic Stem Cells Part I: Shock and Awe Strike Again

Last week, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction to stop Obama's reinstatement of some of the federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The plaintiffs included Christian Medical Association, the Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency that sells the use of frozen embryos it calls "snowflakes" - from fertility clinics, two PH.D. scientists, James Sherley of Watertown, Massachusetts, and Theresa Deisher of Seattle, who do research on adult stem cells and claim that allowing embryonic stem cell research wrecks their chances of getting federal grants. Other plaintiffs in the suit were clients for adopted embryos, and the actual embryos frozen in IVF clinics.

Lamberth previously ruled that none of these plaintiffs or cells had legal standing. However, the two Ph.Ds won standing when they appealed, on grounds that their adult stem cell research would be compromised if they had to compete for federal grants with embryonic stem cell research. Lamberth issued the preliminary injunction based on his judgement that the plaintiffs would prevail when the case went to trial, therefore they needed immediate relief because they're livelihoods were impacted by Obama's expanded hESC funding directive.

Judge Lamberth's decision was based on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment attached to every Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) bill since 1996. The rider was a pro-life fueled measure, intended to prevent cloning for research purposes. Since 1996, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment has ostensibly prohibited the use of federal funds for:

  • "the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes;" or
  • "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under" certain existing laws."

Nevertheless, three administrations, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama, have allowed various levels of federal funding on research on embryonic stem cell lines. The judge's injunction goes so far as to roll back former President Bush's limited acceptance of federally funded stem cell research for certain stem-cell lines created by 2001. The Federal government has requested a stay (.pdf) of the injunction. Who will prevail?

Science Community Stunned

The legal move was a blow to the science research community. Said NIH Director Francis Collins: "The NIH was frankly, I was stunned - as was virtually everyone here at NIH - by the judicial decision yesterday".

But back in 2001, prior to the 2002 elections in which Republicans gained seats, a similar group of plaintiffs also sued the government. The plaintiffs in that suit, Nightlight Christian Adoptions et al v. Thompson, included Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the Christian Medical Association, and two couples who wanted to adopt embryos. The suit said that stem cell research reduced availability of embryos for adoption; and Dr. David Prentice, a former professor of life sciences at Indiana State University asserted that there were better alternatives to human embryonic stem cells (hESC). Prentice is now a fellow at the Family Research Council.

Now, nine years later, right before mid-term elections and after Obama plans to expand funding for stem cell research, we have basically the same lawsuit, from basically same plaintiffs.

People have various opinions about what the injunction means and how it will progress in the courts. A lawyer and commenter here at concurringopinions.com discussed why the government will prevail (or won't).

Some scientists speculate that the importance of federally funded embryonic stem cell research has faded, because so much work is done privately. Others, including the plaintiffs, argue that inducible pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) or adult stem cells are just as promising. "Pro-life" and Christian groups argue that the embryos are people which shouldn't be used for research, even if it will save lives. But scientists agree that embryonic research is at least a necessary prong to pursue potentially life-saving research, and many people, including Christians, agree.

The plaintiffs' arguments do not persuade scientists for many reasons. Their claim to economic injury is not only unconvincing on its face, considering that the plaintiffs don't do research and the NIH funding structure evaluates all promising technology, it's dwarfed by the impact that stopping the research would have on the lives of sick people. As well, the livelihoods of many science researchers are in jeopardy, as is the investment of millions of dollars of government funding that the judge's order seeks to abandon ~24 research projects in which the government has spent $64 million (.pdf), now threatened because they had been scheduled to receive $54 million in continuing NIH funding at the end of September.

Should Scientists Have Been Surprised?

I was. But maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention. Or maybe I didn't want to believe that such anti-reason would even get a chance. But apparently, all it took was the "right" plaintiff and the "right" judge, at the "right" time.

Maybe it's a tempest in a teapot, as many seem to think. Maybe Lamberth had an off day and will change his mind, maybe the courts (moving right every day) will come to their senses. But at the moment, those who want to stop hESC seem to be determinately bulldozing things their way, decade after decade.

Tax Cut Extension: Multi-Millionaires Do the Math, You Should Too

The ruckus over Obama's proposal to extend only part of Bush's tax breaks -- not the part to ultra-ultra-ultra wealthy individuals -- is maybe playing second fiddle to the mosque ruckus. Maybe this should be obvious, since one involves a little math and reasoning, while the other can be argued from straight from the gut, therefore more people can chatter about Muslim community centers.

News Aimed to the Lowest Common Denominator

But it's a shame more people aren't talking about the tax cuts, because the GOP driven (w/ some Democrats on board) arguments against tax-breaks make no more sense than the ones against the Muslim Community Center, so they should be gossiped about. Plus, the tax-cuts arguably have more impact on the average American than the presence of a community center in downtown New York City.

The Tax Policy Center made a great chart showing who, exactly, would be touched by the Obama tax-cut extension plan. Not until you made $196,549/year would you your tax break be impacted even one cent by Obama's plan.

Once you made $196,540, the Obama plan would take an average of $2 off your $5,508 tax cut - two dollars. The most you would "lose" under Obama -- if you happened to make over $8,367,274 -- that is you were in the top 99.9 percentile in income, making $8.4 million dollars or more, would be $61,500.

That is, if you made about $8.4 million dollars, you'd still get $248,640 of the original $310,140 tax cut. You wouldn't get that extra $61,500 tax cut, so you'd miss out on, I don't know, that bottle of Bordeaux (not any Bordeaux, mind you, a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild). Put that in your pipe and smoke it T-partiers.

The Tax Policy Center notes that the Obama plan will actually only cut a very small part of the overall deficit - 7%. Obama would only change a very small, small number of peoples' incomes (not "small businesses" that would feel the pinch). The TPC says:

"How much will the President's proposal save? Unfortunately, not nearly enough to close the cumulative budget deficit. The administration's proposal shaves off about $680 billion from the 10-year deficit--a modest $68 billion per year"

But the cost of extending all the cuts is worse news. The Tax Policy Center writes: "From a budgetary perspective, the price of extending all of the cuts is steep; full extension would contribute $3.7 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years..."

The Battle Between Math & Rhetoric (hint: math is losing)

Paul Krugman also points out that the insistence on extending the tax cuts as opposed to going with Obama's plan makes no sense. He brings our attention to the craziness of what the GOP is quibbling over, rather than the insignificance of the cuts to the overall budget.

He writes:

"According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to following the Obama proposal, would cost the federal government $680 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. For the sake of comparison, it took months of hard negotiations to get Congressional approval for a mere $26 billion in desperately needed aid to state and local governments."

Even Alan Greenspan, forever shocked that the markets let him down, recommends suspending all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Aside from FOX News, where John Stossel is "tired of Greenspan", and finds it "ironic" that Greenspan once wrote for Ayn Rand, and (not ironic the way I do), what's up with the rest of the people?

AB-70 - Legislation on the Fly and Bring Your Genes to Cal

Update 08/13: AB 70 was defeated. However, the Bring Your Genes to Cal program was altered because they planned to do the analysis in Berkeley labs, which are not certified medical labs. In accordance with state demands the students will not receive their own results.

Legislation usually moves along at a crawl, slowly, glacially -- except if you're the California State legislature trying to corral the University of California, Berkeley's personal genomics walkabout offered to incoming freshmen. The state bill AB 70 was introduced in December, 2008 to encourage transparency on how school districts classify "English learners" to "proficient".* Now, the text of AB 70 the "English learners" bill has been parasitically devoured and replaced with text to impede the University of California, Berkeley's program for incoming students, known as: "On the Same Page: Bring Your Genes to Cal".

How the State Tries to Come Between Cal...and Your Genes

Like many universities, freshmen are welcomed to UC Berkeley with some thematic program. Historically that's meant they all read a book, for instance last year they read Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. This year they decided on a more interactive learning experience, asking incoming Freshman to spit in a cup and submit that for analysis of lactose, alcohol metabolism, and folate gene variants. The idea seemed fresh and relevant, and Berkeley went forward with it apparently without much internal debate. Certainly getting students involved in their own health can't be bad can it?

Some people actually thought it was bad, however, and eventually the state legislature got involved -- very late to the game, of course. But as the university mailed out saliva spit kits to students, AB 70 suddenly gained what seemed like unprecedented speed and "urgency". If passed, it will be "enacted immediately."

The original AB 70 proposed adding a section to the education code requiring that school districts report their criteria for assessing English proficiency. The bill languished until being amended June 24, 2010. The amended title reflected not-too subtle changes. The old sponsor and bill purposes were simply crossed out, and the new sponsor and purpose inserted so it read:

"Duvall Norby English learners. Public postsecondary education: genetic testing."

That's how an English learners bill morphed into a bill to stop UC Berkeley from teaching about genetic testing.

Legislation 101

English learners text was crossed out:

....This bill would require the department, as part of its duties in administering the English language development test, to gather from each school district that has one or more English learners the criteria that the district uses for the reclassification of a pupil from English learner to proficient in English and to summarize and report the criteria it receives...

And in its place, text warning about allowing "On The Same Page: Bring Your Genes to Cal":

  • Collecting, testing and storing genetic material presents "unique challenges to protecting individual privacy".
  • Medical testing "subjects" should receive "substantial" written and verbal explanation before supplying consent
  • Students "may feel coerced to participate in official activities involving widespread genetic testing"
  • A 2006 GAO report showed that tests are "unproven, misleading, meaningless.."
  • Students could "suffer consequences later in life" because of privacy breaches.

The June 24th version demanded that the school report quarterly, all the costs of the "solicitation" so that the state of California could recoup those expenses. The trouble with that legislation was that the solicitation already happened and was funded with a gift (probably, the funding is unclear). (The state only provides Berkeley with a small percentage of its funding.) So the August 02 amended version of AB 70 struck out "prohibits" and entered "requests" instead. The August version also struck out the demand for accounting of "unsolicited requests", and replaced that for a demand to account for "legal judgements or settlements resulting from violations of the informed consent requirements".

On Different Pages

The August amendments show the state adjusting to meet the realities of the program moving forward. It's a learning experience for all. Clearly the legislature is trying to wrap its head around the project, and adjusting as needed. As is Berkeley. As are organizations who oppose the program.

The text of the bill reflects very closely the rhetoric of the Massachusetts based Council on Responsible Genetics (CRG). Their primary concern seems to be privacy, and their multiple letters to California legislators practically dictate the content of AB 70. But as they gather more information about the project, they too change their rhetoric. In their most recent letter to California legislators, the Council For Responsible Genetics joined with the ACLU, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, The Electronic Freedom Foundation and others, urging the legislators to "request a full accounting" of the "On the Same Page: Bring Your Genes to Call" program, specifically issues of conflict of interest, funding, privacy, and data confidentiality.

The Berkeley program certainly brings relevant topics to the fore, and who can challenge the importance of this? But Berkeley scientists and the Council on Responsible Genetics have stuck doggedly to their talking points. Scientists advocating the program stress the need for education about genomics, and accuse critics of being anachronistic and paternalistic. They stress individuals personal right learn genetic information. Therefore, they would argue, this is a relevant topic worthy of the attention of the program.

Certainly healthcare in America is at such a nadir that anyone with half a brain in their head who has visited a doctor lately would agree that giving individuals more information to take more ownership of their own healthcare would be great. Personal genomics could give such insight, democratize information, and benefit health consumers. But this is one (there are others) big hitch. Direct to consumer genetics testing (this is related) walks a fine line between being innocuous information and a "medical test". Bring Your Genes to Cal proponents simultaneously push the importance of the students learning about genomics - and by pushing this they get necessary support, while at the same time belittling the relevance of the tests and their results - so as not to attract unwanted attention.

Meanwhile, critics are focusing on the very issues that the University is trying to downplay. CRG insists on repeatedly labeling the Bring Your Genes to Cal tests "medical tests" in order to prompt alarm and greater scrutiny. The critics dwell on privacy, data confidentiality, and interpretation of data. To me, if genomics data is important enough that it's worth building this program around (as innocuous seeming as these variants may be), than it's important enough for the critics' issues to matter -- even if the involved scientists twist themselves into knots to avoid those discussions.

The state, for its part, is trying to respond, quickly at that, without having a clear handle on the issues. Perhaps they yearn for 2008, when AB 70 was stymied in controversy over adding a webpage to assure transparency in schools' English Learner programs.

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*AB 70 was also once a bill about state dams.

AIDS Denier Architects His "Day In Court", Owns the "Judge"

The University of California, Berkeley always amazes. It has an ultra-liberal reputation, yet it defies its label by harboring some of the most controversial figures and protects them under the auspices of academic freedom, which is obviously an excellent institution, but stretched at Berkeley to fit many circumstances. The law school dean used it to protect John Yoo, the law professor who crafted the Bush administration's torture policy, for instance. Now the school has invoked the useful catch-all to clear scientist Peter Duesberg of wrong-doing over a paper he wrote denying the HIV viral link to AIDS. The University said there was "insufficient evidence" to do anything else.

Berkeley Did Not Judge the "Accuracy or Validity of the Article"

Although UC Berkeley didn't judge the "accuracy or validity of the article", those issues lie at the heart the ongoing Duesberg controversy. Dueberg initiated his latest foray by publishing a paper in a non-peer review journal called "Medical Hypotheses". He claimed in his paper that the HIV virus didn't cause AIDS, something he's been promoting for years. The paper did not undergo peer-review. Scientists refuted his false theories in a collective uproar, but the journal retracted the paper. The journal editor was then fired, and the publisher Elsevier promised to rethink the journal format.

Then the University received two letters, one from Treatment Action Coalition (TAC) in South Africa, criticizing Duesberg's paper for conflict of interest and for "making false claims". The letters asked the University to investigate. The school did so, however yesterday's action clearing Duesberg of wrongdoing indicates that the UC Berkeley mission, policy and conduct documents don't contain anything that's applicable to Duesberg's situation.

Duesberg's Legacy In South Africa

The main problem is not necessarily the statements Duesberg published last year, but the fact that for years he's been publishing them and they've significantly influenced policy and beliefs about AIDS and science in general. It's his actions outside the University, like Yoo's, that cause the most distress. Duesberg sat on former South African President Mbeki's advisory panel on AIDS back in 1999-2000, and the South African government frequently cited his AIDS ideas to support their policies. Mbeki didn't treat AIDS in his country, letting hundreds of thousands of people die.

Whether Duesberg was a handy foil for Mbeki's pre-determined policy -- whether Mbeki's countrymen died because the president was more driven to toe conservative economic and social policy the procure available AIDS drugs -- is unclear. What is clear is that the country had the highest death rate from AIDS in history, while wielding the most mendacious policies that Mbeki backed-up with "science" created by Duesberg.

Yet there's nothing in Berkeley policy that specifically calls this a crime.

Peer-Review? Whatever. Duesberg = UC Berkeley= AIDS Denial = Mbeki's AIDS Policy = Death

A Berkeley spokesman told Nature: "The university relies on the scholarly peer-review process, rather than disciplinary procedures, for evaluating the value of scientific work." There. Very official. However AIDS denialists don't rely on peer-review. They revel in non-peer-review.

And unlike the University and scientists who care about peer-review, for Duesberg's purposes, getting a paper retracted by some flaky non-peer-reviewed tabloid called "Medical Hypotheses" doesn't matter. He has his audience. For years he's had a self-promoting website up, and his ideas have gained an audience. Next they'll go after "my parking permits" he says. His audience laps this stuff up -- the underdog, taking on the big evil science establishment.

UC Berkeley has their policies and official responses. Academic freedom, the concept, is unarguably beneficial, the heart of academia. But the fact remains, one of the most renowned research universities in the world supports a scientist largely responsible for some of the most deadly anti-science claims in history.

"Official" HIV/AIDS "research" from the University of California, Berkeley.

UC Berkeley policy has nothing to say. Peer-review? Here's what the world sees: Duesberg = UC Berkeley= AIDS Denial = Mbeki's AIDS Policy = Death. Somewhere deep in the heart of hearts of some university bureaucrat, under all the official, vague missions, purposes, and policies, doesn't this cause angst? Or is the thick overgrowth of bureaucracy muffle the death cries?

Exonerated?

Interestingly, it's Duesberg himself whose been spear-heading the reporting on the investigation. Apparently Duesberg has enough confidence in the support of anti-science, AIDS denialist community, to know the outcome would work for his purposes. And since now Duesberg is claiming that he was "exonerated", it's like free marketing for his theories. How tragic.

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1PLoS One, the audience reviewed journal, is also tangentially affiliated with UC Berkeley via PLoS co-founder and esteemed scientist Michael Eisen.

Acronym Required has written frequently on South Africa and AIDS, occasionally about HIV/AIDS deniers, and once in a while about UC Berkeley.

Notes in a New Year, 2010

Haiti!

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 had occupied Sproul Hall, the police managed to carry-out all of 800 - literally. As Trillin wrote, the police heaved the students, "wearing blue jeans and singing hymns", out of Sproul Hall one by one.

When Trillin arrived at the courtroom, the scene was much more staid. 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 during their protests "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 seemingly instinctively 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 free speech 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 depicting 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".

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 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? They students accomplished exactly the goal they set out to. 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.

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 and president. 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 they 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. 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 wrote the Bush torture memos and teaches constitutional law, or the law school that defends Yoo's position in the name of "academic freedom". They ignore the power differential that makes such protests such as the BP one just 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, and 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. It's totally wrong.

Letter From California, The Reality

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). The differences are large, not least of which that Stanford is a private school and far more costly than Berkeley. But with Berkeley's cost raises, financially at least, the tour-guides' blithe comparisons will be more apt. So what did the protestors want? The hikes were severe, but like the rest of America, aren't 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, students marching against fee increases rather than for world peace or the weighty issues of the centuries. In the November 2009 protests, a piddly sixty-six protestors 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 "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 '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, in the top ten 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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