Recently in Politics, but No Science Category

"What Are We Going To Do, Start Outlawing Forks?"

In Thank You For Smoking, Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel, spokespeople for the gun, alcohol, and tobacco industries meet-up to commiserate and brainstorm about public relations challenges and strategies. They dub their little group the "M.O.D. Squad" - Merchants of Death. At one of their meetings the three brainstorm about how to deal with the press in the aftermath of a mass shooting in a church. Nick, the novel's protagonist, works for the tobacco industry in a "research" organization, Polly works for alcohol companies, and Bobby Jay Bliss represents the gun industry.

Bobby Jay: To them, my ten-year-old's BB gun is an "assault rifle." He held up his fork. "To them, this could be an 'assault' weapon. What are we going to do, start outlawing forks?"
Nick: "Forks?"
Polly: Forks Don't Kill people, people kill people. I don't know....Needs work.

Later he tells his M.O.D. Squad pals about how he was listening to a talk radio show, when he heard a woman who was at the church call in to say she had a clear shot of the gunman but had to leave her gun in the glove compartment because of the laws. He realized he could use her for some PR and recounts his trip to her home in Carburetor City, Texas with a camera crew.

Bobby Jay: "I had her hairdresser come over. She wanted to do her makeup but I wouldn't hear of it. I wanted her eyes red from crying. We dabbed a little onion under the eyelids, nothing wrong with that, just to get her in the mood, get those ducts opened up"
Nick: "Onion?"
Bobby Jay: "Didn't even need it. Soon as she saw those color police photos I was holding up for her off camera she started bawlin' like a baby...she gets to the part about how she had to leave her pistol in the glove compartment. Then she looks right into the camera, right in your face, and dabs the corner of her eye -- and that was not in the script -- and says, 'Why won't our elected lawmakers just let us protect ourselves? Is that too much to ask?'"

He tells how he used the footage to dramatize a story about Second Amendment rights to combat calls for gun control. In the novel, the piece was used to urge citizens to call their congressmen.

Our National Weapons of Mass Destruction

Gun Control - Can We?

2012 has been another year of gun killings, the latest being the mass murder at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. After each mass shooting, gun control is discussed for a while, before anger and anguish peter out. As we write, just days after the tragedy, Senator Feinstein has vowed to renew assault weapons legislation. Will we actually do something this time?

If you look at people's interest via the program Google Trends1, just as a rough proxy, it doesn't look optimistic. On July 20th, a gunman in Aurora, Colorado killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater, and on July 21st, the day after the shooting, "gun control" searches peaked. They also increased after the Oak Creek, Minnesota Sikh Temple shooting (6 people killed and 3 injured) on August 5th, and after the Empire State Building shooting August 24, 2012 (2 people killed and 9 injured). But nothing ever happened. Politicians mourned before cameras, tipping their heads to wipe a tear off their cheeks, then did nothing.

GunControlTrends1
Google Trends shows the relative frequency of one or more search terms1.
The graph shows the frequency of the term "gun control" in the US for July and August, 2012.
(Google)

Of course, in addition to these mass murders, there's the baseline murder rate, the quotidian murders of bystanders, husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, mothers and fathers - thousands of deaths. Chicago had almost 500 murders this year, roughly half the murders of 20 years ago, but much higher than last year despite the 10% lower overall crime rate. Like Newtown, Connecticut, Chicago has struggled to get guns off the streets, and every attempt, from banning handguns and shooting galleries to disallowing concealed handguns, has been fought by gun owners and lobbies, often successfully.

Cord Jefferson described Chicago's struggle with gun violence last summer, and Marc Lamont Hill discussed the multifaceted nature of the problem here at HuffPost. Both suggested that there's a lack of attention to inner city high gun violence because the murders are often associated with black men and gangs. I don't doubt that.

But people's overall attention to gun violence is sporadic, like their attention to climate change. When a hurricane destroys lower Manhattan, do New Yorkers' worry more about climate change than when a hurricane destroys some island in Asia? You bet. What about when familiar, safe-seeming places like movie theaters and schools become frequent targets of mass murderers? Are we more terrorized by deranged people armed with military grade firepower intent on taking out entire pop-corn eating movie audiences than by inner-city murders? Apparently. Then Newtown, Connecticut happens. Who is more innocent and more vulnerable than children, and what place is presumed more safe than a suburban grammar school?

GunControlTrends2
The frequency of the search term "gun control" in the US, 2004 - 2012.(Google)

After a seven year old kid was killed in Chicago last summer, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel warned gangs to "take your stuff to the alley", but "don't touch the children of the city of Chicago, don't get near them". The nation seems to have a similar response to last week's Newtown killings. The Google Trends report for "gun control" after Newtown is off the charts compared to any other gun related incident in Google Trends' 8 year history. The question is, will the concern be sustained enough to force the slower, more tedious task of legislative action?

GunControlTrends1
The frequency of the search terms "gun control" (blue), "climate change" (red), and "kittens"(gold), in the US, 2004-2012 (Google)

Gun control will not solve all the violence, all the problems. But it's a start. We can no longer bide politicians who cower before gun money, wantonly abandoning constituents who then die in deadly fusillades discharged from automatic weapons, or survive traumatically -- the six year old girl who "played dead" under the carnage of her Sandy Hook classmates in Newtown. Journalists should examine their leniency towards the lily-livered politicians who serve up excuses for action.

The challenge will be that we're so easily distracted, and gun makers, lobbyists and politicians bank heavily on our fleeting interest. The trends work in their favor. Distractions come as competing headlines, cute kittens, and as heartfelt, canny, or vicious arguments from people who support unlimited lethal power. We get a barrage of confusing information, some of it deliberately misleading - various headlines yelling that the root cause is violence in the media, or mental illness, or misinterpretation of the Second Amendment, or that the problem is too multi-faceted and big to tackle, that laws don't/won't work, well they work but Australia is different, the NRA wields too much power...All of this mutes resolve.

But when little boys are offering to lead classmates out of a school besieged by gunfire because they "know karate", we must do more than wax eloquently about our seven-year old heroes. Can politicians be courageous? Can they be heroes? Or do we have to go to historical movies like "Lincoln" to see that? Can citizens and journalists muster the guts to hold our politicians the slightest bit accountable for our reasonable safety?

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1 Google Trends has been used to make predictions about disease outbreaks, here are some studies. The program has improved significantly since we last looked. Of course it has also been mocked.

Rent-Seeking & The Fiscal Cliff

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner mentioned on several Sunday morning shows last week, that one program targeted for spending cuts was direct payments to farmers, which would total about $46 billion over ten years and could contribute to the large cuts needed to negotiate away from the "fiscal cliff".

WikimediaCommonsAlfalfa

Alfalfa, Alicante, Spain (Wikimedia Commons)

The government initiated direct payments to farmers in the wake of the Great Depression, as a way of encouraging farmers not to abandon rural areas for the cities when the price of crops decreased because of surpluses. The practice quickly caught on, as Joseph Heller described in his 1955 book Catch-22:

"Major Major's father . . . was a . . . God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. . . .

His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major's father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any man in the county."

--Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996), p. 93 (first published in 1955)

[From the back cover of Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 116, No. 3 (June 2008) Published by: The University of Chicago Press]

Thanksgiving, 2012 - Cheers

Last Thanksgiving we stumbled upon a cache of recipes politicians had submitted to the public over the years, hundreds!- quite a collection. Some were odd - "BrainsNGravy", some rich - "Chocolate Mousse", or even uninspiring - "Microwave Chicken". We commented on the penchant of member of Congress, governors, presidents, for publishing people pleasing pot-luck recipes in the face of pressing national challenges.

WhiteHouseBeers

White House Beers
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We therefore couldn't let the holiday pass without noting the Obama family recipes popularized this year. In the Family Circle's Presidential Bake-off (a dustbin worthy mid-century tradition if there ever was one), Michelle's chocolate chip cookie recipe won a few hundred more votes than Ann Romney's M&M/peanut butter cookies. Some people excitedly noted that the bake-off winner ended up in the White House in the last four of the last five elections, popular speculation even though I'd rate it a middling B-...we ALL know that there are more accurate ways of predicting these things.1

Home Brewers - A More Powerful Voice Then You'd Have Thought?

That fanfare was nothing compared to the excitement over the White House Beer recipes that I somehow missed last summer because the European media was more worried about the plight of Greece, and Fran´┐Żois Hollande's ideas for taxing the rich. Apparently American home brewers submitted a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) for the recipe, because it was so important, and more brewers started a "We The People Petition" request for the recipe on the White House website. Unlike the hundreds of unanswered FOIA requests, and before the petition even reached the needed 25,000 signatures 2, the White House published recipes for two of the three brews, an ale and a porter. They even made a very slick YouTube video explaining the whole process, part of the Inside The White House series.

A writer at the Boston Globe brewed the White House Honey Ale and reported that it was an easy recipe to follow and that the ale was "an entirely pleasant drinking experience".

Hush, Hush About the Commoners' Brew?

Beer has a solid place in American history, although a lot of quotes about beer attributed to the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are made-up. It is true that way back, George Washington brewed beer at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson brewed beer at Monticello. The White House ale and porter recipes use honey that the chefs get from the White House bee hives. Jefferson's beer had honey too. But the Obamas might be the first ever to brew beer in the White House, despite a long and proud tradition of beer brewing in America.

Why has no one else brewed beer in the White House? I have no idea. Although Prohibition ended in 1933, there has been a raised-eyebrow-view of drinking by White House inhabitants. Even today, there is a disdain for the type of relaxation common to everyone coming home after a long day at work. As you can see in this hilarious FOX News clip from last summer, where Hilary Clinton is described as "throwing back a beer and tearing up the dance floor at a Colombian salsa bar" by anchor Stuart Varney. Varney interviews Nile Gardner from the Heritage Foundation, who criticizes Clinton for appearing unstatesman-like on "the world stage" and the two bicker collegially about her transgresions in clipped English accents. As anyone would, Varney actually laughs at Gardiner, a British Conservative commentator, and for balance interviews a GOP strategist who tempers Gardner's intolerance, by saying Clinton deserves a beer.

This echoes a prickly uneasiness around drinking that extends back through several White Houses. Maybe it's the culture wars, or the old Protestant work ethic coming back to bite us. Some presidents either couldn't or wouldn't admit to enjoying alcoholic beverages. A few came from families of nightly beer drinkers, which I'll speculate may offer some explanation. Others, like Richard Nixon, couldn't handle alcohol. According to John Haldeman: "Often times, he would rage at his enemies, fancied and real, and imagine various revenges...one beer would transform his normal speech into the rambling elocution of a Bowery wino."3

Then there were the so-called culture wars. We wrote about Reagan's horror over "a dance" with "three bands playing simultaneously", in "Letter From Berkeley, California -- The Cliche". The Bushes also leveraged intolerance to win elections and maintain power; though, if you type in "Bush" and "beer" into Google, the search engine relentlessly auto-corrects to "Busch" (beer) - so that family's liking for beer I can't say. Apparently George W. Bush was a heavy frat drinker, but more recent photographs of him with a beer mug held to his lips tend to mention "non-alcoholic" or "O'Doul's".

Out With Arugula, in With Ale?

So is this all part of an old-fashioned uptight America in it's last throes? Paul Begala, back in January, 2012, wrote that "Romney Would Fail the Presidential Beer Test". Obama socializes easily, he observed, but when "Romney tries to relate to ordinary folks, he looks like a debutante at a cow-chip-tossing contest: he just doesn't fit in, and the harder he tries, the more ridiculous he seems". That, Begala wrote, "could have Republican's crying in their beer come November".

Maybe this whole beer-brewing thing transpired because the Obama team perused Facebook for some arugula antithesis with which to market the president. But scanning the hundreds of recipes in the repository, it's clear anyway, that the Obama White House is the first in a long history of politicians submitting recipes to offer a recipe for beer - or any libation. And even though my taste in beer is about as sophisticated as picking the one with the cool bicycle label on it, I find the White House beer distraction very refreshing.

Cheers! Happy Thanksgiving.

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1 Regardless of the sound statistical analyses, I'll admit that I too was on the edge of my seat on election night -- and relieved not to have hang a "Despair" poster.

2Very few of these petitions succeed in getting the 25,000 signatures needed to get an official answer, it seems. The White House did answer another We The People Petition requesting that Rush Limbaugh be removed from the military media offerings, but Mr. Limbaugh has his rights, the White House explained.

3 President Nixon's Inner Circle of Advisers Author(s): Betty Glad and Michael W. Link Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, The Nixon Presidency (Winter, 1996), pp. 13-40

Related readings:

Carter, Paul A.: Prohibition and Democracy: The Noble Experiment Reassessed: The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Spring, 1973), pp. 189-201

Tim Hefferman: Last Call, plus useful comments.

Who Is He - Romney?

The first time we commented on Mitt Romney was in April, 2005, when as governor of Massachusetts, he was changing his position on stem cells. The Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives had passed a bill allowing human cells to be cultured for stem cell research. Romney hadn't succeeded in stopping the bill through lobbying, and the legislatures' overwhelming favor of the measure prevented him from vetoing it. Romney explained:

"I think you're going to see at the national level an interest in legislation which limits the creation of new embryos though cloning...So I think you're going to see a national effort to define the boundaries of ethics, and I hope that proceeds."

Seven and a half years ago Romney gave a clear indication about where he was aiming.

ManWithCompass

Drawing of Man Using Compass via Wikimedia Commons

He was crafting his positions for a run as president in 2008, as we wrote, and figuring out that stem cell research was a controversial "ethical" issue -- his statement signaled that he was in step with what he called a "national effort to define the boundaries". He woodenly hewed to the GOP message, the one that qualified him as A Contender. Only later, in 2006, did he start to make a more fluent story around his change of position, taking strident stands against abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Romney's message massaging seems in retrospect indicative not only of his political ambitions, but of the man he is and maybe always was, a man whose convictions are politically defined not personally held. Although he once hailed the potential of embryonic stem cell research, he then showed the nation how easily he could adapt.

Did Romney's Position on the Stem Cell Issue Indicate His Positioning on All Other Issues?

Back when Bain needed capital in the early days and the only people willing to give him money ran shady Salvadoran shell companies, well, that's where he started. Decades later, when the people who had likely campaign donations questioned how he planned to win, he asserted that the only people who don't like him were the ones taking government hand-outs. The shifting hue and cry of Romney campaign has been constant, on stem cells, on immigration, on foreign policy, on climate, etc.

Although as Massachusetts governor he defied Norquistian demands for far-right economic positions, he now clambers out that pole, sleeves up to his elbows, ready to get to work dismantling whatever public institutions have profit making potential or regulatory aims on business. So of course he marched behind the religious right and their "sanctity of life" claims in 2005, because he's an adaptable guy. Which is exactly what concerns us most, that in his forever changing positions he seems totally unattached and untethered from any position or "truth" whatsoever.

What Sort of President Would Romney Be? (C'mon, Ot'll Be Fun)

Since he's so often equivocal, we're forced to make assumptions about the president he'd be. To do so, we'll look at the people he's campaigning to and for. For example, we've observed that people who scream about the "sanctity of life", often want to get rid of the life-saving government agencies like FEMA or the EPA. Strange. It's also worth noting that they're also keen to halt certain science and technology, the very science and technologies that we know are key to curing disease and enabling a decent quality of life for humans. In fact if you've ever read up on the positions of people like those who George W. Bush appointed to his President's Council on Bioethics, you'll know that their ideal world would abolish science altogether. Here's the view of Peter Lawler:

"In the Brave New World the tyrants will be the experts...We have a hard time seeing experts as tyrants, because they don't claim to rule through personal authority but on the basis of the impersonal results of scientific studies...most Americans have no idea of the extent to which they have already surrendered their sovereignty to such experts" (Lawler, Peter Augustine: Does Human Nature Have a Future? The end of history, Bobos, and Biotechnology)

Lawler's fear-mongering positions might seem far-fetched, but consider the larger agenda. A rational person would argue for, I'll say, the need for clean water and air, for technology investment, for women's rights to healthcare, for scientists, for expertise, and yes, for experts. But this bioethicist insists that the very scientists who are experts, who would show the health merits or clean air and water, are actually evil, co-opting You, and not to be trusted. (Forget that he says this as the author of a book claiming expertise in bioethics).

He labels biotechnology morally suspect along with numerous other things, sex except for procreation for example. In the same book, he notes on evolution:

"The interesting question today is whether Darwin will follow the other two great secularist system builders of the nineteenth century, Marx and Freud, onto the ash heap of history."

This religious play pulls in the most susceptible, those who believe that God reached down and molded everything from planet Earth to penises a couple thousand years ago. It bamboozles people into believing that empirical thinking can be supplanted with simplistic answers provided by politicians. Some of these people then line-up to dismantle the very systems that support a civil democracy, erecting flags and chanting U-S-A. Who can argue against U-S-A? No one.

For years, this has all seemed to me some bizarre far-off world of an unpleasant and distant past, best to be ignored. But it's not far-fetched as it seems if you listen to the current political debates fronted with "ethical" positions.

Or Not

For instance, the Indiana Senate contender said a few weeks ago that abortion should be banned ("sanctity of life") because God created the children of rape. Mourdock's comment was no less than sociopathic - violent not only to women but men, insulting to intelligent humans, sacrilegious and vile. Where was presidential candidate Mitt Romney? Silent and continuing to run TV ads supporting his Indiana GOP candidate...

Silent. A silence that assures supporters he'll toe whatever line is politically prudent. The calculated silence of a church going man who poses square-jawed and leader-like, yes, but whose compass now seems alarmingly stuck at a magnetic pole, needle wavering this way and that. So how would he be as president? Optimistically, people argue that Romney is a moderate, now just all revved up in campaign mode. I might agree. However when my thinking trends alarmist, I fear for the liberties we think are important, the right to clean air and water, progress in science that helps people live better lives, rights for women to control their bodies and work for fair salaries, rights for disabled people, immigrants, the poor, and on and on, all the things that democracy promises and a plutocracy wants to threaten...

That's all. Vote.

NIMBY-ing the Keystone XL Pipeline

"God help us if this becomes like baby seals", said a University of Alberta energy economist after research about the extent of pollution downstream from the Athabasca Tar Sands became public a couple of years ago. Protests decrying the Keystone XL pipeline with its associated tar sands may not have reached "baby seals" fervor, but the plan to pump crude oil from Alberta to Texas certainly hasn't raised the popularity of Alberta and its oil extraction industry.

Baby-Sealing the Pipeline, If Not The Tar Sands

The extended pipeline would route through Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies millions of people drinking and agriculture water. Nebraskans are especially apoplectic about the prospect of the pipeline with all its hazards running through their lands.KeystoneXLUSDeptState.jpg They worry about how 91 predicted leaks in the next 50 years will endanger drinking water.

Meanwhile, the company is urging the US to approve laxer standards to allow them to pump more oil at higher pressure through a thinner steel pipeline. TransCanada has promised the safety of the pipeline running over the aquifer and backed that up with bonds.

Of course people have challenged TransCanada's promises, but in corroboration, the US State Department reviews of the project had also been reassuring. That is, until this week, when the agency announced an independent investigation of the pipeline following revelations that the contractor hired by State to do environmental studies and public relations listed TransCanada as a client.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for its part, issued a scathing review of the pipeline project, criticizing projected greenhouse gas emissions, the history of Keystone pipeline spills, probable wetlands destruction, migratory bird disruption, and the impacts the pipeline could have on poor and indigenous populations.

Obama: Not In My Backyard (At Least Not Until After The Election)

Striking against the greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands and the pipeline, the continued investment in oil energy technologies, and the related environmental affronts, protestors had noisily decamped to Washington DC over the last few months, letting their opinions be known as they marched around the White House and the EPA.

The total of all this -- the thousand turning up to hold hands in a giant circle round President Obama's home, the uncovering of conflicting interests, and the affected state governments discontents built to a grand crescendo until finally the White House announced it needed more time to study the situation.

The administration effectively put the decision off until after the election. (OK, I know, I Obama built my reputation on community organization, but enough for now...) The White House protestors went home to declare success.

Lobbying So Hard It's "Not Lobbying"

It's not for lack of lobbying that the pipeline was postponed. TransCanada and friends did just about all they could do. They spent millions, wrote editorials in places like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and got good support from entities like the American Petroleum Institute, not to mention economists, journalists and citizens on all sides of the political spectrum who impressed talking points like jobs, energy, international cooperation, and opportunity.

The Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, so new to the job that an internet search results shows her predecessor as Premier, will visit Washington D.C. next week. "Not to lobby", she says, rather she'll explain the economic situation of her oil dependent province and try to improve Alberta's public image. The previous Premier was a big lobbyist for both the tar sands and the pipeline, as depicted in "Ed Stelmach's Clumsy American Romance". British Columbia's The Tyee scoffed at the duplicity of the full page "get out the facts" ad former Premier Stelmach posted in the Washington Post, and winced over the $55,800 of tax payers' dollars he spent on it after the Post rejected his editorial. Between this and visuals of the province as a giant tar sand pit, the new Premier is wasting no time trying to remake Alberta's image in order to sell some oil.

Who Will Love The Pipeline In Their Backyard?

In announcing the postponement, the State Department said it wanted to look at "alternate routes" for the pipeline. While protestors had been promising to stop the pipeline, the Governor of Nebraska was also busy taking his state's cause to Washington. He's not opposed to the pipeline, he said, explaining why he was pushing to get the pipeline rerouted, just didn't want it in that particular part of his state.

This delay that the Obama Administration just served to TransCanada is exactly what corporations do to everyone else when they're trying to keep business the same. One delay at a time, it is actually an end game, and the oil companies play it well. And it turns out they're not happy when someone else is doing the delaying. TransCanada has not been responsive to requests for it to voluntarily change its route. A company spokesperson had warned The Guardian: "You can't just erase a line on a map and draw one somewhere else", and said the move would put the whole project in doubt.

That's doubtful, given how much oil and money is on the table. As Nebraska and grassroots efforts claim a coup, TransCanada will accelerate its lobbying, of course. And where will the pipeline end up? If they keep the current siting, it runs not only through the Ogallala aquifer, the Sandhills and a Nebraska seismic zone, it also crosses through Oklahoma's seismic zone with its recent 5.6 earthquake (and 36 aftershocks in the past week). Would that be good? But what state wants the pipeline in their backyard?

Whatever the new plan, however positive the delay, I'm not sure the protestors can necessarily claim victory quite yet.

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Acronym Required wrote about the Alberta Tar Sands in Gas Pipeline: Open Season Coming to Alaska; Higher Pollution From Alberta Tar Sands, and others.

Hurricane Irene Disaster Management

Just Like 1908?

After Hurricane Irene, some people joked that the media sees hurricanes as a grand opportunity to dress up in the newest outdoor gear and brace against the howling wind, downed trees, and rain driving sideways (although sometimes pranksters steal the show.) Hurricanes have all the right elements for media profiteering too - drama, death, destruction and lots of "human interest". But to build drama, you need to build up the storm. On Friday night, August 25th, we linked to these four news stories in successive Tweets:

  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1903 (Published August 26, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1908 (Published August 24, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1938 (Published August 26, 2011 10:28 p.m. EDT) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1985 (Published August 26, 2011 1:23AM) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired

Not only can't forecasters predict with 100% accuracy the power or path of a storm, but certainly, as we showed, newspaper reporters can't. The media can't necessarily be faulted though, after all a hurricane is a moving target. In fact, as long as everyone tunes in, the media actually plays an helpful role public safety role, that is by creating more drama on television then any one person can witness outside, over-the-top media coverage can actually aid public safety officials.

The list of East Coast storms throughout history is extensive, but reporters plucked somewhat random mix of historical events out of the hundreds available: The so called Vagabond Hurricane of 1903, produced 65mph winds in Central Park; the deadly New England Hurricane of 1938, was a Category 3 at landfall; and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 struck as a Category 2 hurricane. It's unclear what storm in 1908 the Lehigh Valley Morning Call reporter was talking about, since none of the storms that year amounted to much, and on August 24th 2011, when the Morning Call published, most reporters were comparing Irene to Hurricane Katrina, not some random storm that blew out to sea in the Caribbean. Maybe the reporter hadn't had their morning coffee.

But there you have it, taken together, it's clear that storms can go many different ways and we don't have the technical or intuitive abilities to predict them exactly accurately, or at least to the degree that audiences seem to be demanding after the event.

That Healthy Cry, The Complainer - Alive and Well

When Irene actually hit, the hurricane created lots of flooding and destruction not to be trifled with. But as the New York Times reported after the storm, some New Yorkers were peeved at the pre-storm hype. New Yorkers expressed anger at the cops on bullhorns telling people to go inside, anger at the storm itself for not living up to its potential, and of course anger with Mayor Bloomberg. One person complained Bloomberg made people spend too much money: "The tuna fish and the other food, O.K., we're going to eat it. I don't need all this water and batteries, though."

But lets compare this outcome with the great bungling of Katrina in 2005, to see how things can easily go the other way. At least 1,836 people died in Katrina and property damage was estimated to be $81 billion 2005 USD.

FEMA took most of the fall for the Hurricane Katrina management disaster, along with FEMA administrator Michael Brown ,who appeared utterly useless despite fervent support from George W. Bush. As we wrote at the time in "FEMA- Turkey Farm Redux?", FEMA had failed US citizens in multiple hurricanes during the administration of George H.W. Bush in the 1980's, and had been expertly revived and made useful during the Bill Clinton administration under the leadership of James E. Witt. Then George W. Bush decimated the revived FEMA, using it as his father had. As the House Appropriations Committee reported in 1992, FEMA had been used as a "political dumping ground, 'a turkey farm', if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment". (Washington Post July 31)

So given the recent history of Katrina, and the debacles of several state and city governments in last winter's multiple blizzards, it seems inane that so many people who lived through those disasters now fault Bloomberg as "the boy who cried wolf". But then people might complain no matter what, and given the somewhat unpredictable path of storms, I think everyone would agree that it's better to be alive complaining, than dead and swept out to sea because of lack of government warning.

Assuring Future Disasters are Worse

Of course we don't know how the government would have fared in a worse disaster. And while people complain about the lack of a bigger hurricane, FEMA is currently hindered from helping with Irene. Why? Apparently, a FEMA funding bill is being held up in the Senate while politicians with idiosyncratic proclivities indulge their hypocritical "family values" by meticulously delineating all the organizations that can't be paid with FEMA money.

To our detriment, we ignore larger issues while we complain. FEMA's role takes a role not only during and after a hurricane, but in adequately preparing people ahead of time, as we wrote in "FEMA and Disaster Preparedness". Neither FEMA nor state or local governments adequately helped prepare for Katrina, as we detailed in: "Disaster Preparedness - Can We?". Although states and cities didn't play as large a role in the the federal government failings as G.W. Bush would later say, rewriting of history, their role is important.

Of course, disaster preparedness means not only motivating citizens to buy supplies and stay inside, not only mobilizing a deft response, but shoring up infrastructure ahead of time. In the wake of Katrina, we all heard about the failure of governments to build adequate New Orlean's levees, an issue Acronym Required wrote about in "Levees - Our Blunder". However before Katrina, few people realized just how flagrantly officials ignored warnings about the weak levees. When the hurricane breached the walls, politicians acted surprised, that surprise masking the blunt unwillingness of politicians and US citizens to support and fund infrastructure.

We wrote about more widespread infrastructure failings in 2007, in "Guano Takes the Bridge, Pigeons Take the Fall". But infrastructure is easy to ignore. Just as vociferously as citizens complain about the hype preceding Hurricane Irene1, they remain stunningly silent on the lack of infrastructure preparedness. In fact there's loud clamoring to dismantle the very agencies that assure our safety. Obama has tried in some ways to address the infrastructure problem, not without criticism.

In the case of the New Orleans levees, the New Orlean's Times-Picayune reports that although $10 billion has been spent upgrading the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers is giving them a failing grade. The report says that the refurbished levees might stand a 100 year event, but a larger event will result in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. This was exactly the criticism of the levees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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1 Here's an interesting analysis of the hype-factor of news relating to Hurricane Irene. The author uses a quantity of publications analysis to argue is that the storm was not hyped.

NRDC Founder on Why the US Fails to Take Action on Climate Change

Gus Speth, NRDC founder, book author, law professor, and former academic dean, discusses the root causes of the collective lack of action on climate change and the environment in an interview with Bulletin of Atomic Scientists1. He starts by pointing out that the United States, one of the world's wealthiest countries is losing economic ground. He points out that this applies only to Gross Domestic Product but on on other quality of life indicators -- economic equality, life expectancy, and the environment. If the world continues its current path, he says, climate change will inevitably get worse. Importantly, the impact of continued environmental degradation is entwined with economic decline -- but not in the way that prominent messengers would have you believe.

True, climate change is difficult for individuals to come to terms with, especially if it's not directly impacting them. But misunderstanding of the problem is amplified by what he calls "manufactured reaction". While some people frame it as a science conundrum, it's insead politics and lack of leadership that's paving the path to continued calamity, Speth says:

"Anxiety about acting on climate change was successfully injected into the Tea Party movement; and, as a result, a large percentage of the Republicans who came into office after the 2010 election were people who were on the record as climate deniers, and now the Congress is full of these people..."

Speth points out how the difference between politics now and the 1970's hampers action:

"American politics since, say, 1980, has gone seriously downhill. The level of public discourse on issues has deteriorated; the willingness of politicians to take up tough issues has deteriorated; and it's just a very different scene today in our country....

In the 1970s we passed a host of environmental measures, almost always with serious bipartisan support. There wasn't really a polarization on environmental issues between the two parties, certainly not like what we have today. Politics was far more civil, and it was far more bipartisan. For example, Senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat, was a champion of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but that legislation was also made possible by people like John Sherman Cooper, a Republican, and Howard Baker, also a Republican, and others. I think we've lost a lot of ground politically since that time."

He notes that the Tea Party is a force because of their ability to communicate ideas to the public. On the other hand, effective to communication about climate change and the environment has suffered because no one is communicating the most important ideas to the public, not the media; not the president, not environmental groups. On the media, he says:

"...the news media, when they report these events, aren't taking the time to talk to climate scientists about what's going on. The most they do is ask a meteorologist to comment, rather than digging in to get the real story...The coverage of these issues in Europe and Japan is much better, but the US mainstream media won't get into it. I think they're scared of losing viewers, frankly."

On what Obama needs to do:

"I think that he has got to find a way of using the scientific community, and the extraordinary strength of American and international science on climate change, to go to the public and talk about it. He's got to bring out what has happened in terms of this denial syndrome and expose it."

On policy, he says:

"We should establish a declining cap on the carbon entering the economy, sell the allowances for the carbon that does enter, and rebate the proceeds to the American public on a per capita basis."

Speth notes that major environmental groups have become close to Washington, so they now take an incremental approach constrained by what they think politicians can bear. Rather than to setting goals based on what really needs to be done, for instance, on climate change action, action and money today focuses on not losing ground from previous actions. Speth says that environmental law in its current form exists in a silo. Instead, it needs to become incorporated with tax law, corporate law, and laws that impact consumers.

Speth also discusses the "growth imperative" - the fact that politicians and corporations focus on growth, but what they're really talking about is profits. Talk about "the economy" is usually based on the crude GDP measure. However it's a myth that profit creates jobs. In fact our current cycle is one of skyrocketing profits while swaths of workers are laid off. By muddling growth and profits with individual well-being, politicians and corporations can continue to reject investments in clean energy and regulatory attempts to force cleaner manufacturing and production.

There's much more to the interview. Some points are quite obvious to you or me perhaps, but what I like is how the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Speth cut through the morass of excuses, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing that clutter discussions of climate change and the environment. They clearly focus on the underlying problems with law, economics and politics that smother critical change -- change not as a promise but as action.

1 Gus Speth: Communicating Environmental Risks in an Age of Disinformation" doi: 10.1177/0096340211413559 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists July/August 2011 vol. 67 no. 4 1-7 Article highlights here; full article (subscription) here

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On Communicating Climate Change: "Communicating Climate Change"

On Climate Change denial: Sea Change or Littoral Disaster

Business and Climate Change: "Carbon Emissions Disclosure Project"

Ice core research to study atmospheric conditions 650,000 years ago: "Holocene Days"

Politics and climate change: "Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?".

Carbon emissions regulation after Katrina: "The Environment & Katrina-Slick Oil Fallout"

Drought in the "Amazon", and in "Australia".

Science research communication and climate change: "Research, Politics and Working Less", and "Science Communication".

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).

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