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Polar Bears In A Snowstorm

Part III: "Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?"

Polar bears are the largest carnivorous land mammal, yet they can look so cute in pictures -- fuzzy cubs playing in the snow, peering out with little black eyes -- or majestic adult bears floating on pieces of iceberg, fearsome yet vulnerable. Long part of the Inuit culture, the bears live on the polar ice and hunt seals - for decades, the Inuit hardly ever encountered polar bears. But these days they've become dangerous nuisance in villages. Scientists predict that two-thirds of the polar bears will be gone by 2050 due to rapidly melting sea ice. Concerned about their plight, conservation groups have taken them on as cause. Coca-Cola has made the polar bear a mascot as friendly-looking as Winnie-The-Pooh.

Polar Bear

Polar Bear
by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1920)
(via Wikicommons, Public Domain).

In March, polar bear trade will be a subject of the 40th anniversary Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Scientists in the U.S., Russia and other countries argue the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) should be up-listed as "threatened to extinction", which would impose greater restrictions on trade. But the proposal has its opponents. Once the inconspicuous lone hunter roaming vast stretches of the deserted Arctic, the polar bear is now swept up in world politics.

In our last two posts, we compared the Inuit nations' acceptance of climate change to the attitude of North Carolinians in the United States. The state's leaders dogmatically deny science, then depend on federal and state money and technology to help them recover quickly after frequent hurricanes. The Inuit, on the other hand, can't order-up big Arctic snow-makers and magical Zambonis to build-up and resurface collapsing tundra. They've long been adapting to environmental changes, from DDT in their food sources to the effects of climate change that cause ice and fish and elk and berries to disappear before their eyes. Unlike U.S. politicians, the Inuit joined scientists in force last year to urge stricter carbon emission regimes at the Doha talks.

The Inuit refer to anyone south of the Arctic as a Southerner, as in: "Southerners tell us our food has mercury, slow down eating it... If our food is contaminated we will be affected, but we have little choice." To them, North Carolinians are southerners, most scientists are southerners, and in fact we're all southerners. Imploring us to change our carbon emitting ways, they'll say: "We cannot exist purely by making money, if we do not have our environment we do not survive..."

Southerners' Impositions

But it's not as it appears, a fairy tale about the wisdom of the doomed natives versus the cavalier ignorance of southerners, strip-mall blazing our carbon emitting ways across earth. As we pointed out about the Tuvulans in a climate change story years ago, it's never so simple. It's true, North Carolinans ask Congress to roll back the law that says buildings erected on beaches can't be covered by federal insurance; and it's true that the Inuit sometimes agree with scientists. But ask the Inuit about the polar bears.

Actually you don't have to, the Inuit will tell you. For background, in 2008 The US Fish and Wildlife Service put the polar bear on the Endangered Species list as a "threatened species" based on studies of polar bear population counts and rapidly melting Arctic ice. But the Inuit consider themselves custodians of the polar bears. Part of their heritage, the bears also feature in lucrative hunting businesses. The Inuit reject scientists' predictions of the polar demise. "Southerners often have a narrow perspective, based only on studies..", one man said. Others say the polar bears are endangered by the scientists themselves:

  • "It's Southerners, meddling with caribou, polar bears and whales that endangers animals. This handling and tagging is what harms animals. Wildlife biologist are the ones endangering wildlife."
  • "The bears are entering our communities because they can't hear. Helicopters are damaging their hearing and now they hunt by smell alone. That draws them into our villages."
  • "Bears that are tampered with and handled or tagged will act aggressively, break into cabins and destroy snowmobiles."

Hungry Polar Bears

Males polar bears weigh 1,000 - 1,700 pounds (250-771 kg), so encounters in villages can be frightening. One man out on his snowmobile checking his fox traps one day, when, as it seemed: "a snowdrift alongside the trail reared up and became a large polar bear...". The bears will stalk children and kill sled dogs. Residents of Hall Beach, Nunavut, Canada grapple with this problem on a daily basis, as a local paper recently reported. The mayor explained that bears wander hungrily into towns when they smell walrus meat stored underground to age and ferment. After reading the article, citizens from other Inuit towns wrote in offering suggestions like building community storage lockers. One commented: "We are seeing bears everyday here also (Arviat). Lots of bear patrol and lots of rubber bullets. Put your meat caches away, pick up the seals from your yard. The bears will eventually move on."

Polar Bear Sign

Polar Bear Warning, Longyearbyen, Norway, via Wikicommons.

So while some Inuit blame the scientists for the disappearing bears, the presence of all the marauding bears has other Inuit doubting the scientists about polar bear population decreases.

In their insistence that polar bear populations are healthy, the Inuit are joined by people who don't accept the science on climate change. Denying the polar bear is in danger goes hand in hand with denying climate change, as in, the ice is not melting therefore the polar bears are not disappearing, or vice versa. Frequently, they'll say that populations have increased since the 1950's or 60's or 70's'. But scientists point out that polar bear counts back then were unreliable and that laws curtailing hunting helped sustain populations. In addition to making up their own polar bear counts based on mythical estimations of previous counts, they make up other "science" too. The say the polar bear will adapt, for instance, as if adapting was more like shedding a sweater than evolving over thousands of years.

It's fair to say that getting accurate counts of bears is challenging. The same features that allow bears to sneak up on seals and lunge at unsuspecting snowmobile riders also make them difficult to count by some methods. Last year the Nunavut government did an aerial survey that many claimed showed bear populations growing, and the Nunavut government also increased their hunting quotas. But they used different survey method from previous surveys, so no comparison could be made. Further adding to the complexity of it all there are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in five nations, not all equally imperiled.

Regardless, scientists don't disagree about the species' fate. Ice that's disappearing faster than scientists predicted means that climate change will catch up with today's already shrinking polar bear populations. Scientists estimate that there are about 20,000 bears left. Each year about 600 are hunted by the Inuit in addition to what's taken by poachers.

Polar Bear Economics

With predictions that two-thirds of the population will be gone by mid-century, prices for polar bear hides have skyrocketed. Of course, as demand increases and supply decreases, the Inuit see opportunity.

In their quest to deal with the polar bears on their own terms, the Inuit have found some odd bedfellows, as people usually do in these situations. For example in Alaska U.S., when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 187,000 square miles of land as protected critical habitat for polar bears, Alaska's native groups (not Inuit) joined oil and gas interests and the State of Alaska and successfully sued to stop the plan.

As for the Inuit, to protect their hunting interests, they vehemently oppose up-listing the bear in the CITES regime, contrary to what his recommended by the U.S., Russia, and other countries. They say: "the Inuit have been directly witnessing the effects of climate change in the Arctic...and are observing more Polar Bears than ever before..." Scientists dire predictions about polar bears, they say, are "claims not based on reality and fact but on misinformation and fear mongering." Joining them, the World Wildlife Fund doesn't support the CITES ban, calling it a distraction from the main goal of mitigating climate change.

In addition to protecting their hunting businesses their also trying to keep hungry bears out of their villages, with the help of some big companies. The town of Arviat, Nunavat (pop. 2,800) has built a fairly elaborate system for bear control. Electric fences help keep bears out of places like dumps and chained sled dog areas. The town pays someone to ride around the perimeter from October to December on an ATV from 12AM to 8AM every day to chase away polar bears. The program is a World Wildlife Fund initiative funded by Coca-Cola. The company has put millions of dollars into various polar bear conservation initiatives. So when it comes to climate science and economic self-interest, do the northerners and southerners have more in common then they would think?

Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?

Part I: Our Way of Life

When scientists predicted that the sea-level would rise 39 inches along the East Coast by 2100, North Carolina lawmakers promptly drafted legislation instructing state coastal development planners to ignore that science. The legislators said climate change was a "phobia" of scientists that would "quite frankly kill development on the coast". As one lawmaker put it, "nothing proved to me that they can prove those astronomical sea-level rises".

The audacious denial of science caused an uproar from aghast researchers and citizens. So North Carolina lawmakers revised the bill slightly, asking for further study, very slow study, with a report due in 2015. In 2016 they will consider the report, and until then North Carolina towns can act as if there's no tomorrow, as if the seas aren't rising. North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue commented that she thought each town should be free to draw from their own science studies. She allowed the new law, AB 819, to pass without her signature.

This year scientists also studied the effects of climate change in two vast Inuit regions, Nunavik, in northern Quebec, and Nunatsiavut, in Newfoundland and Labrador. They published their findings in a 300 page report: "Time For Action To Deal With Climate Change In Nunavik and Nunatsiavut". The report, aimed at Inuit policy makers and citizens, was featured in the region's Nunatsiaq News, where the summary of findings and recommendations filled the entire front page of its online edition.

Inuit Regions Map
Inuit Regions Map (by Statistics, Canada 2007 w/ permission)

The Inuit Way Of Life

The Inuit seem to take a different approach to dealing with climate change than the North Carolinians - for one, they don't doubt it. The report describes how scientists work with Inuit of all ages to exchange knowledge and plan for climate change, although for years, while other nations argued the reality of global warming, the Inuit were busy adapting, because they had to.

They've been living through global warming changes since the 1990s, so the results of climate change are a fact of life. Spring arrives earlier each year, fall later. Berries that the Inuit harvest are being crowded out by other shrubbery. Caribou herds shrink as the once abundant animals migrate north or starve. Glaciers have lost significant mass, and the ice that the Inuit traveled over safely for generations is melting in unexpected places, sometimes killing unsuspecting hunters. The Inuit believe the climate scientists' predictions, that precipitation will increase 10-25% and temperatures will rise of 3-4 degrees Celsius.

Perma...frost

For generations, the Inuit hunted and fished - caribou, seal, Arctic Charr, narwhal, and game birds. Children were taught to read and understand the clouds, the snow, the ice floes, the glaciers, and the animals. Through to the mid-20th century, the Inuit were nomadic, as this 1959 piece dryly depicts, and as one man recounts in the film "Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change": "As we were traveling my mother went into labor, and my father quickly built an igloo...that was the way of life".

Their way of life changed in the mid-20th century, when they established permanent communities. They still hunt, know their ice floes and live close to the environment, but they're no longer nomads, building igloos of frozen snow blocks in the winter and erecting tents in the summer. Instead they build homes in towns, often on permafrost. Permafrost was once a sound foundation, but it's now affected by climate change, as residents of Pangnirtung, Nunavut were abruptly reminded one spring.

A river runs through Pangnirtung, and one morning residents awoke to thunderous rushing water that tossed boulders ahead of it, raucously carving channels through the permafrost down to bedrock, causing river banks to cave in, and taking out two bridges that connected the town. As one person described the chaos:

"Every single night there was a new event. There was a new crack opening, stuff collapsing. It was amazing to see, just fascinating. It looked like an earthquake. There were a lot of elders down there, and they were really upset. There is a lot of history in pieces of the river for them. They would clean sealskins there and polar bear skins, and they would remember people being at those places, and those places don't exist anymore. There were elders in tears."

Kids in Pangnirtung wrote about that event, the melting glaciers, the falling bridges, the sewage that had to be dumped into the ocean.... The kids don't wonder why it happened, don't ask whether this particular event is from global warming, they write: "This is what happened in Pangnirtung...because of climate change. We really need to stop what we are doing to this planet."

The Royal We...Who Suck It Up

In the US, climate change seemed to sneak up on us more slowly. Many people live and work inside and only glance occasionally at the weather out their windows. We've always had storms, so it was hard to say whether any one was a harbinger of climate change or not. Hurricane Andrew in 1992? Hurricane Katrina 2005? Irene, 2011? Sandy, 2012? The fires in the West, the floods in the Midwest, the tornadoes in the Southeast?

AnsgarWalkBabyCarriage

Mother with Baby Carriage
Cape Dorset (2002) by Ansgar Walk (WikiMedia Commons)

Although we've had plenty of warnings from scientists as well as obvious weather changes and events, the US has been disastrously slow in acknowledging climate change. Maybe this is why the extreme weather of the past few years has seemed abrupt and shocking to citizens as well as to politicians surveying the damage with pathos. When North Carolina was hit by 92 tornadoes one Saturday afternoon in April, 2011, devastating towns and communities, Governor Bev Perdue told the New York Times that she was "nearly in tears touring damaged areas".

Legislators like those who lead North Carolina argue their right to ignore science. They help constituents ignore science too, by facilitating efficient mop-up and rebuilding in the wake of ever more severe disasters. After the tornadoes Governor Perdue assured people via the New York Times that, "she had been in contact with President Obama and anticipated that a federal state of emergency would be declared by week's end"...and had also "met with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)..." Many farmers lost their crops and machinery and buildings and may not have had insurance; many families' lost their homes when tornadoes blew them to bits. But North Carolinians were stoic, Perdue said: "We understand how to face adversity and suck it up".

The Inuit may be in an even more precarious position, sucking-it-up-wise, than North Carolinians. As one Inuit said: "We cannot exist purely by making money, if we do not have our environment we do not survive...." The Inuit cannot control the carbon emissions of Canada and the US, or those of burgeoning emitters like China. They must muster whatever mitigation measures they can, such as those suggested in one government pamphlet: "The Homeowner's Guide to Permafrost".

They can also cajole and plead, as they did at Doha, for reduced carbon emissions and compensation from emitters to help with mitigation. Inuit leader Mary Simon has said: "If we think small, our actions will be small, like decisions made by children. But now, our world has to think like adults. We must act more intelligently. Our world leaders must do the same."

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(To Be Continued...)

"Black Tuesday" and South Africa's Secrecy Bill

On October 19, 1977, the apartheid government of South Africa banned 19 news publications and organizations who stood with the Black Consciousness Movement, including, The World, the Sunday World, and Pro Veritas.

ANCWikipedia.jpg

The National Press Club called on sympathizers to wear black clothes, ribbons, and armbands, and since then, October 19th has been referred to as Black Wednesday.

Black Tuesday

Now, 34 years later, some South African media groups refer to Tuesday, November 22, 2011, as "Black Tuesday". Why? That was the date the lower house of the South African Parliament controlled by the African National Congress (ANC) approved the Protection of State Information Information Bill, 229-107. The bill will allow the state to classify documents as "secret" in the name of "national interest". Anyone caught possessing such a document would serve 25 years in jail. The bill will be debated and voted at the upper house of parliament, the ANC controlled National Council of Provinces, before it goes to President Zuma to sign. [The Wikipedia page for South Africa's ruling political party the African National Congress (ANC) was temporarily "censored" in protest of the secrecy law, shown here]

When Governments Aim to "Own" The Media

South Africa's National Editor's Forum chairman, Mondli Makhanya, said the press corps were devastated
"watching the bill become law." As he put it:

"We never thought we would come here dressed in black to witness the Constitution of our country being betrayed by those who built it."

The motivations behind the bill are of course suspect. The media has been avidly covering the antics of the wife of the ANC's State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, convicted of running an international drug ring. We previously covered President Mbeki's threats against the media for their coverage of his AIDS and public health policies and corrupt public health minister. Two years ago, we wrote on President Zuma's successful bid to get the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) to drop 16 charges against him related to several billion dollars in bribes for arms deals, also well-covered by the media. More recently, the Sunday Times reported that Zuma's government spokesperson Mac Maharaj sued newspapers reporting about the 1.2 million French francs paid to his wife to facilitate arms deals. In the two years of Zuma's presidency, the press has fairly well documented this steady stream of allegations and misuse of official funds.

Hypocrisies of the Powerful

Perhaps there's no reason to ask then, if Zuma will sign the bill. Acronym Required has checked-in on the ANC's continued attempts to censor the vibrant South African media over public health issues over the years. Former President Thabo Mbeki expended hundred of thousands of spoken as well as written words typed into his weekly reports excoriating the media for covering the horrific conditions in hospitals, corruption, the lack of public infrastructure, the broken promises of his administration, and his twisted logic for not dealing with the AIDS crisis.

President Zuma seems to be taking it one step further by backing up rhetoric with more publicly forceful maneuvers. Last year we told parts of journalist Mzilikazi wa Africa's story of being kidnapped by the police as he was investigating ANC corruption in "South Africa'a Media Crackdown."

The officers who kidnapped wa Africa pestered him about his investigation of ANC officers in the Mpumalanga province. They tried to extract his sources. They trumped up charges accusing him of fraud, forgery and passing forged documents that were later dismissed, and tried to force him to sign an admission of guilt. Under the new law, the documents that wa Africa received about the corruption and murders in Mpumalanga would be illegal for him to possess.

President Zuma has vigorously put down widespread outcry against the secrecy bill. He said that concerns were absurd and proclaimed the ANC to be a vigorous defender of the constitution. He continually accuses journalists of trampling the rights of others, who must "have recourse through legitimate institutions". As Zuma said in weekly address (August, 2010):

"The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian? All institutions, even parliament, has mechanisms in place to keep them in check."

Zuma accused the media, as did Mbeki before him, of not "reflecting the society it claims to protect and represent". Worst of all, he said, deploying the usual ANC strategy, the media defames the ANC party that worked so hard against apartheid. This isn't just Africa's problem, he pointed out, using Russia as an improbable example:

"Let us move beyond the hysteria, let the real debate begin. Our first point is that before looking at what they regard as external threats and perceived external threats, the media should conduct introspection first. During our State visit to Russia a week ago, Russian television was running a promotional jingle saying: 'How dependent is the independent media? Who pays for the news?'"

There's hardly a need to point out again, as we did last year, that using Russia, where investigative journalists and state critics regularly get murdered, to bolster professed ANC benevolence seems cynical and sinister.

Rebukes From Those Who Know

Many see the bill as a harbinger of more serious curtailments of freedom that the country has struggled to overcome in the 17 years since apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in an address about the Chinese suppression of Tibetans that the current ANC government was worse than the apartheid government, when "at least you could expect to eat." He said that by now you should expect a South African government to be "sensitive to the sentiments of the constitution", and continued:

"You, President Zuma and your government, you do not represent me. You and your government represent your own interests. I am warning you, as I warned the [pro-apartheid] nationalists, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government."

A strong independent media (if there is such a thing), and investigative journalism are keystones to democracy, in South Africa, America, and everywhere else. A strong democracy is critical to science, to commerce, to health, to welfare, and to all of civil society. South Africa's Bill of Rights supposedly supports these ideas, supports:

"freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research".

It also gives anyone the right to:

"Any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights."

Constitutional scholars lay out excellent arguments why this bill is unconstitutional2, and the opposition party has said that if Zuma signs the bill, they would push for constitutional review in the Constitutional Court. Zuma's highly political evasion of charges against him, as well as other irregularities, have shown that the judiciary and other institutions are increasingly in the grip of the ANC. Snuffing out investigative journalism will accelerate that trend.

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1 I should note that the move is not endorsed by smaller press who think that "Black Wednesday" should not be conflated with "press freedom" by major newspapers dependent on advertisers in their battle with the government over advertising spend. (Here's an article on that.)

2 The website Constitutionally Speaking has an excellent discussion of this issue, that I found unfortunately, after this was post was written. Go there for a thorough presentation of that scholar's reasoning and for the comment discussion that follows.

The 1987 movie Cry Freedom offers a look at a South African reporter muzzled covering the anti-apartheid movement and the suspicious murder of activist-hero Steve Biko. I liked the movie when I watched it a couple of years ago, although I have to warn you that the mainstream media reviews called the movie a watered down version of the real story, with Robert Ebert saying it was: "sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom." I'm sure it would be fascinating to compare their harsh criticism of the movie to the MSM watered down coverage of years of South Africa's apartheid, but I'll leave that for another time.

Earthquake Prediction in Oklahoma and L'Aquila

If you look at the USGS earthquake map of the US, it all seems fairly predictable. The West Coast has earthquakes, - mostly in California. The rest of the country - not so much. Until recently. The 5.8 East Coast earthquake last August left people unharmed but "rattled". Last month, Oklahoma of all places, had a slew of earthquakes, including one that was 5.6.

Sparks, Oklahoma - Redefining Red State

That particular area of Oklahoma, around where the pipeline is slated to go through, has had over 1000 earthquakes in the past year, but historically had only 50 earthquakes a year. The biggest of the latest series of Oklahoma earthquakes measured 5.6 on the Richter scale. It was pretty scary, as the San Francisco Chronicle, reported: "'WHAM!', said Joe Reneau, 75, gesturing with swipes of his arms. 'I thought in my mind the house would stand, but then again, maybe not.'"

There's speculation that recent fracking activity is causing the spike in earthquakes. The way the media has it, fracking might precipitate earthquakes -- or it might not. IEEE Spectrum weighs in on the issue noting that yes, human activities like fracking and dam-building definitely cause seismic activity along established faultlines. Indeed, the USGS put out a report earlier this year linking fracking in Oklahoma to an increase in smaller temblors. Other experts say that fracking could only cause small earthquakes.Oklahoma.jpg A Stanford geologist characterized it: "as if you knocked a gallon of milk off the table".

The spate of activity had Oklahoma residents worried. If you've ever been through a series of earthquakes you understand the skittishness. Reeling from the earthquake and aftershocks, their unease became ripe breeding ground for rumors. One of the rumors said officials knew of another impending earthquake even larger than the 5.6 earthquake, but weren't telling residents. In response, officials held a meeting to quell both the rumors and the fears a couple of weeks ago.

Apparently 400 to 500 people attended the two hour meeting organized by the American Red Cross, and officials presented from the Oklahoma Geological Survey, state Emergency Management Department, Lincoln County emergency management office, state Insurance Department, Salvation Army and other groups. They moved the meeting to a bigger facility to accommodate the huge turnout. They wanted to dispel the rumors. As Newsok.com reported: "There should be no bigger quake coming, said G. Randy Keller, director of the OGS" Officials assured people they most likely wouldn't feel the aftershocks, and that governments were prepared for whatever happened. All things you would expect them to say.

Nothing's Too Different in Oklahoma

Officials thought the Oklahoma audience was perhaps frustrated by the experts inability to explain the spate of the earthquakes, though they were reassured. And that nervousness in Oklahoma is just the same as nervousness anywhere -- except Japan, I guess where they've had hundreds of aftershocks in the 5-7 range since Fukushima, including a 5.9 earthquake today, and they all just seem ho-hum about it.

In San Diego, California, the Juanita Faultline has recently caused a series of small earthquakes, leading SignsOnSanDiego to interview a local geologist about the likelihood of another earthquake. The article, "Should We Worry About Shaking on San Jacinto Fault?" illustrates the difficulty geologists have predicting the next earthquake. Foreshocks and tiny shocks called microseismicity sometimes precede earthquakes, but often they don't. The geologist spent most of the interview, citing the history of earthquakes along known faultlines to answer questions about the "next earthquake".

In Berkeley, California last month, a series of earthquakes along the Hayward fault led to similar nervousness in the Bay Area about the possibility of a larger temblor. Speculation abounded, and again geologists worked to get the facts out based on what they know about "hazard probabilities" along Califonia faults. Small earthquakes don't relieve stress they said. Mathematically, they noted, there's a very small chance that on any given day after a series of small earthquakes.

This all seems slightly analogous to a doctor predicting your likelihood of getting a particular disease by looking at your family's medical history. They can tell you that you too, are at risk of a heart attack. The insurance company might be more precise. And along some faultlines, geologists know the history and other details enough to say in the next 30 years, the probability of and earthquake larger then 6.5, say, is 65%.

And in L'Aquila?

Now a good part of the US knows what a temblor feels like, and many people have been told by experts to not worry. We can then imagine how the situation erupted after scientists reassured citizens of L'Aquila in March, 2009, that an earthquake was unlikely. In addition to the earthquakes, Italian citizens were subjected to the prognostications of a fellow citizen with no scientific knowledge who busied himself making dire predictions prior to the earthquake (similar to the earthquake soothsayer we recently blogged about, featured on FOX News.)

The next week, a 6.3 earthquake killed 309 people. A group calling themselves "309 martyrs" sued seven scientists. They accused the scientists of not providing enough evidence about both the hazardous buildings and risks of an earthquake. The town is also suing for about $68m in damages.

In Oklahoma and L'Aquila, multiple officials met with hundreds of people and the press. The press later noted cheerfully that scientists "calmed" peoples fears and "reassured" them. Through all that communication, it's clear that there might be a possibility for misinterpretation?

The trial has been delayed multiple times and according to people who know the Italian court system, will most likely drag on for years. The episode chills earthquake scientists, who constantly grapple with how to relay risks in ways that people understand without freaking them out. It's a science in progress.

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.

FDA Goes One Nudge Over "The Line" on Tobacco

A US Court blocked the FDA from requiring cigarette warnings on boxes this week, calling the graphics "emotion-provoking images...". U.S. District Judge Richard Leon Smoking.gif decided in a Washington court yesterday that tobacco companies shouldn't have to display images of diseased lungs or a cadaver bearing chest staples on an autopsy table, because this would "unconstitutionally compel speech." Nor should companies have to print 1-800-QUIT on cigarette boxes.

I guess what he's saying is that cigarette companies have the right to package fantasies up in the tobacco they manufacture, fantasies of how cool smokers are, that blithely omit the disease and death their product metes out. The FDA, on the other hand, has no right to present the more accurate side of the story.

You know that smoking causes cancer, heart disease, vascular problems. Did you know that smokers have 7 times the risk of abdominal aortic aneurism (AAA) than non-smokers? You probably know about second-hand smoke. Did you know about third hand smoke which stays in home and hotel walls and ceiling tiles for 30 or 40 years, affecting the health of not only present but future occupants?

The judge says the images on cigarette boxes crossed the line between "factual information" and "government advocacy". The line is "frustratingly blurry", he says, but he sees it.

The Four Dog Defense

It's a well known strategy they say. But how well known is it if the world's biggest encyclopedia doesn't even have an entry? It goes like this. Say you're the owner of a dog who's just bitten someone. If you're a chuff, churl or cretin -- or you may say, your average defensive citizen -- you deny it via the so called "Four Dog Defense". Here's how one lawyer explained it to the St. Petersburg Times in 1997 1:

  1. First of all, I don't have a dog.
  2. And if I had a dog, it doesn't bite.
  3. And if I had a dog and it did bite, then it didn't bite you.
  4. And if I had a dog and it did bite, and it bit you, then you provoked the dog."

The St. Petersburg Times article wasn't actually about a dog, but about the landmark tobacco cases. And the tobacco industry played it something like this, as you may know (I'm ad-libbing here):

  1. Smoking definitely doesn't cause cancer, there's no evidence it causes cancer.
  2. There's no consensus on the evidence; smoking may cause cancer but second hand smoke definitely doesn't.
  3. Mice may get cancer but mice are not humans, cigarettes are not additive.
  4. People choose to smoke -- and who are we to impose on people's constitutional rights? - etc.

Four Dogs Launched a Thousand Ways

"Four Dogs Defense" might to you sound more like a Kung Fu movie, but once introduced, you'll recognize it more often then you'd like. Some people describe the Four Dog Defense as a trial lawyer's adage, but the tobacco industry used it for decades to successfully deflect charges that cigarettes cause cancer. Despite volumes of documents proving of their deception in the form of the tobacco papers, the same companies today mount the same defense, albeit with diminishing success.

You might also be familiar with this strategy not only because of tobacco, but asbestos, lead, bisphenol A or any number of chemicals or "benign" products (sugar, alcohol, etc.) currently on the market.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) used the "Four Dog Defense" to frame their recent investigation: "The Delay Game: How the Chemical Industry Ducks Regulation of the Most Toxic Substances". The report compellingly describes tactics the industries used to stall regulation. It focuses on three chemicals, trichloroethylene (TCE), formaldehyde, and styrene, which have been on the market for decades despite proof they cause morbidity and mortality.

NRDC describes how vested industries spend millions of dollars demanding the EPA conduct new science reviews, how the industries demand "independent" assessments and hire "independent" scientists to do favorable studies; and how they dispatch lobbyists to "influence" politicians and the EPA. Thus, toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, lead, atrazine, TCE stay on the market thanks to a collection of vested interests preventing the EPA from acting on well established science.

Of course for every move that industry makes to stall the EPA - demanding studies, suing, producing biased studies, and publicizing contrarian views aimed to confuse and stall regulation - the EPA and tax payers pay mightily to defend science. Circularly and ironically, taxpayers who already paid for the research to make their living environment healthy, then pay for defense when industry and lobbyists to attack that very science. The taxpayer pay for these attacks on science and the EPA (that the Tea Party and GOP so dearly want to abolish), both with our money and our health.

The TCE Story

This four dog defense strategy has kept trichloroethylene (TCE) on the market for decades. TCE is a solvent used for metal degreasing, commonly for cleaning airplane parts. It's also used in household items such as paint removers, glues, correction fluid, electronic equipment cleaners, rug cleaners, and adhesives. TCE is linked with leukemia, cancers, developmental defects, and problems with the male reproductive system, the immune system, liver, kidney and nervous systems.

TCE is found in hundreds of Super Fund sites, places like like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and military bases. Many of these sites are not giant dumps some other place in America but right in our communities. When a new housing development gets built in the vicinity of some high stature physics lab in an expensive suburb, for instance, the EPA describes how TCE can contaminate air that gets into homes and water. TCE leaches from the soil into water supplies, evaporates into the air, and poisons humans by any means of ingestion.

And what happens when homeowner's get sick? The four dog defense continues. The effects of TCE on human health were detailed in Jonathan Harr's 1996 non-fiction book A Civil Action.

A Civil Action

As Harr recounts, a large number of people began to die in Woburn, Massachusetts, in what public health officials identified as a leukemia cluster. Three companies, including W.R. Grace and a tannery owned by Beatrice Foods, dumped TCE onto land and it leached into the water supply. During discovery before the trial, companies' defense lawyers deposed the plaintiffs, grilling them on the details of their daily lives. As Harr describes in his book, the lawyers produced exhaustive inventories of products used in each plaintiff's house, what they ate, drank, cleaned with...

"five hundred brand-name household products -- cleaning agents and detergents, rug shampoos, cosmetics, nail-polish removers, insect repellents, paints, lawn fertilizers, cold remedies, cough syrups, herbal teas, coffee, even peanut butter."

The goal-oriented lawyers are relentless:

"Do you eat peanut butter?" one of Facher's young associates asked Anne Anderson.
"No," said Anne.
"Did you ever eat peanut butter?"
"I guess everybody living has probably tried it," replied Anne.
"Do your kids eat peanut butter?"
"Well, the same jar has been sitting there an awfully long time, so I guess we don't eat much"
"What kind is it, plain or chunky?"
"Plain, smooth," said Anne."
"You made your children peanut butter sandwiches?"
"They ate some, when they were small"
"When you say, 'some,' could you quantify that?" One or two sandwiches a week for the children?"

Peanut butter can contain aflatoxin, a carcinogen.

As Harr writes, Jan Schlichtmann, lawyer for the plaintiffs, knows that the defendant's lawyers are trying to dilute the evidence in order to develop uncertainty about the origin of the cancers. When at 5:00PM, he requests that the defense lawyers to end their deposition, they ignore him and continue their questioning.

"Do you eat bacon?...(Bacon contains dimethylnitrosamine, a carcinogen.) How often? How many slices? Do you fry it or bake it? Do you have Teflon pans (Teflon is made of a resin containing acrylonitrile, a carcinogen.) How often do you use them? Do you chew sugarless gum? (Saccharin, a carcinogen in mice.) How often? Do you pump your own gas?..."

It continues with each plaintiff, over the next three weeks -- do you bathe, shower, wear deodorant, own a cats, have plastic shower curtains, drink beer, smoke? Each activity or product contains certain carcinogens, passes on certain risks...

While the pre-trial "discovery" of "A Civil Action" drags on, people continue drinking TCE polluted water and breath TCE polluted air.

"Roland Gamache was dying of leukemia by the time his second deposition began. Neither he nor his wife could admit this to each other. But the lawyers all knew. In early October, Gamache did not have strength enough to get out of bed...."

And while these leukemia victims answer inquiries by lawyers working on behalf of TCE dumpers, somewhere else in the world, in another room, at another polished bird's eye maple conference table, lawyers for a different chemical or product question different plaintiffs about their possible exposure to solvents -- have you ever glued anything (glues contain can TCE)? Walked by the old Naval base in the next block?

In the end the Woburn case didn't repair the TCE victims, nor did it motivate universal action on TCE. But law schools use the book as a case study to instruct future lawyers prosecuting (as well as defending) the makers of toxic chemicals. As you can imagine then, with this sort of defense fully proven to work, people injured from environmental toxicants have a difficult time getting remedy from the courts.

The Doggy-Dog World of Politicians

Given the tenacity and success of the four dog defense, it was against great odds that after decades years of stalling, not only by industry and lawyers, but by politicians, White House administrations, and the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, the EPA released its final IRIS assessment of TCE last week.

The EPA's last assessment of TCE came in 1987, almost a quarter of a century ago. In 2001 the EPA calculated that based on research to that date, TCE was 5-65 times as toxic as previously thought, especially to children. It can be found in 761 Superfund sites. Since the Department of Defense and Department of Energy would be responsible for cleaning up many of the sites, the agencies fought vigorously to prevent EPA action. OMB reports that DOD action against the rule cost taxpayers a million dollars.

The EPA's path to updating the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was tortuous, likewise for the the EPA's completion of the IRIS assessments for the backlog of chemicals with suspected or proven health affects. The EPA is struggling to overcome a failed strategy of depending on industry to produce safety profiles of chemicals, which hasn't adequately safeguarded our health. (Acronym Required started reporting this here in 2005, decades into the battle 2). But progress is hindered - as you can see, industry mounts gargantuan hurdles against the EPA.

Even once people are somewhat convinced that a chemical such as bisphenol A is toxic, lobbyists for industry deploy the four dog defense. This is long after the media loses interest, long after the public tires of hearing about it, long after the environmental groups start in on their next agenda, and long after most politicians drop the issue (now that they're not getting calls from their constituents).

As we speak, politicians that we (you) voted for, "working in our interest" actively fight against the EPA's IRIS assessments and against EPA moves to strengthen TSCA. Their most successful claim against regulating chemicals that cause the loss of life and impede people's ability to work? That the "stringent" rules will "cost jobs". Politicians are lawyers after all, so they know the four dog defense perhaps better than any of us.

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1 "Can This Man Tame Tobacco?" David Barstow St. Petersburg Times April 7, 1997

2 Acronym Required wrote about TSCA in of posts a couple of posts about Teflon in 2005; in a few posts on Europe's REACH, for instance The EU on Chemicals: More Strife Across the Pond?; a here and in many posts about bisphenol-A.

Lest You Want to Do More Than Sit Under The Tuscan Sun

Blue Screens

When I traveled to Italy a few years ago I found the blue screens on computers to be the most memorable travel experience, you know, aside from the terraces and olives and Caravaggios of travel lit - the "Blue Screens of Death". I hadn't seen so many blue screens since the 1990's. Fresh off the plane, the machine to purchase tickets took our money without producing train tickets. The station agent cocked his head and displayed doleful eyes at our request for a refund. Like it was the most absurd thing he'd ever heard! Then he walked around the room gesticulating at exhibits A, B, C, D...all blue screens on all computers, and he explained verbosely in Italian: That's why we wouldn't get a refund. He did finally produce our tickets, not because we explained how to fix the screen problem - which he dismissed with a flick of the hand; not because we subsequently insisted that he use a telephone work-around; but most likely because we threatened to sit there forever. We are usually in a big business hurry, but...

That was only the beginning of Blue Screens in Italy. Blue screens at the airport, blue screens at internet cafes, the hotels, the train stations, the offices, even at the empty museum exhibit -- how? This was a far cry from countries even a decade earlier where the remotest places, say in Asia, got on online and stayed up and doing business. That was my Italian experience.

Trials

Today, Italy is still looking a little medieval, isn't it? All that ancient stone architecture with the tiny little windows romantic in one view, lends a sinister backdrop to the bizarre Perugia murder trial, which Perugians complain sullied their town's reputation.

Then there's the other trial, that of the seismologists being tried for information they supposedly didn't provide to townspeople of L'Acquila before the earthquake. Thousands of scientists have written to protest the prosecution of scientists. Actually, the scientists did relay the risk of earthquake on that day, about 1:1000, but subsequently a government official garbled the message. At the same time, disturbingly, a non-scientist was claiming (falsely) to be able to predict earthquakes based on radon gas measurements. So that radon-guy jacked the townspeople up, then the official tried to reassure them, now the scientists are on trial.1

Shutting Down Speech

This week, the computer screens went black in Italy. The government introduced a new wiretapping bill that imposed severe restrictions on online speech. The Italian bill declared that the online author of any 'alleged defamation' would need to correct the problem within 48 hours or be punished by a large fine. Guilt of defamation would be in the eyes of the "defamed". Wikipedia protested with a blackout.

Wikipedia's action got the bill partially changed to apply only to larger businesses, not blogs and Wikipedia. But as Nieman Lab explains, the bill stills stands. Furthermore, it's the overall state of press freedom in Italy that's "dismal". As Nieman Lab writes:

"Berlusconi owns the influential private media company Mediaset; he exercises direct control over state television. Italy's 100,000 professional journalists, to get work, must belong to the Ordine dei Giornalisti -- a group that is, in effect, a modern-day guild. This year's Freedom House survey of global press freedom, citing 'heavy media concentration and official interference in state-owned outlets,' ranked Italy as only 'partly free."

It makes it seem like blue screens would be the least of their problems. I know, it's totally biased to judge Italy on these select things, just it would be to judge Americans on their predilection for their cowboy hats, guns and anti-science moves. Nieman Labs interviews several people (from Perugia) who understandably worry how severely the government threatens press freedom. And of course many other governments, not only Italy, seek to curtail internet expression. If governments continue to corral the "Internet" -- rather, the now familiar "internet" - will we have to start calling it the "Intranets"?

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1 In a recent post, we criticized Fox News for profiteering on the weird, absurd, and false earthquake predictions of Jim Berkland. This trial adds another dangerous twist to Berkland's odd-ball predictions. Confusing people about the real risks isn't just bad for science, it's an actual liability for governments.

Autism and the Internet, Drugs, Television, Rain, the Victorian Era & the Media

New Scientists Who Don't Do Science

Every so often, actually with disturbing frequency, claims about the underlying cause of autism spring up like fungii in manure after a rain. It's practically required that claims of this genre be built on false premises or make invalid conclusions, like this week's link between internet use and autism. Oxford personality Baroness Susan Greenfield breathed life into this rumor in an interview with New Scientist, then defended herself by saying provocatively: "I point to an increase in the internet and I point to autism, that's all." But where's the evidence, and why is this stuff being published?

Greenfield's been popularizing science for decades, and recently popularizing science at the cost of science itself. In 2008 she warned the children's brains were being destroyed by technology in a book reviewed by the Times of UK:

"As it happens, her new book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, digresses all over the place in little flash floods of maddening provisos and second thoughts. It's as if she dictated it while bouncing on a trampoline, fixing an errant eyelash and sorting her fraught schedule on a BlackBerry."

Back in 2009, before the UK's Royal Institution fired Lady Greenfield, she argued that the total immersion in "screen technologies" was linked to a "three-fold increase in prescriptions for methylphenidate" (prescribed for attention deficit disorder). She told the paper that people were losing empathy and becoming dependent on "sanitized" screen dialogues. She also complained that packages of meat in supermarkets had replaced "killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat".

It's hard to criticize people who distort science without seeming to deride all science popularizes. Greenfield falls in the former camp as many people recognize. 254 people commented, on a recent Guardian article saying that the internet changes peoples brain:

  • "That's exactly what my mum said about reading 'The Beano' [A British Comic Strip]."

  • "I hear it gives you cancer as well""

Guardian readers know how to take a piss, but Oxford's Greenfield knows how to get publicity, so she's long engaged in trying to scare people about technology. To her latest, scientists online responded briskly, with vitriol, meaning that in terms of popularity, Greenfield had a field day. We've been following false arguments about autism for a few years, so we wanted to look more closely at how Greenfield's latest claim about the internet causing autism differs from the claim that some economist's claim that television caused autism, which we covered back in 2006. For one, back in 2006 they actual did research -- well, economics research.

But Who Needs To Do Research When They'll Print the Stuff You Make Up?

Greenfield ups the ante from her general technophobia of two years ago by appealing not just to fuddy-duddy technophobes but to all parents and their worst nightmares. One day the child seems fine, then something mysterious happens and the child is no longer themselves. What happened? Doctors and scientists have no clinically actionable idea. Greenfield knows.

Perhaps it makes life easier for some autism suffering families to attribute changes in their child to some outside agent. It's also common to say that a crime has been perpetrated by people from another state or town or country. We've seen autism blamed on vaccines, television, rain...Uncomplicated agents that can be controlled by parents are especially attractive - TV. But where's the evidence? When the New Scientist asked that, Greenfield replied:

"There's lots of evidence, for example, the recent paper "Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder" in the journal PLoS One...There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders. There are issues with happy-slapping, the rise in the appeal of Twitter - I think these show that people's attitude to each other and themselves is changing."

How nimbly she links computer use, with "internet addiction disorder" (IAD) that is not recognized by US psychiatrists, with brain change, with behaviors, and even with attitudes. But the paper didn't say anything about attitudes; didn't prove "addiction", didn't prove detrimental brain changes, didn't prove behavior changes.

Can You Compare the Cognition of Chinese 19 Year Olds Playing Games 12 Hours A Day To 1 Year Old Cooing Babies?

The PLoS One paper deserves more comment than I'm going to devote here. But though PLoS One depends on the community for peer review, and although this paper has over 11,000 views (14/08/11), not one person has peer-reviewed, or "rated" - the paper. Nevertheless, it's cited all over the internet as proof that "internet use" does bad stuff to the brain, it "shrinks it", "wrinkles it", "damages", "contracts", "re-wires" it... But the paper is not about "internet use". It's about on-line gaming.

The PLoS One authors write that the research is particularly important to China because unlike in the US, in China, IAD is recognized and often cited as a big problem. The Chinese vigorously treat the "disorder" with strict treatment regimens including until 2009 shock therapy.

The PLoS One authors used addiction criteria (i.e. "do you feel satisfied with Internet use if you increase your amount of online time?") and asked the subjects to estimate how long they had had the addiction. They then used brain imaging to show that brain changes correlated with self-reported duration of online game playing. There were 18 subjects, 12 males average age 19.5 years, and presumably 6 others (females?) who the authors do not characterize.

The subjects played online games 8-13 hours a day. I can't evaluate the data, I don't know enough about voxel based morphology. But I'm not surprised someone "playing online games" 8-13 hours a day, 6.5 days a week for 3 years is different than the controls, who were "on the internet" less than 2 hours a day. Likewise, I would expect a soldier engaged in street patrol in Afghanistan 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for three years to be different than someone who walked their dog around the block in sunny suburbia 3 days a week for the last month. (If I were in a joking mood I'd say that kids playing online games 13 hours a day 6 days a week must have extraordinary abilities to actually still be in college.)

Even if you believe in IAD, the authors acknowledge the study's limitations. They say they don't prove IAD caused changes; don't prove that the subjects brains weren't different to begin with; acknowledge the "IAD duration" measurements (self-assessment) are crude; and the data aren't rigorous to conclude negative changes.

None of these caveats slowed Greenfield, who cited this paper and linked it to all sorts of unrelated things like "Happy-slapping", an awful British fad. But there's nothing inherently sinister about using Twitter, or the internet - it's not related to autism. What makes a lot of her assertions puzzling is that Greenfield trained as a neuroscientist. Does she not know this stuff? In 2003, she mocked people who attributed anything to "scary technology." So why is she now popularizing the opposite message? Her PLoS One example is nothing more than pulling some study out of thin air and linking it to her own machinations about technology. Claims such as hers provide ripe fodder for quacks, crazies and zealotry.

How Does Technology Change Us? Research Shows Beneficial Effects in Online Gamers

Here's the second instance of "proof" Greenfield gives in the New Scientist interview, and note that again cites an academic paper and links it incongruously to her own made up stuff. She says:

"...A recent review by the cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier in the high-impact journal Neuron1, in which she says that this is a given, the brain will change. She also reviews evidence showing there's a change in violence, distraction and addiction in children."

But the Bavelier et al review says something different. The scientists specifically warn that no research predictably links brain changes to behavior like violence, distraction or "internet addiction" to technology - TV, video games. The authors cite studies showing the research remains too confounding, as they say in their conclusions:

  • "the interpretation of these studies is not as straightforward as it appears at first glance"

  • most reports tabulate total hours rather than the more important content type, therefore are "inherently noisy and thus provide unreliable data."

  • technology use is "highly correlated with other factors that are strong predictors of poor behavioral outcomes, making it difficult to disentangle the true causes of the observations"

  • Perhaps "children who have attentional problems may very well be attracted to technology because of the constant variety of activities."

Bavelier et al stress that the effects are unpredictable, for instance "good technology" like the once ballyhooed Baby Einstein videos can turn out to have zero or negative effects. Conversely what is assumed to be "bad technology" can be good. They write:

"action video games, where avatars run about elaborate landscapes while eliminating enemies with well-placed shots, are often thought of as rather mindless by parents. However, a burgeoning literature indicates that playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control."

This point from Bavelier et al is quite interesting because it appears to contradict the general conclusions of the PLoS One authors we cited above concerning online gamers -- assuming the study subjects played comparable games. Exploring these different results is potentially more interesting than a rhetorical sleight of hand tossing a science study citation in to falsely bolster gobbledygook.

To wit, the studies Greenfield uses don't support her points. That technology's effects are still unpredictable is widely acknowledged. Greenfield herself used to promote a computer program called MindFit which claimed to improve mental ability. The game didn't work. But it also didn't make kids pick up knives and murder each other. It's hard to understand Greenfield's motivation for denouncing technology as anything other than provocation.

Greenfield says: "It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations." But "hard to see" isn't science. A "brain", is not a "mind", nor is it "behavior", nor an "attitude". That's not to say brains don't change, or that technology couldn't affect us. Brains show changes during many activities, often temporarily. It's just to say that technology is not inherently, as she called it, "chilling".

I Point to Television and I Point to Picnics, To Family Dinners, To Teens Doing Charity, To Children Building Sand Castles on Sunny Days

As she is now vilifying the internet as a physiological change agent, Greenfield previously claimed that television changes the brain deleteriously. Now she dismisses the notion. When New Scientist asked her: "What makes social networks and computer games any different from previous technologies and the fears they aroused?" she responded:

"The fact that people are spending most of their waking hours using them. When I was a kid, television was the centre of the home, rather like the Victorian piano was. It's a very different use of a television, when you're sitting around and enjoying it with others..."

Nice image, the innocent television, like the innocent Victorian piano. Happy family times of the Victorian Era, singing around the piano, food aplenty, spirits flowing, enlightened, goal oriented well adjusted children unhindered by repressive social situations. Oh wait, it wasn't always like that? We learn more about the good 'ole days by venturing dangerously out on the internet where you can find the following first hand accounts:

Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "Works on mother's account, as father has been dead two years. Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour. coaltub.jif "I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom. I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs."

Sarah Gooder, 8 years old, trapper, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "I'm a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning."

Greenfield's current glorification of TV defies the fact that TV has been roundly implicated for causing all sorts of unsocial behavior and not only by Greenfield before she changed her mind.

The Autism TV Link: "Why Not Tie it To Carrying Umbrellas?"

In 2006 Acronym Required used a study by economists linking autism and television to write a satirical ten step tutorial on how to publish bad science and get lots of media attention for it. The authors proved that a theories popularity, if brought to the attention of a non-critical media was independent of clearly stating no link between autism and television in your study. You didn't even need to be a scientist.

After reviewing those economists' work, Joseph Piven, director of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina, weighed in on the autism television-watching idea, asking the Wall Street Journal "[W]hy not tie it to carrying umbrellas?" And so the researchers did! And in 2009, in "It's Back! The Rain Theory of Autism", we described how the same researcher group that blamed autism on televisions decided that it wasn't television causing autism, but rain.

The nice thing about making up "science" or just leveraging your status for narcissistic purposes, is that you can change, chameleon-like, at will. If your aim is to generate a headline in mainstream media rather than research, it doesn't matter what the science says. Most people don't remember headlines from one day to the next and they aren't that curious to dig further.

I believe a natural response to Greenfield's wild claims is humor and sarcasm, the same response the Guardian readers had. To Greenfield's latest foray, Carl Zimmer started an amusing twitter exchange with this: "I point to the increase in esophageal cancer and I point to The Brady Bunch. That's all. #greenfieldism".

A string of #greenfieldisms followed, like "@carlzimmer I point to Alzheimer's and I point to cheese doodles. That's all. #greenfieldism". (Of course this territory is risk ridden, because of the prevalence of actual real random "studies" like the one about mice who eat fast food and get Alzheimer's.)

When challenged, Greenfield didn't back down, instead she spewed forth with more analogies, like a clogged toilet if test-flushed. Asked for a response to the fact that there's not evidence claiming detrimental effects of technologies, she scoffed that you wouldn't see effects for 20 years. With just as absurd a distracting non-sequiter she once asked someone who challenged her on the technology-is-bad assertions if they denied smoking causes cancer.

Flexible "Theories" Make For Good Publicity for Scientists, For Newspapers...

I think it's cathartic, funny and educational to diffuse Greenfield's claims with humor. Wicked-fast coordinated Twitter de-bunking of such people is of course useful and could be made even more useful. Unfortunately the issues aren't always as simple as a Greenfieldism. And debunking the rhetoric of individuals seeking publicity on the backs of science is only one angle.

I think it's important to note that it wouldn't be news if there weren't ready and willing news outlets. The New Scientist printed all her assertions about links between technology, brain structure, autism, and behavior. BabiesLaptop.jpg They didn't ask questions. They didn't challenge. They didn't say: wait, isn't autism diagnosed at ages 2-4? Who's propping their 6 month old up in from on the computer to play war games? Why?

The Guardian, like most papers, publishes articles that range in quality. A Guardian comment on the 2009 article about Greenfield's theories, that called the article "absolute nonsense", and wrote I am surprised that the Guardian has published this..."sloppy journalism"..."absolute drivel", pulled in 160 "approve" votes, far more than any other comments. So even if readers hate the article, they'll still read it. Media succeeds because of advertising and hundreds of comments translates to how many hundreds of thousand of hits?

The media is quite capable of selective coverage. They ignore important scientific, political, and economic stories that they consider politically sensitive. But is anti-science coverage ever "censored"? Not if it can drive traffic, and sell ads - provide economic benefit to media outlets.

But to what extent can we accept this concession to the market if it gives us in return uncritical readers, uncritical patients, and uncritical citizens? Does it create an atmosphere amenable to medical quacks? Might it prime a population to be more receptive to political efforts to curb real free speech via social media technologies? Too bad so many potential critics (even bloggers) are involved with or depend on mainstream news outlets, which makes them understandably hesitant to bite the hand that feeds (or might feed) them.

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1 Bavelier, D., Green, C.S., & Dye, M. (2010). Children, wired - for better and for worse. Neuron. 67, 692-701, Volume 67, Issue 5, 692-701, 9 September 2010 Copyright � 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.08.035

Acronym Required writes frequently on the diffusion and distortion of science in politics. We've written about individuals mixing religion with science, art with science, for instance here

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

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