Recently in Surely You're Joking Category

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

In Christopher Buckley's 1994 over, Thank You For Smoking 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 and combat calls for gun control. In the novel, the piece was used to urge citizens to call their congressmen. All total fiction.

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.


White House Beers

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�ois 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 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.


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.

FEMA - Storms Ahead?

Romney Would Send FEMA Back To The States & Private Sector. Wait, Isn't That How FEMA Works Now?

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously said in 2011 that he'd take anything he could from the Federal Government and "send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better." When the moderator asked if that included disaster management he said "we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral."


People advised everyone to take Romney's comments in context, just as they advised when he told potential donors that he couldn't bothered with 47% of US citizens. So for context, a tornado had just ripped through Joplin, Missouri and Republicans in Congress were delaying federal funds, saying that FEMA didn't have the money. Perhaps, the analysts suggested, Romney was supporting his party's budget conscious ways but deep down inside he supported FEMA?

Congress finally came up with some FEMA money for Joplin, drawing up an aid package and offsetting the expenditures by cutting a $1.5 billion program to promote fuel-efficient vehicles. Now, asked frequently by reporters after Hurricane Sandy what his stance is, Romney doesn't answer, and his campaign confusingly assures people he wouldn't change FEMA.

Yet the numbers (such as they are, since Romney's campaign is elusive about it all) seem to belie his campaign's assurances. Obama would cut the FEMA budget by 3%, $453 million less in 2013 than 2012. Romney's FEMA, on the other hand, could be cut by as much as 40%. What would that mean for citizens?

Hurricane Issac

Hurricane Isaac Photo by NASA

"Send it Back" -- FEMA, The States & Private Sector

Curiously, Romney says of FEMA he'll "send back to the states", and "send it back to the private sector"? Is FEMA a lost pet that long ago wandered away, a flea-bitten, scavenging nuisance? Send it back home to the states - shoo, shoo, go back. Was disaster recovery ever a state enterprise? Even a century ago, the federal government assisted - in a way - during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that destroyed the city and killed thousands. Documents show that the mayor authorized "Federal Troops" to "KILL any and all persons engaged in Looting...."

More importantly, although Romney implies that FEMA doesn't currently involve states or the private sector, in fact, FEMA works directly with states and the private sector. Before disaster strikes, FEMA coordinates with states to identify businesses and organizations and to contract with those who work during disasters. During and after the disaster, FEMA remains according to the state's needs. In the Obama administration's FEMA, the states lead, and the private sector does the work - so what, exactly, does Romney want to change?

When a disaster can be predicted, like Hurricane Sandy, states request federal disaster aid ahead of time. These early requests avoid debacles like FEMA's Hurricane Andrew response in Florida in 1992. Under George H.W. Bush, Florida was so stranded that the Miami Herald's headline screamed: "WE NEED HELP!", and one official took to the airways demanding: "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one...They keep saying we're going to get supplies. For God's sake, where are they?" So FEMA prepares ahead of time, coordinating with the states, the private sector, faith-groups and community organizations.

During the 2011 tornadoes in the south, FEMA awarded $13,358,680 to local businesses in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia. 90% of that money went to small businesses. Some of these states are the poorest in the nation. If the Romney/Ryan execution of "drown [the government] in the bathtub" works, how will these states, these small businesses, these people, survive disasters?

FEMA: Love It or Hate It, As Politics Demand

During Hurricane Sandy, Republican governor Chris Christy of New Jersey praised President Obama and FEMA mightily, saying: "The President has been outstanding in this", and "[Obama] and his administration have been coordinating with us. It's been wonderful." It wasn't the first time. In 2011 he also appreciated FEMA.

Christie's wasn't some weird fluke of Republican FEMA love. Missouri Representative Billy Long, "Ozark Billy", was voted the "Most Conservative Officeholder" in Missouri by the American Conservative Union. He loudly campaigns that he's "fed up with Obama" and the "liberal agenda". He asks people to help him defeat Obama, kill regulations regulations, 'big government', and the EPA. But when FEMA money came his way after the 2011 tornadoes, he said something different. Then, he raved about FEMA: "On a scale of one to 10, they are a 12...I think they are doing an excellent job."

Janus-faced congressional leaders cut taxes for the wealthy, shrink federal government, deregulate, and cut benefits and salary of firefighters and police. They lavish praise on Obama's FEMA when politically expedient, then run on flimsy one-issue platforms of defeating him. Do they just all go home and laugh big hearty laughs: "LOL...Pick..Mee...LOL...power$$$...LOL"?

Obama promised change once he got elected. Mitt Romney gives us change before the election. He says he's a job "creator" (which handily resonates with both religious people and Rand acolytes), but would slash FEMA's local jobs. He wants the states responsible for FEMA, but FEMA already works so well with the states that Obama's harshest GOP critics flop all over themselves doling out praise. He wants to send FEMA to the private sector, but FEMA already works closely with the private sector - is the private sector.

FEMA, An Agency At The Mercy of Politics

For further clues about a Romney FEMA, we could glance back to history. Thirty years ago, 1979 President Carter established FEMA to centralize the responsibilities of many federal agencies by rolling under one umbrella related disaster preparedness and response departments and functions. Since then, different administrations have used FEMA differently, and it pretty much follows party lines.

When led well, FEMA saves lives and hard hit communities. It's hardly noticed. When used as a political dumping ground by the GOP, citizens suffer. When it fails, the world notices.1 When it fails FEMA gets picked up by politicians as the GOP poster child for "inefficient, wasteful government... justifying further cuts. Citizens suffer more.

For years, the US has been consolidating government functions, cutting costs, and eliminating redundancies. That's business and these actions reflect the core of all multi-million dollar consulting advice, long Romney's bread and butter. Would Romney, who campaigns that America wants a "grown-up" business leader, split FEMA up into 50 little pieces, all with their own redundant leadership, politics, heavy equipment, budgets and levels of experience?

Of course not, you might say, hopefully. Then what? The scope of FEMA's work is easy to underestimate. But FEMA was a bumbling disaster with Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo under George H.W. Bush, a "turkey farm" for political appointees who limo-ed and lunched their way around DC, whispering cold war themes of the pre-Reagan days.

President Clinton completely revamped FEMA by appointing James Lee Witt, the first person to lead the agency who actually had disaster management experience. Witt reorganized FEMA into a responsive, functioning organization, coordinating with states. As California Senator Feinstein remarked, the reorganized FEMA was "like night and day" compared to George H.W. Bush's agency.

But George W. Bush changed that. His appointee Michael Brown, known as "Brownie", headed FEMA during Hurricane Katrina and no reporter failed to point out his gaffes, miscalculations, and ineptitudes, noting his previous short-lived stint as commissioner of an Arabian horse association.2

Can Ozarkian Churches and Good Neighbors Replace FEMA?

FEMA has lots to recommend it. It can respond in a coordinated way to multi-state disasters. States like New York and California pay more taxes than states like Missouri and Alabama, but at least for now, that doesn't mean Missouri residents get the disaster assistance of Laos, whereas New York citizens get the disaster assistance of Monaco. But one could imagine this being different.

How would local politics affect the distribution of aid in a more decentralized FEMA? New Jersey Governor Christie apparently has been in a long standing feud with the Atlantic City mayor. The night of Hurricane Sandy he announced on TV that Atlantic City residents were on their own, because they hadn't evacuated like he told them to. How would this sort of hyper-local politics play out if states were the sole owners of disaster response?

The idea that faith-groups and neighbors can step in in lieu of governments is commonly promoted. This goes for international aid as well as national disaster relief. Despite media assertions, however, good neighbors cannot replace "big government". Indeed, FEMA has for years worked directly with faith-based and community organizations, coordinating disaster planning and reimbursing them for work they do. 3 Because even with faith, Missouri's Ozarkians cannot muster their own tornado recovery.

Shhh....Don't Say It

Like those old homilies about not talking politics at Thanksgiving, politicians like Obama and Romney don't dare talk about climate change. So amidst a chaotic swirl of tornadoes, hurricanes, deaths, and billions of dollars of damages, elected officials instead play Atlantic City games of trading FEMA aid for a fuel-efficient vehicles program.

And then in the midst of denying climate change, we hear from the Republican candidate that "it's immoral" to spend government money on "things" like hurricane disasters? Send it back to the private sector? Such as? There are some great carpenters in Breezy Point and a Comfort Inn a few towns over...good luck with that Mr. JoneSmith? Or...should FEMA activities be turned over to the military? Send it back to 1906?

Romney's comments and his failure to give detail on this issue deserves far more relentless attention. Our government may be in debt. But then maybe we should discuss more publicly the long term costs and benefits of oil-fueled military adventures that consume about a quarter of our national budget, versus, say, our investments into alternative energy? As we ignore climate change the disasters intensify. The longer we don't demand climate change action from our government, the more important FEMA becomes, the more critical government back-up is to our survival as individuals and communities -- therefore the more expensive FEMA becomes. WHY DON'T WE TALK ABOUT THAT?

Spooky times.


1 When the Acquila earthquake struck Italy in 2009, papers congratulated their countrymen for doing such an excellent clean-up job compared to the US during Hurricane Katrina (Italy is hardly the paragon of disaster-preparedness and Acquila still lies in ruins).

2 George W. Bush's first FEMA director was Joseph Allbaugh. After leaving FEMA he
"became a lobbyist for no-bid reconstruction contracts in Iraq and obtained a $100 million no-bid contract for the Shaw Group to pump water out of New Orleans. Michael Brown now works for an emergency management consulting firm and briefly considered becoming a paid consultant to St. Bernard Parish, a New Orleans suburb hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, a move that led the New Republic to satirically award him the "Brass Cojones of the Year."

Federal government service is a good launching point for the private sector.

3 Over some church leader objections.

Acronym Required wrote about FEMA in posts during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Let's Just Talk About The Weather

You can look to the Olympics to see records broken, or you can experience everyday excitement records set by 2012 global temperature highs, flooding episodes, Greenland ice melt, weather catastrophe insurance losses, and millions of people displaced by extreme weather and climate change. Everyone's worried about this, despite what you hear - even the media.

Climate Change Media Fail?

The poor besieged media. As newspaper income plunges, papers continue to lay-off local reporters, publishers contract workers who mine US databases while based in the Philippines, and armed robbers attack journalists who still have jobs - even in the US. Now this: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Media Matters, Huffington Post Green, and others accuse the media of ignoring the link between climate change and weather catastrophes. Said Media Matters:

Life of Pi by Neil BabraIllustration by Neil Babra.
Used with permission.

"The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states. All together, only 3 percent of the reports mentioned climate change..."

Huffington Post Green wrote:

"The media just might be starting to see the obvious link between climate change and extreme weather...Given the extreme weather we've been seeing lately, it's becoming (finally) clear to many journalists that we have a trend in our weather patterns"

It's true that many meteorologists don't believe human activity causes climate change. Perhaps it's a job-securing stance, since many work for large energy interests, although in 2010, three-quarters of meteorologists polled said they hesitate to talk of climate change because they fear "audience backlash".

Scientist Backlash

Also, let's not forget, scientists recently berated reporters who linked weather with climate change. And it was just 2005, when scientists were insisting people saying "climate change", not "global warming", because saying "global warming" could lead people to think that every time a snowstorm blew through there was no global warming. Reporters generally went along with this reasoning, which in the best case, added confusion and nuance in the face of tremendous anti-warming propaganda, and in any case, looked mightily like "doubt". Nevertheless, responsible reporters would stress after every hurricane, flood, or heat wave that no one event could be attributed "climate change". In July, 2010, for instance, Time wrote:

"Just as the record-breaking snowstorms of this past winter on East Coast didn't disprove climate change, a record-breaking heat wave doesn't seal the deal either. Weather and climate aren't the same thing. To use a World Cup analogy (which allows me to link to more Lego football, this time in German), it's as if the players on the soccer pitch represent the weather, and climate is the team manager."

If sports comparisons didn't click with you, a HuffPo reporter came up this:

"...think of weather as a one-night stand. Then climate would be raising the kid resulting from that night for the next two decades. One immediately leads to the other, but the two are completely different phenomenon. And that is why we have two distinct fields of study: meteorology and climatology."

Pick your analogy. As Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground summed it up when critiquing Al Gore's movie "The Inconvenient Truth": "I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future."

This is still the message, and it may seem clear as a cool autumn morning to you and me, but perhaps broadcasters, in their nightly frenzy of hair spraying, parka donning, and witness interviewing, view it as an unnecessary cluster of crazy-making detail and nuance. 30 second spots depend on very cut-and-dried events. Show yellow tape and police carrying evidence-bags. Say murder. Show smoke and flames. Say fire. Show devastating weather. Say global warming. No, say climate change. No, say it isn't necessarily climate change, but as scientists explain...

Worry For the Animals

So could we imagine this is why so many news shows default to saying "heat wave" while they turn the cameras on - zoo animals? For the past few years news shows have produced thousands of stories and pictures of tigers and sloths, elephants and porcupines cooling off in the heat -- cutely eating popsicles, playing in pools, and being attentively hosed down by zookeepers. Zoos make the incessant heat a selling point:



I suppose trying to get in cheaper by saying "global warming" would ruin the spirit of it. As the climate changes, one can find instructional videos on how to make "tiger popsicles" - frozen treats from various ingredients - real blood, real chicks, Gatorade, and water. All of this, plus more. Reporters who could focus our attention on impending calamities instead spin magical bedtime stories. As the Weather Channel reported recently:

"At the Houston Zoo a snow day offered heat relief for animals for the second summer in a row. TXU Energy provided the man-made snow while zoo keepers provided the fun by building snowmen for the elephants..."


Redefining Nonfiction

Where to turn for science? While snowmen for the elephants passes as news, Discovery Communications, "the world's #1 nonfiction media company", recently re-aired an Animal Planet show about mermaids so convincing in its nonfictioness that the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first fielded a barrage "is it true?" phone calls, then felt compelled to issue a press release asserting that mermaids weren't real.

In response, Discovery Channel bloggers either defended the show as masterful theater "like the Blair Witch Project"; or baited readers: "The real question is, what do you believe?" Readers ate it up:

"I totally think this is real. not the magical mermaids we hear about from drunk sailors but the evolved kind. i am a christian and dont believe in the whole evolution thing, but what we have here is fact..."[sic]

The comment could be that of a child who won't let go of Santa (or someone aping a child), but theirs is an all-ages fantasy-reality mix-up. When adults experience derechos, or see walls of flame like nothing firemen have ever witnessed, they exclaim, "just like a movie!" When people hear about global cooling, or explorers "seeing mermaids" they want to own that "fact".

At Least This is Where we Focus our Despair

This summer's extreme weather hints that we're losing our cavalier climate wager. It's not only scientists who see the tangible repercussions of wantonly shoveling greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Frequently, people show open concern about climate change. More people scorned Animal Planet's "Mermaids, Body Found", than declared undying faith in mermaid evolution. Recently, even some industry paid denialist-researchers seemed compelled to acknowledge long documented anthropogenic warming.

Perhaps we're collectively realizing that although the need for action on climate change may be a tough pill to swallow, there's no escape. Blood popsicles aside, there's not much to see at the zoo on very hot days. Zookeepers say the heat makes the animals "tired in the afternoon". Polar bears and sea lions slip into pools, while other animals are "allowed to return to their 'backstage bedrooms' to cool off".

Hopefully, although we fret over every poll reporting people's unexplainable trust of meteorologists, the same polls show that more people trust scientists - 74% - than any other source.

Overall, it seems that people are eeking away from climate denialism, which is good, because in the end, climate doesn't care whether we *choose* to believe physics and chemistry. Sea level still rises when North Carolina politicians outlaw it. Oceans continue to heat up when those same politicians 'compromise' with a moratorium on current science that local headlines call "a blend of science". So escape, as you will be invited to, to prince and princess fairy tales, to lands inhabited by unicorns, mermaids, and talking tigers, or to soothing climate tall tales. But remember, that science, wondrous as it is, doesn't "blend" with fairy tales like a scoop of protein powder in a mango ice cream milkshake.



Thanks to Neil Babra, illustrator, writer, etc. for letting us use his illustration of "Life of Pi".

We read Yann Martel's magical book "The Life of Pi", on a train in India several years ago over a couple of sleepless nights. The movie, by director Ang Lee, will be released in November/December, 2012. The studio recently posted previews online.

We wrote about TXU in "TXU-Greenmail?"

We wrote about the hypocrisy of city officials who after a disaster denounce people who move into disaster prone areas, but before a disaster prevent precautionary measures like building moratoriums - for economic growth reasons, in FEMA and Disaster

We wrote about climate change awareness and communication in "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster?"; "Climate Change, Fueling the Debate", and many others.

We wrote about science TV programming in "Science Programming: Penguins and the Lethal Cannon"; and animals portrayed in media in Mongooses and Snakes - Combat Training; and "March On Penguins", and others.

Secret Geoengineering? Says Who?

A recent Financial Times article reported on a £1.6 million geoengineering trial launched by SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection For Climate Engineering) at a British Science Festival. In "Trial Seeks to Hose Down Warming Climate", Clive Cookson describes how the company aimed to test the feasibility of cooling the planet by creating atmospheric conditions that simulate volcanic activity. Beyond the trial:

"A full-scale global cooling system would cost more than £5bn and take two decades to install, said Hugh Hunt of Cambridge university, another team member. It would require 10 to 20 gigantic balloons, each the size of Wembley stadium, attached to ships distributed in the world's oceans and pumping 10m tonnes a year of material into the stratosphere.""

Geoengineering - How Far Have We Really Come?

Interesting enough. We often hear of plans for geoengineering. Certainly weather modification has been around for so long that when a Texas licensing board in charge of approving projects convened recently, one member suggested that the technology was so routine the licensing board should disband. Although we know generally about cloud seeding and futuristic geoengineering, we don't often hear about experiments with some of the more sophisticated climate technologies, which makes the FT article interesting.

But also interesting, was a letter to the editor in response to the article, published by the FT a couple of days later (Sept. 15). In it, the President of an American aerospace company wrote that the "trial" reported by FT was old news. He explained that injecting particulate matter into the atmosphere has "been in full swing at it for nearly a decade...", and continued "Dozens of aerospace, defence and technical companies like ours have been advising into the initiative for many years. He explained:

"...[a] series of tests to create a polymerised and ionised mixture of certain metals, including aluminium, barium, thorium and selenium, among other contents, was perfected and tested in US facilities. A joint public-private operation, initially called "Cloverleaf", was operationalised and subsequently supported by US state and federal weather modification legislature.

Throughout the continental US, dozens of tanker and other aircraft are daily applying thousands of gallons of aerosol nano-particulates that serve several objectives, including the purported ability to reflect UV radiation. Similar operations are being conducted in Canada and parts of Europe.[emphasis ours]

What the actual secondary effects of this operation are, including human health impacts, are currently unknown or undisclosed. The Bristol university team may be wise to "hose down" those facts as well. In the meantime, anthropogenic climate impact is in this regard, quite real indeed."


Before the Financial Times boldly printed this editorial, people firmly relegated "Cloverleaf Operations" to conspiracy theory territory. True, thousands of YouTube videos devote bazillions of hours to documenting "chemtrails" streaked across blue skies -- often accompanied by music of the producer's choosing, making them no less boring.

And true, hosts of crackling talk radio shows tell audiences that their guests will "risk death" if they divulge a huge secret government chemical spraying operation, and then of course their guest divulges the secret.

A search for "chemtrails" on YouTube actually turns up 29,200 results. I have to say, I had no idea this was as big as it is -- have you heard of this chemtrail thing? It's easy to ignore, unless, say, as I have experienced, one or more of your previously rational friends goes through some weird mid-life crisis, and with testosterone flagging (my theory), veers off bizarrely denouncing the rational in favor of numerology, Mad Hatter utterings, and chemtrails. How else would you know, unless you read the Financial Times editorial section?

Fact or Fiction?

Of course some people -- the subset who espouse chemtrails and read the Financial Times editorials -- were elated: "PROOF!", they crowed on their blogs. But try to find one other mention of such a program in any other respected publication -- one whose mission isn't to divulge "scary secrets your government's hiding from you". Given this, the Financial Times editorial seems like a rather casual airing of the news -- and it is news.

It must be true, you say, it's the Financial Times! Many people attest that the FT and its sister publication The Economist do an above respectable job covering science. I really like both publications, but they both publish quite a few "science" articles that are more or less press releases for some company's pie in the sky technology that you've never heard of and will never hear of again. Yes, they have some in depth coverage of science, and sometimes feature British science establishment luminaries like Paul Nurse, but frankly I think their coverage of economics, yachts, and watches is better. The original article on the water aerosol trial was sort of in this in the sky technology vein. But the theme got way more interesting with the editorial.

Existent or Not Existent?

The editorial was written by Mr. Matt Andersson, who signed as the CEO of a Chicago company called Indigo Aerospace. Indigo Aerospace is not listed in Hoover's, so it's hard to guess how much money he makes "advising into the initiative". Or maybe he didn't really mean in his letter that his company was running geoengineering programs but more literally that companies "like his" were. Or maybe his company does advise such initiatives.

Being curious, I easily learned that Indigo Aerospace used to be incorporated in Illinois, where they reportedly consulted to Booz Allen Hamilton, known for its military and government business. But as of May, 2011, Illinois lists the Indigo Aerospace Inc. as "involuntarily dissolved". So then is the corporate entity for which he signed as CEO not in existence anymore? This unfortunately throws doubt on his whole Cloverleaf assertion (at least to us). But why be judgmental? FT wasn't.

But we unfortunately don't know if the FT editorial is credible. If we were the FT editorial team we would do a bit more checking into this story -- really. Now we can only wonder: Do governments drastically change weather patterns, ruin sunsets, and subject us to chemical experimentation, and is this so ho-hum that we only read about it on conspiracy theorist sites, on Ron Paul 2012's blog, and in the editorial section of the Financial Times? It's potentially very interesting news people, more please. Or is it a conspiracy theory, as contended by every state agency, military organization, scientist, urban legend site, and news publication -- except for the FT? Mildly interesting but worthwhile noting. What do you wager?

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.


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

Predicting Earthquakes - Warning Bells - Debunking The Wayward Animal Theory

My first ideas about tsunamis came from reading illustrated books as a child. When I was in Thailand and India during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I was exposed to more detail, and athis month, Japan's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami surpassed anything I knew or could envision. Media provided what fiction and after-the-fact reporting had for centuries left largely to our imaginations and movies. The footage gave a surrealistic feel of destruction, people running, towns washed away, waves tossing huge boats like toys flung by an errant child in a bathtub.

Japan's disaster was more serious then what I could have imagined, our nuclear world exacerbates natural disasters. When Buck wrote in 1948, people were just waking up to both the potential of nuclear power and its destructive power. Today, the impact of the earthquake and tsunami continues to be phenomenally challenging for Japan. Even from afar, the earthquake/tsunami unnerved everyone living on a known or yet-to-be-known subduction zone.

If real events weren't unsettling enough, we contend with rumors spread by the media. Newsweek recently published an article predicting the next earthquake, titled "The Scariest Earthquake is Yet to Come".

The article described the Pacific Rim's "Ring of Fire" as "a giant bell", with earthquakes occurring sequentially around the reverberating bell. First Chile, then Japan, next the West Coast, they wrote. Unfortunately Newsweek dabbles in unscientific fear-mongering, as we've previously noted, and scientists roundly criticized the article and its bell analogy. But that didn't stop people from believing the "trusted news source".

Watching the Animals

Neil Cavuto of Fox News contributed to the fear by interviewing Jim Berkland, a former Santa Clara County, California employee. Berkland achieved notoriety in 1989 after he told The Gilroy Dispatch ("serving the greater Gilroy, CA area"), that the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was imminent. Berkland "predicted" the earthquake by noting full moons and high tides, and by cataloging newspaper accounts of lost cats and dogs. As he told one reporter,

"'If you clip out the lost pet columns and splice them together then you will get an excellent bar graph' that shows a build-up to a peak just before an earthquake". (Nov. 30, 1990, The Orange County Register)

Fox's Cavuto described the bell phenomena from Newsweek, and

"what scientists are increasingly calling the so-called ring of fire that is encircling the entire Pacific Ocean"
. ("Ring of Fire" isn't new, my ancient Rand McNally atlas maps show the Pacific "Ring of Fire" subduction zones.) Berkland told Fox:

"Just before the World Series quake there was very unusual beaching of rare whales in the Ocean Beach, in San Francisco. Just after that, a equally rare pygmy sperm whale washed up at Santa Cruz, within about five miles of the epicenter of the World Series quake. That kind of beaching had never occurred before nor since. So we're looking for strange fish coming into from deep water to the shallow water, wild animals coming into cities."

Over the years, Berkland's criteria for predicting earthquakes has included full moons, high tides, lost homing pigeons, people with headaches, as well as "strange fish and wild animal" sightings. Let's look just at his claims of strange fish and wild animals losing their bearing. If you think about it for one second you'll realize this is not rare. As the world's human population expands, wildlife will inevitably cross our paths, more often as we increasingly disturb them. In a series covering a Supreme Court case on sonar testing, Acronym Required documented increasing numbers of whale beachings and strandings suspected to be caused by military sonar. In "Whales in a Time of War", we wrote in 2007, "mid-frequency sonar testing caused whale strandings and deaths in North Carolina (2005); at Haro Strait off the coast of Washington State (2003); in the Canary Islands (2004, 2002, 1989, 1986, 1985); Madeira (2000); the U.S. Virgin Islands (1999, 1998); Greece (1996), and the Bahamas (2000)."

This is just documents whales suspected to be stranded because of sonar, not dolphin strandings of, or giant squid washed ashore, or devil crabs, or bird and bee die-offs, or wayward sea lions, or starving polar bears. If you could actually track the real number of lost, washed up and otherwise misplaced domesticated animals, marine mammals, wildcats, birds, bugs, fish, etc., Berkland's theory would drown in the reality of irrelevant data.

Although Berkland said that the rare pygmy sperm whale beaching prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake is unprecedented, scientists say the opposite. Pygmy sperm whales are about dolphin sized, and there have been hundreds of pygmy sperm whale strandings. The animals strand for various reasons, old age, illness, predators, toxins/toxicants, from following porpoises, or pods sticking with a sick member. They're also deep diving mammals like the dolphins we described in Whales In The Supreme Court, which scientists suspect are more sensitive to sonar.

Recently, a calf and its mother pygmy sperm whale were stranded and died on a beach in Florida. George Beidenbach, director of conservation programs for the Georgia Aquarium's Dolphin Conservation Field Station at Marineland, noted that pygmy sperm whale strandings are the second-most frequent among whales and dolphins, second only to bottlenose dolphins. According to Beidenbach, volunteers come upon whale or dolphin strandings about once a month just on that particular beach. Two different pygmy sperm whales stranded on nearby beaches within a couple of weeks of that mother/pup stranding.

In my very cursory perusal, just for California, there were at least one or two documented strandings of pygmy sperm whales in 1981, 1989, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2008. This only includes incidences where the strandings were 1) observed 2) reported in a newspaper 3) happened to be seen by me in my brief search. The titles of these newspaper stories inevitably call such strandings "rare". But what are they going to title their news, the editors? "Extremely common and utterly boring pygmy sperm whale stranding?" Unsurprisingly, pygmy sperm whales also wash up in places that don't experience earthquakes -- Texas, France, UK...

Berkland notes natural phenomena to predict earthquakes within a broad window of time for a sometimes expansive geographical area. In December 1999, for instance, he predicted an earthquake between the 23rd and 29th of the month, as one reporter wrote: "with an 85 percent chance of a 3.5-to-6 shaker within 140 miles of San Jose, and an 85 percent chance of a 7-plus somewhere in the world, probably in the Pacific Rim". (Ostler, S. "Cheesy Thoughts on the Moon" Dec. 23 San Francisco Chronicle) As you can imagine, such a non-specific "prediction" heightens the odds of being right. But it still barely increases Berkland's success rate, which incidentally, he claims is much higher than what unbiased observers note.

Predicting Earthquakes, Genius or Beautiful Mind?

For his recent prediction for an earthquake last week on the West Coast -- it didn't happen -- Berkland told Cavuto about a "massive fish kill in Redondo Beach [sardines], a massive fish sweep in in a Mexico [I guess in addition to the drug sweeps], and a bunch of whales come in close to San Diego". If animals swimming within sight in any way predicted earthquakes and tsunamis, not only would whale-watching tourist excursions go out of business but we'd all be up to our ears in earthquake debris or washed out to sea. Nevertheless, plenty of people give in to the fear that Berkland might somehow be right.

But ironically, perhaps focusing on imaginary impending doom distracts people from doing the actual work of preparing for disaster. Do the twitter fears manufactured by Berkland's full-moon/lost dogs accounts, make people forget that California cities won't publish the locations of soft-story buildings. Cities are not releasing the data because property owners don't want property values to decrease. Property values are more important that lives lost to collapsed buildings? Twitter that.

Berkland himself used to evaluate building safety for Santa Clara county. Upon his retirement in 1994, one reporter noted that Berkland was respected in the county for assuring building safety and even going head to head with developers. But somewhere along the line, Berkland went from doing the day to day regulatory enforcement work -- helpful, tedious and probably contentious, to the more illustrious role talking to Fox-News TV. "He's a lively and agreeable man with a head full of facts, figures and memories he is eager to share", the same reporter wrote, continuing:

"Interviewing Berkland is like shooting the rapids in a canoe steered only with a Popsicle stick. The current sweeps you willy-nilly from one thought to the next: the baby bobcat he raised as a pet. The fossil shrew he discovered in 1963, later named Adeloblarina berklandi in his honor. The horned toads he caught as he grew up in Glendale..." (Chui, Glennda, San Jose Mercury News April 29, 1994)

The San Francisco Chronicle reported two decades ago that Berkland's wife called him "a walking encyclopedia, with the kind of memory that absorbs incredible amounts of numbers but allows him to forget what it was he went to the store for." (Minton, Torri Jan. 30, 1990 "An Unshakeable Quake Predictor Unfazed by Scorn"). These traits don't necessarily designate an Einstein in our midst, but perhaps help business. Berkland conducts interviews, and runs a for-charge earthquake prognostication call-in line, a website and newsletter.

Earthquake prediction is the type of gig that attracts a certain notoriety and appreciation, as does palm reading. Berkland's not the only one who claims to predict earthquakes, and in this tough economy it's quite nice to see that some such fervent prognosticators find paying audiences.

Unfortunately though, some media outlets are all too willing to make a main attraction out of a sideshow. Fear-mongering distracts attention from politicians spurred by vested interests to clamor that even less money be spent helping protect people from the real catastrophes. In natural disasters, buildings collapse and tsunamis wash out beachfront properties. Nuclear and chemical accidents occur along earthquake prone subduction zones. Inevitably, as has happened with Japan's TEPCO, responsible parties ignore safety measures. But until that catastrophe, people entertain themselves with the imaginary warning bells on a map instead of, for instance, ensuring functional warning bells in earthquake prone towns.

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 (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, 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, (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.


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

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

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

Embryonic Stem Cells Part I: Shock and Awe Strike Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science Community Stunned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Scientists Have Been Surprised?

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

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

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