Archive for April, 2007|Monthly archive page

Mea Culpa

Hi Tom*,

I would like to apologize for coming into your blog, calling names and starting a fight. Basic decency should have held my hand. Again, I’m sorry.

Before you explode again, I beg you to perhaps give me a moment (well – several hundred words) to explain why I responded to your remark “Why, during this day and age (i.e. post 9/11) are we allowing someone who is less than a full citizen to purchase firearms? Any politician with half a lick of sense should strike while the iron is hot on this one,” with the comment “It’s just – sorry – just so racist.”

I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree about the racism thing which is why I’m doing this here and not directly posting it to your comments. Perhaps I am also posting it here to show my readers that, yes, sometimes, I am scum. If you would like to delete the link in your comments (and perhaps ridicule this), that would be fine. I think it should be your choice. I shall not return.

I think our problem is largely a matter of definition and perspective.

When I say you are supporting racist positions, it most definitely does not mean that I think you think or scream racial epithets at individuals; I don’t think you, personally discriminate against anyone specifically. That is what I tried to convey by saying that you are not personally racist. I think it very likely that you treat every individual you meet fairly and equally. I suspect you are fine at a personal level.

Unfortunately, I think you harbor a much more insidious type of racism; not hate based on race and not hate directed at individuals, but irrationally based fear directed at over-generalized groups. I suspect you fear a nebulous “they,” who are a threat to America and the world. Perhaps you are right; you think it is rational – I call it racist.

I am an American and have lived abroad for the past twenty years. I have seen enough cultures and enough peoples that I can no longer see the world through a “them” filter because “they” are always just over the hill or across the border. And I have also been “them”– both abroad and in America so I understand the issue from both sides.

Your question about limiting firearm ownership to full citizens reminds me of Americans who ask “Why do people in the rest of the world hate Americans?” Well Tom, apparently the mistrust is mutual. I have also seen first hand how international opinion has turned not only again American policies but against Americans individually (see also the PEW Report from 2006). Based on your reaction, you feel your mistrust is well founded. Just as you probably think the rest of the world is wrong in being sceptical of American citizens. Perhaps they simply fear you without any real evidence but they know they are right in doing so. Just as you know you are right about “foreigners.”

To me your position bears no difference to theirs and is no different than the positions of so many before you who feared outsiders.

Think back on American history. “They” have been, at different times, the Latinos (1980s-2000s), the Russians (50’s to 80’s), the Japanese (30’s and 40’s) and the Germans (1917-1940’s). As a matter of fact, if you go back far enough, it was the Irish and the Italians. You might not know it, but the first car bomb in history, well wagon bomb, was detonated 1920 in New York by Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist. The Irish were the criminal scourge of the late 19th century – or at least many thought so. Americans no longer fear the Irish or the Italians. They no longer fear Germans, Japanese or the Russians (most of the time).

Have these people, these nationalities as individuals changed so much in such a short time? Are “they” just suddenly nice, law-abiding, America-loving peoples? Or has the focus of fear shifted? I think it is the latter.

You write of being “most concerned about Middle Eastern immigrants” – a euphemism I take to mean Arabs and Persians as you are probably not too concerned about the Israelis. Right? Interestingly the statistics you quoted me from the Small Arms Digest (pg 178) would seem to show a disproportionate threat emanating from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa with the Middle East a distant fourth. But I’m sure you knew that, you read your sources thoroughly. So, are you concerned about the Arabs and Persians because of facts or because of a racial, political or a religious traits?

If it is racial – I rest my case. QED

If it is political, doesn’t your policy punish those who believe in democracy and flee to America because they think it is a better place; those who come to America for freedom not oppression? Doesn’t your policy give evidence to those who would claim that Americans arbitrarily discriminate against outsiders for no other reason than the fact that they are not American? Doesn’t your prejudice feed the al Quada propaganda machine as well as any terrorist success?

If it is religion, then you can’t really stop in the Middle East but must keep a close eye on those pesky Indonesians and those Muslims with European passports now spreading across the continent. You also need to be worried about the 1-2 percent of your neighbors who hold both the Islamic faith and the American citizenship. (But the last group poses a bit of a problem justifying the green card prohibition – right?) Of course, hating and mistrusting people because of their religion has deep roots. You are, perhaps, better able to understand the deep rooted mistrust of Protestants since your return from Ireland. Or was it the Catholics? Strange thing who “they” can be, huh?

I have my own fears Tom. I fear those who feel that there is an indefinable group to be dreaded. Specifically – I fear people like you.

Those who fear are almost worse than those who overtly hate; those openly doing the lynching and the killing. Those who fear but do not hate are the ones who honestly disapprove of the deeds but quietly understand the reasoning and silently applaud the results.

It is not usually those who explicitly hate that scare me; they are often easily identifiable. They are the blackshirts, the skinheads, the white-sheeted bigots. They are the Hitlers, the bin Ladens, the Ahmednejads. Even if you can’t immediately stop them, you at least know who they are.

Unfortunately, true power is not in hands of those people who hate and lead but in those who fear and follow.

It is those that fear. It is those that feared the Blacks, and the Mexicans and the Asians. It is those that feared the Jews; and the Catholics; and the Protestants. And now, it is those that fear the Muslims. And those that fear Americans. It is that fear that feeds hate.

You would prohibit those who have green cards from legally owning a weapon because you fear the consequences. I ask again, do you fear the German engineer, the Vietnamese cook, the Brazilian model or the South African ‘security expert’; the ones living next to the marginally medicated American with the .357 Magnum and a borderline disorder? Are they the problem? I’m sure permanent residents in the American military are among those you would disarm. Are they to be feared? Were these the mental images of “someone who is less than a full citizen” you conjured up when writing the post? If not, why not?

Seen in that light, was my reaction to your comment about denying gun ownership to those un-Americans with green cards that out-of-line? Using my perspective, my definition, would you consider what you proposed racist? Or is it just nationalist – excuse me – patriotic? Or would you say rational?

I feel you have yet to show me valid data supporting your hypothesis. No, a list pulled from Wikipedia is not valid data. And no, I don’t need to invalidate what you are saying because you have not shown any real evidence other than a gut reaction and the ancient idea of racial profiling. You see reams of evidence; I see media hysteria, smoke and mirrors. You urge a call to action; I see overreaction. Again, we will simply have to agree to disagree here.

I suspect we could argue statistics until we are blue in the face and never get anywhere. I would argue the statistics either don’t exist or are not openly available. I would nevertheless look to the centralized data from the FBI, collected and collated from information provided by local law enforcement agencies, for some statistical guidelines to evaluate the numbers you present. You seemed to think your idea was obvious. You fail to realise that if your idea is obvious, the data supporting it should be obvious too. It is not. In the end, neither of us would win but each would probably lose both tempers and time.

Outlawing gun-ownership to a minimal percentage of the people living in America would have zero effect on violence because there will always be enough weapons available for sale; those who want firearms will get them. That is why I found your idea so preposterous. In addition, arbitrarily determining that anyone without American citizenship (or merely “Middle Eastern”) is a public danger is preposterously unfair.

Perhaps after reading this you will understand why I labelled your idea racist.

Remember my response was based as much on fear as on distaste. You might chalk it up to my own particular brand of racism – regardless of color, creed or religion; a visceral mistrust of those that needlessly, irrationally fear.

Perhaps, in light of the fact that my definition of racism and racist thinking includes racial profiling, you might go back and reread your final comment. Was it rational or does it fit my definition of racist?

My parting shot Tom? You were spot on in calling me an SOB.

Not because we disagree. That’s fine. I suspect our definitions and perspectives vary; I suspect I have a much thinner skin on many issues. Nevertheless, I think we could find things about which to agree.

No, you were spot on calling me an SOB because I walked into your house – uninvited and unknown – and I started spouting invectives. It was inexcusable and you were right to call me on it.

Again; it was your blog; my misstep – my bad – my apologies.

Have a nice day.
Ben (the bad one)

[* I’m posting this here because I did the inexcusable – the internet equivalent of a drive by shooting, I think I overstepped the line at a strange blog, commenting and throwing invectives. I feel it is my duty to air my dirty laundry on my time, my bandwidth. His blog has seen enough.

I hope the person I have offended chooses to read this and not to delete the link to it. If not, I have complete understanding. I will not link to his blog because this disagreement is so totally different from the issues he discusses; I suspect the traffic drawn would be unwarranted and largely uninterested in his normal issues.

This is merely an open, personal mea culpa.]

Education inflation -The PhD fallacy

In what will probably heat the academic blogs for a while, the Dean of Admissions at MIT resigned yesterday.

And she resigned for that most horrible of academic crimes, faking her credentials. According to the Harvard Crimson

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s dean of admissions, Marilee Jones, resigned today and admitted to the ultimate sin of her profession: lying on an application.

Jones, a 28-year veteran of the admissions office, listed degrees on her resume from three schools in upstate New York but did not earn any of them, an MIT spokeswoman said. The schools were Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Albany Medical College, and Union College.

In a prepared statement, Jones said she had “misled the Institute about my academic credentials” in applying for her first job at the school in 1979, and “did not have the courage to correct my resume when I applied for my current job or at any time since.” She was appointed to lead the admissions office in 1998.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make here.

First, it was wrong for her to have faked her credentials. It is like Michael Deutsch, a scandal just waiting to happen. It is doubly wrong for MIT not to have ever checked anything. That seems to be a fool-me-once-shame-on-you, -fool-me-twice-shame-on-me situation.

But I think this points out something far more important. It brings up the assumed usefulness of degrees in general.

I seriously doubt that Jones would have been considered for the position she held without the misinformation she had given. And according the accounts I’ve been reading this morning, she wasn’t just good at her job, she was great at her job.

From her (likely soon to reworked) biography at MIT,

Marilee Jones is Dean of Admissions at MIT. A scientist by training, she joined the MIT Admissions Office in 1979 to lead the recruitment efforts for women. She has served on many national professional boards including the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the College Board and the Women in Engineering Programs Advisory Network. Marilee is the recipient of MIT’s highest award for administrators, the ‘MIT Excellence Award for Leading Change’, as well as the ‘Gordon Y. Billard Award’ and the Dean for Undergraduate Education Infinite Mile Award for Leadership.

As a national spokesperson on the changes in today’s college admissions climate, speaking out against the pressures it induces in both students and parents, she has been featured on CBS, National Public Radio and profiled in USA Today, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She is the co-author of the book, “Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond.”

And most importantly, Marilee has just gone through the college admissions process with her daughter, and sees things in a whole new light… [my emphasis]

She was apparently nationally acclaimed to be an excellent leader and very well liked. The New York Times

At M.I.T., where Ms. Jones has been widely admired, almost revered, for her humor, outspokenness and common sense, faculty and students alike appeared saddened, and shocked.

“It was surprising,” said Mike Hurley, a freshman chemistry student. “Everyone who was admitted here probably knows her, at least her name.” Mr. Hurley added that the admissions office was unusually accessible, with Ms. Jones’s “bright” personality and blogs for incoming students. “Whenever someone’s integrity is questioned, it sets a bad example,” he said, “but I feel like the students can get past that and look at what she’s done for us as a whole.”

“I feel like she’s irreplaceable,” said Rachel Ellman, a 21-year-old who studies aerospace engineering.

From the WSJ coverage comes the following quote,

“It’s amazing that she only spent that much time in college. She’s really smart,” said Michael Behnke, the admissions dean at the University of Chicago and Ms. Jones’s predecessor at MIT. “She’s really been a leader in the profession. She was a leader when she worked for me. Very creative. Obviously, too creative,” he said.

Behnke makes the same incorrect and foolish assumption that is causing these kinds of scandals. You go to college and get a degree if you are smart.

No Mr. Behnke – I beg to differ. No Mr. Behnke – that is bullshit!

You go to college and get a degree if either A) you have the will and ability to do the work or if B) your parents have the money, control and willpower to force you through it. You might fail to get a degree if you lack money, determination, or perhaps have a fit of depression at an unfortunate time. Lot’s of reasons.

I am continually amazed at the number of well educated people who fall for educated=smart fallacy.

It is not a shame that Jones didn’t get advanced degrees. It is a shame that she needed one.

As a matter of fact, how many people have advanced degrees that seem to be utterly and totally incompetent? Aren’t there enough examples in current and former administration officials to underline that point: Paul Wolfowitz (PhD political science, University of Chicago); Douglas Feith (J.D. Georgetown University Law Center/A.B. Harvard College); Alberto Gonzales (Harvard Law School)?

Somewhere along the line the idea behind education got sidetracked from being about knowledge to the race for the magical piece of paper to hang on the wall. I’ve got some bad news for you sunshine. Unless you go into academia or research, it’s just about the piece of paper.

Most people who get degrees, don’t go into the areas where they were working while learning. Education inflation requires the production of some kind of academic credentials because – well – because everyone else has one.

The Pew Research Center released a poll two weeks ago banishing the myth that better education automatically means more knowledgeable citizens.

Since the late 1980s, the emergence of 24-hour cable news as a dominant news source and the explosive growth of the internet have led to major changes in the American public’s news habits. But a new nationwide survey finds that the coaxial and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs.

On average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago. The new survey includes nine questions that are either identical or roughly comparable to questions asked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 2007, somewhat fewer were able to name their governor, the vice president, and the president of Russia, but more respondents than in the earlier era gave correct answers to questions pertaining to national politics.pew-what-americans-know-1989-2007.jpg
Aside from news media use, demographic characteristics, especially education, continue to be strongly associated with how much Americans know about the larger world. However, despite the fact that education levels have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, public knowledge has not increased accordingly. [my emphasis]

Read that again;. “despite the fact education levels have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, public knowledge has not increased accordingly.” Look at the data. This poll concentrated on political views and if I weren’t in the middle of this rant, I could dredge up similar statistics for science knowledge, history, geography and just about anything else including, I am sure, knowledge about the current American Idol series.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a correlation between schooling and knowledge. But the correlation is starting to change not because the American and international systems of education are falling apart, but because different people are being forced to get educations that have little meaning and arguably less use. Think about the credentials Jones forged (chemistry and biology) and her real work.

Academia and industry needs to finally realise that the educated are just that – educated. Education is not necessarily smart. Educated is not necessarily competent. Educated is not necessarily honest.

Most people don’t need nor will ever used the education they receive in the form it is given.

Perhaps it is time to finally abandon that idea and accept that the traditional concept of university education is flawed. Perhaps it is time to move toward a apprentice training program for areas like business, administration and similar fields.

Not because the academic qualifications aren’t important. They are. They are far too critically important to be made irrelevant by to education inflation.

Was it right for Jones to lie? No. But remember; although she was more than qualified to do the work, she would have never been considered for the job if she hadn’t have lied.

Remember that while sharpening the pitchforks and lighting the torches.

Hat Tip: Ralph E. Luker/ CLIOPATRIA)

Call For Conservatism

Hi All Some – um – my meager readership,

Since I spend way too much time reading right now, I am trying to get my online information consumption marginally under control.

While looking at the things I read, I noticed something missing in my daily scan of the Intertubes. I really don’t have a good general Conservative site where I can do one stop shopping for right leaning views.

What I am looking for is a conservative equivalent to HuffingtonPost or The Moderate Voice. I have a couple of places in mind, but I’d like to hear suggestions first. Note: I’m not looking for the really hard core, apocalyptic stuff but more a mutliperson right leaning blog.

Thanks. Suggestions in the comments. And hey – smoke if you’ve got em and delurk if you’ve got a good idea. 😉

Mr. President? God, Line One.

All those “Secular Humanists” have been complaining for years that President Bush thinks he has a direct line to God. Might I point out that if the people in the Pentagon think the same thing, that might not be such a bad thing?

In a recent book With God On Our Side, Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay illustrate the serious inroads made in the American military and specifically in the leadership of the Air Force Academy by evangelical Christians. Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, Air Force Academy graduate and father of two former cadets and one son currently attending the academy, is head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The MRFF is lobbying to try to prevent further evangelical Christian proselytizing in the military. (The rather annoyingly loud homepage can be found here. You have been warned.)

An excellent summary of the history of how evangelical Christians have targeted the military and specifically chaplains and officers is given in an excerpt of the book.

The most effective wedge for the insertion of evangelicals into every rung of military life was the NAE [National Association of Evangelicals] and its influential chaplain-endorsing agency, the Commission on Chaplains, which worked tirelessly as a liaison for a wide array of fundamentalist denominations, from the Assemblies of God to the Southern Baptist Convention to the full index of offshoot and splinter congregations. Notwithstanding the military’s policy of allotting chaplaincies on a quota system designed to roughly reflect the religious affiliations of society as a whole, by the late ’60s evangelical denominations were regularly exceeding their allotments.

The phenomenon mirrored, in part, the explosive growth of fundamentalist Christianity in America and, in part, the assiduous efforts of the NAE and its Commission on Chaplains to fill posts left empty by the Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, and others who were regularly failing to meet their allocations. In what Loveland terms a “quota juggling act,” the NAE and others aggressively lobbied to fill chaplaincies left vacant by other denominations, resulting in a marked shift in the selection process weighted more and more to religious demographics within the military itself, where evangelical numbers continued to swell. This consolidation of power would result, by the late eighties, in the NAE Chaplains Commission’s acting as the endorsing agent not only for established denominations but for hundreds of non-aligned individual churches.

This proselytizing has been surprisingly effective and I have blogged about Mikey Weinstein before, but in light of John McCains ‘official’ presidential candidacy there are a couple of points I’d like to extend..

First. There was the mini-scandal of the Christian Embassy video that came out last December. You remember that?

The Christian Embassy is a Washington based organisation who “provide safe places and practical resources to help national and international leaders working in D.C., their spouses and staffs integrate their faith and their work. [Their text]”

One of the safe places they provide is in the Pentagon and until it got exposed, they had a promotional video on their website displaying nine senior Pentagon officers, in uniform, in the Pentagon, praising the work the ‘Embassy’ has been doing. Uncovered by the MRFF and leaked to the Washington Post. It made a minor kurfuffle in December,

In the video, much of which was filmed inside the Pentagon, four generals and three colonels praise the Christian Embassy, a group that evangelizes among military leaders, politicians and diplomats in Washington. Some of the officers describe their efforts to spread their faith within the military

“I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. says in the video. “And I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is, and I start with the fact that I’m an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am.” [my emphasis]

After the issue broke, the video was removed from the official CE website but not from those pesky little watchdog organisations. It is a good watch and well worth the ten minutes. (If you have the stomach)

The bit about God, family and country in the quote should worry you. It should be said that the official Oath of Enlistment sworn by all members of the US Armed Forces follows,

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

That last sentence is optional and is a plea for assistance and not a justification for ignoring the rest as Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. seems to think.

As an aside, I’d also like to point out that the Christian Embassy does not only target the Pentagon but any powermaker in Washington; several congressmen are also featured in the video. One, John Carter, R-TX (who would have guessed), while discussing a ‘fact finding’ trip to Ethiopia is on tape saying “We’re congressmen going over to represent the Lord, and our message is very simple. ‘We are here to tell you about Jesus of Nazareth and what he teaches and we are not here to talk about religion. We’re here to talk about the love and demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ.’ And that’s it.”

This pretty much shows how these people tick. Talking about Jesus isn’t talking about religion. Religion means whether you are Baptist or Catholic; religion is not what you believe as long as there is this J-C guy involved. That’s why they aren’t establishing a religion. Get it?

Anyway. The leak led to a kurfuffle which led to an investigation, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t finished yet. I will keep you up to date if I find anything.The next thing came at the end of March when the Air Force back-pedalled on new guidelines limiting the amount of proselytizing by senior officers. From an editorial in the Washington Post,

Unfortunately, facing a barrage of complaints from evangelical Christian groups and pressure from members of Congress, the Air Force backed down. It has issued a revised set of rules that pose the potential for inappropriate religious pressure on cadets and service members. This pushes the balance in the wrong direction, especially in light of disturbing reports from the Air Force Academy about religious intolerance and inappropriate proselytizing.

One troubling issue in the revised guidelines concerns the ability of superior officers to proselytize or otherwise promote their faith. The original guidelines emphasized that “individuals need to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions,” adding, “the more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements.”

The new guidelines move away from this common-sense approach and emphasize superior officers’ rights over the dangers of coercion. For example, the guidelines say, “Nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit the substance of voluntary discussions of religion . . . where it is reasonably clear that the discussions are personal, not official, and they can be reasonably free of the potential for, or appearance of, coercion.” But reasonably clear to whom? What looks uncoercive to an officer can look awfully official to a cadet.

The final straw is John McCain’s absolute embrace of the TheoCon position which to some (Ted Haggard perhaps?) seems to involve McCain taking a strong grip on his ankles.

The visible McCain move to the dark side began last year when he agreed to give the much reported commencement address last year at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Going from the frying pan into the fire (or perhaps the ejector seat into the cloud), McCain started meeting with the crème de la crème of the religious right including John Hagee. Who is John Hagee? From the BBC

John Hagee is the pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, and a long-time fervent supporter of Israel.
His latest book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, interprets the Bible to predict that Russian and Arab armies will invade Israel and be destroyed by God.

This will set up a confrontation over Israel between China and the West, led by the anti-Christ, who will be the head of the European Union, Pastor Hagee writes.

That final battle between East and West – at Armageddon, as the actual Israeli location of Meggido is known in English – will precipitate the second coming of Christ, he concludes.

Then McCain goes on Meet the Press and says things like this

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Iran. You said this to the Financial Times.

“‘Everyone knows we’re not going to have two wars (at once),’ [McCain] said…

“‘I do not think [using force against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities] would be successful. There is no guarantee we would get all those facilities. If you have a strike and leave them with nuclear capability, you have got a hell of a challenge on your hands.’”

SEN. McCAIN: I also said that there’s only one thing worse than using the option of military action, and that is the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons. And we must, as the president has very correctly stated, not removed the military option from the table. We cannot remove that option.

MR. RUSSERT: But The Washington Post said it would unleash Iranian agents already here in the United States and bring on terrorist attacks here and worldwide.

SEN. McCAIN: The president of Iran went to the United Nations and announced his dedication to the extinction of the state of Israel. The—they are in clear violation of the NPT, which they were signatories to. This is one of the most dangerous challenges we’ve faced since the end of the Cold War. And put yourself in, in the position of the government of the state of Israel: a near neighbor who has announced his—their desire to put you out, into extinction, and they have the capability to do so. This is one—a very serious challenge. And for us to say under no circumstances will we use the military option would be the height of foolishness in my view. And again, I want to applaud the president’s handling of this issue, keeping our European allies with us.

MR. RUSSERT: So we could have two wars at once?

SEN. McCAIN: I think we could have Armageddon. [My emphasis. Note: further blathering snipped, he has set the context. Israel and Armageddon.]

Lastly there was the McCain “Bomb Iran” um bomb (bomb bomb).

For those not taking notes: we now have an overly evangelized military; an Air Force officially refusing to produce balanced guidelines; John McCain’s religious right pandering; his overtures to evangelicals including hard core Armageddon hopefuls like John Hagee; and finally McCain’s spouting of absolute idiocy on Meet the Press and his public singing engagements.

All this culminates in McCain’s appearance on the Daily Show last night in an attempt to relive past approval and his spinning the occupation of Iraq for what it’s worth. Because if you ‘lose’ Iraq, it gets difficult to start more wars in the Middle East thus Armageddon moves into the slightly more distant future it’s just really, really bad.

So. You choose.

You have an army of Christian soldiers overly evangelized military with people on the Joint Chiefs of Staff claiming allegiance to God first, country third and no mention of the constitution.

You have a candidate for the Republican Party who is also starting to get those pesky little ‘God Calls.’

And on the other hand, you have Clinton, Obama or Edwards.

Which would you prefer?

(Hat Tip: Bruce Wilson aka Troutfishing/dailykos )

Do’s and Don’ts of Oversight

The Washington Post has a story up today about the lack of experience staffers needed to implement Democratic oversight over the Bush administration.

According to the article, being in the minority for 10 years takes its toll. Not only on the country, but on the aides and staffers charged with finding and sorting through information. One staffer was embarrassed to admit she didn’t know she could demand documents instead of having to Google for them.

Thus, the nonprofit group Project on Government Oversight has been holding workshops on the lost handicraft of supervision.

The article is a great read and I highly recommend it.

But, to me it also points out the missing workshops for scientists. Scientists need to understand that not only the facts are important, presenting those facts are equally important. According to the Post article, some of the ideas can be directly related to science reporting.

The project’s written tips for “The Do’s and Don’ts of an Oversight Hearing” include: “Keep an eye out for the example that will put a human face on the problem. . . . Find the Department of Defense’s $640 toilet seat” and “Don’t book it in the afternoon — and especially not on a Friday. By the afternoon, most press deadlines have passed. On Friday, the hearing risks getting bumped off the news broadcast in lieu of another celebrity adoption.” [my emphasis]

The classic example of this kind of PR/Framing train wreck is the scheduled release of all three International IPCC reports on Fridays. While most scientists don’t think they should be making policy, they do think they need to make waves on important issues. That doesn’t happen on a Friday.

Thus, the second part of the IPCC, “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” was released on Friday, April 6 with little or no fanfair. The fact that there was little or no press coverage has to do with the timing not the importance.

After all, how many knew that one of the leading scientists got so frustrated with linguistic tweaking by US and Chinese politicians that she walked out? From the Washington Post on the following Saturday,

An inside look at the last few hours of tense negotiations at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reveals how the diplomats won at the end thanks to persistence and deadlines. But scientists quietly note that they have the last say.

Diplomats from 115 countries and 52 scientists hashed out the most comprehensive and gloomiest warning yet about the possible effects of global warming, from increased flooding, hunger, drought and diseases to the extinction of species.

The 23-page summary certainly didn’t sound diplomatic. But it was too much so, scientists said.

In the past, scientists at these meetings felt that their warnings were conveyed, albeit slightly edited down. But several of them left Friday with the sense that they had lost control of their document. At one point, NASA’s Cynthia Rosenzweig filed a formal protest and left the building, only to return, make peace and talk in positive tones. Others talked about abandoning the process altogether.

And even worse. How did the headline for this story change over time? When I researched this entry a week ago, I came up with the following screen shot [edited to remove the ad under the header] after searching the Washington Post web site for “IPCC Brussels”

Global Headline Change

I’ll let you guess which headline ended up being used.

All three of those links pointed to the same article. All three of those headlines reflected the same story of politics pushing scientists.

But the final headline? How do scientists ‘get the last word’ at the end of the day? It’s in the last paragraph,

Yet, scientists have their fallback: a second summary that consists of 79 densely written, heavily footnoted pages. The “technical summary,” which will eventually be released to the public but was obtained by The Associated Press, will not be edited by diplomats. The technical summary, Rosenzweig said, contains “the real facts.” [my emphasis]

Oh. Getting the facts out to the public? Right!

Framing science? Workshops about not scheduling things for Friday afternoons might be a start. And refusing to take part in those kinds of hearing due to ‘scheduling conflicts’ might be another.

Science? No.
Important? Your choice – it’s your world.

Gonzales’ 10.0 Performance

The Democrats eviscerated him; most Republicans stopped just short of calling for his resignation. He showed an absolute lack of contriteness and seemed paradoxically unprepared to be able to justify the firing of all the United States attorneys even after weeks of prep time. His memory was so lacking that concrete recollections seemed as rare as a virgin in a red light district.

And yet, one person was impressed. The only person that matters – George W. Bush. (Well maybe Barney liked it too, but he’s not talking to anyone but George W.)

From the Washington Post,

President Bush said his confidence in Alberto R. Gonzales has grown as a result of the attorney general’s testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the administration moved to end speculation that Gonzales would step down after a performance criticized by senators in both parties.

“The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment and answered every question he could possibly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office yesterday. “Some senators didn’t like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could.”

Soon after Bush spoke, Gonzales said he has no plans to resign. “I will stay as long as I feel I can be effective,” the attorney general said at a news conference called to discuss identity theft. “And I believe I can be effective.”

The article goes on to quote Bush saying, “And as the investigation, the hearings went forward, it was clear that the attorney general broke no law, did no wrongdoing.”

Of course Bush is purposely missing the point. No one is actually claiming laws were broken and whether there was wrongdoing seems to have disappeared into the black holes that are Alberto Gonzales’ memory and the e-mail servers at the Republican National Committee.

The point is that at the DOJ, under Gonzales, there has been little or no right doing.

Gonzales, from his handling of the Guantanamo inmates, to the firing of 8 people for whatever reasons, to the overwhelming lack of success in pushing the Administrations number one legal priority, actually bringing voter fraud cases to prosecution, has presented one managment trainwreck after another. One could even start attacking him for not being vidulent enough on cracking down on licensed arms dealers selling to gun traffickers in America.

But none of that matters because of the one thing Gonzales does get right – he backs the president. He always backs the president and the executive branch.

I think Dahlia Lithwick got it absolutely right yesterday in Slate,

So, I’ve changed my mind. On sober second thought, it occurs to me that when I find myself in enthusiastic agreement with “White House insiders” and the National Review that Alberto Gonzales disgraced himself yesterday, I may have missed something important. Assuming the president watched so much as 10 minutes of his attorney general being poleaxed by even rudimentary questions from the Senate judiciary committee, it strains credulity to believe that Gonzales still has Bush’s “full confidence.”

Until you stop to consider that the president wasn’t watching the same movie as the rest of us and that Gonzales wasn’t reading from the same script. Perhaps what we witnessed yesterday was in fact a tour de force, a home run for the president’s overarching theory of the unitary executive.

The theory of the unitary executive is a radical vision of executive power in which the president is the big boss of the entire executive branch and has final say over everything that happens within it. At its core, the theory holds that Congress has very limited authority to divest the president of those powers. An expanded version of this theory was the legal predicate for the torture memo: “In light of the president’s complete authority over the conduct of war, without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the president’s ultimate authority in these areas. … Congress may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.”

In the case of Gonzales, there seems to be bipartisan support to see this gentleman catapulted back to Texas in a high arc. And the most amazing thing is that the president just doesn’t care. He has gone from ignoring a Democratic minority in a rubber stamp Republican Congress to ignoring a Democratic majority allied with an increasing group of unruly Republicans in a hostile Congress.

It is clear that Bush will veto his second piece of legislation when he shoots down the pending legislation funding Iraq due to pass House and Senate this week. He will weather out the storm – not because it is the right thing – but because to give in would be to yield power back to the legislative branch. That is what he and his supporters, including Gonzales as well as Rove, Cheney, etc. have been trying to change for 5 years. Now they are seeing whether it will work.

Lithwick’s parting comments ring as true as they do haunting,

Viewed in that light, Gonzales did exactly what he needed to do yesterday. He took a high, inside pitch to the head for the team (nobody wants to look like a dolt on national television) but hit a massive home run for the notion that at the end of the day, congressional oversight over the executive branch is little more than empty theatre.

(Political) “Scientific War”

Oh, Oh. This won’t be pretty.

There is an article at the National Geographic news site saying that Zahi Hawass, the scientist with the rather pompous title of General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is making waves again.

Upping the ante, Hawass on Sunday told his country’s parliament that he “will never again organize antiquities exhibitions in Germany if it refuses a request, to be issued next week, to allow the bust of Nefertiti to be displayed in Egypt for three months.”

While this sounds like a rather inconvenient tit for tat between two museums, it is far more serious.

Hawass is not an unwritten book. He has been pushing for the return of Egyptian artefacts to Egypt since he got his title.

You know this guy. His is the face of Egyptian archaeology, not only on National Geographic but on any show involving a pyramid in Egypt today. He seems to have two modes – Indiana Jones with rolled up sleeves and (I kid you not) a Fedora and the perfect Middle East minister with tailored suit and perfectly manicured fingernails. You can’t film about ancient Egypt in Egypt without giving him airtime.

He certainly doesn’t worry about science stuff. During the NOVA episode The Mummy Who Would Be King, he walked into a room and declared, in a booming, confident voice, that a newly rediscovered mummy was ‘royal.’

Myself, I can smell royal mummies. And I know the difference from a mummy to the others. You know, I discovered, in my career, more than 254 mummies. And I can really look at the face and from the first sight I will find out that it’s royal mummy or not.

I have seen a report on the discovery of a number of mummies where archaeologists wondered if they had discovered Nefertiti’s tomb. The reporter asked a conservator working on one of the mummies a rather innocuous question. The terror this woman felt was written in her face. She stammered something and told the reporter that he needed to talk to Hawass. Only Hawass gets airtime. To disobey this rule is to fall into disgrace in Hawass’ eyes.

But there is one person who Hawass really dislikes. That is the director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Dietrich Wildung. From an article in the LA Times,

If Hawass is a master at outreach, he’s a black belt at loftiest target has been Dietrich Wildung, an eminent scholar who runs the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. In 2003, Hawass announced that Egyptian police had a tape of known antiquities thieves talking about the kinds of things Wildung would be willing to buy from them for his museum’s collection.

“The … authorities have incontrovertible evidence that he was involved in the illegal trafficking and buying of antiquities,” Hawass wrote in his column for the English edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. But when asked why Egypt, two years later, still hasn’t moved to indict Wildung — as Italian authorities recently did in bringing a case against Marion True, the J. Paul Getty Museum’s curator of antiquities — Hawass acknowledges that the tapes are hearsay that can’t prove a case.

Now Hawass wants Germany to “loan” the classic Nefertiti bust back to Egypt. The Germans think that as soon as the statue is back in Egypt it is gone. Possession is, after all, nine-tenths of the law. Since this also the central piece in the German museum, they are understandably nervous about giving it up. It would kill their exhibition.

There are long traditions of German and Egyptian scientists working together. Germany was active both before and after the second world war and many major discoveries were made by Germans. Thus a disagreement on this level might cause an academic break.

But unlike the nice quiet science types, Hawass plays hard ball. He is ratcheting up the language. Back to the National Geographic piece,

Hawass said today that he would send a letter to Germany tomorrow formally requesting a loan of the bust for the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum.

The museum is scheduled to open in 2012 near the site of the Great Pyramids at Giza, just outside Cairo.

“I will begin a negotiation,” Hawass said.

If it fails, Hawass said, he will organize a worldwide boycott of loans to German museums.

“We will make the lives of these museums miserable,” he said. “It will be a scientific war.” [My emphasis]

No. It will be a political war. A political war where science plays a very minor role compared to the ego of one Egyptian minister.

It is a political (science) war.

One Mind at a Time

I recently watched Morgan Spurlock’s 30 days as a Muslim and realised it would make a great example of how framing works as a cultural tool.

In the standard 30 Days tradition, the episode took a someone out of their normal lives and forced them into a situation they are completely unprepared for. Here Dave Stacy, a Christian from West Virginia is sent to Dearborn, Minnesota where there is a large Muslim community to ‘become’ a Muslim for 30 days. It is not a pretty sight. His conflict and unease are apparent as he slowly overcomes his preconceptions. His frame for what Islam is and what Muslims think and do is difficult to for him to overcome.

It is wonderful to watch Dave’s opinion shift from him asking the question, “Do you guys think that there are – like – any sleeper cell activity around here?” to him being forced to answer the same question. And to finally understand how wrong the question itself really is.

I realised that the link between terrorism and Muslims is an excellent example of framing and re-framing. Not framing in the form of spinning an embarrassment but in the sense of changing cognitive reactions to certain words.

This is also shows how framing needs to be fought with framing. Let’s look for a second at that the connection between a religion and terrorism. A connection, today an almost immediate mental reaction to either word, is a fairly recent creation.

According to the online etymology dictionary,

General sense of “systematic use of terror as a policy” is first recorded in Eng. 1798. Terrorize “coerce or deter by terror” first recorded 1823. Terrorist in the modern sense dates to 1947, especially in reference to Jewish tactics against the British in Palestine — earlier it was used of extremist revolutionaries in Russia (1866); and Jacobins during the French Revolution (1795) — from Fr. terroriste.

Thinking about the evolution of the connection is interesting.

If I had used the word terrorist ten years ago in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings, while the spectre of Muslim extremism was on the sidelines, many Americans would have thought of intellectually challenged, white supremacists living in a cabin in Montana or on a compound in Texas. (One could even debunk those connections, but I won’t go there today.)

Going back thirty years into the 1970’s there were again two types of terrorists; one secular – socialist, exemplified by the RAF in Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy, and one religious – the religion Christianity, Catholics and Protestants, the battlefield Ireland. (The Palestinian conflict and the PLO might have also come to mind but that was about territory and not religion.)

Going back another 30 years, into the late 1940s, one finds the first use of car bombs in the Middle East, not by Muslim extremists but by Zionist organisations fighting for the creation of Israel.

Another twenty years back and the terrorist threat morphs into a communist plot – connected, tenuously, to the creation of the labor movement.

Finally we arrive at the end of the 19th century. Here the true terrorists aren’t religious but anarchist. Fighting for a social revolution to end government, to end centralised control, elected or otherwise.

All these movements were thought to be terrorist. And all would have been the immediate mental image to the word terrorist for the times described. But times change and the framing changes. The scaffolding, the mental pattern matching superhighways change through reinforcement. The news of bomb after bomb in northern Ireland made the entire emerald isle a suspicious den of religious extremists. Not exactly the image created today when one thinks less of guns and more of Guinness when Ireland is mentioned.

To say the world Russia today may produce many thoughts but communist drone or some variant thereof won’t be one of them.

Frames have changed. The mental scaffolding reformed to produce different pathways. Reframing happens. Slowly, almost without people being aware of it. It happens because enough information reinforces differing imagery.

And notice, during my discussion of terrorism, I didn’t use the word Muslim. I didn’t reenforce the pathway I am trying to break. Ideally one would turn on rant mode when someone makes the connection explain the emotional reactions the word terrorist had created – never mentioning the other side. You don’t reenforce frames by denying them. You connect one thing to something else. Terrorism – lots of things secular and religious. Not terrorism is not muslim. (Big, bad no-no.)

Despite the central imagery of terrorims in the episode, 30 Days is one step towards trying to reframe the right wing stranglehold on the American psyche. Showing how wrong the current cognitive scaffolding in American thought really is.

Both the Muslim episode and a film called After 30 Days as a Muslim with an interview with Morgan Spurlock and Dave Stacy can be found on YouTube.

But this battle can only be fought piece for piece. From an awards ceremony featured after the interview, Spurlock brings the issue to the forefront,

[W]e managed to reignite a debate that, to me, resonates as much in the nation today as it did hundreds of years ago. What does it mean to be an American? In post 9/11 America, we have become a nation divided; a nation divided by race, by religion by belief, and country of origin. A divide that is further perpetuated by biased news gathering and biased news reporting. What this show has managed to accomplish is amazing. By showing the simple actions of honest people we have stirred a dialog that is not rooted in Red state Blue state rhetoric, that is not a soapbox for policy or politics, but is something missing from today’s television landscape, the real voice of American citizens.

Dave Stacy will defend the Islamic faith in the future because his frame of the religion was radically altered. Some of the people who have watched this show will understand that the simplistic model of Islam hammered into the minds of the heartland, might not be as simple as one would like. Others will have shifted slightly.

This minor shift – this one small step – is reframing. Reframing works – one mind at a time.

Signs for the Times

Mark Daye, a 4th year graphic design student at OCAD in Toronto, decided to integrate learning, design and social activism. The results are wonderful.

Instead of rebranding a product, or service for my 4th year thesis project I chose to represent a local population that usually gets overlooked. I re-coded official signage and affixed 30 of them to poles in the downtown core with messages pertaining to an obvious but ignored urban sub culture. The goal was not only to catch people off guard by creating signs that acknowledge the homeless population on a seemingly official level, but to get people to think about codes of behaviour, conformity, acceptance and to maybe spare some consideration for the homeless who live mostly ignored in the city, blending into the background just like the signs.

Pictures here and more information here and here.

Anti-War or Anti-Country?

What do you think?

For God And Country

Memo to all those ‚Islamo-fascists’ out there:

You kept claiming the American invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan were the start of a new Christian crusade? You were right.

According to an official PRESS RELEASE from the Combined Task Force 82 stationed in Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, they just finished their spring revival with the theme “Having faith that pleases God;” the idea apparently taken from Hebrews 11:6 – “… without faith, it is impossible to please God.”)

The PRESS RELEASE finishes with the following uplifting summary,

Today, many churches and religious groups host revival services at the changing of the seasons – spring and fall.

“I enjoyed the services and the message was comforting, especially being away from home under these circumstances,” said Sgt. 1st Class Terrance Williams, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade.

“It is time to take a stand. A stand for faithfulness, a stand for understanding, a stand for guidance, a stand for love, a stand for learning and doing God will,” Thompson said. “No longer is it our will, but allow His will to be done.”

* sigh * And “Islamo-fascists” are the bad guys trying to bring their religion to America?

(Hat Tip and obsequious grovel to Sharon Weinberger/DangerRoom)

Desperately Seeking Framing

For those breathlessly waiting for my next instalment on Framing Science, start breathing again until next week. I have to collect my thoughts and organise what I’d like to say.

This is something that has been just hopping around the edge of my activist urges forever. I just get framing. Not the marketing, spin, propaganda parts of framing, but the facts need a knowledge scaffolding kind of framing.

To misquote Steven Wright, “Who would want to know everything; where would you put it?” Framing is about building shelves and storage containers for facts.

I hear scientists continually talking about how we need to improve science education. They often use the horrible statistics about how misinformed the public is on certain facts, the earth goes around the sun, the age of the universe is 8-12 billion(1995) 12-13 billion (2001) 13.7 billion(2003) years , the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is seriously endangered. . Bla, Bla, Bla. Facts change guys. The many bleeding edge “facts” I learned 20 years ago are simply out of date because we know more.

Scientists will respond, but we just want people to know the basic facts.

But scientists don’t worry about facts, scientists worry about hypothesis. About how the facts, how the data fits in whatever is being studied. There is fact generation in science. But textbooks aren’t filled with facts. Textbooks are filled with hypothesis and theories and how to get from here to there.

Scientist advocates would really like the public to know basic science facts. Get in line. Everyone else wants the public to know more about something – politics, comparative religion (sorry PZ), current best practices in nutrition, healthcare, taxes, and, and, and… If the anti-gun control mob get their way, we’ll probably need mandatory firearm handling training and shooting practice.

To think of modifying public opinion by adding facts will not work. There are already too many facts out there. The problem is not enough training in fact filtering. There is not enough training in understanding that science isn’t the facts, it’s the process.

Thus, I see framing at a number of different levels.

First framing is a strategy. It is about learning how to present science “fact last” while still presenting the underlying ideas. Whether the earth goes around the sun doesn’t matter to the mother of four with a screaming baby and melting ice cream in the mini-van. But being able to say, “I don’t know but I’ll find out” to the persistent six-year old future scientist and have it stick would be a major jump in the right direction.

Framing is linguistic. It is as much about transmitting knowledge as it is about avoiding verbal pitfalls and the cognitive, linguistic traps designed by the opponents of science.

Finally framing needs to become a way of life (God I am an activist, aren’t I?)

Framing is about reinforcing the message again and again and again. There is a reason why physicists-in-training do certain calculations over and over while studying physics. Because the techniques needed just don’t stick if you just hear about it once.

You develop physical neural pathways through mental repetition. Cults and kooks combine this with worship and woo to create non-rational reactions to rational arguments. Scientists and science journalists need to use the same techniques because that is how the brain works. Wishing it weren’t so doesn’t change anything; it exacerbates the problem. It is unscientific – it is woo.

Re Surgence

Just in case you thought the headline

“In Surge in Manhattan Toddlers, Rich White Families Lead Way”

was a joke.

You’d be wrong. *sigh*

Not a Good Day in Nashville

Some people just don’t get public relations.

Some people just don’t get how business models are supposed to work.

Usually, when you order a service, you pay after the service is rendered. You might make a deposit but you usually don’t pay for everything. Unfortunately, in the world of professional head hunters, there is a breed that doesn’t follow that philosophy.

Katherine Coble ran across one of those companies while her husband was looking for work. She related the information on her blog. The company got miffed and demanded she take down the posts. That went back and forth and now the company suited for libel.

That’s when the shit it the fan.

For all his faults, one thing Instapundit Glenn Renyolds is not, it is nice to people who strong arm bloggers. And he picked up the story. And some other people picked up the story.

At that point a fairly unknown blog and a fairly unknown company just got really well known. Just not in a particularly good light. It is absolutely irrelevant whether Ms Coble takes down the blog entries now. Even the local televison station WKRN is covering the story. From,

WKRN’s Brittney Gilbert reports on the saga of JL Kirk Associates, a critical blogger, and a lawsuit threat that backfired big time. Also, “S-Town Mike” at Enclave has more on JL Kirk Associates’ new-found online fame.

And it’s not good fame: the story, and the controversy over JL Kirk Associates threatening to sue Coble for writing critically of the company on her blog has surfaced other bloggers with similar experiences and first-hand criticisms of the company. Even worse, people who before this week had never heard of JL Kirk Associates now only have a bad impression of the company. People like Billy Hollis at QandO, who wrote:

I don’t know squat about JL Kirk, or about their law firm King & Ballow. But I can say with some confidence that neither of them has a clue just how information is spread in the world today.

For many firms in the service industry, their reputation is the single most important asset they have. And how do most modern people assess reputation? By Internet searching, primarily Google. You can literally destroy your own company overnight by doing something really stupid, if the results of that stupidity will be one of the first things that show up on Google when a search of your company name is done. It looks like JL Kirk has just done this.

So. What was a marginally bad situation has turned into a public relations melt-down.

Despite the treat of internet character assassination, this does not look like that kind of situation. The company screwed up and will have to change it’s name (again). It will continue to do the same thing under a different cover.

This company won’t learn. But then again this kind of bad publicitiy isn’t only limited to headhunters.

But this will put a dent in the corporate profits for the year. No?


I have been spending a lot of time recently looking into gun control because I have been planning to do a number of posts on the issue.

As always I try approach the issue with an international perspective. I attempt to look at the effects of individual laws in the various countries can have on crime. Mass shootings, while relatively rare, do have a tendency to acerbate public opinion.

In a macabre coincidence spent, spend my weekend reading the official inquiry into a another school shooting. Not Columbine, Dunblane, Scottland.

A massacre largely forgotten in the uniquely myopic American psyche, the Dunblane massacre shifted public opinion in England about the ownership of hand guns; the ownership of handguns for any reason, including sport shooting.

On March 13, 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into the Dunblane Primary School armed with two 9mm semi-automatic pistols and two .357 Smith & Wesson revolvers. He entered the gym and began targeting children and teachers. By the time he had finished shooting, a total of 16 children and one teacher lay dead or dying, another 15 were wounded, 6 of those with very serious wounds.

After shooting the class, Thomas Hamilton used one of the .357 Magnums to kill himself.

Much of the official report centers on two issues: Hamilton’s homosexual, paedophilic tendencies coupled with a feeling of paranoia and Hamilton’s legal ownership of a relatively large number of handguns. As noted in the report the first issue was unrelated to the second.

Despite what gun lobbyists might contend, the resulting hand gun control didn’t change England from being a country where gun ownership was as widespread as America to a self-defense wasteland. At the time of the shooting, it was already very difficult to purchase and own handguns. Only people with either a professional or a legitimate sporting interest could own guns and there was absolutely no wide spread ownership; nothing like the roughly 50% coverage found in America.

The shooting caused England to go through a very difficult time of soul searching. The eventual reaction was drastic. An almost complete ban on private ownership of firearms including air pistols and crossbows. Indeed, the regulations are so drastic that a special dispensation has become necessary to allow shooting events during the upcoming Olympic games to be held in 2012 and the English Olympic team must train outside the country.

To date it is not completely clear how effective these measures have been. While there haven’t been any massacres in the United Kingdom since 1996, there had been only one in the 10 years proceeding Dunblane. People running amok in England is not a common thing.

Probably even less well known in the English speaking world is the 2002 Erfurt massacre. The shooter, Robert Steinhäuser walked into a high school with a 9mm handgun and a pump action shotgun (which he didn’t use). By the time the shooting stopped, Steinhäuser lay dead of his own hand afer having killed 17 people. Again, both weapons were legally licensed in a country where mass ownership of weapons is rare. Again the incident caused widespread worry, discussion and debate about the ownership of guns. Ultimately little changed.

Do I thing hand gun control would be a good thing. Yes. Would it have prevented Dunblane, Columbine, Erfurt or any of the other terrible catastrophes that have happened around the world. Probably not.

But as schizophrenic as it may sound, I don’t think stopping massacres would or should be the goal of hand gun control. I don’t think they will have that much effect.

The area where handgun control might be effective would be in lowering everyday crime rates, in changing the feeling in some cities about whether it is save to walk the streets. It is about lowering the total number and thus the availability of concealable weapons. In lowering the number of accidental shootings in the home. In lowering the number of chldren shot when an adult doesn’t properly handle a firearm – for whatever reason.

If you worked in a hospital and there were large numbers of used needles laying about, you wouldn’t look at buying more needles to cure the resultant infections. You would purchase a sharps container to get rid of the needles causing the problems.

For those Americans who think that the ownership of weapons is an inalienable human right need to think about what is going on in Iraq today. American soldiers search house after house searching for weapons; searching for weapons the Iraqis use against the foreigners who have invaded their country. Homeland defense is of the biggest selling points of the NRA and one of the major problems for the American military. Which right is higher, Americas right to carry democracy to every corner of the globe or the individuals right to protect home and family?So yes. I think gun control and registration is necessary. I think it would lower crime rates in America.

But while I fully believe gun control and legislation is a good thing, I don’t think America can get there from here. It is impossible to get all the weapons off the streets – legal or otherwise. It is a social trap that America fell into for social and historical reasons. I doubt it be changed.

So try to keep that in mind while the lobbyists from antigun control and gun control sides scream about whether gun control is necessary or would help. Visions are good, but visions got America into Iraq. Don’t look at the vision, look at the reality.

Don’t ask whether gun control is good, think about whether gun control is possible.

It’s Not A War

Iraq is one of the major issues in American political discussion today. The problem is that it is still seen and more importantly described as an American war. It isn’t.

That’s why the article in today’s LA Times is so – um – misworded.

In early February, the war in Iraq came home to this small railroad town on the Nebraska prairie where farms begin to give way to high plains.

Seven thousand miles away on a Baghdad street, a bomb exploded beside Army Sgt. Randy J. Matheny’s armored vehicle, killing the 20-year-old McCook High School graduate and stunning his small hometown.

“It caused us all to reexamine what we were thinking,” said Walt Sehnert, who has run a popular bakery on McCook’s main street since 1957. “Those of us who were adamant about the war had to stand back and take a deep breath.”

Across Nebraska, there has been a lot of reexamination lately.

One of the things that needs to be reexaminined isn’t the reality of what is happening, it is how we talk about it. Do you really want to bring the boys and girls back home? (And yes, someone like Pink really needs to cover Vera Lynn – it would do a world of good.)

If you want to extract America from the failed neo-con experiment in the Middle East, there is something very simple. You can do it today, tomorrow, until the boys and girls come home: stop calling it a war!

The ‘war’ in Iraq simply wasn’t. What started as an invasion quickly changed into a messed-up mop-up, a wrecked reconstruction and finally morphed into a moral morass best termed occupation.

Americans are a proud people they don’t like to lose wars. Stop talking about ending the war in Iraq. Stop talking about winning or losing the war in Iraq. Every time you say war, you extend the legitimacy for something that should have stopped a long time ago.

But you don’t win or lose an occupation, you end one. So start calling it what it is… an occupation.

And end the American Occupation of Iraq.

The Global War on Framing

Wow! I go into weekend hibernation and a war breaks out. * Sigh *

With my morning coffee, I sat down and read the latest Washington Post op-ed by Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet and the rather rattling reaction by PZ Meyers.

Folks. This is not going well.

Reading Mooney and Nisbet’s op-ed does not bring meat to the issue but rather simply throws more fuel on the fire. Even though I agree with much of the op-ed, it will not bring closure to the issue it isn’t going to help much. The crux is being missed. Of the entire op-ed the only paragraph that cuts to the quick follows.

Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It’s here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society — even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.

Reading Meyers reaction, it is clear to me Mooney and Nisbet are right, he doesn’t get it. But M&N don’t understand the reaction. Indeed of the people I read, Coturnix at Blog Around the Clock comes closest to trying to bridge the gap. He understands the issue from the pragmatic realist standpoint with the appropriately titled post Framers are Not Appeasers.

So, if you live in Europe or New England, your perception of the world is skewed – all those rational people around you! If you only read science and atheist blogs, you get the erroneous feel that there are many more atheists in America than there really are. Take a slow car trip through the North American continent – the middle of it. Gazillions of very nice, smart people who, due to the upbringing and the surrounding culture think that Atheist=Satan. But you want those people to push Congress to do something about global warming, don’t you?

Then think strategically how to talk to them about it. This is political battle, not a science battle or a religion battle. So stick to politics. Back it up by science only as much as needed to be understood and trusted. Starting out by telling them they are stupid makes the conversation stop before it ever started.

Trees, of AnomalousData fame goes even farther and presents the issue even better. She frames it perfectly.

Far be it from me to disagree with Prof. Myers, but on this one, I DO. Not his principles, but his interpretation of the framing agenda. As one of the potential targets of “framing”, I gotta say, it would be helpful for me. You know who argues with non-scientist anti-science types most often? Non-scientist pro-science types, that’s who. I would really welcome some good tools that would help me accurately argue with people who I encounter on a daily basis who think they “know enough” to be consumers of science, and make decisions in ignorance that they don’t even realize is ignorance. I would like a faster, better way of getting to the meat of scientific matters.

People like Meyers, Dawkins and Harris are important because they move the goal posts farther away from the center. This gives the people caught in the middle more room to manoeuvre. Much like the extreme fundementalist religious nuts have managed to draw the public religious discussion farther and farther from a centrist position, the vocal atheists are trying to present a counter balance. This doesn’t solve the problem; it does tend to even out the playing field. I really do appreciate their efforts.

PZ Meyers ends his post with a challenge. He throws down the gauntlet.

The title of the article is “Thanks for the facts. Now sell them.” I’m still waiting for an article that actually tells me how to better sell difficult ideas with a technique other than simply gagging all the atheists to appease the mob.

Alright professor. Let’s get started.

This isn’t something we will finish in one post. It’s not something you finish in 200 words but in many posts; it really needs a book. But hey, maybe I just need an agent.

The first problem is defining what framing is and what framing isn’t. Or rather trying to define a term to talk for this discussion.

In the context of what they are saying, M&N are defining a frame to be a cognitive pathway to a mental shortcut. When I say the words big sky, all kinds of things will come to mind. Wide open spaces, blue, clean air… Why does this happen? Because even if you didn’t endure Montana’s ad campaign in the mid-eighties, the sky is just— blue. That ‘fact’ is hard coded. That is a cognitive frame.

Some cognitive frames are built into the language itself. To say someone is lost in a “hailstorm of facts” or a “blizzard of information” have different feels. This is because hail is hard, we feel that the person is being injured; in a blizzard, you are more blinded than pelted – you have lost your way. Both phrases say basically the same thing but by presenting the information using different mental shortcuts, I give the same idea a different feel. I use differerent shortcuts.

You can also create cognitive frames.

For this discussion, I will use the word “Darwinism.” For most scientists, this word has either a neutral or if anything positively historical, definitive feel. It is no different than saying Newtonian. It simply defines a scientific theory, limiting the areas it is use.

Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents have slowly, selectively changed the ostensibly neutral term Darwinism into a pejorative for their audiences. Darwinists are pushing the secular idea of Darwinism to attack religion. Darwinism doesn’t mean “descent with modification,” it means the destruction of faith and family and America. Apple pie is probably on the most wanted list as well. This isn’t correct, it has nothing to do with facts, but that is the way it is. Scientists like facts and this is a fact. The problem is that even using the word to correct the speaker will reinforce the original cognitive frame. Sad. But. True.

Thus it is important to look at what we are trying to do. What are we even talking about. Is Meyers framing, the same as Coturnix’, or Trees’ or mine. Are our mental shortcuts the same thing on this issue. I doubt it.

The Rockridge Institute, a progressive think tank, has an online book about framing progressive political points, Thinking Points. Here I quote from Chapter 3 which describes framing.

Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds of others. This is a big task. We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire, and one person’s common sense is another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.

The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for our democratic system. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have o rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.

Here Lakoff is directly attacking the idea that facts ‘work.’ He isn’t basing his ideas on some bizarre political addenda. This is his research area – these are HIS SCIENTIFIC FACTS.

Interestingly, I suspect PZ Meyers sees the world through just this rationality-first cognitive frame. He expects the people to react rationally to rational facts. Unfortunately in a sound bite culture, the scaffolding for presenting those facts must be carefully build, bit for bit, beam by beam; It does not work to attempt to attack fallacy with facts if the listener won’t have anywhere to put them. You must frame first. That is the crusade Mooney and Nisbet are trying to start.

It is also important to understand what framing isn’t. Framing isn’t spin, framing isn’t propaganda: Here I go back to Lakoff, this time where he quotes his book Don’t Think of an Elephant,

“Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it—that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good.

Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control.

The reframing I am suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames that they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are. I strongly recommend against any deceptive framing.”

Framing is building a verbal scaffolding to hold the data scientists are trying to dump. Mooney and Nesbit aren’t trying to change the science, they are trying to pave the way for a public accept the science being discovered.

Facts don’t win. That is a fallacy. Just like the Global War on Terror.

And just like the Global War on Framing needs to be.

To Be Continued…

The Wolf Ate My Post

I had this really long, involved piece about the whole Paul Wolfowitz thing including the background to the infamous sock scandal. Wolf Paws

But then the Gods of the Intertubes, whose names must remain untyped, determined that that post must be religated to the black hole that is Dick Cheney’s heart or perhaps the Blog Post Nervana – which is pretty much the same thing.

Then I notice that Wonkette managed sum up my 800 word piece in two sentences and a picture. *sigh*

Everyone at the World Bank hates “Shoeless Paul” Wolfowitz. They didn’t like him from the beginning (you start one little unjustified war and endless bloody occupation based on specious intelligence…) and once he took over he didn’t win any new friends by giving his girlfriend a huge, illegal raise

I really can’t add much to that.

Wolf Paws

Turkish newspapers followed his visit closely — including the “sock-gate” incident — because he spoke positively about the country’s modernization programs.

The Tale of the Two Millers

Today I’d like to tell two very sad tales, stories about suicide. One paints a very sad picture, the other, only half of one.The first story is about a depressed teenager.

In 1997, Matt Miller, a 13 year old started having behavioural problems; his grades dropped, he was banging his head against his locker at school, he began urinating on the bathroom floor. His parents, alerted to the problem by school officials, took him to an adolescent psychiatrist who diagnosed an unspecified depression. Since the boy did not show improvement after three weeks, the psychiatrist prescribed the anti-depressant Zoloft, a so called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). A week later the young man committed suicide by hanging himself.

The parents suspected the medication played an important role in their son’s death and sued the maker of the antidepressant – pharma giant Pfizer. They enrolled the help of an expert witness, Dr. David Healy. Healy had studied the effects of SSRIs on individuals not suffering from depression and reported that a few had reacted with obsessive suicidal thoughts. Pfizer’s counsel argued that Healy’s testimony not be admitted because it did not meet the so called Daubert standards requiring judges to act as gatekeepers in the case of expert testimony and requiring evidence to have won “widespread acceptance” in professional circles. (This is the same standard defendants in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case attempted to use in order to prevent Barbara Forrest from testifying. They failed and her testimony later proved damning to the Intelligent Design case.)

The second Miller story is not about someone who committed suicide, but someone studying it. Dr. Matthew Miller is the Associate Director of Harvard Injury Control Research Center and does research into methods for preventing suicide.

In a study appearing in the April issue of The Journal of Trauma, Miller is presenting his research into the correlation between the presence of firearms in households and suicide rates.

In the first nationally representative study to examine the relationship between survey measures of household firearm ownership and state level rates of suicide in the U.S., researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that suicide rates among children, women and men of all ages are higher in states where more households have guns. The study appears in the April 2007 issue of The Journal of Trauma.

“We found that where there are more guns, there are more suicides,” said Matthew Miller, Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management at HSPH and lead author of the study.

Suicide ranks as one of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S.; among persons less than 45 years old, it is one of the top three causes of death. In 2004, more than half of the 32,439 Americans who committed suicide used a firearm.

It should also be noted that there are more suicides in America per year than murders. It is clear that this study will be used by gun control lobbies to argue for more restrictions and attacked by firearm lobbies for being flawed.

While I am highly sceptical of handgun ownership, my alarm bells started ringing while reading the article describing the study. I got more suspicious when I read the summary,

The researchers recommend that firearm owners take steps to make their homes safer. “Removing all firearms from one’s home is one of the most effective and straightforward steps that household decision-makers can take to reduce the risk of suicide,” says Miller. “Removing firearms may be especially effective in reducing the risk of suicide among adolescents and other potentially impulsive members of their home. Short of removing all firearms, the next best thing is to make sure that all guns in homes are very securely locked up and stored separately from secured ammunition. In a nation where more than half of all suicides are gun suicides and where more than one in three homes have firearms, one cannot talk about suicide without talking about guns,” he adds.

Laudable sentiments all. But they only tell half the story.

You see, worldwide, America stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world with respect to access to firearms. There are many studies showing a strong correlation between the number of suicides, homicides and accidents using firearms. Unfortunately these studies usually don’t tell everything.

Let’s compare the data between Germany and the US. Germany requires firearms to be registered and gun owners to be licensed, both practices are handled in a patchwork fashion in the US. With only 8.9 percent of the households having firearms, Germany had a rate of 1.44 unintentional deaths by firearm per 100,000 residents (0.21 murders and 1.23 suicides) . During a similar reporting period, the US boasted a whopping 41 percent coverage of firearm availability with 13.47 firearm related deaths per 100,000 (6.24 murders, 7.23 suicides). This looks damning.

I would agree that data does point to a correlation between firearm availability and a direct increase in homicides. I think that is the paradox of the NRA argument of keeping weapons to defend oneself.

But if one concentrates on suicides, the picture changes. Let’s look at the overall suicide rate for the two countries. The US has a lower overall suicide rate than Germany (21.7 to 27.4 per 100,000).

Thus it would seem that any strong correlation between firearm ownership and suicide rates isn’t valid. What is valid is that if firearms are available, they will be used as the preferred method; but there are many, many ways to kill yourself.

So, even though I truly believe Dr. Miller’s heart is in the right place, I don’t trust his research. And any attorney attempting to use it in court will probably fail against an analysis similar to mine. Which brings me back to the first story.

Having research that only shows one side of an issue is one of the things that led to the creation of the Daubert standards. In the case of the suicide of Matt Miller the judge asked for help. According to the excellent Nation article about this,

To help evaluate Healy’s research, US District Court Judge Kathryn Vratil appointed two independent experts, Yale epidemiologist John Concato and University of Illinois psychiatrist John Davis, to answer her questions. “I had envisioned a freewheeling scientist-to-scientist dialogue,” says Vickery, the Millers’ attorney. Vratil, an appointee of the first President Bush, had other ideas: To avoid any appearance of bias, she barred the experts from talking with Healy or any other witness as they prepared their findings.

In their report, the two men called Healy an “accomplished investigator.” But they also said Healy’s methodology “has not been accepted in the relevant scientific community” and that the psychopharmacologist holds a “minority view” about SSRIs and suicidality. Agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they noted, had found no such relationship.
In February 2002, Judge Vratil issued her key rulings in Miller v. Pfizer. “Dr. Healy is an accomplished researcher,” she wrote, “and his credentials are not in dispute.” But his belief in the SSRI-suicide link is a “distinctly minority view,” she added, and the flaws in his methodology “are glaring, overwhelming, and unexplained.” With that, Vratil rejected Healy as an expert witness–and dismissed the lawsuit against Pfizer. The Millers appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which in October 2004 rejected their petition for a hearing.

It would seem that the minority opinion lost the day, a single researcher reading too much into the data. It would seem that Dr. Healy is analogous to Dr. Miller. Both had valid claims but were overreaching.

Dr. Miller correctly points out that the number of suicides using firearms is directly correlated to the number of firearms available. That does not lead however to the result that lowering the number of firearms will directly lower the number of suicides. If that were true, Germany should have a much lower rate of suicide than America indeed one would expect a dramatic drop. We don’t see that.

Dr. Healy looked at the data and worried about people being severely damaged by the very treatment meant to save them. Other researchers argued he was wrong. Perhaps the saddest factor in this story is that Dr. Healy was likely right. Returning to the Nation article

In April 2006 the drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline disclosed that adults with major depression were almost seven times more likely to attempt suicide after taking the SSRI Paxil than after taking a placebo, although these events were rare. In November an FDA analysis of 372 clinical trials, involving almost 100,000 patients, revealed a twofold risk of suicidal behavior for adults under 25 who took SSRIs. To those who share David Healy’s views, the latest research is an affirmation–too late for the Millers but perhaps early enough to avert future tragedies. “I believe it vindicates Healy in a major way,” says Antonuccio, the Nevada professor. “Here mainstream scientists are saying, Yes, these antidepressants cause suicidality–which is what Healy has been saying all along.”

So perhaps there is a more important moral here.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter whether the science is right or wrong. Sometimes it might be better to err on the side of safety – licensing and regulating guns on the one hand and strictly controlling the use of SSRIs on the other.

But for many this kind of pragmatic solution comes too late and at a much too high a price; the high price of legal fees, lobbyists – and lives.

Science Framing needs a business plan

Chad Orzel, recently tenured Physics professor, has a suggestion on the framing science debate.

What’s needed is really to fight fire with fire. In a battle for public opinion, professional PR flacks are going to beat professional scientists nine times out of ten, so why let it come down to that sort of uneven battle? What we need is not so much to train individual scientists to be mediocre PR flacks, but to get the scientific community to employ professional PR flacks. There are people out there who manipulate public opinion for a living, and they’ll work for anyone. Find them, hire them, and listen to them.

Actually he only gets the idea half right. The ‘PR flacks’ are only good at generating the initial talking points. Disseminating the information, getting it into the hearts and minds of the targeted population is something altogether different. And even that isn’t the first step.

Chad is still thinking inside the box. His idea needs to be broadened and refined. While it is generally understood that journalism, political science, and law majors will write op-ed pieces to local newspapers, this isn’t something assumed or even encouraged in science majors. If anything it is shunned.

This is probably the initial population to be encouraged to speak out. Not only the current crop of science students but the scientifically literate public must be called to the cause. They must be encouraged to take part in the public discourse and more importantly, they must be given a coherent message which is where the PR flacks come in.
Matt Nesbit has already described the prototype for this kind of behavior.

Consider how the Bush campaign incorporated opinion-leaders into its successful 2004 re-election bid. According to former Bush advisor Matthew Dowd, a co-author of Applebee’s America, strategists sent an email questionnaire to their national list of seven million volunteers, asking four specific questions about how willing volunteers were to write letters to the editor, talk to others about politics, forward emails, or attend public meetings. Based on answers to these questions, the Bush team segmented out two million “navigators” or opinion-leaders.

Contacted on a weekly basis by email and phone, these two million navigators were asked to talk up the campaign to friends, write letters to the editor, call in to local radio programs, or attend public meetings staying on message at all times with nationally coordinated talking points. For the Bush campaign, these supporters became grassroots information brokers, passing on interpersonally to fellow citizens the themes featured in political ads, news coverage, and in presidential stump speeches.

But there is a third element missing in the puzzle. You still need a way to fund the effort. You have to hire the PR flacks to generate the frames. The frames or perhaps more importantly the wording needs to be tested in various markets. (Sad but true). You need to be able to fund distribution systems which can be as simple as a web page but probably need more, t-shirts, give-aways. Speakers going around the country giving motivational talks, navigators congregating to learn how to speak and write more effectively. Those pesky little people writing the weekly mail and making the weekly phone call. None of this is completely free and in order to create an effective system, you need large numbers of people.

Look back at the above quote. The Republicans managed two million “navigators.” While I don’t think science needs quite that many, it still needs ‘lots.’ And remember, science doesn’t have a Republican base to work from.

It is not just the scientists who need to speak on message. The message needs to be carried on a far broader front. The scientists simply need to understand what frame is being used and fill that with the appropriate facts. The frame is the button to start the iPod, it’s not the song.

Where do you start? Who do you recruit? To be honest, what you need is a business plan and a way to sell it to a few key fundraisers – ideally high-profile, low controversy science lovers. Tom Hanks comes to mind.

Then you need to get the PR flacks and the scientists to sit down and determine the topics and the timeline. After that it is a matter of generating converts, grad students, interested parties, and perhaps most powerful – the occasional SAHM with a science degree and a will to make a difference. (Or SAHMs without science degrees – Hi Trees 😉

You need to set up an organization designed to acquire the current techniques and talking points from the dark side and be able to feed that back into the PR chain. On the other side a system to get the information into the hands of the scientists, bloggers, op-ed writers, and talk-show guests who then carry the message to the public.

Sigh. Don’t you just love political activism?

White and Pudgy

Is it possible to be white and pudgy and not be an obnoxious American Talk Radio personality?

Yes, it is.

Science = A Free Exchange of Ideas?

I spend far too much time reading blogs and articles written by scientists for scientists. But I also enjoy reading the behind the scenes view of science journalists like Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how science can be effectively communicated in a form both understandable and interesting to most lay people.

That is why the news of a paper on framing science by social scientist Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney published in the latest Science sounded so interesting. At least until I realized that the article is only for scientists – or journalists – or those so interested in science to spend somewhere between $100 and $300 for a subscription to a journal that will rarely produce enough information for a ‘layman.’

But then again the article about framing science was directed at scientists and not laymen. And it isn’t that science publications through the American Association of Publishers (AAP) aren’t using framing to present to congress a case against free public access to science papers.  (To be fair, Nature and Science aren’t part of the AAP – John Wiley & Sons, Reed Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are.) And thus scientists will discuss the problem and discuss the ideas and forget that the public are the ones who need to have more input.

But back to framing as such.

Many scientists and journalists seem to think there is a fundamental problem with science education. Carl Zimmer seems to think so.

As a science writer who doesn’t deal much in political reporting, I’m with them–but only up to a point, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I find framing science a bit murky. Nisbet and Mooney tell us that scientists must frame, but for what? They don’t actually say what the goal of framing is, and their implications are hard to turn into a clear picture.
Certainly scientists should think about why the rest of the world ought to care about their research. Certainly they should think about how it will get sucked into the political blender (and how they might want to jump in after it). But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan. Don’t let kids come out of high school without knowing that a laser emits light, not sound; without knowing about standard deviations; without knowing what a stem cell is. Fixing high school science would be a lot harder than staying on message, but it would be a lot more important.

But the problem isn’t simply education. The problem isn’t simply knowledge. I often see knowledge as an ever growing pyramid.

Children today are being saddled with ever more information on a broader front than ever before. There is little time to filter what knowledge can be accumulated. To think that training hormone-challenged teenagers will solve the issue of scientific thought is a fantasy, to be relegated next to the myths of a historically well trained public (did the Second World War start in 1939 with the invasion of Poland or eight years earlier with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria? Nice western bias – huh? Should we concentrate on science or geography or current events or spelling and basic math?)

Would we prefer people to understand science or be able to balance their check book? Do we want people to understand science or know where Iraq is? Do we want our children to understand the mechanics of evolution or that homelessness isn’t caused by laziness? There is only so much time to teach. A selection must be made. Thus the focus shouldn’t be on the teenagers but their parents and the media. A realistic CSI would be nice, but wouldn’t get ratings. Shows like Mythbusters and Bullshit! are a step in the right direction (Even they get some things wrong – the secondary smoke episode anyone?).

Since I am unable to read the article, I am unable to look at the specific recommendations being made by Nesbit and Mooney.

But I would make a few concrete suggestions.

It has become common knowledge that the Republican National Committee distributes a memo containing talking points. How to frame certain issues using specific language. Scientists need the same thing. Scientists, like politicians need to be able answer bluntly false ideas, not with facts – facts are often unimportant to the general public – but with concrete talking points refuting the idea. And the talking points need to be widely spread – passed from prof to prof, grad student to grad student, sci-blogger to sci-blogger. Perhaps generated at a side conference for distribution before AAS meetings.

From what I understand, the article lists three main areas where scientists should frame responses: climate change, evolution and stem cells. I’d like to touch on each.

It is ironic that one of the biggest supporters for trying to get climate change information into the world, Matt Nisbet, would mange to get his article published on the same Friday the second part of the IPCC on Climate Change report gets finished. Thus Nisbet’s article gets discussed and the IPCC report gets even less attention by the general science blogging public. Nesbit has already railed against the idea of publishing the report on a Friday; the idea of publishing the Report on a Friday going into Easter Weekend is even less intelligent framed and shows how important this issue is.

Since it is the uncertainty that most climate change opponents attack, it is the uncertainty that must be explained, not the climate change. Opponents highlight the uncertainties and question the ability of scientists to make accurate predictions. This can be combated at two levels.

First, is the question of how certain scientist needs to be. Most climate change documents now use very specific language to define how ‘certain’ information is. Many of the conclusions reached are ‘very likely’ meaning better than 90%. (Always to be followed with the comment that this could be 94% certain, it just didn’t make the next level of extremely likely – 95%.*) If you hear the weatherman predict a 90% chance of rain, do you take an umbrella? Does making it 95% likely change your mind? If there are 9 chances out of 10 that it will snow, do you buy a snow blower? How certain is certain?You don’t attack the climate argument, you attack the certainty argument using everyday examples about what we think certain to be.

But take the idea even farther. The opponents of climate change point to the fact that you can’t predict the weather next week how can you predict the weather in 100 years. The answer, you can’t. But you can make some very good estimates. I know the weather will get warmer in the next few months. I know that next summer will be warm but I can’t tell you how many hurricanes there will be. Some things look really random but aren’t. Take casinos. No one can say exactly which number will come up next. But by understanding and studying the odds, the casinos know that certain numbers will come up often enough for them to win money in the long run. Climatology isn’t about knowing exactly which number will come up next; climatology is about calculating the profit (or loss) for mankind.

Moving to evolution, look at the “it’s just a theory” criticism.

Here the talking point might be not to speak of evolution but of theories and to use a clearly loaded image – the apple. Evolution is a theory in the same sense gravity is a theory. Take an apple. If you hold it out and let go, it is clear the apple will fall. No one would dispute that. Now take a cannon ball. Galileo argued that both the apple and the cannon ball would fall at the same rate. Newton, born the year of Galileo’s death would finally put numbers on the time needed for an apple to fall from a tree, a cannon ball from the tower of Pisa or even the time needed for the moon to fall around the Earth, something we now call an orbit.

Most people think of this as the theory of gravity. But it does not explain the origin of gravity, it describes the process. (Indeed the search for the ‘origin of gravity’ may have suffered a major setback in March when an important part failed during a preliminary test of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The part failed partly because engineers didn’t balance the forces correctly – another Newtonian concept.)

But evolution is like gravity. Scientists study and argue about the exact process of evolution. While many of the equations necessary for describing evolution are as simple as Newton’s laws, the specific processes, the individual actions, the origins are still being described. They are still being debated. But the ‘fact’ of evolution is as accepted by scientists as the ‘fact’ that the apple will fall by the general public. And the general public will usually get the ‘theory’ of gravity wrong when they assume that a cannon ball will fall faster than an apple. Which is more important?

The apple is traditionally depicted as the forbidden fruit used by Satan to lead Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. If the knowledge presented by the apple is dangerous, is the knowledge of the theory of gravity any less dangerous than evolution?

Perhaps the most difficult issue approached by the article is on stem cells.

Here the line is difficult to draw because the issues effected are less scientific as ethical. Where do we draw the line? While I agree with most scientists that research on stem cells ‘harvested’ (need to frame a better term there) from unused in-vitro embryos is scientifically ok, I still have different problems with the idea. In a climate of increasing commercialisation and sale of scientific results, who owns the cells and the patents generated from the embryos? Is it ethical to ask parents for permission to use ‘their’ material? Isn’t it likely that one stem cell line will eventually be used simply because it was in the right place at the right time? Isn’t it equally likely that that line will be worth billions? Who gets the profit?

Doesn’t this debate need to solve the “if yes – how” question before returning to the question of whether IV stem cells should be used. Should the pharma company that patents the first stem cell therapy be required to fund future in-vitro fertilisations – at least for the uninsured and underinsured?

I am wary of stem cell research on many ethical levels few of which have anything to do with the science as such. I disagree with the standpoint of the religious right but nevertheless I think the “let us just do the research” standpoint is simply naïve. I don’t have any talking points here. I would love to see the debate shifted to a more centrist position but I don’t see a good way of doing it.

Those scientists who feel threatened because framing science hides the facts are missing the point. Those framing dissent are hiding the facts. They exploit gaps and cracks in theories and knowledge to generate distorted pieces of a larger picture. 

Framing science isn’t hiding the facts, because the general public not only lacks the ability to put the misused pieces of the puzzle into place, but the general public doesn’t even know what the picture should be. Scientists need to spend more time painting the picture and less time trying to fill in the cracks exploited by the enemies of science.

But scientists also need to learn to get on message – on one message and unfortunately it usually has little to do with science qua science. In order to fight those who would use any means to destroy science, perhaps it is time for scientists to learn to fight fire with fire; talking point with talking point. And perhaps that is the role missing today. The creator and disseminator of science talking points – and not science.

Those scientists who think teaching more science will solve the problem need to spend more time watching Monster Garage and American Idol. That is the level of intelligence and knowledge^at which any debate needs to be focused. Not on a future knowledge utiopia – on the here and now – the idol worshiping America world.

That is what I hope Mooney and Nesbit are fighting for. Even if I can’t access the article because it isn’t free, fortunately this exchange of ideas is free.

Note: Matt Nesbit responded to a number of criticisms and comments on the article and linked to a broad number of comments on his blog. It is well worth the read to get an overview of the responses.. 

* From the IPCC Report, most climate change documents have evolved a similar language.

In this Summary for Policymakers, the following terms have been used to indicate: the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result: Virtually certain > 99% probability of occurrence, Extremely likely > 95%, Very likely > 90%, Likely > 66%, More likely than not > 50%, Very unlikely < 10%, Extremely unlikely < 5%.

The following terms have been used to express confidence in a statement: Very high confidence At least a 9 out of 10 chance of being correct, High confidence About an 8 out of 10 chance, Medium confidence About a 5 out of 10 chance, Low confidence About a 2 out of 10 chance, Very low confidence Less than a 1 out of 10 chance.