Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
Anti-gravity is just so cool in a geeky sense.
In May 2006, two research teams led by Ulf Leonhardt at St Andrew’s University, UK, and John Pendry at Imperial College, London independently proposed that an invisibility cloak could be created from exotic materials with abnormal optical properties. Such a cloaking device – working in the microwave region – was manufactured later that year.
The device was formed from so-called “metamaterials”, exotic materials made from complex arrays of metal units and wires. The metal units are smaller than the wavelength of light and so the materials can be engineered to precisely control how electromagnetic light waves travel around them. “They can transform space, tricking electromagnetic waves into moving along directions they otherwise wouldn’t,” says Leonhardt.
Leonhardt and his colleague Thomas Philbin, also at St Andrew’s University, realised that this property could also be exploited to levitate extremely small objects.
They propose inserting a metamaterial between two so-called Casimir plates. When two such plates are bought very close together, the vacuum between them becomes filled with quantum fluctuations of the electromagnetic field. As two plates are brought closer together, fewer fluctuations can occur within the gap between them, but on the outer sides of the plates, the fluctuations are unconstrained. This causes a pressure difference on either side of the plates, forcing the plates to stick together, in a phenomenon called the Casimir effect.
This probably won’t start making ships fly to the moon. And despite Professor Leonhardt’s rather humor driven Zero Point Energy reference on his web page describing Quantum Levitation, I get the impression his work is more that serious.
This kind of thing would probalby be extremely important for both low “friction” nano-components where the Casimir effect outweighs “roughness.” It might also be a good way to decouple optical components from external effects allowing for all kinds of precision measurements.
And who knows, perhaps one day, we will have Casimir force driven space making cool “whirrrrr” sounds like on the Jetsons. I doubt it. But it would be drop dead cool.
It’s been a bad month for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She took that momentum into a German energy summit held in at the beginning of July in order to discuss how CO2 targets can be met. At the summit, it became clear that Merkel planned to pursue one of her long term goals, rolling back the current plan to completely phase out nuclear power in Germany by the year 2021.
There are legitimate reasons to discuss using nuclear power at least as a bridge to achieve lower CO2 emissions while pursuing longer term solutions. Even if no new power plants were built, a very strong argument could be made to keep existing plants in the net. While it is unlikely that she would be able to convince either the SPD or a huge majority of the German public, it was probable that Merkel had planned to put nuclear power back on her party’s platform in time for the next elections.
At this point, a little background is probably necessary for those not familiar with German energy policy.
In the summer of 2001, after long negotiations, then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, joined with his coalition partners, the Greens, to in push through a deal to completely eliminate nuclear energy from Germany by 2021 based on a similar plan already in place in Sweden.
Now, depending on whose side you are on, this can be either a good or a bad choice.
On the one hand, it is difficult to deny that there are problems with the current nuclear industry. In Germany, as in many countries, a final repository for nuclear waste has yet to be found. Massive protests are staged every time nuclear waste is re-imported after being processed in France to prepare it for final storage and transported to the interim facility in Gorleben. Another issue is the increasing age of nuclear power plants in Germany. The youngest reactor in the German mix is almost 20 years old, and most were build in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Finally, in an age of terrorist threat, real or imagined, nuclear power stations do make nice targets.
On the other side of the issue stands the elimination of carbon dioxide producing power plants. (Indeed the fly ash produced by coal power plants has been said to be more radioactive because naturally occurring radioactive elements are concentrated in the ash. Of course this is only a problem for coal from certain areas and is something to think about (but not worry about) the next time you spend a lot of time in a cinderblock building.) Lastly, one can make the claim that a normally operating nuclear power plant releases almost no measurable radiation into the environment..
Finally It should also be noted that, following his term as Chancellor, Schröder accepted a job working for the Russian energy supplier Gazprom to build a pipeline to the EU bypassing the eastern European countries. A pipeline that will also supply gas for – you guessed it – non-nuclear power plants. It was a move sharply criticised at the time.
But back to Merkel. As far as I know, alone among top western politicians, Merkel has a science PhD – in physical chemistry. That perhaps explains much of her understanding of the urgency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions – she understands the science and not just the policy summaries.
But she also understands politics. And that’s why she’s having a very bad month.
It all started on June 28 with two seemingly unrelated incidents at two different nuclear reactors in Germany,both run by the energy company Vattenfall.
One, Krümmel, had a transformer fire, another reported a minor leak. Later it came out that the transformer fire had been far more serious that first admitted. Plant operators at one point had been forced to put on gas masks. Information has come to light showing that plant operators might have been trying to increase output which ultimately lead to the fire. The “leak” turned out to be a pipe which had exploded due to a hydrogen build up. Vattenfall also doesn’t have a great safety record with two different reactors in Sweden being forced to shut down due to ‘malfunctions.’ They also have a reputation for trying to coverup or downplay events that happen at their reactors.
Merkel was noticeably irritated. According to Spiegel Online,
“It does make me angry, and it’s an experience I had while environment minister, when (safety) regulations are not actually followed from day to day,” Merkel, who led Germany’s ministry of the environment under former chancellor Helmut Kohl, told German television on Tuesday. “That needs to be cleared up, and I mean strictissimi (i.e. according to the letter of the law), otherwise we can’t guarantee ongoing safety.”
Sigmar Gabriel, current environment minister in Merkel’s cabinet, has also been vocally critical of the way Vattenfall has handled the recent reactor mishaps. On Wednesday, he once again took a swipe at the company, saying: “It is a major loss of face for the company. They are campaigning for trust in atomic energy, they should really be the first to say, ‘We are going to lay everything on the table, let’s clear it up.’ Instead, all we see from them is this strange carrying on.” The state of Schleswig -Holstein, where the reactors are located, is looking into whether the company should lose its license to operate nuclear reactors.
Instead of being able to use “glowingly” green energy as part of her next campaign, Merkel will probably have to scrap it. As a matter of fact the Social Democrats, long quite on the issue are becoming far more vocal. From an excellent overview also from Spiegel Online,
Suddenly the Social Democrats, especially Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, see themselves justified in taking the position that nuclear energy is a “risky technology.” “German nuclear power plants are the safest worldwide,” Gabriel said acerbically last week, “aside from the occasional explosion or fire.”
And the public is starting to worry as well. Perhaps for a reason. The article continues with,
The reason for the change in thinking is clear. Whereas most of the some 130 reactor incidents reported annually in Germany are minor and go unnoticed, smoke pouring out of a transformer as happened in Krümmel tends to attract attention. It took the fire department hours to extinguish the blaze. Even worse, the plant operator’s claim that a fire in the transformer had no effect o n the reactor itself proved to be a lie.
In short, the incident has made it clear that nuclear energy is by no means the modern, well organized high-tech sector portrayed until recently by politicians and industry advocates. Indeed, the frequency of problems occurring at Germany’s aging reactors is on the rise. Just as old cars will eventually succumb to rust, the country’s nuclear power plants, built in the 1970s and 80s, are undergoing a natural aging process.
The problems are complicated by maintenance and supervision issues among aging and unmotivated employees. A dangerously lackadaisical attitude has taken hold that is making Germany’s nuclear power plants increasingly unsafe. Most incidents to date have proven to be relatively minor, and yet each new incident becomes yet another link in a chain of problems with the potential to end in a serious accident.,
But the problems aren’t only related to safety issues. In today’s increasingly competitive energy (and management) marketplace, companies are increasingly willing to take risks to improve profit margins.
Industry insiders complain that for some time power plant operators have been attempting to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their old, and for the most part depreciated, reactors. In recent years, for example, the owners of the Krümmel nuclear power plant have invested about €50 million in technical improvements to increase the efficiency of the plant’s turbines, a move that has brought a 7 percent improvement in net output. But these alleged improvements have also increased stress on secondary systems such as the plant’s transformer, systems that were apparently not retrofitted. In fact, this may have been the cause of the Krümmel fire. According to Günther Pikos, a nuclear expert from the western German city of Düren, “the transformer was apparently already damaged by a string of earlier incidents.” Pikos believes that this, combined with the increase in turbine output, was what ended up overloading the transformer.
Finally, perhaps just so Merkel gets the point, yesterday’s earthquake in Japan caused not only a transformer fire but a coolant leak into the Sea of Japan as well.
What all this means is that nuclear power just got much more unpopular in Germany. The long term effects will probably be minimal but Merkel will likely be forced to shelf plans to extend the life of nuclear power until after the next elections.
Any attempt to right now to try to lower carbon dioxide emissions in Germany using the “nuclear option” is, at least politically, radioactive.
According to one of the local television stations, NASA managed to misspell the name of the space shuttle set to lauch in August.
The first NASA sign at launch pad 39A encouraging the next launch of space shuttle Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center was misspelled and noticed by someone looking at the craft.
When the shuttle rolled out from the Vehicle Assembly Building Wednesday, a giant “Go Endeavour” sign was put on a fence in front of the craft.
However, one item was missing from the sign: the “u” in Endeavour.
Someone spotted the mistake and called KSC to fix it, WKMG-TV reported.
NASA scrambled someone out to pad 39A with a new sign that has orbiter Endeavour’s name spelled correctly.
A photo with the correct spelling was also posted on the Kennedy Space Center’s Web site.
The orbiter is named after HM Bark Endeavour, the ship commanded by 18th century explorer James Cook; the name also honored Endeavour, the Command Module of Apollo 15. This is why the name is spelled in the British English manner, according to Answers.com.
For those who think I am just making things up and virally spreading malicious gossip, (something I always try to achieve but never actually manage), here is an image of the Endeavour docked to the ISS with the name shown.
(Hat Tip: Wonkette)
The right-wing think-tank, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has put up a study showing the relationship between longevity and “medical innovation” defined as the overall age of drugs being prescribed.
Siting a study prepared by Frank R. Lichtenberg from Columbia University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study shows that, surprise, new drugs do increase life expectancy.
Lichtenberg then set out to examine why this “longevity increase gap” exists by measuring the impact of several factors that researchers agree could affect life expectancy. He found that, although some obvious suspects—obesity, smoking, and the incidence of HIV/AIDS—played a role, the most important factor was “medical innovation.”
Specifically, Lichtenberg found that longevity increased the most in those states where access to newer drugs—measured by mean “vintage” (FDA approval year)—in Medicaid and Medicare programs has increased the most. In fact, about two-thirds of the potential increase in longevity—the longevity increase that would have occurred if obesity, income, and other factors had not changed—is attributable to the use of newer drugs. According to his calculations, for every year increase in drug vintage there is about a two-month gain in life expectancy. These represent important findings given the fact that the costs of prescription drugs continue to receive a great deal of attention in the ongoing debate over health-care policy, while their benefits are often overlooked.
Lichtenberg also estimated impacts on productivity and per-capita medical expenditure. He concluded that states adopting medical innovations more rapidly had faster labor productivity growth, conditional on income growth and other factors, perhaps due to reduced absenteeism from chronic medical ailments. He also found that states that use newer drugs did not experience above-average increases in overall medical expenditure, which contradicts the common perception that advances in medical technology inevitably result in increased health-care spending.
I would expect this to be a bit of propaganda attempting to show that big pharma isn’t the global evil everyone seems to think it is. Pharma companies are good and only have your best interests (and sex lives) at heart. Profits? Banish the thought!
But hey, since the graphics the institute put up were a bit dull, I thought I’d go in and do a little paint by numbers.
The paper has two main tables. The first shows the states ranked by life expectancy. I simply colored the chart according to the way the states voted in the 2004 presidential election.
The second table shows increase life expectancy. Here the coloring was a little easier.
Interestingly, as far as I can tell the measurement being used is the vintage of drugs supplied by Medicare and Medicaid. Strange that there would seem to be that big a difference in how federal programs are being operated at the state and local level. Perhaps all those who decry the evils of Medicare shouldn’t look at the evil heartless Federal Government and spend more time looking a little closer to home at how the federal guidelines are implemented.
But it would also seem to me, that those think-tanks fighting the good fight for Republican values shouldn’t use studies showing how much better life is in Democratic states.
I guess I think they should have rethought their article.
There are unsmiling faces and bright plastic chains
and a wheel in perpetual motion
And they follow the races and pay out the games,
with no show of an outward emotion.
And they think it will make their lives easier
For God knows up til now it’s been hard.
Alan Parsons Project – Turn of a Friendly Card
The impossible dream, making money from nothing, winning the lottery, creating a perpetual motion machine. But some people are made to take chanced and bet millions on a long shot.
The latest highly publicised flop came last week when the company Steorn managed a very public belly flop.
You see, last week Steorn, a start-up company that took out a full page ad in last years Economist, had planned a very public demonstration of their newest form of the perpetual mobile. Skeptics, fans, and er- investors waited with baited breath to view one of the 24/7 video streams planned to go on the air on July 5th. Hopefully the bait wasn’t too good. The show was first delayed, then cancelled. Why? Just too hot. You know those pesky little TV lights. (Yeah. But it’s a dry heat!)
There is a wonderful video of Steorn CEO Sean McCarthy “Taking one on the chin” about how poorly the demonstration worked out. Forbes.com entitled the story they filed about the Dublin based company “Powered by Blarney?”
Sad but true.
Unfortunately the general media reaction was perfectly summed up by Ben Goodacre in his Bad Science column in Saturday’s Guardian,
As we’ve already seen with the long history of perpetual motion claims you only need one or two experts, and as far as the media are concerned, there’s a story. And when the negative evidence comes in – like this week with Steorn, say – there is a deathly silence. Shh.
So, on July 4 a scaled down version of Steorn’s technology was to be displayed at the Kinetica museum in Spitalfields, east London, in front of live webcams and blinkered naysayers. But sadly the doors have remained locked, and the most you can see on the live webcam is an immobile perspex disc – designed to show some special arrangement of magnets – and a statement about technical difficulties possibly caused by “intense heat from the camera lighting”.
I was looking forward to it. At first the device was supposed to lift a weight, but then Steorn announced that it would simply rotate. Steorn’s chief executive, Sean McCarthy, said that the company “decided against using the technology to illuminate a light bulb, because the use of wires would attract further suspicion from a scientific community that has denounced the invention as heretical”.
I wonder what the penalty in Irland is for fraud? Perhaps the Alan Parson’s Project had it right. Just not in the first part of the song, but the reprise.
There are unsmiling faces in fetters and chains
on a wheel in perpetual motion,
who belong to all nations and answer all names
with no show of an outward emotion.
And they think it will make their lives easier,
but the doorway before them is barred.
This seriously geeks me out.
According to National Geographic, researchers at the University of Alaska have managed to make a movie of the atmospheric phenomina “Sprites.” Take a look.
What’s a sprite? Aside from looking cool, according to the National Geographic article,
When a lightning bolt strikes down to the ground, it can create an electrical field above the storm that accelerates the electrons in the middle atmosphere to collide with gas molecules and glow.
Sprites were predicted in theory by Nobel laureate physicist C.T.R. Wilson in 1925. Their existence was confirmed in 1989 when University of Minnesota physicist John R. Winkler caught them on video by accident.
But what about the Elves and Jets?
Those are the other two atmospheric phenomina seen above thunder storms,
For instance, “elves” are areas about 250 miles (402 kilomters) wide that glow a dim red. They can be found about 60 miles (96 kilometers) above thunderstorms.
“Blue jets” appear as bright blue cones extending from the top of a thundercloud to 25 to 30 miles (40 to 48 kilometers) above Earth. They are more rare than sprites and last up to a third of a second.
“They actually look like whale spouts shooting up out of the storms,” Heavner said.
It’s funny. In less than 200 years, scientists have found sprites and elves but in over 2000 years of Christianity, no one has ever been able to prove the existence of angles and saints. Perhaps they have a branding problem.
Ok. The evolutionary blogging community has calmed down briefly after the splash created by Ken Ham’s 27 Million dollar Creationist
museum theme park. Of course there are still a few ripples.
Like the actor who played Adam in one of the Infotainment videos being the former owner and occasional star of BedroomAcrobat, a porn site. (Hey, has anyone thought about the fact that no one else in the Christian community had that much practice being fig-leaf-less? In public? Maybe the choice wasn’t that bad!)
Then there is the increasingly open spat between the organisation that built the museum theme park, Answers In Genesis – US (AiG-US) and the organisation formerly known as Answers In Genesis Australia. (TOFKAAIGAus)
TOFKAAIGAus recently published the completion of a 40 page report outlining how the AiG-US first took over AiG-Canada and then eviscerated and finally killed TOFKAAIGAus forcing it to lose the AiG name. AiG-US and particularly Ken Ham apparently marginalized the Australian CEO Carl Wieland after which the Australian Board of Directors to signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) and a Deed of Copyright Licence (DOCL) which “seriously disadvantaged” the Australian ministry.
The report makes interesting reading and highlights the behind the scenes manoeuvring that goes on in many large organisations. Interesting is how former Chief Magistrate Clarrie Briese, author of the report, indignantly points out how, um, unbiblical this behaviour has been. Scandalous.
TOFKAAIGAus has apparently filed suit so we’ll have to wait for results but, in the mean time, they have found a new shorter acronym, Creation Ministries International – CMI.
But what do you do if you don’t have 27 Million dollars or another country’s ministry to plunder?
No matter, you open a Creationist
museum theme park anyway. According to Canada’s Globe & Mail ,
Harry Nibourg wasn’t sure what to expect when he opened Canada’s first permanent creationist museum to the public yesterday, so he asked volunteers to act as security guards just in case.
But there were no protesters or trouble, only about 20 people eager to see what all the fuss is about these days in Big Valley, a southern Alberta village of 350 people that’s surrounded by green fields, oil-well pump jacks and cattle.
Mr. Nibourg’s tiny Big Valley Creation Science Museum, which still smells of fresh paint, is crammed with material that purports to debunk evolution and prove that the universe was created by God some 6,000 years ago and that dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth together. Located about 200 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, the museum, which has attracted international media attention, has been both condemned and praised on the letters-to-the-editor pages of Alberta’s two largest daily newspapers.
So for those of you closer to Canada than Kentucky, you can go to Big Valley and visit the slightly scaled down house of propaganda.
While visiting wonderful Alberta, you could also visit the correctly famous Royal Tyrrell Museum which houses one of the worlds largest collections of fossils and is only 600 kilometers away in Drumheller, Alberta.
After all, who needs Ken Ham to get ham fisted Creationist propagnda? Creationsit museums – perhaps cheaper by the dozen.
(Hat Tip Don Spencer’s Artifacts)
Matt Nisbet has a must read post up about two articles covering Bush’s climate plan. Actually it’s less about the idea itself than how the media is reporting it.
The curious part? The two articles based on the same underlying story – written by Climate Change media guru Andrew Revkin -present the context completely differently. As can be seen from the titles – from the
New York Times – Bush Climate Plan: Amid Nays, Some Maybes
International Herald Tribune – Bush critics warming to his plans for cutting emissions
Remember these are the same articles.
Now – go, read all three pieces; then perhaps you should go find a teddy bear and slowly rock yourself because in a world where “reality” is that changeable – we are so screwed.
NASA Needs a New Director!
WTF! I repeat WTF!
I just listened to Michael Griffin on NPR. I’m still under shock. First, go listen.
NPR: Do you have any doubt that this is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?
Griffith: I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.
NPR: Is that thinking that informs you as you put together the budget? That something is happening, that it’s worth studying, but you’re not sure that you want to be battling it as an army might battle an enemy?
Griffith: Nowhere in NASA’s authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I’m proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to, quote, battle climate change.
[Original bold removed. My emphasis]
Again Michael Griffin is the NASA director. He is claiming that we shouldn’t do anything about global warming because we don’t know whether this is the best climate there ever was?!
That is just… so … disingenuous. If Phil Plait hadn’t already resigned from NASA, I would expect him too.
To say that people want to change the climate is to ignore the fact that mankind is already changing the climate, in ways we can’t predict – and the NASA director says “I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.”
Is this a new Frank Luntz talking point. We don’t want to do anything about climate change because doing something might be bad?
The robot moves forward in the concrete catastrophe zone, gamma radiation high enough to mean death to any human exposed; not an instant death but a slow agonizing demise as one organ after another fails; kidneys, liver, heart, lungs with the skin finally becoming an unrecognizable rotting black mask. The mechanical explorer takes a sample of a slime the same rotting, black color, growing on the wall of the chamber; thriving in this lightless, lonely spot.
Does that sound like I’m trying my hand at science fiction? Not exactly.
A new paper published last week describes just such a scenario. But the black slime isn’t something from a 1950’s science fiction movie, it’s a fungus apparently living from gamma radiation itself in a very unreal environment: inside the concrete coffin surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
From the Eureakalert article,
Scientists have long assumed that fungi exist mainly to decompose matter into chemicals that other organisms can then use. But researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have found evidence that fungi possess a previously undiscovered talent with profound implications: the ability to use radioactivity as an energy source for making food and spurring their growth.The fungal kingdom comprises more species than any other plant or animal kingdom, so finding that they’re making food in addition to breaking it down means that Earth’s energetics—in particular, the amount of radiation energy being converted to biological energy—may need to be recalculated,” says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of microbiology & immunology at Einstein and senior author of the study, published May 23 in PLoS ONE.
The ability of fungi to live off radiation could also prove useful to people: “Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food source on long missions or for colonizing other planets,” says Dr. Ekaterina Dadachova, associate professor of nuclear medicine and microbiology & immunology at Einstein and lead author of the study.
This isn’t the first time life forms have been found ‘feeding’ on radiation. (Who knew?) Last year researchers from Indiana University at Bloomington reported finding bacteria living in rocks over 2.8 kilometers below the surface of the earth. According to the press release,
Radiation emanating from uranium minerals in or near the fracture allows for the formation of hydrogen gas from decomposition of water and formation of sulfate from decomposition of sulfur minerals. Hydrogen gas is highly energetic if it reacts with oxygen or other oxidants like sulfate, as the Hindenburg disaster demonstrated. Firmicutes are able to harvest energy from the reaction of hydrogen and sulfate, allowing other microbes in the fracture community to use the chemical waste from the Firmicutes as food.
This new finding also has very important implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. If organisms can survive not only on sulphates and hydrogen but directly from radiation, that would greatly expand possible environments where life could form and be found.
I just hope that life doesn’t land on the earth, sealed in a meteor, near a diner in a small town – at night. As long as the fungus sticks to eating radiation and not B-Movie actors, I think this is a pretty cool find.
And on the bright side, now we know what language the Blob spoke – Russian. Doesn’t Condoleezza Rice speak Russian? All better then.
The Washington Post is reporting today about a man being detained in Atlanta after travelling in Europe, Canada and the US even though he knew he was infected with an antibiotic resistant strain of tuberculosis – XDR-TB.
Although the CDC and the two airlines are attempting to contact the passengers who might have sat near the man on 2 separate commercial flights, health officials are playing down the possibility of transmission. While TB was present, officials are saying the man was not highly contagious.
Nevertheless, he was detained in New York City and then flown in a government plane to be quarantined in Atlanta. He hasn’t broken any laws, he is being forcibly detained and required to undergo treatment.
This isn’t the first time someone has been detained this year for the ‘crime’ of TB. Tara Smith, my go to – um – Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at ScienceBlogs, highlighted the case of Robert Daniels, being held against his will in Arizona because he refused to submit to treatment. From the AP story published in April,
Behind the county hospital’s tall cinderblock walls, a 27-year-old tuberculosis patient sits in a jail cell equipped with a ventilation system that keeps germs from escaping. Robert Daniels has been locked up indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of his life, since last July. But he has not been charged with a crime. Instead, he suffers from an extensively drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis, or XDR-TB. It is considered virtually untreatable.
County health authorities obtained a court order to lock him up as a danger to the public because he failed to take precautions to avoid infecting others. Specifically, he said he did not heed doctors’ instructions to wear a mask in public.
“I’m being treated worse than an inmate,” Daniels said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press last month. “I’m all alone. Four walls. Even the door to my room has been locked. I haven’t seen my reflection in months.”
The article goes on to mention that Texas has detained 17 persons for TB while California hasn’t detained anyone this year but four persons last year.
While the rate of antibiotic resistant infections in America is still relatively low, about 2 percent of total TB cases, in some countries, such as Latvia, South Korea and South Africa, it is becoming a serious health threat. According to the March 2007 Fact Sheet from the Stop TB web site (WHO) all G8 countries have now had confirmed cases of XDR-TB.
To give you an idea of how serious this threat is, in its coverage of this story, the New York Times echoes Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, during her Congressional testimony in March,
In one outbreak in South Africa, Dr. Gerberding testified, 41 percent of the 544 patients infected with tuberculosis were found to have multidrug-resistant strains; of those, 53 met the definition of XDR TB.
Of the latter group, all but one person died, on average just 16 days after health workers had tested them.
Finally, for all those wondering whether the federal government is getting the black helicopters out of mothballs to use this to create the New World Order, might I direct them to the oh-so-official booklet The Role of Law Enforcement in Public Health Emergencies ? This outlines just how local police departments should be prepared for these kinds of things.
(If you really want to start a fuss, just call up your local sheriffs department, ask for the PR spokesperson and say, as a concerned citizen, you would like to know what plans your local police have made to combat a local contagious disease outbreak. Then just sit back and wait for the FBI to come knock on your door asking you about your religious affiliation. Want to make a bet?)
Remember, while the bird flu is still spreading around the world on the wings of birds, XDR-TB using jets. Expect to hear far more in the next weeks and years of the comeback of TB. Instead of simply being a possible danger like bird flu requiring a mutation to create a highly contagious human variant, XDR-TB is here. Now.
The lessons the public learns with XDR-TB will help cope with more serious outbreaks of other epidemics and pandemics in the near future.
a poor an economically challenged liberal, I have a dirty secret. I sneak over to the WSJ about once a day.
Well, the secret isn’t that dirty: I don’t read the editorials (ick, ick, ick). Nope. I’m a fan of Carl Bialik, The Numbers Guy.
I’m more or less against fact-based science discussions. Especially when statistics are used by people who haven’t looked at the work. But Bailik has a great way of making numbers seem accessable. His discussion of the meta-analysis on the disparaged drug Avandia is a case in point.
The big news yesterday that the diabetes drug Avandia may pose cardiac risks was based on something called a meta-analysis. It’s a type of research that has some significant drawbacks, but also some unique advantages.
In a meta-analysis, researchers pool results from different studies — in this case, Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steven Nissen and statistician Kathy Wolski analyzed 42 studies. Those studies were done by many different people, and as you might expect, there was wide variation between them. Sometimes Avandia was compared with a placebo and sometimes with alternate treatments. Adverse events — namely heart attacks shown to occur with higher frequency among Avandia users — may not have been identified consistently across the different trials. And if they weren’t, Dr. Nissen would have no way to know, because he was looking at study summaries and not patient-level data. The limitations of this “study of studies” filled a lengthy third paragraph in an accompanying New England Journal of Medicine editorial.
So why, then, use meta-analysis at all? Because for drug dangers that are rare enough, even studies of thousands of patients might not suffice to separate a real risk from random statistical variation. Combining tens of thousands of patients who underwent the treatment separately, under different protocols and supervision, may be the only way to clear thresholds for statistical significance.
He goes on to clearly describe the strengths and weaknesses of the technique; explaining the importance of the variable currently called p; when meta-analysis are useful and to explain why both sides tend to fight over the issue of whether a meta-analysis is valid.
I love statistics. (Actually, since I haven’t discussed this face to face with statistics, I should probably call it a crush, but you get the idea.)
As an example, most people, when confronted with a statistics example involving doctors, cancer patients and risk would probably change the channel. Me – I buy the book! From Joel Best’s More Damn Lies and Statistics (the sequel to Damn Lies and Statistics),
Consider the following word problem about women receiving mammograms to screen for breast cancer (the statements are, by the way, roughly accurate in regard to women in their forties who have no other symptoms):
The probability that [a woman] has breast cancer is 0.08 percent. If a woman has breast cancer, the probability is 90 percent that she will have a positive mammogram. If a woman does not have breast cancer, the probability is 7 percent that she will still have a positive mammogram. Imagine a woman who has a positive mammogram. What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer.
Confused? Don’t be ashamed. When this problem was posed to twenty-four physicians, exactly two managed to come up with the right answer. Most were wildly off: one-third answered that there was a 90 percent probability that a positive mammogram denoted actual breast cancer; and another third gave figures of 50 to 80 percent. The correct answer is about 9 percent.
Let’s look carefully at the problem. Not that breast cancer is actually rather rare (0.8 percent); that is, for every 1,000 women, 8 will have breast cancer. There is a 90 percent probability that those women will receive positive mammograms – say, 7 of the 8. That leaves 992 women who do not have breast cancer. Of this group 7 percent will also receive positive mammograms – about 69 cases of what are called false positives. Thus a total of 76 (7+69=76) women will receive positive mammograms, yet only 7 of those – about 9 percent – will actually have breast cancer. The point is that measuring risk often requires a string of calculations. Even trained professionals (such as doctors) are not used to calculating and find it easy to make mistakes. [my emphasis]
That is why fact-based science discussions fail. Not because the facts are wrong, but because any discussion of the issue won’t fit into a 30 second interview and boil down to a 25 word text snippet.
This is where framing science needs to be used. You need to be able to tell a story about how science works, how scientific uncertainty works without getting people nervous. Perhaps the fundamental difference between a scientist and a non-scientist is that the latter sees danger in uncertainty, the former sees an opportunity to write a grant proposal.
To be able to frame science, you need ideas, examples, and good stories. Like the Avandia study discussed by the Numbers Guy or some of the topics on the very entertaining Freakonomics blog by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.
But sometimes – I just love the idea for itself. Statistics about statistics. Because that is just sooo totally meta.
Update: A commenter pointed me to the very useful Sniffexquestions blog. Not that you shouldn’t read my stuff. But any Sniffexquestions you might have, will be answered there. (S)he even has the report of the test shown below.
James Randi, of JREF, Sharon Weinberger, lover of government mind control stories and Imaginary Weapons (now in paperback!) and Bruce Schneier, crypto-guy have all pointed to the Sniffex modern munitions dowsing rod foolishness.
As Sharon put it over at Danger Room
Penny stock schemes are a dime a dozen, but you gotta love ones that involve far-fetched military technology. A few months ago, I received in the mail information on Sniffex, a company touting a dream technology in the age of terror: a hand-held explosive sniffer. The company’s claims about its uses — sniffing through concrete and at great distances, sounded a bit too wonderful. I tossed the brochure — labeled “hot stocks on the street”– in my pile of possibly stupid weapons, and promptly forgot about it.
Others didn’t. Famed magician and uber-Skeptic James Randi unearthed a Navy report evaluating Sniffex, and from the snippets he published online, it’s rather damning
Bruce Schnieder picked up the story. His intrepid commenters found the more interesting stuff. One reader describes a blind test of the Sniffex ‘product’ conducted at
Bob Hope airport . “Tourism and Safety 2006”, a conference for law enforcement professionals held at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel in April of 2006 [Updated: See Comments – Thanks MY]. Now the videos of this blind test of ‘detection equipment’ are up at YouTube. The test is simple. Several envelopes, 9 filled with salt, 1 filled with gun powder – now use the Sniffex ‘device’ to find the dangerous one.
It starts off with a description of how Sniffex works (like the energy source – YOU!).
Then a simple test is proposed
My favourite part? Perhaps the ever-present elevator music in the background. Like some surreal cross between Heidi and 24, frantically search for the nuke while “What A Wonderful World” plays as a soundtrack. Perfect.
Despite all the negative waves being sent their way, Sniffex is still being pushed on it’s European site with a “patented method based on detection of magnetic interference.” As a matter of fact, they even have a patent number: 6,344,818. See – down at the bottom
Oh!. Maybe they don’t have that patent any more.
Status: Patent Expired Due to NonPayment of
Maintenance Fees Under 37 CFR 1.362
Status Date: 03-08-2006
So not only do they have a device that doesn’t work, they can’t even keep their patent “working”.
It was awfully nice of Time Magazine to choose Richard Dawkins to be one of the Times 100 . Apparently they thought it was too nice.
That’s why they chose Michael Behe to write the article. Yes – that Michael Behe,
Of Richard Dawkins’ nine books, none caused as much controversy or sold as well as last year’s The God Delusion. The central idea—popular among readers and deeply unsettling among proponents of intelligent design like myself—is that religion is a so-called virus of the mind, a simple artefact of cultural evolution, no more or less meaningful than eye color or height.
It is a measure of the artful way Dawkins, 66, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, tells a tale and the rigor he brings to his thinking that even those of us who profoundly disagree with what he has to say can tip our hats to the way he has invigorated the larger debate.
Dawkins had a mild Anglican youth but at 16 discovered Charles Darwin and believed he’d found a pearl of great price. I believe his new book follows much less from his data than from his premises, and yet I admire his determination. Concerning the big questions, the Bible advises us to be hot or cold but not lukewarm. Whatever the merit of his ideas, Richard Dawkins is not lukewarm.
Uh. Time. Was this really necessary? I’m not exactly a Richard Dawkins fan boy but still. Could you have picked someone marginally neutral. You know like Paula Zahn?
Of course they seem to always try to find someone from the ‘Dark Side’ to write these things. That way they don’t end up being too glowing. But still – Michael Behe?
First a card trick, watch closely and tell ask yourself if you see the trick –
Cognitive scientists have long known that people are fairly resistant to seeing things they don’t expect. This is an excellent example of how focusing attention in one thing often leads to poor cognitive realisation.
The James Gorman in the New York Times described what is perhaps the best example, not cards gorillas,
The woman in the gorilla suit is something else again.
I’m referring, of course, to the 1999 video known (to those in the know) as the “opaque gorilla video,” which is used in numerous studies of how people fail to see what is right in front of them. It is only 75 seconds long.
Six people, three in light clothes, three in dark, weave around and pass two basketballs, white clothes to white clothes and dark to dark.
In the middle of the video a woman (scientific reports have specified the gender of the hidden human) in a gorilla suit walks calmly through the group, stops briefly to pound her chest — although not in a very noticeable way — and then continues walking out of the video frame.
[Test subjects] consume what may or may not be alcohol. They are told what they are drinking, but sometimes they are told the truth and sometimes not. So really, nobody has a clue, except the bartender.
Afterward, they are asked if they saw the gorilla. Only 18 percent of the people drinking alcohol noticed the gorilla, which is the point of the paper by Dr. Clifasefi and colleagues. But what caught my eye was that only 46 percent of the sober people saw the gorilla.
Apparently this is a well-known phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness.” [My emphasis]
Think about ethics here. Issues abound.
The first is obvious and has been exploited by pickpockets and con-artists for centuries. When someone is distracted, you can do almost anything. Thus the person bumping into you on the subway or asking for directions on the street or simply stopping is an excellent way for people to steal you blind. Right before your eyes.
This has led cognitive scientists to warn about how memories can be incorrect. If you add the idea that you can subsequently change what people remember (cognitive scientists stop at nothing to confuse people), then testimony in almost any trial becomes less convincing. This leads to juries placing more and more faith in a CSI kind of investigation. This adds uncertainty to uncertainty. Better lawyers know how to exploit this in a system that focuses not on fact finding, but on proving guilt or generating a reasonable amount of uncertainty.
Finally, if you didn’t notice the colors changing for the card tricks, imagine how easy it is to move the intellectual goal posts on something you can’t even see. While America watched American Idol or 24, can you change something in the dialog; some moral compass heading?
Case in point. The majority – that’s right the majority – of American soldiers reject the idea that Iraqi civilians should be treated with dignity and respect. A third felt torture was acceptable. From the BBC,
The survey, by an army mental health advisory team, sampled more than 1,700 soldiers and Marines between August and October 2006.
It examined their views towards torture and the Iraqi civilian population.
A Pentagon official said the survey had looked under every rock and what was found was not always easy to look at.
The Pentagon survey found that less than half the troops in Iraq thought Iraqi civilians should be treated with dignity and respect.
More than a third believed that torture was acceptable if it helped save the life of a fellow soldier or if it helped get information about the insurgents. [my emphasis]
You might think this is just BBC propaganda. Leftist media spinning otherwise innocent comments. From the report itself (PDF, pg 35),
Soldiers and Marines are fairly similar in their attitudes toward the treatment of non-combatants and insurgents. Only 47% of Soldiers and only 38% of Marines agreed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Well over a third of Soldiers and Marines reported torture should be allowed, whether to save the life of a fellow Soldier or Marine(41% and 44%, respectively) or to obtain important information about insurgents(36% and 39% respectively).
So while you were watching 24, the moral center of the American Military shifted. It changed to black. Did you notice the change?
Were you paying attention or were YOU distracted?
From the NYT
There were revealing moments that went past the well-rehearsed lines by all the candidates. Three of the candidates — Mr. Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado — raised their hands to signal that they did not believe in evolution.
Video at Crooksandliars
The kind of image that makes Global Climate Change denialist’s hearts go piddy-pat.
Look I know both are science, but do they have to be right next to each other? Don’t they look just a bit out of sync?
Couldn’t you headline the second article with “Kilimajaro’s Glacier Loss Linked to Lower Precipitation”. (Check paragraph 4 in the article.) What might be causing the lower preciptiation – hmm?
On the second page of the article –
The scientists say that the Kilimanjaro glacier findings emphasize another way that global warming is affecting the world.
So far many experts have focused on the impact caused by rising sea levels and temperatures. But less has been said about the effects of lower precipitation.
Kilimanjaro’s shrinking glaciers buttress evidence that East Africa is drying out. And that’s a phenomenon that needs to be studied further, researchers point out.
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]
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.
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)
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”
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.
Important? Your choice – it’s your world.
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 infighting.is 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.
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.
Wow! I go into weekend hibernation and a war breaks out. * Sigh *
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.
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.
“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…
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.
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?