Archive for 2005 September

“It Makes No Sense”

Lots of catching up awaits me, but for now…

    "The timber program is losing money–an estimated $48 million in the last fiscal year. It makes no sense to ask the taxpayers of this country to funnel millions more to such an expensive endeavor."

–Republican Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, on a senate amendment to the appropriations bill for the Interior Department. The amendment, which was sponsored by Sununu and Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, would have prevented up to 17.3 million in taxpayer subsidies for new road construction in the Tongass National Forest. The amendment was defeated.
[from Forest magazine, the fall 2005 edition of the excellent publication by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics]

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Messenger from a Burning House

From Pico Iyer, perhaps the best travel writer in the world today, a well-written reminder that the Dalai Lama is not a human spiritual fire around which we can warm ourselves vicariously, but a town cryer sounding the alarm…for his nation.

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Trashing Science

Here’s a profile I wrote on hard-working Chris Mooney’s important new book, The Republican War on Science, which was published in last week’s VCReporter…

Young reporter Chris Mooney grew up in New Orleans, and three months ago The American Prospect website published a prescient article about the disaster that could befall his home town if it were hit by a Category Five hurricane. Yet in his just-published book, The Republican War on Science, Mooney doesn’t even mention the topic.

When I asked him why, he replied that “None [of what happened] constitutes an ‘abuse’ of science, just shortsighted policymaking. At most, we can say science was unfortunately ignored in this case.”

It’s a good example of Mooney’s precision and a good example of what makes his description of the Bush administration’s and its allies’ trashing of science so damning. Mooney avoids pundits of all stripes and talks to researchers, doctors, scientists and policy-makers inside the government. The book details in terse, lucid prose how the Republican Administration and Congress, along with right-wing religious advocates and industry apologists from outlets such as Fox News, have allied to hamstring modern research and pillory scientists expressing inconvenient opinions on a range of issues, from dietary advice to global warming.

The book focuses first on a nationally-televised policy shift President Bush announced four years ago. In the speech, Bush said that federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells — the most potent cells in the body — would be restricted to colonies of stem cells, known as “lines,” already in existence in 2001.

On the face of it, the policy sounded reasonable. The president didn’t cancel funding for research already under way, but implicitly promised his anti-abortion supporters that he would not allow new research on the hundreds of thousands of tiny clumps of fertilized cells nurtured in fertility clinics every year, most of which are discarded. The policy shift looked to balance the scales between two sides of a difficult ethical dilemma.

But in reaching this decision, the president didn’t consult the scientific literature and didn’t consult the White House science advisor, Rosina Bierbaum. He did consult his “bioethics” advisers. One, Daniel Callahan, is a liberal Catholic, and the other, Leon Kass, a conservative Jew. Both opposed such research on religious grounds.

As a result of not doing his science homework, Mooney argues, the president made a fundamental scientific error, confusing stem cell lines with stem cell derivations.

“The Bush White House either didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction,” he writes. The distinction, which involves the inner cell matter of a five-day-old embryo, is arcane and difficult to explain, but to medical researchers, it’s literally the difference between life and death. Because the president didn’t consult with a true scientist, he didn’t realize that most of the stem cell lines he thought were immortal were in fact dead.

Mooney quotes Nobel Laureate Paul Berg of Stanford on how that can happen: “At some point, somebody took a blastocyst [inner cell matter] from an IVF [fertility] clinic and cracked it open and poured everything into a vial and stuck it into a liquid nitrogen tank. In which case, we don’t know if it’s a line. And most of them died, and that’s why there are so few now.”

For this reason, three-quarters of the stem cell “lines” made eligible for federal funding by Bush in 2001 are useless. Mooney’s decision to begin the book with the stem cell policy speech now looks prophetic because Bush’s policy is under fire on numerous fronts. The review copy reached my desk the very day last month that Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, broke with the President’s stem cell policy.

In his speech on the Senate floor, Frist did not directly criticize the president, but implicitly he made the same point made by a dozen or more scientists quoted in Mooney’s book, which is that by freezing research to stem cell lines existing in August 2001, the president had actually compounded the ethical dilemma, while greatly retarding medical research.

In fact, this short-sightedness on the president’s part is amply apparent already. In 2001, stem cell lines were cultured on mouse tumor cells; they contained the genes of mostly affluent white Americans with fertility problems and were drawn from embryos already rejected for implantation. As a researcher pointed out to Mooney, today scientists want to expand research into stem cell lines containing the genes of other sufferers of genetically-based diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis and various types of cancer.

By injecting such stem cells into a mouse and following their development over a mouse’s short lifespan, scientists could start to track genetic malfunctions happening in real time, instead of trying to reconstruct the complex flaws in retrospect.

This research means drawing a body cell from a patient suffering a disease such as diabetes, implanting it in an unfertilized egg, creating stem cells, and starting a new stem cell line. According to a Parade magazine poll in July, when described as “therapeutic cloning,” this research method is supported by nearly 60 percent of Americans. When described, as pro-research advocates prefer, as “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” it’s supported by 70 percent of Americans. In other words, the president all but stopped federal research on one of the most promising of all medical frontiers for the sake of a distinction trivial to the vast majority of the population.

Mooney’s book is an excellent guide to these complex issues, and more balanced than the title implies. He has plenty of criticism for the president, but he also chides advocates on the left who misuse science for their own political purposes. He scoffs at John Edwards’ statement from the campaign trail, for example, that if John Kerry were elected and stem cell research promoted, “… people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again,” which Mooney calls simply “hype.”

But when it comes to challenging science and scientists, Mooney shows how in public the Bush administration White House has chosen to play a phony “good cop” role, following the advice of a Republican pollster named Frank Luntz, who in 2002 urged party leaders to stress that “the most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science.”

“Sound science,” Mooney reveals, was a phrase popularized by The Tobacco Institute in its losing fight in the early l990’s against the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to regulate secondhand smoke. Phillip Morris positioned “sound science” — the difficult-to-find evidence that tobacco smoke was harmless — against “junk science.” According to the tobacco company, “junk science” was any report from the EPA showing that secondhand smoke put wives of smokers — along with stewardesses, waitresses and other non-smokers exposed at the workplace — at risk of contracting lung cancer, bronchitis, heart disease and emphysema.

Mooney shows how the American Petroleum Institute (API) borrowed a page from the tobacco industry to attack the science of climate change. He quotes a memo from the API calling for major think-tank investments in any advocate willing to challenge the science of global warming. The memo, published by The New York Times in l998, declared: “Victory will be achieved when … recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”

Mooney links this to an infamous memo from Brown & Williamson, another tobacco company, which declared years earlier that “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also a means of establishing a controversy.”

The petroleum industry and its friends have succeeded for over a decade in this country in establishing a controversy on the subject, despite a solid consensus among climatologists. Funded by corporate sponsors — particularly Exxon Mobil, which has poured millions of dollars into more than forty think tanks — a thriving cottage industry has sprung up in this country to obscure the facts.

Mooney catalogues how ideologues at industry outlets such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Fox News continue to contest the increasingly obvious facts of the matter, on whatever grounds they can contrive.

Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy described the evolution of these denials to Mooney this way:

“In the late ’80s, early ’90s, it was, ‘Nothing is changing.’ And by the mid-’90s, it’s, ‘Well, things are changing, but just a little bit and, by the way, humans aren’t causing it.’ By 2000, it’s, ‘Well, things are changing a little bit, humans are causing it, but you know what, it won’t matter.’”

On Aug. 12 of this year, a central plank in the climate change skeptics platform collapsed when Science magazine published a report showing that any evidence of slow warming and even cooling in the atmosphere over the tropics, frequently cited by skeptics, was actually caused by a position error in the satellites collecting the data. As Roy Spencer wrote on the website for the The George C. Marshall Institute, a center for skeptics of global warming, the doubters had to concede a crucial point. “This helps to further shift the global warming debate out of the realm of ‘Is warming happening?’ to ‘How much has it warmed and how much will it warm in the future?’”

And in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even well-known conservative skeptics such as Andrew Sullivan have at last admitted a possible link between global warming and wetter and longer-lived hurricanes.

Nonetheless, the denials continue to pour in from well-paid commentators. Steven Milloy, who makes $90,000 a year, largely for publishing a Junk Science column for Fox News out of his house, declared last November in the column that “warmer temperatures don’t seem to be a problem in the Arctic.” He admitted that the Artic seemed to be undergoing a warming phase but declared it was a natural variation, soon to be followed by a cooling phase, and in any case, according to a survey of three villages, polar bears were more abundant than ever, so why worry?

But the most alarming aspect of Mooney’s book is not the outlandish statements of those who profit from avoiding issues like global warming he cites, but the description of an organized effort by Republicans and their “bad cop” allies to put science and scientists on the defensive.

“The ‘sound science’ buzzword is being phased out,” Mooney said during our conversation in an interview. “Now it’s ‘data quality.’”

In the book, Mooney introduces us to a Washington lobbyist and character named Jim Tozzi, a self-described “dirty old man,” former tobacco lobbyist, and Washington bureaucrat who sneaked “two sentences of legalese” into a massive appropriations bill signed into law under President Clinton. Nurtured by the Bush Administration, this provision became the “Data Quality Act,” a new process requiring government agencies to field complaints on all data, studies, and reports released to the public.

“It’s a science abuser’s dream come true,” writes Mooney, and he provides numerous examples. What’s horrifying to believers in science is the way the act allows individual researchers to be targeted by industry groups. Sometimes these scientists are shockingly mainstream; for example, a University of Pennsylvania dean named Shiriki Kumanyika, who worked with a World Health Organization committee documenting the well-known association between poor diet and obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and cancers. With the committee, Kumanyika called for limiting “free sugars” consumption to 10 percent of calories a day. For this she was labeled a “junk scientist” by Stephen Milloy on his website, and the committee’s report was attacked by the U.S. Sugar Association.

Subsequently, the Bush administration, echoing U.S. Sugar, challenged the WHO recommendation, and Jim Tozzi filed a “data quality” petition to prevent Health and Human Services from following the international consensus. When the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued its recommendations, the only mention of sugars was a vague suggestion to “choose carbohydrates wisely for good health.”

To Mooney, this is a prime example of how science abuse leads to bad policy-making. Though he’s proud of his book, which is written in coolly understated terms, and although he warmly dedicates the book to his late grandfather, “Paw,” a biologist, and “Chuck” — Charles Darwin — there’s an undercurrent in his voice in the interview over the phone. He thinks the trashing of science on stem cells, tobacco, global warming, nutrition and countless other topics is an “insult” and a menace. Nothing will be done on global warming, at least until 2008, he predicts, and when it becomes apparent what it has cost us, he predicts, “a lot of people are going to be very, very angry.”

Clearly, one already is.

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Strong Winds

A concise, elegant metereological discussion of the connection between global warming and hurricanes can be found here at the wonderful Gristmill blog, courtesy of my friend at JPL, oceanographer Bill Patzert. The discussion closely parallels my look at the issue below in the post called "Sorry, Mr. Sullivan. Sorry, Mr. Kennedy," I’m happy to say, but concludes with a mention of a fact I forgot to include in my lengthy discussion–the usefulness of natural barriers to hurricanes.

Draining bayous (which causes the silt left behind to compact), eliminating sand dunes, or deforesting mountains (which leaves towns at the base vulnerable to mud slides) leave coastal populations devoid of natural protections. All this remains true regardless of how much the planet warms. We remain unprepared for these storms and their aftermath at our peril.

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Global Warming and Hurricanes: A Connection?

For a wonderfully thorough scientific discussion of this important topic with lots of comments from the field, check out this post at RealClimate. Sample quote from comment and response #18:

The current Landsea/Trenberth/Emanuel discussion has been parsed by many to mean that Landsea claims that the number of hurricanes is constant, and Trenberth is claiming that their intensity should increase as global warming heats the ocean surface. Emanuel appears to have constructed a figure of merit that confirms both sides of the furious agreement.

However, there is a simple logical fallacy in this reconciliation. If we are talking about hurricanes and not just tropical disturbances, a certain proportion of tropical storms will move up to hurricane status if Trenberth is right, and that indeed is what Emanuel has shown. Therefore, at some point, either someone is eliding tropical storms into hurricanes or someone else is making a false statement.

[Response:True, and one must be careful to say whether one refers to hurricanes (with windspeed above a certain threshold) or just tropical cyclones. -rasmus]

Comment by Eli Rabett — 3 Sep 2005 @ 12:55 am

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On Vacation

For two weeks. Here’s where I’m going. A billion bonus points to anyone who knows where it is:


Come back and see me again late this month…please!

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“Intelligence Failure”

Roger Pielke, Jr. is one of the most prominent and moderate voices in the world of science and policy-making today, and a man determined to keep politics out of climatology. But when it comes to Katrina, he is profoundly unhappy with the Bush administration:

The Bush Administration’s complete lack of preparedness for responding to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is one of the most significant intelligence failures in history, ranking right up there with Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

Read the whole editorial, on his popular and worthy site Prometheus.

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42 Minutes of Hell

The White House press corps–and Terry Moran of ABC News, in particular–gave Scott McClellan, the President’s spokesman, forty-two minutes of hell yesterday. Here’s one exchange:

Q I just want to follow up on David’s questions on accountability. First, just to get you on the record, where does the buck stop in this administration?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President.

Q All right. So he will be held accountable as the head of the government for the federal response that he’s already acknowledged was inadequate and unacceptable?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President’s most important responsibility is the safety and security of the American people. He talks about that often. That is his most important responsibility. Again, there’s going to be plenty of time to look at the facts and determine what went wrong and what went right and how the coordination was between the state and federal and local authorities. Right now we’ve got to continue doing everything we can in support of the ongoing operational activities on the ground in the region to help people.

Q Well, the President has said that this government can do many things at once: It can fight the war on terror, it can do operations in Iraq, and aid and comfort people in Louisiana. Can it not also find time to begin to hold people accountable? It sounds, Scott, as if the line that you’re giving us — which is, you don’t want to answer questions about accountability because there’s too much busy work going on —

MR. McCLELLAN: Wrong. No, wrong.

Q — is a way of ducking accountability.

MR. McCLELLAN: You don’t want to take away from the efforts that are going on right now. And if you start getting into that now, you’re pulling people out that are helping with the ongoing response, Terry. Not at all. The President made it very clear, I’m going to lead this effort and we’re going to make sure we find out what the facts were and what went wrong and what went right. But you don’t want to divert resources away from an ongoing response to a major catastrophe. And this is a major catastrophe that we — and we must remain focused on saving lives and sustaining lives and planning for the long-term. And that’s what we’re doing.

Q And there are people in Louisiana and Mississippi who are doing that job very well. Your job is to answer the questions.

MR. McCLELLAN: And I have.

Q By saying you won’t answer.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, by saying that there’s a time to look at those issues, but now is not the time, Terry.

Good to hear some of the hard questions are being asked. Maybe some day we can also have a discussion of climate change and hurricanes…or maybe I’m just dreaming. (Courtesy Tom Toles and the Washington Post.)


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The “Junk Science” Misleader

Steven Milloy makes a nice living working at home ($90,000 a year, according to Mother Jones) as a science abuser. Formerly he was the executive director of the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. Among his achievements, according to reporter Chris Mooney, was a column he wrote in the right-leaning Washington Times in 2001 advising the current administration on a ""lingering infestation" of Clinton-friendly "science moles" within the Federal government.""

He also writes a regular column for FoxNews called Junk Science. It’s worth a look. He collects all sorts of science news, simply listing one study after another, and then puts his spin on particular issues. Often he attacks particular scientists. Frequently he doesn’t even attempt to contest the story he lists, but simply expresses an attitude about it. For example, here’s a story from today, complete with his expressed attitude in brackets, as if nothing else needed to be said:

[Sigh…]  "Climate change: The ultimate wake-up call" – "The evidence that global warming is making extreme storms like hurricane Katrina worse is becoming overwhelming" (Glasgow Sunday Herald).

Yes, how wearisome it is that some people care about our planet’s health.

But occasionally Milloy does attempt to put  up an argument. Here’s one of his "top ten irresponsible claims by environmental scientists" from last year:

"Global warming could cause polar bears to go extinct by the end of the century by eroding the sea ice that sustains them," is the dire warning in a new report from an international group of "researchers" called the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

I’m not quite sure about the polar bears’ future, but it doesn’t seem any alleged manmade global warming has anything to do with it. The report, titled "Impacts of a Warming Arctic," pretty much debunks itself on Page 23 in the graph labeled, "Observed Arctic Temperature, 1900 to Present."

The graph shows Arctic temperatures fluctuate naturally in regular cycles roughly 40 years long. The Arctic seems to be undergoing a warming phase — similar to one between 1900-1940 — which will likely be followed by a cooling phase — similar to that of 1940-1970.

The report’s claim that increased manmade emissions of greenhouse gases are causing a rise in Arctic temperatures is debunked by the same graph, which indicates the near-surface Arctic air temperature was higher around 1940 than now, despite all the greenhouse gas emissions since.

By contrast, take a look at the first paragraph from this month’s report on the Artic found in Eos, the weekly journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The Arctic system is moving toward a new
state that falls outside the envelope of glacial-interglacial
fluctuations that prevailed during
recent Earth history. This future Arctic is likely
to have dramatically less permanent ice than
exists at present. At the present rate of change, a
summer ice-free Arctic Ocean within a century
is a real possibility, a state not witnessed for at
least a million years. The change appears to be
driven largely by feedback-enhanced global
climate warming, and there seem to be few, if
any, processes or feedbacks within the Arctic
system that are capable of altering the trajectory
toward this “super interglacial” state.

Notice any mention of a "cooling phase" soon to come?

Me neither.


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God and Hurricanes

To an agnostic such as myself seeing God’s will in a the wanderings of a hurricane just seems absurd. Yet something in human nature cannot help but find purpose in the destruction or lack thereof.

To the zealots at RepentAmerica, Katrina was God smiting New Orleans for a gay festival in the French Quarter scheduled for Labor Day weekend. A press release from these cruel fanatics declares:

"…this act of God destroyed a wicked city," stated Repent America director Michael Marcavage. "From ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to ‘Southern Decadence,’ New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. From the devastation may a city full of righteousness emerge."

On the other side of the coin, a friend of mine points out that although most of New Orleans remains under water, the notorious French Quarter–home to drinkers, strippers, and gays–has survived the worst storm ever to hit the city just fine, thank you.

"Yes!" he exulted, with a fist-pump. "Vice triumphs again!"

But as Christ himself pointed out, "God sendeth rain on the just and the unjust alike," and as underrated theologian John Muir wrote in his elegant "A Thousand-Mile Walk," after recovering from a near-fatal fever in Florida:

All the inhabitants of this region, whether black or white, are liable to be prostrated by the ever-present fever and ague, to say nothing of the plagues of cholera and yellow fever that come and go suddenly like storms, prostrating the population and cutting gaps in it like hurricanes in the woods.

The world, we are told, was made especially for man–a presumption not supported by all the facts. … But if we should ask these profound expositors of God’s intentions, How about those man-eating animals–lions, tigers, alligators–which smack their lips over raw man? Or about those myriads of noxious insects that destroy labor and drink his blood? Doubtless man was intended for food and drink for all these? Oh, no! Not at all! These are unresolvable difficulties connected with Eden’s apple and the Devil. Why does water drown its lord? Why do so many minerals poison him? Why are so many plants and fishes deadly enemies? Why is the lord of creation subjected to the same laws of life as his subjects? Oh, all these things are satanic, or in some way connected with the first garden…

Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit–the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.

Or, no doubt, without the grandeur and horror of a hurricane:


From a public photo of Katrina’s eye at sunset.

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