Archive for February, 2006

A story about the development of an idea in science

There are those in the science community who subscribe to the “its Bush’s fault” school. In doing so, the demonstrate that they are not very good historians, either of politics or of the history of science.

Jonah Lehrer’s article in Seed, The Reinvention of the Self, A mind-altering idea reveals how life affects the brain (FEB/MAR 2006) has many points to ponder about the progress of science.

It used to be thought that the human brain did not grow or change after birth. Damage to nerves or brain material were permanent. The story about how Professor Elizabeth Gould changed this view illustrates just how difficult it is to turn over a prevailing wisdom in the science community. Gould was not the first to observe neurogenesis. She just added the straw that broke the camel’s back. Gould was the person who was able to add enough data and create the experiements and propose the ideas in a way that broke through the inertia of the old ideas. This is typical for major ideas in science as it is peer pressure and the resistance to change that are the major inhibitors of new theories – not politicians.

Gould’s work as a tipping point has the big pharmaceutical industry going full tilt on a new avenue for therapies to address brain related disease such as depression and Parkinson’s disease. With a new understanding of the source of these disease and their mechanisms, the search for how to alter and adjust – fix – these mechansisms when they turn faulty is more focused and that leads to more profitable results.

The role of the environment in issues such as poverty and stress and battle fatigue (now known as PTSD) is also being re-examined. The nature versus nurture battle is an old one and represents a fundamental split that influences basic political philosophies. The article even mentions, makes a snide remark, about the fact that the research can be read as saying poverty is a disease caused by the environment. The remarks miss the idea that the nurture side of the argument – getting a job and finding religion and doing things – may be a ‘natural’ way of curing environmentally influenced diseases. This is an example of the same sort of barrier the article discusses as holding back neurogenesis ideas in the first place.

What is being learned is that the brain is not static. It changes. Changes are reactions to environment and genetic heritage (although the Seed article really only addresses environment). Parts of the brain die. Parts are reborn. Up until just recently, this idea was heresy. Now it is producing many new insights and the promise of new cures and therapies for many diseases.

The idea that a decades old well accepted theory in science can be overturned may lead to questions about why evolution could not be similarly revealed as out of date, too. The core of this matter is how we know things. The Seed article points out that much of neurologic research is done with animals in cages and that part of the new insight is the realization that experimental proceedure may have had more of an impact on those studies than previously thought. The knowledge about the brain response was based on rather limited observation and research. Evolution is a contrast to this as it is observed out of the lab and in many different fields of research. Some scientists tend to forget that how we know things is an important factor in how much confidence they should have in what they think they know.

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I am a Christian (and what it means)

Mark Noonan clarifies what he believes starting with the fundamentals of his religion. It makes for a powerful statement from which we can all learn.

I am a Christian, and that entails certain obligations upon me. As I was purchased at a price, I am not actually entirely on my own out here – I have to do certain things in certain ways or I am negating my own existence. Among the things I have to do is to love my enemies. I cannot hate, you see? I cannot even use hatred – I can only work from the most generous and merciful disposition I can attain. Given this, I have to pre-suppose that those I deal with are dealing with me honestly. Even when I think someone wrong, I must presume that they are merely incorrect, and not perversely being incorrect because they are hopelessly corrupted. Only actions on the part of another can be allowed to convince me they have a baleful desire – and even then I cannot judge the whole person, only the action they are taking.

even that which has been with me for ages is forever being refined as my growing knowledge gives me better understanding.

In obedience to the commands of God, I pray every day that the hearts of our enemies will be opened to peace and love. I also pray that our leaders – all of them – will be given the wisdom to choose the correct policies for our nation.

I thank God that it isn’t up to me to decide war, or no war. I pity those in charge who have to make such decisions, I pray they make the right ones, and I won’t indict them before the bar of history with my incomplete information if things don’t go as my best hopes desire. It has been truly said that you shouldn’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes

I’ll finish with a quote from Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…”

We either live that out, or we are nothing.

We should not act out of malice or other destructive emotion. We should assume the best in others. We should only deal with specific actions and not on presumptions or extrapolations. We should avoid judgments.

What is your priority? What is your core belief? Can you state it as clearly as Mark does? Can you use that priority and belief as a standard for measuring your behavior?

As we can easily see, even some Christians are not always able to measure up to their goals. But that does not negate the value of their efforts nor the meaning of their beliefs. Let us hope that all of us can learn, gain knowledge, and refine our behavior and better be able to see each other and our common goals.

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Drastic cuts?

Have you seen those ads about how the nasty President Bush is depriving the poor and needy by cutting and eliminating education and social programs? This isn’t new. It happens every budget cycle when Republicans are in the majority it seems. Brian Riedl discusses the Myth of spending cuts [WaTimes 06fb17].

News reports about the president’s budget overflow with dismay over “deep cuts” and “slashed” spending.

Images of schools and anti-poverty programs chafing under the fiscal knife abound. This proves hardly anybody actually reads the federal budget. If they did, they would realize just how much of a myth is this tale of “slashed” spending.

Alleged “deep cuts” over the last few years to education, anti-poverty and discretionary spending can be disproven easily by examining the federal government’s budget historical tables (particularly tables 3.2 and 8.1). The gulf between the facts and what’s widely reported and blogged is astounding.

Finally, there is the lazy, false stereotype that Republicans always cut spending. The plain facts refute this. Unfortunately, Congress and Mr. Bush have expanded education and social spending much faster than Mr. Clinton did, yet Mr. Bush has been attacked for stinginess in ways the Democrat never was.

The result: America faces substantial long-term spending challenges. The impending retirement of 77 million Baby Boomers threatens to push up Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid enough to crowd out all other federal spending — or risk European-size tax increases.

But America cannot debate future spending priorities until reporters and bloggers do their homework.

“The gulf between the facts and what’s widely reported and blogged is astounding. ”

“But America cannot debate future spending priorities until reporters and bloggers do their homework.”

A lack of intellectual integrity and a studied ignorance are not keys to finding effective solutions. It appears that the federal budget is yet another important issue where these concepts have not been brought to the table.

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Scientific ignorance

You’d think ScienceBlogs would be a bit more careful but Chris Mooney does not illustrate any appropriate skepticism or inclination to research ‘prior art’ before jumping to conclusions.

It’s hard to decide what’s the bigger outrage here: 1) That Bush didn’t tell the public his real “dissenter” view on global warming; or 2) that Karl Rove set up a secret science advisory session for the president with a novelist. In any case, in this story we see several strong tendencies of this administration going hand in hand: A penchant for secrecy, an unwillingness to level with the public, and a disdain for science.

The outrage is that ignorance runs rampant. Correlation is confused with cause and effect. Guilt by association is assumed.

Since the Bush position on global warming was a part of his original campaign, igorance of that position is almost as much of an outrage as trying to pretend it was secret.

The so called penchant for secrecy is very hard to square with book publication much less the many speeches in which the President addressed global warming.

The comments also illustrate the studious ignorance of events and other readily available data. This isn’t science unless you are studying psychiatry.

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Local Authorities Run Amok

The Clark County Health Department has decided that an RV parking in a Casino parking lot makes that lot an RV park and subject to all of the rules, regulations, and permit requirements of a facility designed and intended to provide living quarters for those in mobile facilities.

RV.NET has a post about a press release describing how health department authoritites have decided to go after Laughlin Nevada Casinos. The cited section of the Nevada Revised Statutes is here. The Administrative Code is here and you will have to look about a third of the way down the page to find section NAC 444.5461 under NAC 444.546.

The statutes say

“Recreational vehicle lot” means a portion of land within a recreational vehicle park, or a portion of land so designated within a mobile home park, which is rented or held out for rent to accommodate a recreational vehicle overnight or for less than 3 months.7. “Recreational vehicle park” means an area or tract of land where lots are rented or held out for rent to accommodate a recreational vehicle overnight or for less than 3 months.

The administrative code says

1. “Camping space” means a plainly marked plot of ground designated for:
(a) The occupation of a camping vehicle or other vehicle;
(b) The erection of a tent or shelter;
(c) The parking of a camping vehicle or other vehicle; or
(d) The arrangement of bedding.

2. “Camping vehicle” means a travel trailer, whose overall length does not exceed 32 feet and whose body width does not exceed 8 feet, a pickup camper or similar vehicular dwelling used for travel, vacation or recreational purposes, occupied in any one place for 30 days or less.

The administrative code has a lot of information about spacing between parking places and other things as well as sanitation that clearly indicate something very different from the typical casino parking lot. The code also clearly indicates that the health department shouldn’t be involved unless there is abuse of sanitary conditions.

There is a good debate topic on facilities with utilities connections to support residential use of RV’s and what is called bookdocking or dry camping places. Many modern RV’s do not need water, sewer, or electricity utilities for several days or more. There are many folks who live in their RV’s full time with limited budgets. They depend upon being able to park somewhere without needing or having to pay for the amenities and utilities of an RV park. Even many public campgrounds are classified as what is called dispersed camping and just provide a low cost or free place to park for a week or two with no facilities or utilities.

But health department bureaucrats have decided to step in and prevent the casinos from letting a class of people use their parking lots. This represents an income loss for the casinos and an inconvenience for a category of their customers. The b’crats needed to stretch their interpretation of law to intervene but now it will take a significant legal process to put them back into place. This is a cost of government that need not be. But it is also one of the costs of freedom in that individuals have to fend off excess government intervention and protect themselves in a proper way. Let’s hope that such governmental abuse of power does not get to Boston Tea Party levels yet again.

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Making education work

Michael Barone seems rather enthused about one effort to improve the education for the disadvantaged.

Before you read anything else in this week’s U.S.News & World Report, including my column, please read the special report on KIPP—the Knowledge Is Power Program. …
The premise of KIPP is simple: Do whatever it takes to learn. Under a contract signed by students, parents, and teachers, students go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, every other Saturday morning, and for an extra month in the summer–over 60 percent more class time than the average school year. Teachers are on call 24-7 to answer questions about homework (the better they teach, the fewer the calls), and parents are held accountable. …

KIPP picks its principals carefully, trains them at the Haas School of Business at the University of California–Berkeley, and then gives them full control over hiring and firing teachers, who are paid premium salaries. Students are admitted by lottery from those who apply and can be expelled if they don’t stick with the program.

For those who sign on and need it, this program returns rewards. For everyone else, it returns lessons. One is that special progress requires a special committment. Two is that principals are the key leaders in schools and need the authority and responsibility to exercise that leadership. Three is that accountability needs to be clear at all levels: parent, student, teacher, and management.

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Dr. Thomas Sowell writes about Myths of rich and poor (Washington Times commentary 06fb10). He asks

If making a whole society’s rising prosperity look like a disastrous decline is not insane, what is?

Using 1970 as a reference,

the net worth of Americans more than doubled during those same years. Was there an economic Houdini who could perform such magic? … No. Actually a lot of the point-scoring rhetoric involves misleading statistics. Wages are only part of total compensation — and increasing proportions of that total compensation is taken in fringe benefits. [emph added] Total compensation has been rising while average real wages have been declining. Even the decline of real wages has to be taken with a grain of salt. Real wages are calculated by taking the money wages and adjusting for changes in the consumer price index (CPI).

People have more stuff, more houses, bigger houses, and their employers are providing more non salary benefits than ever before. People expect longer vacations, better health benefits, and other perks as a part of their employment than they used to 30 or more years ago.

But the economic health of the population is a political issue. Qualifying statistics takes work that many would rather not do. So the media and politicians with an axe to grind can pick and choose what measures they promote and the context in which they put them.

Fortunately, columnists like Dr. Sowell can provide counterpoint. So can those who are showing just how reporting of economic boom times now compares and contrasts to that of ten years ago. So too can the arguments of those who put a political agenda ahead of intellectual integrity.

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The power grab mantra

One of the administration opposition’s current assertions is that the President is grabbing power and taking over the US government to become a dictator. There is a current interesting process in Venezuela to serve as a comparison and contrast in evaluating these assertions. Charles Bird has a good summary in The Hugo Chavez Slow-Motion Communist Revolution.

But rather than gracias [for oil trade], the sentiments Chavez expresses towards the United States are closer to vete a cingar. Chavez’s rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from Castro’s, and if it just stayed there, Chavez would be just another loudmouth ingrate. And an entertaining one at that, since he apparently likes to parade American nutters through Caracas such as Harry Belafonte and Cindy Sheehan, giving them media platforms to bash Bush. But Chavez doesn’t stop just there.

In 1992, Chavez’s attempted a military coup d’etat and failed. Opting for Plan B, he was elected president in December 1998 and has since wrought his revolution by changing the system from within. There’s nothing wrong with implementing social reforms and other good works, and Venezuela definitely needed more than a few. The problem is how Chavez has been doing it, which is by eroding his country’s democratic institutions, using dollops of populism and largesse and other means to get his way.

What is interesting is that the dictator impulse seems to be highly correlated with communism and socialism. This means greater government control, permits, price controls, taxes, media supervision, personalization and vilification of an enemy, and grand plans for ‘the people.’ Venezuela makes for an interesting standard as a reference for the allegations of the administration’s opposition.

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Oh so worried, oh so concerned

Science Blogs is worried and concerned about how the current administration is conducting a war on science. It does appear that the memory doesn’t go back very far: “My first real exposure to all of this political use of science was back in 2002…”

And of course, we must not allow anything contrary to our world view to interfere with the way we want to see things: “it’s things like this that make us so skeptical about the claims in Bush’s SOTU address”

It was only a few days ago that Dr. Helen’s history lesson was noted. That one goes back a bit farther than 2002 and provides example that the interface of politics and science is not something new.

Like a lot of opposition politics, it is worry and concern that is on the table, not substance. Stories and rationales are built out of anomoly or misplaced context to suit viewpoints. The worry and the concern is constructed. This leads to the idea that it is displaced.

Is politics involved in science? Yes indeed as when it involves political money or when the scientists are working as governmental employees. But this isn’t the question of the worry and concern. That one falls into areas of censorship and false product. This suspicion falls on the face of the fact that they do not have any problem being published and there remains a vigorous contrary press (much less the internet publications).

We have enough bad science and it is compounded by scientists who are blinded by policy preference.

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Offense recognized only under threat

The publication of editorial cartoons such as one that showed a muslim in a turban made of a bomb has created an uproar.

The intolerant faction of the muslim community has threatened death, kidnapping, and other violence against anyone who publishes or even looks at these cartoons. It is beginning to appear that these threats are correlated with the typical PC mantra that we shouldn’t offend being selectively applied to these particular cartoons.

There are many who are highlighting the contrasts. The Joint Chiefs didn’t threaten when they were offended by a tasteless cartoon. They wrote a letter to the editor. The Washington Post maintains it was proper to publish anyway. Then there are the protests about government funded art that maligns Christians that are met with assertions of free speech or other rationale.

But when it comes to these cartoons that offend some muslims, the situation is different. Editors who espouse free speech have been fired. Apologies are given. The cartoons are hidden.

What’s the deal? Is the lesson that threats and violence and mayhem and temper tantrums are the way to get what you want? It sure seems so.

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Complaints from scientists

James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at NASA, is one of those who condemn the current administration for, in Dr. Hensen’s case, censoring, or for budget cuts or for other malfeasance.

Dr. Sanity, an ex NASA scientist, has a bit more balanced explanation of what is really happening.

The fact is that government agencies are paranoid about employees speaking politics and policy. They have been this way since the seventies. It is the comrades in ideology of those scientists who are complaining who created the circumstances that constrain their political expression as government employees.

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SOTU and response

The President: “We must decide”

The response: “There is a better way” [but we won’t or can’t tell you what it is]

Perhpaps the most telling indicator was when the Democrats applauded their obstruction to social security reform. They said the “better way” is to ignore the pending financial crisis.

Similarly, the Democrats approved their killing of the PATRIOT Act and related espionage efforts. Their “better way” is that the government should not have many dots to connect to learn out about future 9/11 style attacks before they happen.

Decisions have consequences. The Palestinians are being called on their decision to elect Hamas; the Iranians for their pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Democrats are also meeting the consequences of their decisions. In all cases there is rejection and anger and rationalization and blaming and excusing and bluster. But that will only last for so long. We’ve seen it before. It can get ugly.

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