Archive for March, 2006

What is your self image?

Every now and then there is an introspective posting from someone who has gone through an identity check and looks back at the process and why they have left familiar grounds. Shrinkwrapped asks Who are They? in looking at a dialog between Fausta at the Bad Hair Blog and Barbara O’Brien at Mahablog.

I would submit to Barbara that even if you disagree with some or all of those positions, you claim to believe in the people’s right to rule themselves. Perhaps you should begin to listen to those of us who used to be in your tribe and submit to the will of the people rather than constructing a fantasy world in which George W. Bush is a dictator, civil liberties have been stripped away, and we are mere moments away from a fascist theocracy. If all these allegations are true, show us some evidence that is more reasoned than invective. I am mindful of the fact that no one who blogs about political subjects will lose readers by calling their opponents names, but we all have to share this country, this planet, and all agree there are significant dangers out there (though we often disagree on just what they are).

It would be a relief, and would certainly foster communciation, if each side would stop the name-calling, and I would like to invite (challenge?) Barbara to do so.

It is a matter of integrity. Can you accept who you are? Do you separate reality from fantasy? Can you separate opinions from facts? Are evidence and rational logic your tools or do you use the ad hominem and conspiracy? Do you allow others to have differing opinions without judgment or condemnation or intolerance or bigotry?

What many are noticing is that there are patterns in these behaviors that correlate to political position and ideology. These patterns are being put on the table and inspected and dissected and set out for any rational person to see. Such exposure causes dissonance which is expressed by even more irrational behavior, defensiveness, and, occasionally, insight and growth. Let us hope the insight and growth become most predominant so we can all gain in our ability to work together.

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Peer review

How do we tell good science from bad? By looking at how it is published. – Ellen Raphael takes a look at Peer review and ‘media science’ in Spiked.

There have been some high profile cases of fraud and these have prompted some examination of methods and practices that promote intellectual integrity in the dissemination of the findings of scientific research.

as part of Social Science Week and National Science Week, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Genomics Forum on 16 March organised a panel discussion to contemplate the impact fraud has on trust between scientists, policymakers and the public.

That scientists are preoccupied with fraud is understandable, as they need an accurate historical record of science for work to advance. But it is unfortunate that the first time anyone hears about the scientific method and the peer review process is in discussions like this. It is like learning about the jury system through a high-profile miscarriage of justice.

Times Online has a story by Jim Endersby, The class of Carl Linnaeus. It is a story about how public and peer pressure can distort research ideas and is an example of how methods of accountability can be attacked yet, over time, provide effective result.

The subject of all this moral outrage was the methodus propria (“proper method”) of plant classification, devised by the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, better known by the Latinized version of his name as Linnaeus. His system was published in a series of books that started appearing in the 1750s, the most important of which were the Philosophia Botanica (“Philosophy of Botany”, 1751) and the Species Plantarum (“Species of Plants”, 1753). These provided the foundations for all subsequent classification

A third story is in Science Blog about Science teachers in Arkansas self-censoring about evolution.

Via Red State Rabble, I’ve become aware of an incredibly depressing story about science teachers in Arkansas explicitly censoring themselves when it comes to teaching evolution (the “e-word,” as they call it) or in geology class teaching that the earth is 4.5 billion years old:

Science is a human endeavor. This means that it is subject to those feelings and emotions that drive humans. Scientists want recognition and acceptance, sometimes to the point of doing things they should not do. Scientists are influenced by public pressure and by peer pressure.

But there is a process to hold ideas of humans in science to account. This is a process of repeatability and intellectual integrity. It is a process that says ‘if you can do it, I can do it to’ and uses that idea to verify and hold account those who report their findings.

But sometimes it just takes a while for ‘what really works’ to filter into the change cycle.

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Curing poverty

Dr. Sowell takes note of a new book by Harford that says China is lifting a million people a month out of poverty. He asks ‘how can that be?’ and takes a look at what is needed.

The only thing that can cure poverty is wealth. The Chinese acquired wealth the old-fashioned way: They created it.

It is capitalism at work. It is a contrast to the many governmental programs and tax ideas that are proposed to solve poverty by edict. Dr. Sowell notes the success of such efforts, too.

When it comes to lifting people out of poverty, redistribution of income and wealth has a much poorer and more spotty track record than the creation of wealth. In some places, such as Zimbabwe today, attempts at a redistribution of wealth have turned out to be a redistribution of poverty.

The key ideas are that wealth is created by people, that efforts to create wealth come from within, and that people can control and change their circumstances for the better.

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Brain Gym?

Ben Goldacre (Guardian bad science, 06mr18) thinks Brain Gym exercises do pupils no favours

I’ve seen the 12,000 Google hits for Brain Gym on UK government web pages. Now I need field reports

telling stories about fairies and monsters is fine, but lying to children about science is wrong. Children are predisposed to learn about the world from adults, and especially from teachers. Children listen to what you tell them: that’s the point of being a child, that’s the reason why you don’t come out fully-formed, speaking English with a favourite album.

It is one thing to teach a fiction as an approximation to a truth in an effort to lend insight. It is another to teach a fiction as is. As we learn, what we know is refined and the models we use to understand our world are modified, enhanced, or replaced by better models. ‘Brain Gym’ has such a nice monicker for an educational program that it should raise a skeptics’ interest right off the bat. Goldacre points out that a proper skepticism should raise questions about is propriety in our children’s education as well.

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Is Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) Offensive?

Under the “Don’t question our patriotism” banner there is a new plan. It is to have partisan, potentially illegal, political gatherings at military bases to attack the commander in chief. The Drudge report has the content of the original document.

The Washington Times reports

Titled “Real Security,” the political document calls for staged town hall events at military bases, weapons factories, National Guard units, fire stations and veterans posts.

Jim Manley, Mr. Reid’s spokesman, said yesterday the planned events are not part of a political campaign. … “These are events to highlight the need for increased funding for the troops,” Mr. Manley said. “It’s an effort to paint the White House and the Republican Congress as having a failed effort on national security issues, which is a direct result of their misplaced priorities and mismanagement.”

As commander in chief, Mr. Bush has made frequent visits to military bases in the United States and abroad. His remarks are generally limited to explaining his war policies and encouraging the troops.

The Democratic memo calls on senators to seek the help of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which is critical of Mr. Bush.

Where do you start with this? Political partisanship at military bases? Parading (misinformed) opinion about “failed effort” and so on as fact? Running a planned effort to impugn and denigrate the commander in chief during time of war? Hypocritical use of military symbols under false flag?

The false flags are many as well. Increased funding for troops? That gets to the body armor myths which are also being used as a political prop in this campaign. It begs the issue of the standards to be used for how much is enough. Instead, how much is enough is always going to be more than either the Administration, the military, or Congress determines it should be.

The tactic is inherently misleading and dishonest. Its basis lacks integrity. Its purpose is obfuscated.

This is no way to show an ability to govern.

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Believe it or not, there is a plan for victory

One the more egregious propaganda themes being promulgated for the last several years is that there is no plan for Iraq. There is one and you can read it: National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.

You can tell there is something fishy in the “no plan” attack by the fact that it makes rather odd assumptions – such as that the military will act on a large scale without a plan,. The attack wanders about looking for specifics where generalities or more appropriate and vice versa, confuses tactics with strategy and places responsibilities for these kinds of planning to innapropriate levels, and generally ignores the overall pattern of events as they unfold. And then there is the stridency and insistence to consider.

Now there is a Canadian politician who asserts that the US is daily out murdering and abusing Iraqi citizens. There are plans for global anti-Iraq war protest. The NYT got caught in another attempt to elevate prisoner abuse. ABC is trying to explain away even the “no intelligence value” documents being released from Iraq.

You can get the true scoop if you want to. What is frightening is that so many, especially in the media and education elite, do not want to to the point of gross denial of reality and construction of fantasy.

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Science policy, when the shoe is on the other foot

One of the ongoing allegations is about how the Bush Administration is putting politics over science. Like many such allegations that attempt to malign and impugn the current administration, even a cursory inspection of history shows them to be hollow, misleading, and intellectually dishonest. For example: Henry Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, was an official at the FDA from 1979 to 1994. He wrote an article for the Mercury News: In twisting science to suit policy, Clinton outdid Bush presidency.

Never has American government been burdened with such politically motivated, anti-science, anti-business, anti-social eco-babble as during the Clinton-Gore years, but during that time I don’t recall hearing from the born-again, now-vociferous defenders of scientific, data-driven public policy.

As MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen has sagely observed, science “provides our only way of separating what is true from what is asserted. If we abuse that tool, it will not be available when it is needed.” Cynicism about the motivations and actions of those in government is healthy. But if criticism about abuses of science — among other things — is to be credible, it should be consistent and even-handed, even if not wholly apolitical.

It is not cynicism that is healthy, it is skepticism – an appropriate skepticism. A cynic has made a judgment and snarls at what he does not like. A skeptic holds to an appropriate uncertainty and seeks out what is true by inquiring about facts and reasons.

Those who currently lambaste the government for its involvement in science are saying that political science is OK but only if it agrees with their politics. They do not offer solutions for a problem that traces back to WW II. They are cynics when things are not going their way and not skeptics. They do not address the underlying reasons for their discontent nor do they seek realistic solutions to the problems inherent in the public funding of much scientific research.

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The drug benefit

The Medicare Drug Benefit program gets a lot of sneers about its cost from the right. From the left it appears that the attack is to change it to out-do Canada in socialized medicine. There is a lot of press about the start-up difficulties and forecast long term costs. What you don’t see is much rational discussion.

The Washington Times editorial Save the Medicare Benefit helps to put things in perspective.

Medicare’s market-driven drug benefit has had the fastest start up a federal program in recent memory. More seniors were able to get coverage in three months than were able to obtain it after years under state Medicaid and prescription drug plans. Millions of poor seniors that were spending 30 percent of their income on drugs now pay nothing. As a result, they are in better health and the total cost of their care will go down.

The fact that the current bill promotes and encourages competition in the provision of drug benefits has been one source of confusion. It requires people to make decisions. But some have noted that this competition has reduced average drug costs from something like $35 to $25 per month. Senators Snow and Wyden initiated an effort to eliminate the competition in the bill and make it a single payer benefit. Here is one assessment of that idea.

The impact on the lives of seniors would be devastating. In Canada and other countries, people suffer and die while waiting as the government “negotiates” the price of new medicines for cancer

What was a point that helped pass the bill in the first place is extremely difficult to see discussed today.

For every dollar spent on new medicines, Medicare saves $8 on other forms of care, and seniors wind up living longer and healthier lives. The new Medicare drug benefit was shaped around this insight.

The long term budget forecasts that so inflame some on the right are constantly revised – downward – due to the savings from competition. These costs also do not consider the gains to be achieved by early treatment of diseases using medications rather than late treatment by much more expensive therapies.

The issue of senior and poverty health deserves better discussion and debate and reporting than it is getting. The Washington Times editorial is a start towards this goal.

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Minimizing damage when technology fails

David Berlind, on ZD Net, gets to worrying: For all the good it does, technology often fails us in big ways

So, why was this a failure and what lessons can be learned from this case study for anyone like the Feds whose thinking about tying the proper functioning of a car to a GPS device. First, the idea that a malfunctioning device landed me in court is simply absurd. My punishment (the $100 fine) was in essentially effect until proven otherwise.

The bottom line is that it’s not just the fallibilty of the technology that’s the problem. It’s the assumption that people are guilty until proven innocent when the technology fails and the wasteful if not unconstitutional process that follows. What’s even worse is that the technology actually exists to mitigate that assumption and how no one is bothering to use it.

This is the speed limits problem. Technology makes it easy to measure speed. A piece of equipment can be used to make the case that the measure was accurate and precise. The problem is that there is no such measure for the validity of the speed limit nor for the assessment of a safe speed for the given conditions. Technology becomes a means to rationalize a lie. It can only happen when intellectual integrity suffers.

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Do the lawyers understand the law?

Scott at PowerLine describes the Disgrace of the law schools by citing George Mason University Law School Professor Peter Berkowitz in the new issue of the Weekly Standard, who looks at the law school litigants in the case giving rise to the Supreme Court decision in FAIR v. Rumsfeld: “U.S. military 8, elite law schools 0.”

Roberts’s opinion does give rise to, and leaves unresolved, one nonlegal but rather large and disturbing question: How could so many law professors of such high rank and distinction be so wrong about such straightforward issues of constitutional law?

While Scott goes on to discuss the misguided effort against the military, the conundrum described by Berkowitz has much broader implications. If eminent legal scholars are willing to attempt to argue a case such as this, what does it say about their efforts to make the legal system fair, impartial, and predictable?

Lawyers are society’s first defence against innapropriate harassment in the form of suits and arguments. But instead of helping their clients pursue reason and helping the courts to clear and predictable outcomes, lawyers are egging on clients to sue for near anything and obfuscating the issues in order to obtain favorable judgments. As a result, the legal system has become a lottery whose outcomes are determined more by tactics, strategy, politics and personality rather than fair and judicious application of law, value, and principle.

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Are privacy rights violated if only a robot is looking?

This is the question on the strategy page. Other good points are raised as will in Paranoia, Terrorism and Data Mining March 4, 2006.

Many people aren’t concerned with robots watching what they do, or have done. But American law, and the courts that interpret it, still give privacy rights primacy even if no humans are involved in the surveillance. It wasn’t always that way.

Privacy rights have become a growing issue since World War II. But, since September 11, 2001, it’s become obvious that protecting those rights can get people killed. …

Privacy in the modern world is a misunderstood concept. While the law keeps the government from using many forms of information, or information searching, for law enforcement or national security, there are far fewer restrictions on commercial use of similar data and tools. … And then there’s data mining, an old technique that, as long ago as the 1970s, was used to identify and arrest terrorists in Germany. Yet the same techniques today are seen by the law as an assault on privacy rights. …

Meanwhile, data mining has been used by commercial firms for decades to sort out who to sell to.

What it comes down to is people not trusting their government, or at least trusting banks and credit card companies more than politicians. …

The distrust of politicians and government officials rests on attitudes more than facts. There’s far more abuse of databases by private individuals than by government officials (who are more likely to get caught and prosecuted.) …

But the fear is great, just like the irrational fear of nuclear power plants, alongside a tolerance for much more dangerous coal and oil fired plants. It’s why people feel safer driving to an airport, than when they fly off on an aircraft. It’s more dangerous to travel in the car, but we’re not talking about logic and truth here, but emotion and fears that can be exploited.

But now robots are doing the searching, and suddenly the fears are going away. …

But trying to make the same case for data mining databases in search of terrorists, even when nearly all the work is done by robots, still raises the hackles of civil libertarians who see this as an infringement on privacy. The government can’t be trusted, even though there is no track record of government abuse in this area. …

It’s not just an American problem. In the 1970s, after German police used data mining to shut down a lethal bunch of leftist terrorists, the data mining program was dismantled, lest some bureaucrat do some unnamed, but really terrible, mischief. The terrorists are back, and the police have had to carefully sneak back in the data mining tools.

The same thing is happening in the United States. With paranoid lawyers at their sides, for protection, intelligence agencies are using data mining in innovative ways that catch the terrorists, while keeping the data miners out of jail. So far. Members of Congress who have been briefed have let the roundabout methods pass, for now. Members of Congress have been known to suddenly develop amnesia if something they have let pass suddenly becomes a war crime in the struggle to protect privacy.

This is not a new phenomena, either. Some hold to the charms of the small community where everyone new everyone else and any anomolous behavior was quickly noticed. The sharing of knowledge generated social bonding and trust. But no longer. Now the knowing about others, especially if the government is doing the knowing, is treated with suspicion.

The fact is that what someone knows about you is irrelevant. It is what they do with that knowledge that is important. That may be one reason why robots are considered safer. Robots are not going to go off on their own and misuse what they know about you like a human might.

Now the question is whether the effort lead by Mr. Ickies to bypass the DNC and revive the Democratic Party by using data mining techniques to identify potential contributors and supporters will generate any suspicion.

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FOIA Intel Coup – for Al Quaida

You’d think false stories maligning the Commander-in-Chief was going far enough in terms of sedition, but how about intelligence gathering for the enemy? The AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request forcing the military to release the names of prisoners held. Here is how Strategy Page describes it.

The magnitude of this counter-intelligence coup is staggering considering some of the high-level al Qaeda personnel the United States is known to have in custody. The revelations forced by the Associated Press’s FOIA request could be compared with the Japanese knowing about American code breaking efforts in 1942, or if Germany knew of the similar code-breaking efforts during the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. This is knowledge that is crucial to the war on terrorism, and now al Qaeda knows the United States has that information. This will lead to counter-measures on the part of the terrorist group – and the United States will face increased vulnerability to attacks as a result.

Meanwhile, we have an opposition party whose primary goal, it seems, is to obstruct any intelligence gathering and, if they can’t do that, to at least make sure the enemy knows all about what is collected and how it is collected.

Then again, it is these same folks who seem to think 9/11 was a minor criminal affair and any military effort on the part of the US is corrupt, incompetent, unnecessary, imperialistic, and inhumane. No matter the facts.

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Progress? Katrina, Solomon

It is Popular Mechanics that you would use as a resource if you want to know the real story about the Katrina Hurricane, not the AP which has had to ‘clarify’ its erroneous propagandistic reporting. And now we hear an 8-0 decision supporting the Solomon ammendment.

Popular Mechanics says no one should have been surprised.

But when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, it seemed as though the whole country was caught unawares. Accusations began to fly even before floodwaters receded. But facts take longer to surface. In the months since the storm, many of the first impressions conveyed by the media have turned out to be mistaken.

The Solomon ammendment is to the effect that if colleges and universities accept government money, they also have to accept government military recruiters on campus. It was protested under false colors as being a gay diversity issue. The court arguments were objecting to a Congressional policy that the military have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuality. The real issue was the general antithesis taken to extreme regarding all things military in many institutions of higher education.

In one case, it is building a rationale out of whole cloth to support an irrational belief. In the other, it was using deceit to argue for an untenable position. Is it any wonder there appears to be a high correlation between the populations that present these views?

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Responsible speech and citizenship

Captain Ed notes the NYTimes story about animal rights activists who were sentenced for their connections to vandalism, bombings, and death threats against medical researchers. The lesson is about responsible behavior in a representative government.

Anyone who bombs, vandalizes, or issues death threats to achieve what they cannot win through the legislative process is a terrorist, regardless of the cause. It does not matter whether that cause is abortion, the environment, animal research, or eliminating the designated hitter rule. Ends do not justify means, and living in a democracy means accepting the legitimacy of a loss in the democratic process. For years, people who acted violently in support of political issues found too much sympathy from their peers. Those days appear over, and not a moment too soon.

This is a lesson that should be taken to heart not only by the extremists but also those whose preferences are not directly expressed by their government. If you loose an election, denial and rationalization of that fact is destructive. If you are in the minority, that does not mean your job is obfuscation and obstruction and other destructive behavior.

Jacob Laksin describes the fringes of this type of destructive behavior in Historians vs. History [ 06mr03]. Scholars eschew their discipline and create paradigms of conspiracy and realities of cynicism that they proclaim as “truth.” The unwashed, although in the majority, cannot be right. They must have been mislead. It is up to us, a minority of elites who know better, to correct things no matter how. The ends will justify the means.

The problem is that using the end to justify the means is just what sentenced the animal rights activists who expressed a preference for death threats, harassment, and terrorism as their means. Those who call themselves historians but eschew the accuracy of that study do not exercise responsible speech or citizenship.

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Breathtaking puzzle

It is breathtaking just how much beating one’s head on the wall the current Administrations opponents engage in.

The latest is from ‘secret and leaked’ documents that were presented as showing the President new with certainty of levee breaks following Katrina. It turns out the documents were released to the press in August and do not support the alleged malfeasance.

Last week it was the Ports deal. A company with ties to an muslim lead government bought a British company that was managing some terminals a few US sea ports. This was presented as if an Arabian government was taking over US sea ports and it was all personal program of the President.

Then there was the Cheney hunting accident and the Washington Press Corps tantrum about not being fed.

Then there is the so called secret domestic spying and telephone taps by the NSA that turned out to be communications intelligence gathering about foreign nationals that was carefully vetted by administration lawyers and departments and by appropriate legislative branch committee personnel. It was not a new or unusual administration activity going back even to the founding fathers.

Then there was the PATRIOT act. All of the fears, allegations, suppositions, and accusations have turned out again and again to have no substance behind them.

Then there are the various election scandals and problems and what investigation has turned up about these.

Since these kinds of things keep coming up dry, The assertion becomes that because there are so many accusations and allegations that there must be a problem. There is so much smoke there must be a fire. When is he going to stop beating his wife, anyway? You wonder if the idea of smoke screen might have any weight.

You’d think that there would be learning. Get the facts straight, then aim, then shoot. Otherwise you can end up shooting yourself in the foot. A rational look at these many ‘shoot first and find out later where to aim’ problems makes one wonder if the administration’s opponents have anything left to stand upon.

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