Category Archives: Politics

Can We Ask Presidential Candidates about Science?


Back in December 2011, The Guardian USA and New York University’s Studio20 (see their Tumblr – note: I am associated with the program) announced a new joint project – US presidential election 2012: the citizens agenda. Here is some background information from that time:

The Guardian USA:

The citizens agenda: making election coverage more useful: We invite you to help refresh the media’s tired templates of campaign coverage to address issues people really care about

Studio 20:

Studio 20 Will Collaborate With The Guardian on How to Improve Election Coverage: On Dec. 8, Studio 20 and The Guardian US jointly announced that they will collaborate in the development of a “citizens agenda” approach to election coverage during the 2012 campaign for president.

Nieman Journalism Lab:

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012: Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel reunite for a project that aims to inject citizen voices into campaign coverage.


The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage: The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Nadja Popovich:

Re-thinking Elections 2012: As part of the Studio 20 graduate program at NYU, we’re partnering with the Guardian on a big question: how do we make election coverage more useful to the average user? So, today we launch the “Citizens Agenda”, an attempt to do just that.

What does that all mean?

The idea is for a media organization with a strong reputation, large audience, and necessary resources to team up with a group of smart, dedicated, innovative, tech-savvy and Web-savvy students of journalism to explore and analyze the questions posed by the media to the presidential candidates (most notably during the presidential debates), to see what questions are asked frequently, what questions rarely, and what questions not at all – and then to provide the citizens with the opportunity to have their own voices heard, adding questions they want to ask, inquiring about topics they care about the most:

Have the 839 GOP debate questions reflected the ‘citizens agenda’?: By studying the 20 Republican presidential debates of this election season, we can better see if the questions being asked correspond with the issues voters actually care about.

Some questions that may be of great interest or importance to the voters may be tip-toed around or completely ignored by the media, while other questions that are asked often may not be as informative to the public. For example:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Mormonism mentions scant at GOP debates: Despite being the religion of two candidates, only three questions over 20 debates have dared to utter the M-word.

There have been 20 presidential debates so far this season, generating a total of 839 questions. The students have analyzed the questions, classified them and are starting to publish the details of the analysis – this is the first one, with more to come over the next several days:

The GOP debates: what questions do journalists like to ask? We looked at all the questions that have been posed to the Republican candidates in the 20 debates since May 5, 2011.

Interestingly, most of the questions were quite serious and substantial, but a small percentage could be characterized as “fluff” questions, designed primarily to entertain the audience, and secondarily hoping that a candidate may trip up or say something unusual or revealing:

The nine quirkiest questions from the Republican debates: There have been some strange moments over the last 20 debates involving the GOP candidates. Here are our favourites.

Interestingly, in some of the debates, the candidates were asked questions posed by the public, either by the members of the audience in the room, or from Twitter. Those questions were much different – they covered different topics, were often quite tough, and usually had a personal story as a starting point. By posing problems, the audience questions forced the candidates to abandon the talking points and put themselves in a “problem-solving mode”, which may be potentially much more useful to the television viewers at home:

At the GOP debates, ‘regular people’ didn’t shy away from tough questions: When the mic was handed over to audience members, they framed their questions around personal stories – and big issues

What was asked so far?

According to the first analysis (and more is upcoming), there are certain topics or types of questions that were asked at the debates very frequently. For example: on the economy and jobs (227 questions), the candidates’ lives and records (223 questions), fixing government and reducing the debt (188 questions), foreign policy and national security (160 questions), strategy and maneuvering among the candidates – the “horse-race journalism” focused on polls, electability and mutual criticisms of candidates, attempting to provoke a fight between them on the stage (113 questions), and the “How conservative are you?” type of question (104 questions).

Interestingly, concerning foreign policy questions, out of 200+ countries of the world, only a handful were mentioned in the questions, most frequently Iran and China, while many other countries, regions and entire continents were completely ignored (including very rare mentions of Iraq).

On the other end of the spectrum, restoring American greatness (“Are we still as powerful as we once were?” – 9 questions), human interest fluff (12 questions), education (12 questions) and religion (24 questions, but see above for lack of questions on Mormonism), were not often asked. There was nothing about, for example, women’s issues (apart from abortion), or about small-business owners.

In the middle are: immigration (61 questions to multiple candidates, 16 to Gingrich, nine to Romney, six to Santorum, six to Paul), healthcare (53 questions), social issues: abortion and gay rights (46 questions), and social spending: Medicaid, Medicare, social security and unemployment (42 questions).

Science and technology questions, including space and climate, were in the middle of the pack, with a total of 44 questions asked to date. Here are some examples:

On climate change:

John Harris (Politico): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

And a follow up: John Harris (Politico): Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that. [applause] Are there specific — specific scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling, as you? (both from September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On stem cell research:

Shannon BREAM: Alright, Governor Pawlenty, just days ago a Federal court struck down the ban on using Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. You identify yourself as strongly pro life, but you don’t oppose government funding for research on existing stem cell lines already derived from embryos, but is that still spending tax payer money on elements that were generated by, at some point destroying an embryo. (MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE)

On energy and environment:

Brian Williams (NBC News): Governor, time. Congresswoman Bachmann, a question about energy, back to that subject for a moment. Were you quoted correctly — and do you stand by it — as wanting to drill in the Everglades in Florida? (September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On green energy:

Bret Baier (Fox News): Governor Perry, you — you have railed against the special treatment of Ford and Solyndra as have the other candidates here tonight. And particularly the tax code incentives for green technologies and allowances that have been made for this industry. But it’s nexus, governor you have afforded the same attention to the oil industry. Back in 2003, you signed a bill that reduced the tax paid by some natural gas companies that have helped them reap since, better than $7 billion in tax savings. So I — I guess what I’m saying is, are you guilty of the same behavior as governor, favoring an industry, that you claim this president has, favoring the green industry? (December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa)

On the EPA:

John DISTASO: Speaker Gingrich, what exactly is an Environmental Solutions Agency? I don’t — I think a lot of people might not know or understand that — why you want to disband the EPA and set up — set up something that kind of looks like the EPA? (Republican Candidates debate in Concord, Hampshire January 8, 2012)

On nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain:

Q from audience: QUESTION: My question for you is, do you support opening the national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain? ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, we’ll start with you. [crosstalk] ANDERSON COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. ANDERSON COOPER: Is Yucca Mountain that place? ANDERSON COOPER: You were for opening it in Congress, right? (Republican Candidates debate, Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011)

On the space program:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: We have a question. I want to speaker to weigh in as well. [applause]This question is related from — we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years? [laughter] (January 26th, 2012 | Republican Candidates Debate in Jacksonville, Florida)

How to build a citizen’s agenda?

Next presidential debate will be on Wednesday, February 22nd, moderated by John King of CNN. Another four debates have been scheduled in case no clear candidate emerges in the meantime. After that, there will be general election debates between the candidates of the two major parties. As the year progresses, the program will evolve, adapting to the circumstances on the ground.

In this first phase, between today and the next debate, the citizens (both of the USA and other countries) will be encouraged to post their questions – what they would like to see the candidates asked – in the comment sections of this post. Alternatively, people can tweet their suggested questions at @JohnKingCNN using the hashtag #unasked. The students will also do a quick classification of all the questions to send to John King’s producer just before the debate.

Will there be many questions? Will they be much different from what the media asks anyway (after all, the mass media shapes the public opinion)? Will a few of those questions emerge as strong contenders by being asked repeatedly by many people? Will John King actually ask one or more of these questions? Will moderators of future debates ask the citizens’ questions? Will other media outlets pick up these questions and ask the candidates whenever they have the opportunity to do so? That is still to be seen.

Asking about science?

Many important policy questions are in some way related to science or rely on scientific information. The same can be said of medicine, environment and technology.

While many science publications collect candidates’ quotes on scientific matters every four years (including us, just a couple of weeks ago), attempts to get presidential candidates to answer science questions have been made in the past without much success. Most notably, managed to get some answers from both Obama and McCain four years ago, and intends to try to do the same this year. Occasionally a very lucky blogger may get an exclusive interview with one of the candidates specifically about science (I was that lucky four years ago, interviewing then presidential candidate John Edwards).

But questions posed by a large number of citizens are harder to ignore than questions posed by an organization, be it a specialized science media organization, or an organization of scientists (which can be dismissed as an “interest group” by the politicians). Also, questions about science, when placed in the mix with other questions of interest to the public, may have a better chance to get answered than if science is kept in isolation and treated as a special topic.

I am confident that the readers of Scientific American would love to ask science-related questions of the candidates, and can come up with good, well-informed questions that can lead to important and informative answers. This is your chance to influence the Citizen’s Agenda, by posting science-based questions on the Guardian site or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can influence the Citizen’s Agenda, and if that, in turn, may affect what questions get asked of the candidates in the mass media.


Image: Nadja Popovich

3 Science Questions to Ask U.S. Presidential Candidates

As you may already be aware from my previous posts, The Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab have teamed up to push a project called The Citizens’ Agenda into the media discourse surrounding the U.S. presidential 2012 election. The idea: find out what you–the citizens–want the candidates to be discussing over the next four months – usually meaning questions of substance about policy rather than horserace and gotcha questions so pervasive in mainstream media.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for the Scientific American community to provide us with the three most important science-related questions that they would like to see the candidates asked by the media or during presidential debates in the fall. The Scientific American community is one (actually the first to have this finished) of a number of topical communities providing questions. Naturally, our readers are interested in science, so we are focused on  the science topics here.

Our Facebook page post soliciting question received over 120 comments (as well as 104 Likes and 61 Shares). The blog post itself got an additional 18 comments. We asked you “What three science questions do you think the U.S. presidential candidates should answer before we vote on November 6?” and since some comments included multiple questions, we got a grand total of 246 questions!

I am extremely happy with the quality and quantity of the submitted questions. You took this seriously and came up with a number of excellent questions.

An informal scan of the questions leads me to categorize questions by focus. There are: questions that ask for candidates to state science facts; questions that ask candidates’ stances on hot and politicized science issues; questions that ask about the role of science in governing; and fun/silly/provocative questions

There is value in all four types of questions. Each one of them is multi-layered and is actually trying to examine the following:

– are candidates reasonably educated in basic science?
– are candidates well informed about current understanding of various aspects of the world?
– to what extent will candidates apply scientific knowledge and advice by scientists in shaping policy, as opposed to interest groups that may or may not adhere to empirical knowledge in their agendas?
– to what extent will candidate’s style of governing resemble scientific method: observing and studying the world as it really is (as opposed to what one wishes it to be), collecting and analyzing data, and applying best available remedies to the problems?

In short, all the questions are trying to get at this core issue: are the candidates reality-based?

But for purposes of our effort, we also had to classify the questions by topic.

Interestingly, the topic of greatest interest, judging from your responses (23 questions clearly and solely in this category), is Science Education – its value, its role in society, the role of federal government in regulating it, and the need for its reform and funding. Interestingly, Role of Government in Science (22 questions) is also mostly about science education, so we fused the two categories into one.

This question, by our reader Cherry Kersey probably captures it the best:

How important do you feel science and science related education is in young children and how would you affect change so that U.S. students are competitive with the rest of the western world in these key subjects?

Some other examples are:

Do you think that promotion of critical thinking is a primary goal of education?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

From media reports, it seems the U.S.  lags behind many other developed countries in protecting the populace from harmful chemicals and substances. Our laws and regulations seem to be designed to protect business interests first and foremost, and only to protect the populace or environment when it has been clearly proven (for example, from a lot of people/animals dying or being sickened by something that has been on the market for a number of years) and there is public outrage. What would you do to address this?

How will you help the USA recapture its #1 place in the STEM sciences, and how is education part of this important agenda?

Do you support evidence based education? If not, how are we to improve education? If so, how soon can we get rid of No Child Left Behind, which had no pilot?

What is the cost of American college education relative to its value to students and to the nation at large? Please describe that cost/benefit ratio in terms of its distribution throughout the current population of students who are in college or who are about to attend. Is that ratio favorable or unfavorable? If less than favorable, what actions would you recommend as President to make it more favorable?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

Can the decline in U.S. ranking in science be directly attributed to the anti-science policies of today’s conservatives, and what affects will the continuation of these policies have on the standing of the U.S. as a leader in science in the future?

Do you believe the federal government should place more emphasis on increasing the number of young Americans who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or not?

Are you going to seriously fund scientific research? How will science help you develop policy? What are you going to do to make the benefits of scientific research benefit the American people?

In your opinion, who gets to decide the truth of a scientific concept? The people, the experts, or the well-funded?

What are you going to do to increase the number of scientists in office, ensuring the people making scientific decisions are in fact qualified to do so?

Will you support reestablishment of the Office of Technology Assessment to aid officials in proper evaluation of complex scientific issues? If not, why?

How will science help you develop policy?

What government body do we have to thank for the most inventions applicable to modern daily life in the last 50 years? (Answer is NASA)


The second topic, with 18 questions focusing entirely on it, is Evolution, still a hot topic in this country. Our chosen question is by our reader Joseph Yaroch:

Explain why you think voters should care about your stance on evolution.

Here is a sampling of some other related questions:

Do you understand the role natural selection has played in the development of complex life over the last several billion years?

What is your opinion on the debate of evolutionary theory vs creationism?

Do you accept the theory of evolution? If so, do you accept that simply saying so is counter-intuitive to our current legal financial subsidies binding church & state?

Do humans and apes have a common ancestor?

What actions will be taken on school boards across the country that are eliminating scientific evidence of evolution from the curriculum?

Are you willing to defend separation of church and state and support the teaching of evolution in schools?


The third most exciting topic to our readers, with 17 questions clearly and solely in this category, is Climate Change. The most representative question comes from our reader Eli Hernandez is:

Is global warming and climate change significantly and negatively affected by human industrial and fossil fuel consumption activity and if so what is our Government’s Role and Responsibility in mediating a solution?

Some more examples:

What should the US role be in controlling climate change and what would you do to advance it?

Even the most devout global warming advocates grudgingly admit that proposed regulations would only delay the inevitable (if global warming is in fact occurring), while the political/economic costs of such regulation would be devastating to the United States. Are you factoring the cost vs. the benefits of global warming regulation in your policy decisions? Will you publish this analysis?

How does the greenhouse effect work, and do you think that humans are interfering with its proper function?

Do you accept the scientific consensus on climate change and what policies do you propose to prevent and mitigate its effects.

Do you agree with over 90% of the world’s climate scientists that humans are at least CONTRIBUTING to global warming?


The topics that follow are Space Exploration, Energy, Science Funding, Environment+Sustainability, Economics, GMOs, and general science questions (of the “what is an electron?” type), as well as a number of other categories with just 1-2 questions.

Finally, there was a “Silly” category, with only 12 questions (yes, guys, you were serious about this project!). Our favorite in the Silly category is this one, by nouseforaname.

Was Jar-Jar [Binks] possible through evolution?

Now I really wish someone would ask that question in the debate!


Now that the questions are out, watch the The Guardian U.S. site for updates. Spread the word. Let’s all try to push for these questions to actually get asked of the candidates in the debates, or in other media outlets.

What 3 Science Questions Do You Think the Presidential Candidates Need to Answer before November 6th?


As you may remember from back in February, the Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab teamed up to learn what all citizens think about the upcoming election, not just those who care about politics with a capital P.

Back then, the questions were posed to the candidates in the GOP primary race. Now that this race is effectively over, it is time to shift focus to the general election.

Now we want to ask the science-loving Scientific American community to voice their questions, ideas and concerns with what’s been missing from the national conversation so far. What do you want to know before you cast your vote this November?

Other (media) organizations will tap into their own communities to identify questions relevant to their interests. We want to her you, the STEM community, as to which science, engineering, technology, medicine, environment and technology-related questions you want to see asked of the two major party candidates.

So tell us: if you could pose a question to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what would it be?

Give us your own question and “like” your favorites from fellow Scientific Americans on our Facebook page, and we’ll publish the top three both on our site and The Guardian’s Citizens Agenda.

Add your three suggestions to our Facebook page by Tuesday at noon.

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Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg

As you probably know, I was in D.C. last week, attending the annual AAAS meeting. This was my second one (funny, back when I was a member of AAAS I was still in grad school and I could never afford to go – now that I am out of science, invitations are finally happening). It is an enormous meeting (about 8200 people this year, I hear) and I missed even seeing some of the friends as the space was so enormous and the program so rich.

Unlike last year, when I was in a session that made quite a splash, this year I was a part of a much more academic panel on Social Networks and Sustainability.

Organized by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, the panelists were Mrill Ingram (University of Wisconsin), Ken Frank (Michigan State University) and Adam D. Henry (West Virginia University). These are people from areas like sociology, people who make graphs like this one and understand how to properly interpret it:

My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’, i.e., someone who does not give a separate talk but comments, at the end, on what the other panelists have said.

I am glad I got the materials from the panelists in advance as this was quite dense stuff.

Every scientific discipline invents new words – the terminology (or jargon) with precise meaning that is necessary for practitioners to talk to each other. For the most part, natural sciences tend to stick to agreed definitions, and counter-examples are relatively rare thus usually quite well known (e.g., the different use of the term “gene” by population geneticists vs. molecular geneticists).

Social sciences, on the other hand, tend to appropriate words from the existing English vocabulary and give those words new, precise definitions. Thus, possibility of misunderstanding by non-experts is greater. Also, some of the terms are defined differently by different sub-disciplines, research communities or even individuals, which makes it even harder to be sure one got the meaning correctly.

This all made reading the materials, as well as listening to the panel, quite challenging for me, the outsider in this field. I am also not a researcher of social networks – I am a user and observer, perhaps an amateur student of them. My thoughts could not be supported by numbers and graphs, but had to, by necessity, be more impressionistic – what I learned from my experiences using, living in, and running online social communities.

As all the speakers went substantially over their allotted times all I had left was seven minutes. Fortunately for me, I had all seven (not 3.5) as the other discussant’s flight into D.C. was canceled. Also fortunately for me, this was the very last time-slot of the meeting, so nobody was in a rush to go to another session and thus everyone let me talk a few minutes longer and then remained in the room asking even more questions.

As I tend to do, and in this case particularly, I decided not to prepare too much (OK, at all) in advance. Instead, I listened to the panelists carefully and made the decision what to say only once I climbed onto the podium in the end and knew how much time I had at my disposal. I decided what to say in the first couple of sentences – the rest came out on its own, pure improvisational theater.

As I was reading the materials and listening to the talks, I realized that a couple of examples were clearly discussing real-world, meat-space, offline social networks, but that all the other examples were ambiguous: I could not figure out if those were online, offline, or combined/hybrid social networks.

So, I decided to use my seven minutes to compare and contrast online and offline social networks, how they differ (more important than how they are similar, which is the default thinking), and how they interact and potentially strengthen each other due to such differences.

This is, roughly, what I said – or at least what I meant to say but had to speed up, i.e., this is an (very) expanded version:

Social norms build and enforce echo-chambers

You want to remain in a friendly relationship with the people you see (or potentially can see) often: neighbors, family, colleagues and friends. Nothing makes for a more unpleasant interaction than discussion of politics, ideology or religion with the people you disagree with.

Thus, there is a social norm in place: politics and religion are taboo topics in conversation. It is considered bad manners to start such conversations in polite company.

This means that most people are not exposed to views other than their own in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

In a small tightly-knit community where everyone’s politics and religion are the same (and people tend to move to such places in order to feel comfortable, on top of most likely being born in such a community to begin with), there is no need to discuss these topics as everyone already agrees. If the topic is discussed, there are no other opinions to be heard – it’s just back-slapping and commiserating about the evil enemies out there.

In mixed communities, the taboo against discussing politics and religion is strongly enforced. Again, as a result, there is not much chance to hear differing opinions.

There is no more airtight echo-chamber than a small community which interacts predominantly within itself, and not so much with the outside world.

Mass media builds and enforces echo-chambers

If you are born and raised by parents with a particular set of beliefs, you will also inherit from them the notions of which media outlets are trustworthy. If you were raised in the reality-based community, you are unlikely to waste much time with the media of the fantasy-based community (and vice versa). If your parents read Washington Post, you are unlikely to read Washington Times. You’ll prefer New York Times and not New York Post. MSNBC rather than Fox News. NPR rather than Limbaugh show on the radio.

But it is even worse than that – the choice is really not as broad. The media shapes the public opinion by choosing what is and what is not respectable opinion, i.e., ‘sphere of legitimate debate’ – what opinions to cover as serious, what opinions to denigrate and what opinions to ignore. There are many ideas that people hold that you will never see even mentioned in the US mass media and some of those are actually very legitimate in the Real World.

Furthermore, the press then divides the ‘respectable opinion’ into two opposites, gives voice to each of the two, and will never actually tell you which of the two is more reasonable than the other – “we report, you decide”, aka, He Said She Said journalism.

By presenting every issue as a battle between two extremes (and the fuzzy, undefinable “middle” is reserved only for them, the wise men), the mainstream press makes every opinion something to be sneered at, both those they deem worthy of mentioning and the unmentionable ones.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of many stands on any issue, by refusing to assign Truth-values to any, by looking down at anyone who holds any opinion that is not their own, the mainstream press fosters the atmosphere of a bipolar world in which enmity rules, and the wagons need to be circled – the atmosphere that is so conducive to formation and defense of echo-chambers and yet so devoid of airing of any alternatives.

The Web breaks echo-chambers

When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.

We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Your Facebook friends will post stuff that reveals their politics is different than yours (and you did not even know that about them before – they seemed so nice in real life!). By the time you get around to blocking them…it’s too late – the virus has already entered your head [this one sentence added 2-27-11].

People you follow on Twitter because of some common interest (e.g., food or knitting or parenting or technology or geographic area) may be very different from you when concerning some other interest, e.g., religion, and will occasionally post links to articles that contain opinions you have never heard of before.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

If your interest is science, you are even luckier. The mainstream media, if it links to anything at all, tends to link either to each other or to governmental sources (e.g., CDC, USDA, etc.). Political bloggers link a lot more, but again the spectrum of sources is pretty narrow – they link to MSM, to governmental pages, and to each other (including the “opposition” bloggers).

But science bloggers link to a vastly broader gamut of sources. If mass media is linked to at all, it is usually in order to show how bad the coverage was of a science story. Linking to each other is important (and that includes linking to anti-science sites when needed to counter them), but what science bloggers do that others do not is link to scientific papers, documents, databases, even raw data-sets (including some Open Notebook Science bloggers who pipe data straight from their lab equipment onto the web).

What echo-chamber? Contrary to what some uninformed op-eds in the mass media like to say, the Web breaks echo-chambers that the social norms and mass media have previously built.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically to affect real change

Many curmudgeons like to say that the Web does not do anything on its own. They (unlike behavioral biologists) do not understand the distinction between Proximal Causes and Ultimate Causes. Web is a tool that allows, among other things, many more people in much shorter time to organize to do something useful in the real world.

Release of Tripoli 6 was an instance in which massive outpouring of support online forced the mainstream media to cover the story which then forced the hand of politicians to do something.

Likewise, in the case of resignation of George Deutsch from NASA, it was investigative work by a blogger, Nick Anthis, that energized the blogosphere, which pushed the MSM to finally report on the story, which forced the event to happen.

PRISM was an astroturf website built to counter the pro-open-access NIH bill in the US Senate. Outpouring of online anger at the tactics by the publishers’ lobby inundated the senatorial offices – as a result the bill passed not once, but twice (GW Bush vetoed the first version of the large omnibus bill it was a part of, then signed it with no changes in the language on this particular issue) and the Senate is now educated on this issue.

But probably the best example is the Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) that made Intelligent Design illegal to teach in US public schools. The ruling by Judge Jones (pdf) is one of the most powerful texts in the history of judicial decisions I am aware of.

There are anti-evolution bills popping up somewhere in the country seemingly every week. But because of the Dover ruling, they are all illegal. Most don’t make it to the committee, let alone to the floor of the state legislatures. Others are soundly defeated.

Before Dover, both Creationist sites and pro-evolution sites, when linking to me, would bring approximately the same amount of traffic to my blog. After Dover, getting a link from PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne brings substantial new traffic. Links from Creationist sites? Essentially undetectable by traffic trackers – I discover them only when I search my blog URL to specifically see if there are new links out there. Creationism, while still popular with the people, is politically essentially dead. The Dover ruling castrated it.

But Dover Trial would not have gone that way, and would not result in such a gorgeously written document by the Judge, if it was not for a small army of bloggers who contribute to the blog Panda’s Thumb. A mix of scientists from different disciplines, lawyers, etc., this group has been online – first on Usenet, later on the blog – for a couple of decades before the trial.

This is a group of people who battled Creationists for many years, online and offline, in courtrooms and political campaigns, in classrooms and in print. They know all the characters, all the usual creationist “arguments” (and provided all the answers to them in one place), all the literature, etc.

It is one of them who discovered that the new Intelligent Design “textbook” is really just a reprint of an old Creationist book, in which the word “Creationists” was replaced by “Intelligent Design proponents” throughout the text….except in one place where they made a typo: “Cdesign proponentsists”.

Ooops – a huge piece of evidence that Intelligent Design Creationism is just a warmed-up version of the old-style Creationism masquerading as something new. The Panda’s Thumb bloggers were at the trial as expert witnesses who provided all the expert evidence that Judge Jones needed to make his decision. People who organized on the Web have helped a meatspace history come to pass.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically if the ecology is right

When looking at the role of online communities and networks in meatspace events, counting the numbers of networked citizens (or ratio of networked to non-networked citizens) is not sufficient – one also needs to know their geographic distribution, and their connectiveness with non-networked citizens. The most fresh example are the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world.

There are at least two possible scenarios (or thought experiments) that demonstrate the importance of ecological thinking about social networks:

1) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. All in the same city, all in the same college dorm, good friends with each other. No communication with other people. No Twitterati in other cities. Nobody knows that other people in other cities have the same negative feelings toward the government.

2) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. One each in 10 different cities. They communicate with each other via social networks continuously. Each is also a center of the local community of thousands of non-networked people using offline methods of communication. Through this connection, they become aware that there are millions of them, all over the country, and that a revolution is feasible.

In scenario 1, there are 10 buddies dreaming of revolution. In scenario 2, there are thousands of people in ten cities organizing revolution. In both, there are only 10 people on Twitter. Yet, the outcome is likely to be very different.

Thus, the ecology of the networkers, their spatial and temporal distribution, and their effectiveness in informing not just each other but many non-networked citizens, are important data one needs for this exercise.

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I shamelessly stole this sub-heading from someone on Twitter (let me know who said it first if you know). Edit: Thank you – it was Chris Rowan,

A great example of a case where the Web produced a community (aka echo-chamber) but that was a good thing, is the case of American atheists.

Before the Web, each atheist in the USA thought he or she was the only one in the country. The social norms about the impoliteness of discussing religion, as well as the real fear of reprisals by the religious neighbors, made atheism completely invisible. No need to mention that the media never mentioned them – they were outside of the “sphere of legitimate debate”.

But then the Web happened, and people, often pseudonymously, revealed their religious doubts online. Suddenly they realized they are not alone – there are millions of atheists in the country, each closeted before, each openly so after! It is not a surprise that “no belief” is the fastest-growing self-description in questions about religion in various nation-wide polls and censuses.

President Bush Senior, himself not very religious, could say that atheists are not real American citizens. A decade later, his son GW Bush, himself a fundamentalist, could not say that any more – his speechwriters made sure he mentioned atheists in the listings of all the equally American religious groupings.

Not all online communities need to be politically active. Discovering people with the same interest in knitting is nice. Exchanging LOLcat pictures is fun. But such interactions also build ties that can be used for action in the real world if the need arises.

Without the Web, I would not know many people whose friendship I cherish. Without the Web I would not have this job. Without the Web, me and many of my friends would have never gone to a meeting like AAAS. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, Science Online London, SciBarCamp, SciFoo, and others.

Every time I travel I make sure that people I know online – from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. – know I am traveling. I say on which date, at which time, I will be in which restaurant in which city. Twenty people show up. Most I have never met in real life before. But after sharing a meal, a beer, a handshake and a hug, our weak ties become strong ties. Superficial relationships become friendships. If there is a need to organize some real-world action – we can rely on each other to participate or help.

I have a separate Dunbar Number in each city I visited. And I try to connect them to each other even more than they are already connected via online communication. Which is one of the reasons we organize conferences and one of the reasons I am online all the time.


As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For? by Emily Anthes.

Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber? by Ed Yong.

The Vaccine Song (video)

Real Guys Immunize

guyzimmunize logo.jpgLast week I went to Philadelphia to a very interesting meeting – a Social Media Summit on Immunization. Sponsored by Immunization Action Coalition, this was a second annual meeting for health-care non-profits, organized (amazingly well, with great attention to detail) by Lisa Randall (and, I am sure, a small army of helpers).
Over a day and a half of the meeting there were two simultaneous sessions at each time slot, but I did not have much opportunity to ponder my choices as I was at the front of the room at three sessions, and participated actively in several others. The style was very ‘unconference-y’, with barely any PowerPoint – we talked and showed stuff on the Web as needed.
We discussed pros and cons of using various online platforms for spreading the message about vaccinations (which also means pushing back against anti-vaccination propaganda), making sure that all of the representatives of the non-profits understand they don’t have to use all (or any) of them unless this can be useful for the work they want to do and the goal they want to achieve. But if they do feel it is necessary, we were there to explain and demonstrate how to do it: static pages, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., the best practices and strategies for using each of these platforms, the metrics for measuring the spread of their message, etc. This was a LOT of stuff, and we covered a lot of ground, but I hope we were useful.
On the second day, we had a very interesting discussion following the presentation by Anna Kata, anthropologist from McMaster University, whose recent paper, A postmodern Pandora’s box: anti-vaccination misinformation on the Internet, analyzed the arguments by the anti-vaccination groups use in their online discussions. What is most interesting is that every single one of these arguments is nothing new – each has been used from the very beginning of vaccination, in 1796, from personal attacks on Edward Jenner, to arguments about “playing God”, to fear of putting animal material into bodies, to suspecting a conspiracy by government, industry and medical profession, to arguments for personal freedom, to proposing alternative theories of health (and disease and treatments). It never really stopped, it just has some very prominent spokesemen right now, visible in the media.
What is important is that people who reject vaccination are not the uneducated and the poor. The poor tend to trust the authority of physicians and will gladly vaccinate – if they can afford it. It is the upper-middle-class, at least nominally well educated, that refuses to vaccinate their kids. Trying to change their minds by presenting them the information does not work – they do not treat that information as valid. They live in a post-modern world in which everyone is entitled to their own facts. Their notions of body, health, and disease are very holistic, very New-Agey, so medical information does not mean anything to them. But they (not the activists, but parents seeking information) can be swayed by peer pressure. And nothing works better than for them to hear, from their friends, family, neighbors, colleagues and physicians, over and over again “I vaccinated my kids, trust me, I know what I’m doing, you should vaccinate yours, too.” If people they trust vaccinate, they will start wavering in their beliefs and may end up vaccinating themselves in the end. It is that social pressure, and need to socially conform, that is much more powerful than all the medical information in the world.
As a demonstration of the way, and ease of the way, for putting together a social media strategy, a group of ‘Social Media Ninjas’, about 5-6 of them who have never met or worked together before, took over one of the rooms and all of its computers during the meeting. They had 24 hours from start to finish. They started by crowdsourcing ideas, then picking one and running with it. The one they picked was focused on explaining ‘herd immunity’ and the target audience was men.
Almost all of the activity in persuading people to vaccinate their kids targets women, as it is supposed that mothers are the only ones making decisions about their children. This leaves out half of the population. And that half of the population can really help. In some families, still in the 21st century I know, the father has the last word. In other families, mother may resist vaccines out of fear and insecurity and her husband’s support can make all the difference – they can study the issue together, discuss it and make the decision together.
So the Social Media Ninja team, in that 24-hour period, came up with the name – “Real Guys Immunize” – drew a logo, and built a static web page, which explains what this is all about, provides brief FAQs and links to external resources. It also provides an easy way for readers to post personal stories.
They started a Twitter account (and the #guysimmunize hashtag), a YouTube channel and a Facebook page. They designed an e-card for Father’s Day. They had a couple of participants write blog posts (see here and here). And they put together a cool slideshow:

They decided against making a video (24 hours was too short, and nobody in the room was a real video-maven) though this can be done later, and made other changes to the original plan as the 24 hours passed. At the very end, they presented all of that to the gathering, including the first metrics of their reach (whatever one can measure after such a short time):

The site (and everything else associated with it on social media) is not really owned by anyone – it was just an experiment done to show how such a thing is made. So, if anyone is interesting in taking over this initiative and moving it forward into the future, there is a contact e-mail there, just click.

If scientists want to educate the public…but is that the right question to begin with?

Yesterday, Chris Mooney published an article in Washington Post, If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening. It has already received many comments on the site, as well as on Chris’ blog posts here and here and here. It will be followed by a longer paper tomorrow, at which time this link will work and you will be able to read it.
The blogosphere has not remained silent, either, with responses by, among others, Orac, Pal MD, Evil Monkey, Isis and P.Z.Myers. Most of them, as I do, agree with the article about 3/4 through, and are, as I am, disappointed in the ending.
I actually don’t have much to add to this discussion as this one is just another chapter in the discussion of Chris’ book “Unscientific America”. As usual, most commenters focus on one or two aspects of his (and others’, e.g., Randy Olson’s) argument, though the argument has many layers and components.
I don’t have much to add because it is hard to add much to what I have already written at length and in great detail, trying to address and combine all the components in a 30-page (when printed out) post. So, if you are a little confused about what Chris says and about the responses by others to Chris, you may find my old post informative. Here it is: What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?
Update:: More reactions by Chad Orzel, Evil Monkey, Andrew Revkin, Joe Romm and Chris Mooney.

Why can’t they do this on Meet The Press? (video)

Republican candidate for Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction and current State Senator John Huppenthal gets schooled by Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School student journalist Keith Wagner during an interview about the state legislature’s vote to cut career and technical education funding by 99.9%.


‘Going Direct’ – the Netizens in former Yugoslavia

Back in 1999, during the NATO bombing of Belgrade, bragged that they could send a reporter to Serbia – the first online-only magazine to do such a thing. That was a sign that online-only journalism was maturing. But Dave Winer, while agreeing this is a sign of maturity for a US-based outlet, voiced the opinion that the Web was already there, in Yugoslavia, and that the people were on it, using it. Last week, Dave remembered that episode in a different context and I have, in a few posts before (regarding Mumbai attacks and Iran revolution), wondered why would American audience put more trust into an American reporter parachuted into a foreign country with no knowledge of local geography, history, culture, language and politics, instead of trusting the locals who are steeped into that knowledge – by reading multiples of them, you can quickly learn to detect (and thus ignore in any individual person’s writing) varieties of local political biases and use the collective reporting to get a clear picture and deeper understanding of local events – much deeper than the American reporter can ever dream of doing.
Anyway, I think Dave was right even back then in 1999. So I posted this in the comment of his blog:
Yugoslavia was on the Web in 1999! It just looked different from the Web we are used to seeing in the USA.
Urban centers in former Yugoslavia had a whole bunch of people who were excited about computers. Not having money to buy PCs or software, they built their own and programmed their own. I remember, as early as 1980, young programmers were sending their software to the big Belgrade radio station as audio files. Each day at 10am and repeated at 4pm, the announcers would warn us to get our tape recorders ready to record the audio to get the programs. Most were simple text or image processing programs but some were quite nifty. And nobody ever thought those should be anything but free for everyone to have and use (and read them into their Sinclair ZX Spectrums).
In March of 1991, the first big anti-Milosevic demonstrations were essentially organized and coordinated by a bunch of people in the city center via e-mail (those e-mail messages were later collected and published in a book). I did not have a computer of my own, but I knew some of the guys who did. I lived in the part of Belgrade, at the edge, towards the side where all the military barracks were. One day, during the demonstrations, I heard a distant rumble. March not being a time when we have thunderstorms, I immediately knew what that meant. I got on the phone and called one of the e-mailing organizers, telling him to tell the rest of the network that Milosevic is sending the tanks to the city. I opened the window and counted 40 tanks passing by my house. In the meantime, demonstrators hijacked a few fire-engines and blocked the narrow city streets in the center, effectively preventing the tanks from reaching the majority of demonstrators (I am not taking this as a sign that my message make a difference – I am sure I was just one of many doing the same thing – calling friends in the center to tell them about it). In other words, you don’t need everyone to be online, you just needed a small network of connected folks who can then use phones and f2f to convey information and organize the thousands in the streets (sorta like Iranian revolution two decades later).
In June of the same year, I came to the USA. I immediately got on Usenet where I could see all the reporting from the ground and from the global media. There were instant translations of reports by journalists on the ground writing for various media outlets in countries like Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Israel, Russia, Ukraine and Japan. There were messages by UN peacekeepers on the grounds. There were messages by locals: Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims (not that any of those groups were monolithic – there were 52 political parties just in Serbia at the time, ranging from ultra-left to ultra-right with social-democrats in the middle, each with different interpretation of events and different visions for the future). By the end of the day, from all of these sources, I could piece together a pretty reliable story of what happened that day. Then I would turn on the TV and watch ABC, NBC and CBS anchors straight-out lie about it during evening news, every single night for ten years, just parroting what Albright, Cohen, Clark and Christopher were saying in their press conferences. So did CNN, and so did the NYTimes next morning. That is how I learned not to trust the US media.
Today, Serbia is still one of the least connected nations in Europe (a colleague of mine, Danica Radovanovic now at Oxford University, did a comparative study for her MS on this a few years ago, with hard numbers and all). The most important factor is a huge disparity between city and country – people living in big cities are as connected as you and me, on blogs and social networks and everything else, while rural inhabitants don’t even use e-mail yet.
The second factor is that many of the computer geeks left the country during the 1990s, being well educated, speaking English, and having salable skills – mad programming skills. They got jobs at IBM and such companies around the world, leaving the country to less tech-savvy folks.
But just because they left physically, does not mean they left emotionally, and are now acting as a huge network of the diaspora, and a conduit of information about the old country around the world. They inform their neighbors about the realities of the Balkans, disabusing them of lies they heard from Peter Jennings and Christiane Amanpour back in the 1990s, and they communicate with the people in Serbia (or Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, etc.) and help them develop the Web there.
My deal is Open Access publishing in science and medicine and I have done my part to seed the idea there (two trips in 08 and 09, each time giving two public lectures, three long radio interviews and in 09 also a short TV interview), gather a small bunch of pioneers and feed them information they need to change local system from within. I could not have done that if I remained in Belgrade.
Finally, many people from around the former Yugoslavia have sent their kids abroad during the wars of the 1990s. Those kids are all on Facebook, all friending each other despite ethnic differences, joining the same fan pages of old rock groups or Balkan-only candy brands. Their parents may have killed each other, but kids are OK.

President Maddow’s Fake Oval Office Address on BP Oil Spill & Energy (video)

In response to President Obama’s Oval Office Address on BP Oil Spill & Energy:

Don’t Be a Sucker (video)

A 1947 movie made by the Department of War – as current today as it was then:

You can download the video or watch it bigger here.

Going Mad The American Way

New podcast and forum at PRI World Science:

Listen to a story by reporter Laura Starecheski, followed by our interview with Ethan Watters.
Our guest in the Science Forum is journalist Ethan Watters.
His latest book is Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.
“America is homogenizing the way the world goes mad,” Watters writes. He contends that Americans are exporting their view of mental illness to the rest of the world.
Watters says culture influences not only how people deal with mental disorders but how mental disorders manifest themselves. Yet those cultural differences are disappearing as Western notions of mental health become popular worldwide.
Some examples Watters cites in his book:
• Anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder, is now common in countries with no history of the disease.
• Modern biomedical notions of schizophrenia are replacing the idea of spirit possession in places like Zanzibar.
• By selling pills for depression, pharmaceutical companies have caused a rise in the diagnosis of depression in Japan.
Bring your thoughts and questions about culture and mental illness to Watters. The discussion is just to the right.
* Is America’s view of mental health reflective of the nation’s individualistic culture?
* Have you or a family member been diagnosed with mental illness? Has your ethnic or religious background influenced your response?
* Would Americans benefit from importing ideas of mental health from other countries?

Related reading: The Americanization of Mental Illness.

Esther Duflo: Social experiments to fight poverty (TED talk video)

Important (h/t Bride Of Coturnix):

Preaching to the choir

I got this video from Orac’s blog where an interesting comment thread is developing. This also goes against those who lament the “echo chambers” but those tend to be the same people who write HeSaidSheSaid articles every day – they live in a binary world where only “who wins the two-horse horserace” matters and anything more sophisticated than that is ‘elitist’ and to be ignored as ‘outside of mainstream’ which – the mainstream – they, the savvy Villagers with nice hairdos on TV, get to define.

Amateur Video Of Gulf Oil Slick – Worse Than BP Admits


Scientists, engineers, experts – your Government needs you!

If you attended ScienceOnline2010, either physically or virtually, you know that Anil Dash was there, leading a session called Government 2.0.
Anil Dash is a pioneer blogger (and of course twitterer) and the very first employee of Six Apart, the company that built blogging platforms including MoveableType (which is used by and Typepad.
Just before ScienceOnline2010, Anil made an official announcement that he will be leading Expert Labs (also on Twitter) which is a new project funded by AAAS to facilitate feedback by the experts (including scientists, of course) to the Obama Administration and other government officials.
Read the press release, the early media coverage (this one is much better) , an interview with Anil (pdf) and a video. Interestingly, Anil got this job due to writing a blog post stating that the executive branch of the federal government of the United States was the “Most Interesting New Tech Startup of 2009”.
The main purpose of his session was for Anil to get feedback from the leaders of the science and Web community on how to make Expert Labs work the best it possibly can.
Now it is all ready to go and the President – through Anil – needs you to act!
Yes, you – the scientists, engineers, physicians and other experts out there. It is time to use the online tools to give feedback to the Administration about the great challenges in science and technology and how to tackle them.
So, first, get informed, of course! Go to ExpertLabs and look around. Read the AAAS explanation, then go to the White House site (and/or the White House Facebook page) and send in your thoughts.
Then go to Twitter and retweet and reply to this tweet (just click on this link and you are ready to go). If your thoughts take more space – post them on your blog or elsewhere online and tweet the link to it as a reply to that tweet.

The White House is looking for scientists to help determine what Grand Challenges in science & technology should be a priority for our future. The President has identified a list of eight or so, but if you know of more, or think your area of expertise could inspire a great challenge, make sure your voice is heard!
The good news is, giving feedback couldn’t be easier; You can simply submit your suggestion via Twitter by replying to @whitehouse, or email Part of the goal here is to show the White House that using social networks to get our feedback can be effective.
If you’d like to find out more about the effort or the technology behind it, the AAAS project Expert Labs has an explanation on their site at and a YouTube video about it:

So, please participate yourself, and ask your friends and colleagues to do the same. And also help spread the word online and offline, using whichever communication channels you are comfortable with.

Science Cafe Raleigh: Clash of the Titans; Energy, Environment, and the Economy

Our April Science Café (description below) will be held on Tuesday 4/20 at the Irregardless Cafe on Morgan Street. Our café speaker for that night is Rogelio Sullivan, Associate Director of the Advanced Transportation Energy Center and also of the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center (FREEDM) at NCSU. Come and learn how our country is dealing with our ever-increasing energy consumption, and of ways that we may be able to reduce our dependence on foreign oil using a combination of innovative alternative energy cars and changes in our daily transportation habits.
Clash of the Titans; Energy, Environment, and the Economy
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Time: 6:30 – 8:30 pm with discussions beginning at 7:00 followed by Q&A
Location: The Irregardless Café, 901 W. Morgan Street, Raleigh 833-8898
There are approximately 250 million cars on U.S. roads today, fueled primarily by imported oil, and demand is growing. The electric utilities are in the midst of a “Smart Grid” revolution, driven by new technology, increased demand, and need for higher reliability and security. The U.S. government, along with the auto and electric utility industries, are currently striving for electrification of the transportation sector by way of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. All-electric vehicles can provide significant oil savings, improved air quality, reduced energy costs to consumers, increased energy diversity, and support for the electric grid. But are U.S. drivers ready to go all electric?
About the Speaker:
Rogelio Sullivan is the Associate Director of the Advanced Transportation Energy Center and also of the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center (FREEDM) at NCSU. The two research centers are working in partnership with industry to develop technologies that can effectively create the “energy internet”; which will support widespread utilization of renewable energy, plug in electric vehicles, and greater consumer participation in the energy marketplace. Mr. Sullivan is an engineer with more than 20 years of research and development management experience in advanced transportation systems such as hybrids, batteries, lightweight materials, advanced combustion engines, and vehicle auxiliary systems.
PS. Please RSVP if you can come – it is very helpful for restaurant preparations if my estimate for them is as accurate as possible:

New public health blog

Long-time observers of the progressive blogopshere are likely aware of Barbara O’ Brien and her blogging at The Mahablog, Crooks and Liars, AlterNet, and elsewhere. She was a panelist at the Yearly Kos Convention and a featured guest blogger at the Take Back America Conference in Washington, DC.
Now, Barbara has a new project – Mesothelioma Blog – where she is dissecting the Health Care Bill, the public concern of health care, and related issues in health care in the United States. The topics include health reform, public health, and asbestos contamination.. Check out Mesothelioma Blog today, post comments, subscribe and bookmark and spread the word.

Can Genetically Engineered Crops Help Feed the World?

A new forum at World Science is up. As always, listen to the podcast first, then ask questions in the forum:

This week, India rejected what would have been the country’s first a genetically modified food crop, a transgenic eggplant.
The company that developed it, an Indian subsidiary of Monsanto, claims the crop would reduce pesticide use and boost yields. But the Indian government has decided to do independent assessments of the crop’s potential impacts on consumer health and the environment.
What does this mean for the future of GM crops in India and elsewhere? And does this technology have a role to play in feeding the world’s hungry?
We put these questions to Dr. Lisa Weasel. She’s a professor of biology at Portland State University, and the author of Food Fray: Inside the controversy of genetically modified food. She writes that GM crops are more of “a condiment than a main course” in solving the world’s food shortage.
Now it’s your turn to chat with Lisa Weasel. Join the conversation — it’s just to the right.
* Human beings have been altering plants ever since the beginning of agriculture. Why is genetic engineering any different from the older, more traditional ways of tinkering with crop varieties?
* Is there any scientific evidence of harm to human health from eating GM food?
* Why are small farmers in developing countries especially concerned about GM crops?

Should it be legal to buy and sell organs?

The current forum discussion on PRI/BBC The World is Tackling the Global Organ Shortage. This week’s guest is Dr. Mustafa Al-Mousawi, past president of the Middle East Society for Organ Transplantation. Listen to the podcast and ask Dr. Al-Mousawi questions in the forum. He’ll be checking in and responding throughout the week:

Worldwide, there is a dire shortage of organs for transplantation.
In the United States alone, more than 100,000 people are waiting for new hearts, lungs and kidneys. Many of these patients will die waiting.
Frustrated, some patients turn to a global black market in organs.
To tackle the organ shortage, countries are experimenting with various strategies.
Israel just enacted a new law to boost the number of donors. The law favors donors over non-donors when it comes to receiving an organ. And some Americans are pushing a controversial solution – legalizing the buying and selling of organs.
Iran is already doing that. The Iranian government gives every kidney donor $1200 and one year of free health care. This system has increased the availability of organs, but at what price?
We spoke about the Iranian law with transplant surgeon Dr. Mustafa Al-Mousawi, past president of the Middle East Society for Organ Transplantation.
He argues that the Iranian system may have reduced the organ shortage, but it is unfair to the donors, who are often poor and underprivileged.

All Science vs. Religion Conflicts are Essentially and Primarily Political Conflicts

In a recent post, my SciBling Jason Rosenhouse with whom I usually agree on these matters, voices a strong disagreement with this quote (from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008):

Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.

Jason counters that Galileo affair, as well as the more modern Creationist wars, are primarily and perhaps entirely science vs. religion wars, not political. He writes:

Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.

Another SciBling, Mike Dunford, disagrees with Jason on the Creationism wars:

The conflict arises when creationists attempt to force their religious views onto the children of other people, who do not necessarily share those views. That’s not a dispute over what the most authoritative source of knowledge is; that’s a dispute over the exercise of secular authority. In other words, it’s a political conflict.

The commenters on both posts then lose the sight of forest for the trees and get bogged down in the historical minutiae about the Gallileo affair. Not very constructive. Let me cut through all that and come out strongly on the Thomas Dixon side. Step by step. This way:
1) Every conflict is about power. Ergo, every conflict is essentially a political conflict. Who gets to be the boss. Who gets the money. Who gets first dibs at the pretty peasant girls from the village that feeds the nobles in the castle. Who gets to kill whom. Who gets to invade whom. Who gets the territory.
2) Conflicts require troops. Better the troops are motivated, more likely the positive outcome will be for the power-hungry leader. In many conflicts, the leaders motivate the troops by recasting the conflict in terms of “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die”. Those are conflicts over facts: who has the better facts. If those facts relate to the way the world works, then those facts are amenable to empirical testing.
3) Throughout history, including today, the conflicts over facts have been conflicts over religious facts. While the core reason for the conflict is power for the ruling class, religion serves wonderfully to unite the troops around a common idea, common symbols, a shared destiny. Religion probably evolved to aid group cohesion in early human societies and can be wonderfully used to aid group cohesion when a battle needs to be waged, even today.
4) Most of these fact-based conflicts pit one set of religious “facts” with another set of religious “facts”. We call these conflicts “religious wars” despite religion being just an excuse for a power-grab or invasion or civil war. Both sides’ facts fail the empirical tests, but the “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die” is still the battle cry for both sides.
5) In some, more recent conflicts, facts of one side actually pass the empirical test. These are wars between reason and superstition. We like to call them wars between Science and Religion. Often they are not waged with real weapons, but with other political means: battles over control of the classrooms, the goverment, the military, etc. Clearly, religion is a troup-motivator for one side, but the goal is obviously political power. In the USA, the two sides have over the past three decades or so clearly aligned with the two major political parties. Democrats are generally realistic and ignore the pseudoscientific extremists from the far left who have zero influence on policy. Republicans are anti-scientific and anti-reality at the core – that is what defines their party, their platform and their conservative ideology – the most extreme anti-science forces from the far right ARE the party leaders, their members in Congress, and their most visible representatives in the public eye. It is them who write the policy, while the realistic conservatives are marginalized or kicked out of the party.
6) Creationism is just one of many weapons in a unified anti-reality political platform of the Right. Some Creationists are just indoctrinated, scared folks who provide ground troops in this conflict. Other Creationists are part of the power-hungry elite of the party who use Creationism as a motivator for a particular segments of their ground-troops (other populations are motivated in other ways, with other tools, e.g., greed, or fear of terrorists, etc.). The Science vs. Religion aspect of the conflict is just window-dressing – the essence of the conflict is political: it is all about Power.
To summarize:
Every conflict is a political conflict.
Some conflicts are also superficially about facts about the world.
Some of these conflicts happen to pit correct facts against incorrect facts.
Creationist wars, just like all Science vs. Religious wars, are thus a subset of a subset of a subset of all conflicts. And they are all essentially and profoundly political conflicts. Which is why I wrote this dissertation-long post the other day – read it.

What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?

If a publisher offered me a contract to write a book under a title that would be something like “Unscientific America”, how would I go about it?
I would definitely be SUCH a scientist! But, being such a scientist does not mean indulging in Sesquipedalian Obscurantism. Being such a scientist means being dilligent, thorough and systematic in one’s reasearch. And then being excited about presenting the findings, while being honest about the degree of confidence one can have in each piece of information.
I was not offered a book contract, and I do not have the resources and nine or twelve months to write such a book. But in the next couple of hours days I will write a blog post (this one, I am just starting) thinking through the methodology I would use for such a project, musing about difficulties, jotting down notes and – this being a blog – asking readers for links to information that can either reinforce or challenge my hypotheses. So please follow me under the fold…..

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Help the Obama Administration devise a healthy Open Access policy

As many of you, my readers, are interested in Open Access publishing and have given it quite some thought over time, I think you are the right kind of people to contribute to this in a thoughtful and persuasive manner. Please do it.
From everyONE blog:

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has invited comment on broadening public access to publicly funded research and they want to hear from you. Please post your contributions to this blog.
Their Request for Information (RFI) lasts for just 30 days and expires on 7 January 2010, so we’d like to encourage you to get involved sooner rather than later. This is an opportunity for us to shape a broader public access policy – how it should be implemented, what type of technology and features are needed, and how to manage the process.
Adding your thoughts to the blog will help ensure that the administration form a balanced (the comment thread is moderated) view of stakeholders’ interest. E-mail comments will also be accepted and will be posted to the blog by the moderators.
There are 3 main topics where the administration would appreciate your input (they also welcome general comments) and each one is open for a set period of time:
1. Implementation – expires 20 December 2009. Which Federal agencies are good candidates to adopt Public Access policies? What variables (field of science, proportion of research funded by public or private entities, etc.) should affect how public access is implemented at various agencies, including the maximum length of time between publication and public release?
2. Features and Technology – 21-31 December 2009. In what format should the data be submitted in order to make it easy to search and retrieve information, and to make it easy for others to link to it? Are there existing digital standards for archiving and interoperability to maximize public benefit? How are these anticipated to change?
3. Management – 1-7 January 2010. What are the best mechanisms to ensure compliance? What would be the best metrics of success? What are the best examples of usability in the private sector (both domestic and international)? Should those who access papers be given the opportunity to comment or provide feedback?

The Story of Cap & Trade (video)

Forum: Preventing Future Bhopals

It was 25 years ago yesterday that thousands dies in the Bhopal disaster.
Yesterday, Rhitu Chatterjee did the story about it (listen or read the transcript) on PRI The World.
Also yesterday, Rhittu and Elsa Youngsteadt interviewed Henrik Selin of Boston University about the topic (download the MP3 of the podcast here) and you can ask questions and join the discussion in the forums. Dr. Selin will be checking in and responding from now until next Thursday, December 10th.

#CNNFail #youtubefail #iranelection

Follow me on Twitter and you’ll see this stream (to see more than one-sided conversation, search me there as well and check if there are comments on FriendFeed):
RT @ljthornton Students: Roughly 2 hours of tweets from “student living in Tehran,” 22:
#CNNFail: Twitterverse slams network’s Iran absence. (via @jayrosen_nyu)
@HowardKurtz Hours and hours of ….talking to the camera revealing no useful information?
@HowardKurtz perhaps CNN and its audience have very different ideas of what is reporting, what is useful information, what is coverage.
@jason_pontin If CNN International was reporting, and CNN USA was not – what despicable contempt for American audience!
Searched Twitter for BoraZ:
Searched Twitter for CNN International:
@jason_pontin Obviously not: US audience is very angry right now. Also knowing how Amanpour lied in every sentence from Bosnia – don’t trust
@HowardKurtz why anyone cares about his endless rant? Is THAT reporting? Useless information: #CNNFail
@jason_pontin No data, but see Twitter anger, see blogs, talk to neighbors. Can you quantify – you have the tools I don’t.
@jason_pontin Unfortunately, Amanpour has good reputation in the USA because nobody here reported (that’s before WWW) she lied every day.
@jason_pontin They cannot ignore the most vocal and broad-reaching subset of the audience any more. It spreads from online -> offline: bad!
@jason_pontin There is a day off in the world of news?
@jason_pontin Oh, I see. I though it was something automated, online as well as part of the news organizations.
@jason_pontin don’t know that website, but the gist of that article is correct. She was not alone: Peter Jennings was worse and he was comfy
Silent for 17 hours: @tehranelection stream is something to check out and hope it comes back soon with more #iranelection news
RT @StevenZimm: Satellite jamming of BBC TV and radio feeds by Iran reported
Via @jason_pontin Learn about Amanpour Do you trust her? I quit trusting her in early 1990s
1/3 When we demonstrated against Milosevic, we cheered CNN for being the only foreign media reporting from the scene
2/3 A couple of years later, CNN was deemed 4th party in the war with the likes of Amanpour triggering breaks of ceasefires & ruining talks
3/3 Since then, I do not trust CNN on anything. Always double-check with trusted bloggers.
@susana71 That was 1991. Oh, how things change! #CNNFail
Searched Twitter for #CNNFail:
RT everybody: Dear CNN, Please Check Twitter for News About Iran (Marshall Kirkpatrick/ReadWriteWeb) #cnnfail
Searched Twitter for HowardKurtz :
RT @ohkirsten RT @jdickerson: Angry calls from Iranian authorities to Twitter. Block function not working. #IranElection
RT @gladysCJ Blog with all the pictures and videos on #iranElection not shown on television or newspaper
RT @Scobleizer This photo should win Pulitzer Prize. I never expected to see photos like this come out of Iran. Amazing:
Teheran on Flickr:
Searched Twitter for #iranelection:
Following @TehranBureau
Following @IranElection09
Following @cnnfail
Following @TCorp
RT @TCorp Twitter users launch unpresidented human DDoS attack bringing down at least 3 major Iranian hardliner websites. Go Twitter!
RT @TCorp Plz go2 & & then just leave them open. DDoS 4 Freedom
RT @TCorp Pictures of the riots going on in Tehran right NOW as NOT seen on CNN #IranElections #CNNFail
RT @davewiner: Iranians on Twitter during the june clashes.
RT @Scobleizer The day Twitter kicked CNN’s behind & @ev bought me a whisky
Video from Tehran:
RT @joshwolf: Iran’s latest assault on the press tells me the election was likely rigged.
#iremember when CNN was there when Milosevic rolled tanks at us in 1991. Where is #CNNFail today? #iranelection
Iranian twitterers to follow:
RT @manymanypeople Youtube now removing videos of protests and beatings in iran. #iranelection #youtubefail
RT @Ornette303: post videos on #iranelection #cnnfail #youtubefail
Following @smileofcrash
@MaverickNY This will have to be figured out over the next day or two or more. But images and videos are hard to fake this fast!
@MaverickNY which is why I do not RT statements, but link to potentially trustworthy sources and interesting responses to the phenomenon.
RT @Dereklowe To my followers – my Iranian wife and I will be updating translated reports on the Iranian unrest via Twitter
If Twitter goes down, my record remains: #CNNFail #youtubefail #iranelection
RT @MaverickNY RT @cdn @melissapierce: Amazing Iran real time aggregator
RT @BayNewser mediabistro/BayNewser’s take on what went wrong with #CNNFail (lessons @ end)
RT @mlshapiro: Oh dear. RT @owillis: #cnnfail illustrated. (expand) Fox and MSNBC spanked as well.
I am already wearing green today: RT @irb123: RT @Robot117 PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD: WEAR GREEN TOMORROW #iranelection #cnnfail
Amir is taking pictures and videos in Tehran
RT @Robot117 GOOD BLOG from inside Iran #iranelection #cnnFAIL
@BrianR under the rubric of “plausible” or “interesting” – verification will have to come later – the speed of news is of essence first.
2/2 @BrianR in order to force the MSM to start paying attention or face loss of face
@BrianR I am also mainly focusing on image/video and interesting aggregators, not individual pieces of unverifiable information, for now.
Following @iran09
RT @Katrinskaya”You Deserve To Die!”: According to a Tehranbureau report riot police now shooting (via @dailydish)
RT @dailydish A Time-Line Of The Coup: A fascinating account of the events by Muhammad Sahimi:
Rebooting The News: @rebootnews tonight, including #CNNFail #iranelection
RT @CityCountryMe wondering why #cnnfail but not #foxfail? Nobody believes Fox news is credible to begin with.
RT @StopTheDictator @donlemoncnn Excellent job selecting only pro-CNN tweets in your segment on #iranelection. #CNNFail #5 trend on twitter.
RT @PeggyHovsepian Victory: CNN responds to #cnnfail campaign (via @huffingtonpost)
RT @PCZ RT @simoncolumbus: my list of english-language twitterers inside iran now sorted by cities: #iranelection
I thought CNN was rich enough to employ 3rd shift reporters: need a nap? #CNNFail
RT @LanceMannion Informed Comment: Class v. Culture Wars in Iranian Elections: Rejecting Charges of North Tehran Fallacy
RT @jasonblogz #cnnfail hashtag represents more than what it was created for. cnn is responding. it represents the influence of social media
RT @tinomen71 CNN making excuses about difficulty getting reliable info from Iran- info may be limited, but that doesn’t make it a non-story
@klustout Iran coverage by CNN International and NOT by CNN USA is a spit in the face of US viewers. We are not sheep. #CNNFail
RT @annajjohnson CNN fails because they think Twitter is a tool they can wield. They never expected it to “work” w/o them. #CNNfail
Following @persiankiwi
RT @GirlArchaeo @PhillyD Yes, many ARE internet sheep. But compare what @persiankiwi has to say vs. CNNs 12 hour old news! #CNNfail
RT @hermioneway Biggest Social Media Story yet? #cnnfail
@kevinsanders Learn about Amanpour
RT @enzym RT @IranRiggedElect: HOW TO: Track Iran Election with Twitter and Social Media #iranelection #cnnfail
RT @RisingHegemon @rosiered23 All news should be free! Gloat is wrong word, not happy about #cnnfail – media needs to address myopic probs
RT @palocortado CNN dropped the ball with #iranelection and now has a huge PR crisis on its hands #cnnfail
@schingler You can help – check out instructions by @TCorp
@alwayzThinking Oh, IMPT means ‘important’. At first read I thought you meant “impotent” LOL
RT @SunKimbra I’d go check out CNN to flesh out twitter news #cnnfail but last few times they just read tweets on air & called it news..
RT @newjorg @iocat Amanpour was invited to the election “win” conference But NBC ABC French TV cameras confiscated BBC kicked out. #CNNfail
RT @newjorg Reporters without Borders: don’t recognize this undemocratic election. #iranelection
RT @BluegrassPundit There is a revolution in Iran and CNN is doing a fluff interview with Axelrod about Obama’s Normady visit. #cnnfail
RT @SpaceyG Iranian students are posting pictures of their injured. Dead? http://entesabat88.persianb… #IranElection #cnnfail
“unlike Western journalists that later arrived on the scene, the locals were familiar with the context” #CNNFail
RT @Ghattavi Many newspapers were blank today as there were nothing to say… and some people even bought them for support #iranelection
RT @Reachg: bring Irans online live TV website down from spreading propaganda #iranelection
RT @RawStory: Obama addresses Iranians in video. #iranelection
Most succinct compliment to my tweeting of #iranelection #CNNFail: way fewer than 140chs
RT @smileofcrash #iranelection poor girl….:((
RT @drisis @JoshMPlant: Great new video about the #iranelection by @realjohngreen. “Ahmadinejad is a douchenozzle”
RT @parinaz encounter with riot police #iranelection
RT @JenniferRose21: Another #iranelection resource: Global Voices has in country reports, photos, video:
RT @LTCiaccio Iranians: report to which sites you cannot access – they aggregate info on blocked sites #iranelection
I hear that @huffingtonpost has the BEST live blog of happenings, video, 1st person accounts, photos from #iranelection
RT @Ali_Davis Mind-blowing to learn about #iranelection through intense personal accounts on Twitter. The oldest form of news, 1000X faster.
@HowardKurtz It took 48 hours of #CNNfail outrage for you to wake up and be a tad better than the competition?
RT @ValerioVeo: Just when you thought Twitter was a fad – along comes Iran. Follow #iranelection and watch a political uprising unfold …
Repeat for the evening crew – a good look at Twitter vs. CNN on #iranelection
RT @krisaloma When will organizations (CNN) realize consumers aren’t comparing them to their competitors, but to consumers’ expectations?
RT @TAC_NISO Difficult to call networked communication a fad when conversations turn away from {food} & turns toward political uprising
RT @Theremina Iranian-American human rights lawyer friend “Twitter doing much better job of explaining everything than media.” #iranelection
RT @DruidSmith @jeremymeyers @persiankiwi #iranelection just talked to my friend in Tehran, she said people are chanting “Obama help us!”
RT @crawlspace The NYTimes has an article on CNN’s non-existent Iran coverage #iranelection
RT @RattlePop Iranians turn digital smugglers in battle for information despite depleted phone & internet #IranElection
do I have another green shirt for tomorrow or do I need to wash overnight the one I wore all day today?
Q1: How did Twitter force the MSM to start paying attention to #iranelection ?
Q2: How much did Twitter as a source get people to talk to offline friends about #iranelection and spread the news outside Twitterverse?
How Rick Springfield Led Me To The Plight Of Mousavi’s Iranian Supporters by @AlBren #iranelection
RT @ChrisVanPatten We get an opportunity to experience the world through their eyes – something far more visceral than what CNN can offer
RT @gransome Twitterers keep tweeting. MSM has to play catch up sometime this week. They’ll be getting their updates from us. #iranelection
RT @ToasterSunshine I wouldn’t have known it was even happening without Twitter since I don’t watch TV. Twitter informed me to inform others
RT @robinc913 From Gawker: “Twitter was in midst of handing CNN its proverbial ass” #iranelection #cnnfail
RT @CNNfaildotcom Visit to read #CNNfail real-time tweets
RT @HowardKurtz My take on how Twitter power: So why doesn’t CNN get it?
Collection of online sources on #iranelection on BBC:
RT @TEDchris MSM v Twitter debate: Richard Sambrook, voice of common sense at BBC via @aknock
Kristof: Iran’s Crossroads
RT @jayrosen_nyu: For a spectacular curmudgeon star turn by a pro journalist on the TV, scroll to DOYEL Proudly ignorant.
RT @Katrinskaya #iranelection social media aggregation at & mobile
RT @dorothycrenshaw What #CNNFail Protests Say About The Relationship B/t Old and New Media (per @poniewozik)
Tweeting #iranelection (as a non-journo) avoid unverifiable facts, point to good links, media analysis, interesting people, Zeitgeist-tweets
“what establishment journalists typically call “reporting” is nothing of the sort.” Interview w/@glenngreenwald
RT @Katrinskaya And one more time, because it’s great: Video from today: #iranelection
RT @persiankiwi: pictures of today – #Iranelection
RT @zentronix So again the Tiananmen question: What if the Iranian people take democracy further than Mousavi or Karoubi would?
Iran election and international media update
RT @jayrosen_nyu Coping w/ flood of data from Iran? @marcambinder Approach it as an analyst for CIA would #iranelection
RT @rhibowman Twitter Calls Out CNN, But Kurtz Misses The Boat (Fishbowl)
RT @xarker @GregMitch: Andrew Sullivan, once a skeptic, just begged Twitter not to go down tonite because it’s “so needed” on Iran crisis.
Social Networking Technology and the Documentation of History by @drisis #scibling #CNNfail #iranelection


Since my post about it is not on the front page any more, I just want to remind you of the groundswell of support for the Silence Is The Enemy initiative.
Join the Facebook group, donate to Doctors Without Borders and write a letter to your representatives. Join the blogger coalition by blogging about this and spreading the word.
Small help is better than no help. And in many cases, growing coverage of an issue in the blogosphere forces the corporate media to break the silence as well, start paying attention and start covering it. Then, once it is in MSM, the elected officials start noticing it and they may actually do something about it. This process may go even faster on this topic, since one of these bloggers is NYTimes op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof.
You can also pitch in by doing nothing but clicking! Blogs donating all June revenue to Doctors Without Borders (income is determined by blog traffic, so you can contribute with each click) are:
The Intersection
On Becoming A Domestic And Laboratory Goddess
The Questionable Authority
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Blog Of The Moderate Left
Seattle Grassroots Examiner
the rugbyologist
And if you can afford more – there are Doctors Without Borders


About a week ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote an eye-opening op-ed in NYTimes – After Wars, Mass Rapes Persist. In Liberia, and probably in some other places, the end of war does not automatically mean the end of rape:

Of course, children are raped everywhere, but what is happening in Liberia is different. The war seems to have shattered norms and trained some men to think that when they want sex, they need simply to overpower a girl. Or at school, girls sometimes find that to get good grades, they must have sex with their teachers.

The war, and the use of rape as a weapon of war, changes the culture in a way that permits the rape to continue in a civilian society, as a means of asserting power, nursing one’s wounded sense of masculinity and keeping the women under control. Kristof writes:

The evidence is overwhelming that the best way to deal with rape — whether in Darfur or Liberia, or even in the United States — is to demystify it, dismantle the taboos, and address it directly. That is happening.
The United Nations Security Council held a formal session last year on sexual violence, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued its arrest warrant for Sudan’s president in part because of mass rapes. Senators Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold chaired subcommittee hearings on rape just this month, focused on Congo and Sudan, where the brutality is particularly appalling. But the lesson of Liberia is equally sad: that even when wars end, mass rape continues by inertia.

In a related article, Eve Ensler focuses on similar issues in the Congo:

Nothing I have heard or seen compares with what is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where corporate greed, fueled by capitalist consumption, and the rape of women have merged into a single nightmare. Femicide, the systematic and planned destruction of the female population, is being used as a tactic of war to clear villages, pillage mines and destroy the fabric of Congolese society.
In 12 years, there have been 6 million dead men and women in Congo and 1.4 million people displaced. Hundreds and thousands of women and girls have been raped and tortured. Babies as young as 6 months, women as old as 80, their insides torn apart. What I witnessed in Congo has shattered and changed me forever. I will never be the same. None of us should ever be the same.

Ensler is also the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is leading a very important blogospheric initiative called SILENCE IS THE ENEMY starting today, June 1st to help a generation of young women half a world away. She says:

An International Rescue Committee survey suggests 12 percent of girls aged 17 and under acknowledged having been sexually abused in some way in the previous 18 months. Further, of the 275 new sexual violence cases treated Jan-April by Doctors Without Borders, 28 percent involve children aged 4 or younger, and 33 percent involve children aged 5 through 12. That’s 61% age 12 or under. We read about their plight and see the figures, but it’s so easy to feel helpless to act in isolation. But these are not statistics, they are girls. Together we can do more.

Today, on June 1 at 9am, ‘SILENCE IS THE ENEMY’ begins – so named because we will not be (also lyrics of a rising Top 30 song, and therefore memorable).
What can you do?
Post about this. Send the URL of your post to Sheril (see the details and instructions in her post) so she can add it to the ‘SILENCE IS THE ENEMY’ homepage. And make sure you include the links to the Doctors Without Borders Donation Page and ask for donations, as well as to the Congressional Directory so readers can contact their representatives. Sheril will also post a static letter to Congress on the sidebar of her blog, so that readers can copy it and include it in their letters to Congressmen.
And spread the word using all the online and offline tools you have.

Why the anti-vaccine movement even exists? And how it got started?

An article that is likely to make the rounds of the science/medical blogosphere (and get the anti-vaccer trolls out of the woodwork):

Researchers long ago rejected the theory that vaccines cause autism, yet many parents don’t believe them. Can scientists bridge the gap between evidence and doubt?

Writes Liza Gross in the latest Feature article in PLoS Biology: A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine-Autism Wars:

Until the summer of 2005, Sharon Kaufman had never paid much attention to the shifting theories blaming vaccines for a surge in reported cases of autism. Kaufman, a medical anthropologist at the University of California, San Francisco, knew that the leading health institutions in the United States had reviewed the body of evidence, and that they found no reason to think vaccines had anything to do with autism. But when she read that scientists and public officials who commented on the studies routinely endured malevolent emails, abusive phone calls, and even death threats, she took notice.
“Hecklers were issuing death threats to spokespeople,” Kaufman exclaims, “people who simply related the scientists’ findings.” To a researcher with a keen eye for detecting major cultural shifts, these unsettling events signaled a deeper trend. “What happens when the facts of bioscience are relayed to the public and there is disbelief, lack of trust?” Kaufman wondered. “Where does that lead us?”
Struck by how the idea of a vaccine-autism link continued to gain cultural currency even as science dismissed it, Kaufman took a 26-month hiatus from her life’s work on aging and longevity to investigate the forces fueling this growing divide between scientists and citizens (see Figure 1). She wanted to understand how parents thought about risk and experts, how these attitudes shaped parents’ decisions about vaccination, and what the vaccine wars might teach us about the long-term erosion of public trust in science….

Read the whole thing

Homeland Security saves money by dropping newspaper subscriptions

So they say.
I guess even the government is not interested in saving the newspaper business….eh!
Q1: why did they subscribe every employee? Couldn’t they buy one copy and put it in the waiting room at the reception desk, or at the water cooler, or in the dining hall? Or, well, they could have come up with some kind of a video-rental store, but for books/newspapers/magazines. Oh, wait!
Q2: why don’t they introduce this brand new technology to all their employees? It is called a computer and it can be used to get into a set of tubes called the Internet, where one can go on something called the World Wide Web, where one can find all the news and information using something called Teh Googlz!

Support the UCLA Pro-Test tomorrow and get educated about the use of animals in research

The UCLA Pro-Test is tomorrow. If you live there – go. If not, prepare yourself for inevitable discussions – online and offline – by getting informed. And my fellow science bloggers have certainly provided plenty of food for thought on the issue of use of animals in research.
First, you have to read Janet Stemwedel’s ongoing series (5 parts so far, but more are coming) about the potential for dialogue between the two (or more) sides:
Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 1).:

Now, maybe it’s the case that everyone who cares at all has staked out a position on the use of animals in scientific research and has no intentions of budging from it. But in the event that there still exists a handful of people who are thinking the issues through, or are interested in understanding the perspectives of those who hold different views about research with animals — in the event that there are still people who would like to have a dialogue — we need to understand what the impediments to this dialogue are and find ways to work around them.

Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 2).:

Research with animals seems to be a topic of discussion especially well-suited to shouting matches and disengagement. Understanding the reasons this is so might clear a path to make dialogue possible. Yesterday, we discussed problems that arise when people in a discussion start with the assumption that the other guy is arguing in bad faith. If we can get past this presumptive mistrust of the other parties in the discussion, another significant impediment rears its head pretty quickly: Substantial disagreement about the facts.

Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 3).:

As with yesterday’s dialogue blocker (the question of whether animal research is necessary for scientific and medical advancement), today’s impediment is another substantial disagreement about the facts. A productive dialogue requires some kind of common ground between its participants, including some shared premises about the current state of affairs. One feature of the current state of affairs is the set of laws and regulations that cover animal use — but these laws and regulations are a regular source of disagreement: Current animal welfare regulations are not restrictive enough/are too restrictive.

Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 4).:

As we continue our look at ways that attempted dialogues about the use of animals in research run off the rails, let’s take up one more kind of substantial disagreement about the facts. Today’s featured impediment: Disagreement about whether animals used in research experience discomfort, distress, pain, or torture.

Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 5).:

Today we discuss an impediment to dialogue about animals in research that seems to have a special power to get people talking past each other rather than actually engaging with each other: Imprecision about the positions being staked out. Specifically, here, the issue is whether the people trying to have a dialogue are being precise in laying out the relevant philosophical positions about animals — the position they hold, the position they’re arguing against, the other positions that might be viable options.

Also check Janet’s older posts on the topic.
Mark C. Chu-Carroll:
Can simulations replace animal testing? Alas, no.:

I don’t want to get into a long discussion of the ethics of it here; that’s a discussion which has been had hundreds of times in plenty of other places, and there’s really no sense repeating it yet again. But there is one thing I can contribute to this discussion. One of the constant refrains of animal-rights protesters arguing against animal testing is: “Animal testing isn’t necessary. We can use computer simulations instead.”
As a computer scientist who’s spent some time studying simulation, I feel qualified to comment on that aspect of this argument.
The simplest answer to that is the old programmers mantra: “Garbage in, Garbage out”.
To be a tad more precise, like any other computer program, a simulation can only do what you tell it to. If you don’t already know how something works, you can’t simulate it. If you think you know how something works but you made a tiny, miniscule error, then the simulation can diverge dramatically from reality.

Tilting at Animal Rights Activist Windmills:

As we are in the midst of a traditional week-o-ARA-wackaloonery and two days away from the first US Pro-Test rally (at UCLA) this is all highly topical. Why not take some time to do a little bit of reading and thinking about these issues? After all, it is only the continued health and well being of yourself, your family, your friends and neighbors that is at stake.

Virtual IACUC: Reduction vs. Refinement:

One of the thornier problems in thinking about the justification of using animals is when two or more laudable goals call for opposing solutions. For today’s edition of virtual IACUC we will consider what to do when Refinement calls for the use of more animals, in obvious conflict with Reduction.

FBI Places Alleged ARA Terrorist on Most Wanted List:

The important thing is the setting of priority. These acts, like the March 2009 bombing of neuroscientist J. David Jentsch’s car, are fundamental crimes against our rule of law as well as being a specific attack on scientific progress and the development of life-saving medical advances. With this announcement, and all of the publicity and news surrounding the UCLA Pro-Test rally in support of animal research scheduled for tomorrow…well, at the very least the wind has been taken out of the ARA sails during one of their big PR weeks.

Also check older posts on the topic on the DrugMonkey blog.
Why are we marching?:

At a banner making session today (Monday) I decided to ask a few people why they were planning on attending Wednesday’s rally. Here are a handful of responses I got:

Scientists dare to defend research:

As students and scientists at UCLA stand up to support lifesaving medical research, researchers at other institutions are offering their support for the cause. From Wake Forest University to the University of Arizona, from UC Davis to the University of South Dakota, researchers from across the United States have been united in their support for UCLA Pro-Test.

Nick Anthis:
New UCLA Pro-Test Chapter Announces April 22nd Rally:

Unfortunately, researchers at UCLA have become a major target of animal rights extremists over the last few years. This has included various incidents of destruction of property aimed at specific scientists, and this has coincided with a general rise in animal rights extremist activity in the US.

Also check Nick’s older posts on the topic.
You can also see what I have written in the past on this topic.
Here is the official NIH Statement Deploring Terrorism Against Researchers:

It is important that everyone know that all animals used in federally-funded research, are protected by laws, regulations, and policies to ensure they are used in the smallest numbers possible and with the greatest commitment to their comfort and welfare. The search for cures for devastating diseases depends on cumulative evidence gained from quality research. The appropriate use of animals in medical research has enabled the development of successful therapies and preventive measures for a wide- range of human diseases such as polio, Parkinson’s disease, and hepatitis A and B.

Check out the UCLA Pro-Test page and show yoru support (and get informed) by joining the UCLA Pro-test Facebook group and the more general Pro-Test – Supporting Animal Research group.

Aneesh Paul Chopra will be the first ever CTO of the USA

Today (yes, I know, it was leaked last night), President Obama announced that the first nations’ Chief Technology Officer will be Aneesh Paul Chopra.
The Silicon Valley folks are not pleased. Tim O’Reilly thinks he is an excellent choice. What do you think?

How Obama uses Behavioral Economics to change our habits

In TIME, a couple of days ago – How Obama Is Using the Science of Change:

Two weeks before Election Day, Barack Obama’s campaign was mobilizing millions of supporters; it was a bit late to start rewriting get-out-the-vote (GOTV) scripts. “BUT, BUT, BUT,” deputy field director Mike Moffo wrote to Obama’s GOTV operatives nationwide, “What if I told you a world-famous team of genius scientists, psychologists and economists wrote down the best techniques for GOTV scripting?!?! Would you be interested in at least taking a look? Of course you would!!”
Moffo then passed along guidelines and a sample script from the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists, a secret advisory group of 29 of the nation’s leading behaviorists. The key guideline was a simple message: “A Record Turnout Is Expected.” That’s because studies by psychologist Robert Cialdini and other group members had found that the most powerful motivator for hotel guests to reuse towels, national-park visitors to stay on marked trails and citizens to vote is the suggestion that everyone is doing it. “People want to do what they think others will do,” says Cialdini, author of the best seller Influence. “The Obama campaign really got that.” (See pictures of Obama taken by everyday Americans.)
The existence of this behavioral dream team — which also included best-selling authors Dan Ariely of MIT (Predictably Irrational) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago (Nudge) as well as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton — has never been publicly disclosed, even though its members gave Obama white papers on messaging, fundraising and rumor control as well as voter mobilization. All their proposals — among them the famous online fundraising lotteries that gave small donors a chance to win face time with Obama — came with footnotes to peer-reviewed academic research. “It was amazing to have these bullet points telling us what to do and the science behind it,” Moffo tells TIME. “These guys really know what makes people tick.”
President Obama is still relying on behavioral science. But now his Administration is using it to try to transform the country. Because when you know what makes people tick, it’s a lot easier to help them change…

Read the whole thing.
Yes, Obama is doing science. Behavioral economics.
Sure, Republicans also used science. Cognitive Psychology.
But Rupublicans used focus groups to learn how to make voters fearful, in order to switch off rational thinking and turn on emotional responses. They trained the people, for decades, to respond with fear and unthinking negative emotions, to words like “government”, “taxes”, “environment”, “welfare”, “progress”, etc, in order to trigger the primitive animalistic fears that the GOP candidates could then capture and turn into electoral victories. The entire generation grew up thinking those are bad words. They trained people to believe that black is white, and up is down, and left is right, because they knew that liberal ideas are both in sync with reality and what people want, so people needed to believe the Orwellian language in order to vote for the conservative, long-ago debunked ideas.
Obama is doing something different – using science to get us to curb our emotions and start using reason, to see the world as it is and not the way we would like it to be, and then to, by changing our behaviors, do something to make the world a better place.
But in order to be able to do this, he has to go slow. This is how he won – appealing to the moderates whose frames can be switched back and forth as long as they don’t appear “too radical” to begin with. People who are already progressives did not then, and do not now, think that Obama’s ideas are good enough (and I am one of those for sure). But he has to turn many more millions of Americans onto his proposals if they are to work. In the meantime, the progressives will have to suck it up, or bitch about it, and wait until the Overton Window has moved sufficiently enough – and that takes time and patience.

Harold Varmus is everywhere!

VarmusBookCover.jpgLook what came in the mail yesterday! The Art and Politics of Science by Harold Varmus and, since he is in some way my boss, with a very nice personal inscription inside the cover. I am excited and already started reading it.
And speaking o Varmus, he seems to be everywhere. See this article in TimesOnline:

A major investment in fighting tropical infections and chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes in poor countries would transform international perceptions of the US, according to Harold Varmus, who co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
In an exclusive interview with The Times, Dr Varmus said that American diplomacy had undervalued the role of medicine and science in fostering friendly relations with developing nations.
He is asking President Obama to endorse a plan from the US Institute of Medicine that would almost double annual US support for global health to $15 billion by 2012. ….

Re-Open the Office of Technology Assessment

Chris Mooney knows what he’s talking about: The Push for Restarting the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment:

I’m starting to detect some buzz on this very important front, which I wrote about in detail in 2005’s The Republican War on Science and elsewhere. Basically, the story is this: In 1995 the Gingrich Republicans, looking to slash budgets-and looking askance at science in general in many areas-got rid of their scientific advisory office, which had been in existence since 1972 and had become world renowned not only for accurate studies, but for far-ranging analyses that forecast future science and technology problems that we might someday have to grapple with. For our unfailingly presentist elected representatives, this was a vital source of perspective on where things are heading…..

Read the rest, then go here and sign the petition to bring the OTA back!

Evolution and education with Texas State Board of Education chair Don McLeroy

How should students learn about evolution?
On Thursday morning’s Takeaway (at about 6:30 a.m. or 8:30 a.m.
Eastern), we’re talking with Don McLeroy, chair of the Texas State
Board of Education. He’s believes that students should have the
opportunity to question evolution (and that God created the Earth a
few thousand years ago). Texas is expected to vote this week on new
science standards that could influence textbooks and how more states
treat this controversial issue.
Evolution and education with Texas State Board of Education chair Don McLeroy
The Texas Board of Education is in the midst of a major fight this
week over a new science curriculum that’s designed to challenge the
principle of evolution. The Board will vote tomorrow on standards that
will govern science teaching on evolution in Texas for the next 10
Here’s a direct link to the audio.
It’s also in the podcast.
The Takeaway’s homepage

Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of Politics

Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of PoliticsI first posted this on June 24, 2004 on the forums, then republished on August 23, 2004 on Science And Politics, then a couple of times on this blog.
Why did I decide to re-post it today?
Because I have been thinking and reading about the current state and potential future of journalism, including science journalism, and writing (still in my head) a post about it. So, I am forcing myself to go through my evolution of thinking about the topic, digging through my categories on the Media, Science Reporting, Blogging, Open Science, onlin Technology, etc. and this essay was the first time I ever wrote on anything related to this topic.
It is interesting to me, first, how my writing got better over the years. Then, it is interesting to see where I was prophetic, where I was over-optimistic, and where I was just plain wrong. Then I can start thinking about the way my ideas have evolved over time and what precipitated that evolution. I hope you also find it thought-provoking (especially the new readers) – under the fold:

Continue reading

Global Warming: Is the Science Settled Enough for Policy?

July 24, 2008 presentation by Stephen Schneider for the Stanford University Office of Science Outreach’s Summer Science Lecture Series.
Professor Schneider discusses the local, regional, and international actions that are already beginning to address global warming and describe other actions that could be taken, if there were political will to substantially reduce the magnitude of the risks.
The Stanford Summer Science Lecture Series is a set of informal lectures about cutting edge research from four of Stanford’s most esteemed professors.

Journalism on Twitter?

Dave Winer called up Jay Rosen and interviewed him about the potential of twitter-like platforms to become a news/journalistic medium. Listen to the podcast here. Join the discussion here.
Related: What does twitter mean for breaking news stories?

On Thursday morning (US Pacific Time), March 12, 2009, a piece of debris came close enough the International Space Station to require the astronauts to take refuge in the Soyez module, just in case there was a collision. In the end, the debris passed by without incident.
I experienced this event almost entirely through twitter. This essay is to share my experience about how this is an example of ways in which somebody can follow news in a format completely different from conventional news reporting. This experience is, obviously, peculiar to me, in that only I follow my set of twitter users, and this is my personal reaction to it. However, I believe that this kind of process is starting to occur for many more people and it changes the way those people will use conventional news reporting…

And Phil Plait: Thoughts on breaking news and Twitter:

The near hit of the ISS and a piece of space debris was quite the sensation this morning. It’s given me some things to think about.
First, as DaveP points out, the mainstream news hardly even had time to put up a note about the potential collision until, in many cases, the whole thing was over. Yet on Twitter we were right on top of it. I have Tweetdeck (a Twitter reader) always open on my Mac desktop, so I constantly see the feed. I saw Nancy Atkinson tweeting about it, and immediately started looking around for news (going to NASA TV helped). I started tweeting about it myself, and sending people Nancy’s way to get info too.
Basically, by a few minutes before the event itself, thousands of people on Twitter were already getting the blow-by-blow.
When I first heard of Twitter, I thought it was useless. Then a gunman held two people hostage at Johnson Space Center, and I tweeted info as I heard it. People really liked that, so I started tweeting Shuttle launches and landings, and people liked that too. What I’ve discovered is that Twitter is an awesomely useful tool for rapid dissemination of information. And as we saw with the fireball, it sends out misinformation rapidly, too.
I’m not sure what to do about that, except to try to have the ear of people with lots of followers, and send them the correct info. The more folks who hear it, the more who will “retweet” it, and the faster we can step on rumors.
So that’s one problem with Twitter. But there’s another.
Twice now I’ve received complaints that during these events, I tweet too much. That’s an interesting thing. We’re talking breaking news, and Twitter, we’ve seen, is profoundly useful in those situations. As news comes in, it gets out. Under normal circumstances, I don’t tweet that much, so that’s what people expect. When an event happens, though, I will increase my frequency by a factor of five or more.
I can see where that might irritate someone who follows me. But what can be done? I want to make sure that I’m getting information out as I find it out, and that means lots of updates. I certainly don’t want to tick anyone off, but what other choice is there? Ignore the news? That doesn’t work either…..

The NIH Public Access Policy is now permanent

From an e-mail from SPARC and The Alliance for Taxpayer Access yesterday:

2009 Consolidated Appropriations Act ensures NIH public access policy will persist
Washington, D.C. – March 12, 2009 – President Obama yesterday signed into law the 2009 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which includes a provision making the National Institutes’ of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy permanent. The NIH Revised Policy on Enhancing Public Access requires eligible NIH-funded researchers to deposit electronic copies of their peer-reviewed manuscripts into the National Library of Medicine’s online archive, PubMed Central (PMC). Full texts of the articles are made publicly available and searchable online in PMC no later than 12 months after publication in a journal.
The NIH policy was previously implemented with a provision that was subject to annual renewal. Since the implementation of the revised policy the percentage of eligible manuscripts deposited into PMC has increased significantly, with over 3,000 new manuscripts being deposited each month. The PubMed Central database is a part of a valuable set of public database resources at the NIH, which are accessed by more than 2 million users each day.
The new provision reads in full:
The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require in the current fiscal year and thereafter that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.
“This is a significant moment for all of us in the health community, and for efforts in health reform. With free access to health research, individuals are empowered with the knowledge necessary to understand the health threats they and their families face,” said Sharon Terry, President and CEO of Genetic Alliance. “Congress recognizes the incredible power of technology and innovation in enabling new solutions for the proactive management of health, consumer-driven healthcare, and novel partnerships and collaborations in research. Congratulations to us all.”
The NIH Public Access Policy addresses the public’s growing need for high-quality health information and promotes accelerated scientific advancement in the biomedical sciences.
“Public access to publicly funded research contributes directly to the mission of higher education,” said David Shulenburger, Vice President for Academic Affairs at NASULGC (the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges). “Improved access will enable universities to maximize their own investment in research, and widen the potential for discovery as the results are more readily available for others to build upon.”
Heather Joseph, spokesperson for the Alliance for Taxpayer Access noted, “Thanks to the work of a wide coalition of patients, libraries, researchers, publishers, students, and taxpayers, the results of NIH-funded research can be accessed – and used – in ways never before possible. The successful implementation of this policy will unlock the potential of this research to benefit the public as a whole. ”
For more information, and a timeline detailing the evolution of the NIH Public Access Policy beginning May 2004, visit the ATA Web site at

This means that the NIH provision does not need to be renewed every year – it is now permanent. The Conyers bill is still a danger, but perhaps a little less so….

The origin and evolution of ScienceDebate2008

Science on the Campaign Trail:

In November 2007, a group of six citizens decided to do something to elevate science and technology in the national dialogue. They created Science Debate 2008, an initiative calling for a presidential debate on science policy. They put up a Web site, and began encouraging friends and colleagues to sign a petition calling for the debate. Within weeks 38,000 scientists, engineers, and other concerned citizens had signed on. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academies, and the Council on Competitiveness (CoC) joined as cosponsors, although Science Debate 2008 remained independent, financed by individual contributions and volunteer labor. Within months it grew to represent virtually all of U.S. science, including almost every major science organization, the presidents of over 100 universities, prominent corporate leaders, Nobel laureates, and members of Congress. All told, the signatory organizations represented over 125 million Americans, making it arguably the largest political initiative in the history of U.S. science….

Read the rest. By Sheril

The Falsest Balance in journalism

Corporate journalists are, apparently, constitutionally incapable of escaping the ‘false balance’, i.e., “he said, she said” mode of writing. So they are trying mightily to equate Obama with Bush in any way they can. It doesn’t matter if one is a pragmatic who is trying to do the best he can, is being honest and open, while the other was a lunatic who got us into this mess in the first place.
So, they say that both of them treat the press corps the same!?!
Or that both use signing statements the same!?!
Or ignoring the people who predicted the economic calamity!?!
Dan Froomkin analyzes this journalistic pathology.
But now, believe it or not, the journos also want to equate the politization of science between the two parties! Can you imagine how tortuous those arguments must be! Read this!?! Wut? Harold Varmus and Karl Rove are on equal footing and have equal expertise in SCIENCE!!!! And are thus given equal reverence by the idiotic journalist?!? Oh my!
Also, watch The Intersection as Chris Mooney is keeping an eye at this curious phenomenon, e.g., here, here and here.
I think GOP still exists, despite the complete ridiciulousness of ALL of their ideas (racism, sexism, trickle-down-economics, “small government” crap, etc.) only because the press needs to always have that “other side” for every article, and to present both sides as equally worthy of not laughing at.

Why people don’t care about newspapers dying?

Because they write lies?

Bill Clinton actually used signing documents way more than George W. Bush. But No. 42 is a Democrat and his wife currently works for Obama. So No. 44 is on a big tear right now to distance himself instead from No. 43, the Republican, who’s back in Texas and doesn’t care but just hearing his name trashed makes Democrats feel good. (See, also more Bush distancing in The Ticket on today’s stem cell changes here.)

Bush challenges hundreds of laws:

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.
Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, ”whistle-blower” protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.
Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush’s assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ”to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ”execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional.


No, this wasn’t written by the Republican National Committee to be read on-air by Fox News personalities; it just seems like it.
Did Clinton use signing statements “way more than George W. Bush”? It’s a highly misleading claim, based on a count of the individual documents, instead of the number of provisions to which the signing statements have been applied. In reality, Bush “broke all records” while abusing this presidential tool, “using signing statements to challenge about 1,200 sections of bills over his eight years in office, about twice the number challenged by all previous presidents combined.”
To hear Malcolm tell it, President Obama is just playing a silly partisan game, “trashing” Bush when Clinton was worse, just to make Democrats “feel good.” This is lazy, partisan, and disingenuous analysis.
What’s more, Obama didn’t rule out the use of signing statements, which Malcolm concludes makes yesterday’s announcement “change to sort-of believe in.” This, again, is misleading. Obama’s decision is entirely in line with historic presidential authority. The problem isn’t with the signing statements themselves — the practice has been around for nearly 200 years — but with Bush’s unprecedented abuse of the presidential tool. The 43rd president took the practice to new heights (or depths, as the case may be), using signing statements to ignore parts of laws he didn’t like.
That Obama might, at some point, use signing statements is not controversial, and certainly doesn’t point to more of the same. Why Andrew Malcolm is arguing otherwise is a mystery.

Obama orders review of Bush’s signing statements:

He signaled that, unlike Bush, he would not use signing statements to do end runs around Congress.
According to one count, Bush issued 161 signing statements in which he cast doubt on more than 1,000 provisions in legislation and essentially stated his intention to ignore those parts of the law.
Former President Clinton issued significantly more signing statements, but Bush was more aggressive in making claims that the legislation in question would undermine presidential authority.
Bush’s signing statements were viewed by many critics, Republican and Democratic alike, as another attempt to expand the scope of presidential power. Bush didn’t publicize them, however, and for much of his presidency, the public was largely unaware of this practice.

Why The L.A.Times Sucks:

In part because of columns like this one.

Jon Stewart is not a comedian – he is the best media critic we have

Joe Scarborough Is An Idiot and this explains why, but most importantly defines the best what Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are really all about:

First and foremost, the show is a critique of the media. It is not “fake news.” It is not “funny riffs on the headlines,” a la “Weekend Update.” It is a lampoon of media excess. As any veteran watcher can tell you, it has ALWAYS been “attacking people like [Cramer].” George W. Bush was just value-added content.

Howard Kurtz goes further:

If you think Jon Stewart is merely funny, you’re missing the point.
The Comedy Central guy is one of the sharpest media critics around.
I know he feels strongly about the shortcomings of the news business — and who doesn’t? — because I’ve interviewed him about it, and the one time I was on the “Daily Show,” he carried on at some length, long past the allotted time for our discussion. Only the studio audience got to see that part.
Thanks to his young army of TiVo sleuths, Stewart comes up with tape that either a) makes journalists look slightly ridiculous, or b) shows that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

When NYTimes shills for the Rightwingnutosphere

NY Times and ‘Serious’ Journalism:

Also in the Sunday edition, however, was the paper’s long-demanded interview with Obama, which the Times somewhat arrogantly considers its birthright with every new president. The reporters used the opportunity to learn a few things about Obama’s work and goals. But in the process one reporter, Peter Baker, asked one of the most idiotic questions I’ve ever heard from a reputable news organization. He asked if Obama was a socialist, and then, when Obama said no, followed up with, “Is there anything wrong with saying yes?” Obama, for his part, called the paper later to say he couldn’t believe the paper was “entirely serious.” That’s more polite than the journalists deserved.

The Capitalist-in-Chief:

It’s not easy to shock our famously unflappable president. But when Peter Baker of the New York Times asked Barack Obama during an interview on Air Force One on Friday if he was a socialist, that’s exactly what happened.
Obama initially replied with a denial and a largely boilerplate answer about his budget plan. But some 90 minutes later, he called the Times back to express his disbelief that the question was actually intended seriously, to castigate critics who have been using the term against him — and to point out that it was George W. Bush, not he, who started buying up shares in banks.
It was another lesson for Obama in the ways of Washington, where Republican calumnies still make it into the mainstream political discourse with alarming ease…..

Rep.Conyers just doesn’t get it, does he?

You may remember when I wrote this recently (check out the useful links within):

The Conyers bill (a.k.a. Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, HR 801), is back. Despite all the debunking it got last time around, and despite the country having more important problems to deal with right now, this regressive bill, completely unchanged word-for-word, is apparently back again. It is the attempt by TA publishers, through lies and distortions, to overturn the NIH open access policy. Here are some reactions – perhaps Rep.Conyers and colleagues should get an earful from us….

Then, Lawrence Lessig and Michael Eisen directly challenged Rep.Conyers on Huffington Post, not once, but twice:
Is John Conyers Shilling for Special Interests?:

You may have heard of Big Oil, but have you heard of “Big Paper”? We know, it sounds absurd, but check this out.
Right now, there’s a proposal in Congress to forbid the government from requiring scientists who receive taxpayer funds for medical research to publish their findings openly on the Internet.
This ban on “open access publishing” (which is currently required) would result in a lot of government-funded research being published exclusively in for-profit journals — inaccessible to the general public.

John Conyers, It’s Time to Speak Up:

Conyers’ bill opposing “open access” is the darling of the publishing industry because it would force the public to buy for-profit journals to get information that would otherwise be online for free. A new report by transparency group shows that sponsors of this bill–led by Conyers–received twice as much money from the publishing industry as those on the relevant committee who are not sponsors.

And, lo and behold, Conyers responded – the first half is “I am a good guy so you should trust me” and the second half is “this is what Elsevier PR guys told me to write, so here it is”. Of course, as Conyers is a hero to many on the Left, some of the HuffPo commenters had a knee-jerk response to support him instead of trying to understand that, in this case at least, he is dead wrong:
A Reply to Larry Lessig:

The policy Professor Lessig supports, they argue, would limit publishers’ ability to charge for subscriptions since the same articles will soon be publicly available for free. If journals begin closing their doors or curtailing peer review, or foist peer review costs on academic authors (who are already pay from their limited budgets printing costs in some cases), the ultimate harm will be to open inquiry and scientific progress may be severe. And the journals most likely to be affected may be non-profit, scientific society based journals. Once again, a policy change slipped through the appropriations process in the dark of night may enhance open access to information, but it may have unintended consequences that are severe. This only emphasizes the need for proper consideration of these issues in open session.

Needless to say, although that was posted on Friday night (why, just like PRISM was posted on a Friday night), several people already responded:
Ed Brayton: Is Conyers Shilling for Scientific Publishers?:

If the research is funded with taxpayer money, why should taxpayers have to pay for journal access in order to see the results? Good question. Lessig and Eisen point to this report by MAPLight, an organization that highlights the influence of money in Congress, that suggests that Conyers is doing the bidding of publishers in order to preserve their profits. The report shows that those members of the House Judiciary Committee who are co-sponsoring the bill, including Conyers, received twice as much in donations from the publishing industry than those on the committee who are not sponsoring the bill.

Peter Suber: Rep. Conyers defends his bill:

Rep. Conyers insists that the House Judiciary Committee should have been consulted on the original proposal for an open-access policy at the NIH. However, William Patry, former copyright counsel to the House Judiciary Committee (and now chief copyright counsel at Google), believes that “the claim that the NIH policy raises copyright issues is absurd,” and that the Judiciary Committee did not need to be in the loop. I understand that the House Rules Committee came to a similar decision when formally asked.
Clearly Rep. Conyers disagrees with these views. But they should suffice to show that bypassing the Judiciary Committee was not itself a corrupt maneuver.

Stevan Harnad: Rep. John Conyers Explains his Bill H.R. 801 in the Huffington Post:

Congressman John Conyers (D. Mich) is probably sincere when he says that his motivation for his Bill is not to reward contributions from the publishers’ anti-OA lobby: He pretty much says up front that his motivation is jurisdictional.
Here are the (familiar, and oft-rebutted) arguments Rep Conyers refloats, but I think he is raising them less out of conviction that they are right than as a counterweight against the jurisdictional outcome he contests because it is his committee that he feels ought to have decided the outcome of the NIH Public Access Bill. (By the way, the original Bill was anything but secret as it made its way through the House Appropriations Committee, then the House, then the Senate, as Peter Suber’s many OA News postings archived along the way will attest.)

Michael Eisen: John Conyers Tries [and Fails] to Explain His Position:

The first several paragraphs of Conyers’ letter contain an outline of his record as a progressive politician. Representative Conyers is a smart man who has worked hard defending the public’s interest on a large number of issues. But no record, no matter how distinguished, can provide an excuse for introducing an atrocious piece of legislation that sacrifices the public interest to those of a select group of publishing companies who just happen – coincidentally I’m sure – to contribute to Representative Conyers and the other backers of the bill.
Despite his protestations, Conyers response to our letter – like the bill itself – is taken straight from the playbook of the publishers who oppose the NIH public access policy, and only cements my opinion that he is doing this at their behest without taking the time to research or understand the issue. Although he says at several times he is trying to get to the bottom of a complex issue, he ignored evidence presented to his committee during hearings last year and has shown no interest in learning about how scientific publishing actually works.

I hope other bloggers pick up on this and send their readers to the phones of Conyers and others on the committee – they have to listen to their constituents, especially when said constituents prevent them from doing any other work by clogging their phones, faxes and e-mails for days on end….

Wet or Dry, it’s our Earth

Carnival of the Arid #2, the blog carnival about deserts, is up on Coyote Crossing.
Related to lack of water is, well, lack of water and how it affects people, leads to wars over water, etc. So for the World Water Day on March 22, the blogosphere will write about transboundary water. Send your entries to Daniel for this one-off carnival (or is this more properly called Synchroblogging?).

ACTION: Senators blocking key science nominations and need to hear from you today!

‘Holds’ on NOAA Administrator & Science Advisor Confirmations. Call Senators Now.:

The Washington Post is reporting that Senate votes to confirm Jane Lubchenco as NOAA Administrator and John Holdren as Science Advisor are currently being obstructed by a Democratic Senator. Quoting multiple unnamed sources, the Post says that New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez has placed an “anonymous hold” on the nominations in order to try to gain leverage for some issues related to Cuba that he’s interested in.

The Latest Outrage: Holds on Holdren, Lubchencho:

The Washington Post (the news part) reports that the man who is now one of my senators, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, has placed a hold on the nominations of John Holdren and Jane Lubchencho, and won’t allow them to be voted on. Reportedly, “Menendez is using the holds as leverage to get Senate leaders’ attention for a matter related to Cuba rather than questioning the nominees’ credentials.”
What a complete outrage. These nominees need to work on climate change, science advising, and much else; they have no role in Cuba policy. Obama named them back in December–they should be in their offices by now. This is the most shallow form of politicking, and prevents the new administration from getting going.

Science in the Senate: It’s Not Just Menendez; Full Court Press Badly Needed.:

It appears that yesterday’s reports that New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez was holding up the confirmation of both the Science Advisor and the NOAA administrator were not entirely correct. He may well be delaying these confirmations, but he’s apparently not the only one. CQ Politics is now reporting that the nominations are being held by multiple members of the Senate. Due to the holds, there is currently no confirmation vote scheduled on the floor.
This is a very reliable report. CQ Politics is not basing this on anonymous sources. They are quoting Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s committee has jurisdiction over the nominations, and held a confirmation hearing for both nominees last month. Given his position, it’s very unlikely that Rockefeller is wrong.

The above posts have contact information – let’s clog their phones, faxes and e-mail with calls until they unblock this!

Lawrence Lessig on Open Access, Copyright and the nasty Conyers bill

John Conyers and Open Access:

Pushed by scientists everywhere, the NIH and other government agencies were increasingly exploring this obviously better model for spreading knowledge. Proprietary publishers, however, didn’t like it. And so rather than competing in the traditional way, they’ve adopted the increasingly Washington way of competition — they’ve gone to Congress to get a law to ban the business model they don’t like. If H.R. 801 is passed, the government can’t even experiment with supporting publishing models that assure that the people who have paid for the research can actually access it. Instead, if Conyers has his way, we’ll pay for the research twice.
The insanity in this proposal is brilliantly described by Jamie Boyle in this piece in the FT. But after you read his peace, you’ll be even more puzzled by this. For what possible reason could Conyers have for supporting a bill that 33 Nobel Prize Winners, and the current and former heads of the NIH say will actually hurt scientific research in America? More pointedly, what possible reason would a man from a district that insists on the government “Buying American” have for supporting a bill that basically subsidizes foreign publishers (for the biggest players in this publishing market are non-American firms, making HR 801 a kind of “Foreign Publishers Protection Act”)?
Well no one can know what goes on the heart or mind of Congressman Conyers. But what we do know is what published yesterday: That the co-sponsors of this bill who sit on the Judiciary Committee received on average two-times the amount of money from publishing interests as those who haven’t co-sponsored the bill.

Lawrence Lessig Answers Your Questions on Copyright, Corruption, and Congress:

A decade’s work against IP extremism taught me two things: first, that people — teachers, parents, archivists, entrepreneurs, and many many artists — recognized the insanity in the current war; and second, that members of Congress didn’t even understand the issue. Some say that’s because they’re clueless. I don’t think that’s right. Instead, I believe Congress doesn’t get it because it cares less about making sense of copyright policy and more about raising dollars for political campaigns. When you recognize (as it took me way too long to recognize) that this is the same in a wide range of public policy contexts, including some of the most important (e.g., global warming), you realize the root cause here — corruption — is the problem that has to be addressed.
I think the big story that the press doesn’t cover well is just how ordinary the corruption of government is. The serious problem, in my view, is not members using government to feather their own nests (though as one member put it to me, Congress has become a “farm league for K St.,” which is extremely serious). The most serious problem is instead good people living in a corrupt system. In my view, these “good people” have a moral obligation to change this corrupt system. They have a moral obligation to take a stand against it. We have seen enough to see just how much harm this system is producing. To stand by and let it continue — indeed, to encourage it to continue in its current form — is an act of extraordinary cowardice.

Lessig is urging people to take action here — joining his reform organization’s ‘donor strike’ to pressure Congress to fix the underlying corrupt system that resulted in Conyers doing what he did. After you sign, they’ll email you a number to call your representative in Congress (and Conyers) about this specific bill.

Harold Varmus on Daily Show last night

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