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Thursday, April 27, 2006
Faith-Based Politics
The need for mythic frames within which to formulate one's political opinions seems to be a crucial demarcation between conservatism and liberalism. The narcissistic urge to define the world as you wish it to be, rather than to discover how it actually is, seems to be the underlying force driving much of the conservative agenda these days.

Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory has written about a minor incident, an argument over the number of books that some prominent bloggers have sold, but has done so in a manner that ties the positions taken on this issue to the deeper instincts that are at play amongst conservatives, especially the most rabid of Bush administration supporters.
As much as anything else, Bush defenders are characterized by an increasingly absolutist refusal to recognize any facts which conflict with their political desires, and conversely, by a borderline-religious embrace of any assertions which bolster those desires. It's a world-view which conflates desire with reality, disregards all facts and evidence that conflict with the decreed beliefs, and faithfully embraces any assertions and fantasies, no matter how baseless and flagrantly false, provided that they bolster the mythology.
With regard to how they picked up on an item in the Drudge Report, Greenwald writes:
Don't they have somewhere lurking in their brain any critical faculties at all? For the sake of one's own integrity and reputation if nothing else, who would read an undocumented assertion on Drudge -- no matter how much of an emotional need they feel for it to be true -- and then run around reflexively reciting it as truth, writing whole posts celebrating it and analyzing it, without bothering to spend a second of time or a molecule of mental energy trying to figure out if it's really true?
He ends his piece with this most appropriate summary:
Being able to pick and choose what facts you want to believe based upon which ones feel good or vindicate your desires can be emotionally satisfying, but there is no more destructive and dangerous mental approach than this for determining how the world's sole superpower will be governed.
Read the whole thing.

Saturday, April 22, 2006
FDA: Politics Trumps Science, Yet Again
The ongoing ideological corruption of science by the Bush Administration continues unabated. As reported in The New York Times, the latest example is an announcement by the Food and Drug Administration that there were no "sound scientific studies" supporting the use of medical marijuana.
"The Food and Drug Administration statement directly contradicts a 1999 review by the Institute of Medicine, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's most prestigious scientific advisory agency. That review found marijuana to be "moderately well suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy -induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting." "
"....Opponents of efforts to legalize marijuana for medicinal uses suggest that marijuana is a so-called gateway drug that often leads users to try more dangerous drugs and to addiction.
But the Institute of Medicine report concluded there was no evidence that marijuana acted as a gateway to harder drugs. And it said there was no evidence that medical use of marijuana would increase its use among the general population.
Dr. Daniele Piomelli, a professor of pharmacology at the University of California, Irvine, said he had "never met a scientist who would say that marijuana is either dangerous or useless."
Studies clearly show that marijuana has some benefits for some patients, Dr. Piomelli said. "
On matters of medical treatments, there is no excuse for an agency to ignore scientific findings that could lead to more effective care. The government has a primary responsibility to advance the health interests of the people, irrespective of ideological considerations. It seems to be a pattern with this administration that evidence, relative to any particular question, is only deemed relevant to the extent that it advances a political agenda. To impose such standards on the scientific agencies of the government represents a profound corruption of their mission, and it works to the detriment of those most in need of care.

Friday, April 21, 2006
The Politicization of Science
The level of scientific literacy amongst Americans is increasing, though it is still distressingly low - only 17% by one measure. There also seems to be growing confusion over basic scientific concepts - a decrease, for example, in both the acceptance and rejection of evolution, with an increase in uncertainty.

Liza Gross has written an article "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology" in PLoS Biology, in which she interviews Dr. Jon Miller, who has spent decades studying and preparing reports for the National Science Board on the public's acceptance of, and understanding of science. Miller has tracked public understanding both in this country and abroad, and points to a uniquely American phenomenon to explain why our levels of understanding are not as high as our level of education might indicate.
"It's not that Americans are rejecting science per se, Miller maintains, but longstanding conflicts between personal religious beliefs and selected life-science issues has been exploited to an unprecedented degree by the right-wing fundamentalist faction of the Republican Party."
In brief, says Miller "The era of nonpartisan science is gone".

Miller urges scientists to learn about, and to become engaged in the political process, standing up for those candidates and parties that are supportive of the practice and funding of sound science. In other words, to fight for what we believe in. And he urges us not to despair:
"...there's a large segment of Americans who still haven't made up their mind on these issues. We in the scientific community have to treat them seriously, talk to them, and make our arguments. This is a great opportunity for us."

New Fossil Snake with Legs
A newly discovered fossil snake has two small legs and a pelvic bone, placing it very near the base of the snake evolutionary tree. Najash rionegrina, discovered in Argentina, was found in terrestrial deposits, lending strong support to the hypothesis that snakes evolved on land rather than the sea, an issue in hot dispute amongst herpetologists.

Pharyngula reprints the abstract from Nature, along with pictures of the bones, and the hypothesized placement of the species on the evolutionary tree.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006
How Bias Works
"I'm O.K., You're Biased" is the title of an op-ed in the New York Times by Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard. He writes about the way in which our rational faculties often operate within the larger context of our likes and dislikes, our motivations, or our deeper preferences, often subconscious, for how we want things to work out. As an example:
"...researchers asked subjects to evaluate a student's intelligence by examining information about him one piece at a time. The information was quite damning, and subjects were told they could stop examining it as soon as they'd reached a firm conclusion. Results showed that when subjects liked the student they were evaluating, they turned over one card after another, searching for the one piece of information that might allow them to say something nice about him. But when they disliked the student, they turned over a few cards, shrugged and called it a day."
Our a priori preferences influence our powers of assessment, but they are also hidden from our rational minds, so that we feel quite strongly that we have conducted a fair and objective analysis.

I am reminded of Antonin Scalia's comment the other day regarding conflict of interest, and why he felt no reason to recuse himself in a case involving his friend Dick Cheney: "For Pete's sake, if you can't trust your Supreme Court justice more than that, get a life".

Clearly Scalia seems to think that the only danger to our system is a judge engaged in conscious, intentional bias. And that a hypersensitivity to a perception of that type of bias is unwarranted and destructive. What he fails to understand is the very real problem of unintentional bias.

I find that odd coming from a strong conservative. Is it not part of the very foundation of conservatism that humans are understood to be inherently flawed characters - and that an effective governing system, like our own Constitution, derives its strength from its built-in system of checks and balances that are designed to overcome the limitations of individuals?

I think this is an issue that liberals can agree on too. We build structural elements into our system to protect us against willful abuses of power by officeholders, but also to protect us against the inherent limitations of individuals - their limited perspectives, experiences, and their natural biases.

The Least Surprising Scientific Result of the Year
From a report at BBC.com:
"Catching sight of a pretty woman really is enough to throw a man's decision-making skills into disarray"
Ya think?

Forensic Photography - Matching Images and Cameras
Like matching bullets to the gun that fired them, a new technology can identify the specific camera that took a particular digital image. A report in Science Daily explains that researchers at Binghamton University have discovered a weak pattern of pixel-to-pixel nonuniformity that is introduced during the manufacturing process and is specific to individual cameras. They have developed a process to analyze this pattern in images and match them to reference patterns taken from individual cameras.

They expect this technology to be useful in forgery detection and for tracking down child pornographers.

Mr. Hu - Tear Down This Firewall
The visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States this week is an ideal moment for a message to be delivered to the Chinese leadership class - that if the Chinese nation wishes to take its place in the international community, it must allow the Chinese people to participate in the global internet community. Currently the Chinese government is trying to operate a national intranet, monitoring and filtering the links between China and the rest of the world with what has been dubbed the "Great Firewall of China", and also monitoring internal content with a force of 30,000 thought-police.

President Hu is very interested in taking advantage of the global marketplace - he is spending a few days in Washington State visiting Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks and is traveling with a large contingent of trade negotiators, hoping to strike billions of dollars of business deals for China. Later in the week he will be heading to the White House to meet President Bush where the message should be that with the free movement of capital and goods in the global marketplace comes an imperative for the free movement of ideas. The people of the world must be able to speak to, and listen to the people of China, and until that happens, relations between our nations cannot develop normally. Lets hope that our president decides to deliver this simple, clear message: Mr. Hu - Tear Down This Firewall!

To track developments on these issues, visit the China Digital Times, a component of the Berkeley China Internet Project.

Human Rights Watch has been advocating on behalf of freedom of expression in China - see here for extensive testimony delivered to Congress regarding the current situation.

Reporter-turned-blogger Rebecca MacKinnon has extensive coverage of, and links to the Chinese blogging community.

Hao Wu, a Chinese citizen and U.S. permanent resident is a documentary filmmaker and blogger pursuing stories relating to human rights abuses in China. He was arrested and has been held without charges since February. Learn more about his case here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Road Trip to Kurdistan
What would you expect to happen when a couple of American twenty-somethings find themselves hanging out in Istanbul with a few spare days at hand, and they start to reflect on the fact that Turkey shares a border with Iraq? That's right - Road Trip!

Blogger Michael Totten posts extended diaries, with photos, of the adventure.
Antimatter Engines - NASA Begins Research
Traveling to Mars on 10 milligrams of fuel? It might be possible using positrons and their interaction with electrons as a power source. As reported at Red Orbit, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is funding research into the feasibility of building an antimatter-powered engine that would cut travel time dramatically, and avoid the radiation problems of nuclear-powered spaceships. A few technical details need to be worked out.....
Translating the Founding Fathers into Arabic
This is a smart and effective way to foster the growth of democracy in the Arab world. Blogger and Professor of History at the University of Michigan Juan Cole has launched the Global Americana Institute - a privately funded non-profit organization to organize and carry out the translation into middle eastern languages of a wide spectrum of American books, beginning with the basic texts of our democracy. Donations are being accepted.
Politics, Churches, and Taxation
Should the ability of churches to speak in favor of, or even to endorse political candidates be regulated by the government? This is the framing of an issue that is part of the agenda of christian conservatives. In an op-ed in USAToday, Richard Garnett asks "Campaigning from the pulpit: Why not?".

His answer is, in essence, why not indeed? The central question that he defines is whether government or the churches themselves should determine the content of the church's message. Framed like that, the answer seems obvious. Only near the end of his essay does he raise the real issue - the fact that churches are tax-exempt. The government's interest in the content of the church's message only is raised when there is suspicion that the church is violating the ban on partisan activism that applies to all charitable organizations.

His solution seems bizarre. He seems to envision the ban on partisan activism remaining in place, but that it be left to the pastors, rather than the IRS, to determine whether the church has followed the law.
"...it should not be the place of government officials or IRS agents to impose and enforce a line between pastors' stirring sermons and partisan stump speeches."
"Churches and congregants, not bureaucrats and courts, must define the perimeter of religion's challenges. It should not be for the state to label as electioneering, endorsement, or lobbying what a religious community considers evangelism, worship or witness."

It is hard to believe that anyone would take seriously the notion that those who are subject to a law should be empowered to decide if they have broken the law.

An equally problematical position taken by some activist pastors is that the ban on partisan activism be lifted entirely. This would result in a system in which taxpayers would be subsidizing the campaigns of a select group of (religiously correct) political candidates. Its a rather transparent effort to weight the political balance, and it would also lead to churches becoming funding vehicles for political parties.

None of us want the government in the business of regulating speech - but the taxpayers in general have no obligation to subsidize institutions that advocate on behalf of one candidate or party over others.

Perhaps a blanket elimination of the religious tax-exemption would solve the problem directly and decisively. Churches could establish subsidiary non-profit organizations to operate their charitable works - organizations that would be tax-protected like other charities. But if the churches themselves have a mission focused on evangelizing and partisan activism to the extent that Garnett claims, they should not expect to be subsidized by the tax base as a whole.

Sunday, April 16, 2006
GOP Agenda for 2006
What are the great issues that will compel the attention of our legislative leaders for the remainder of this year? Will it be to craft a package of reforms to our health care system? To align our taxing regime with government expenses, so that our national debt can be controlled, perhaps even reduced? A renewed commitment to fulfilling their oversight responsibilities over the executive branch? A plan to insure that young people will be fully prepared to compete in the global marketplace that they will confront?

In an AP article yesterday, we read of the plans that Congressional Republicans have laid out to build a stronger, more prosperous America.

Anti-flag burning legislation. Anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. Restrictions on abortion.

There will be no excuse for the opposition party if they fail to offer a more compelling agenda than this.

Saturday, April 15, 2006
Neutrinos Have Mass
The Standard Model of particle physics specifies that neutrinos should have no mass. These particles are so small that they can pass directly through the Earth without interacting with any matter. But once in a while they can be expected to interact with a detector.

In a recent experiment at Fermilab, as reported by the BBC, muon neutrinos were generated, and fired at detectors both in Fermilab itself, and, by shooting them through the Earth, at a detector in a mine 450 miles away. Fewer than expected were picked up by the distant detector, leading to the conclusion that some of them had been transformed - changed flavor - and this is an event that is only possible if they have mass.

Perhaps this is where the missing matter of the universe is to be found!?

Chad and Sudan - Yet More Problems for Darfur
As the genocidal conflict in Darfur has spilled over into neighboring Chad, internal conflicts within Chad have also crossed into Sudan, with some rebel groups operating from bases in Darfur. A report in the Financial Times describes how these rebel groups managed to attack the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, with more than one hundred people killed. President Idriss Déby, facing an election in early May, has blamed the Sudanese government for complicity in the attack, and cut off diplomatic relations. French troops stationed in Chad have orders to stay neutral in the dispute, even if the government falls, although they have long supported the government.

Much more on this situations from the Coalition for Darfur.

Friday, April 14, 2006
Limitations to Plant's Ability to Store Excess Carbon Dioxide
One of the mechanisms for counteracting excess levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, its utilization by plants to fuel their growth, has been found to be quite limited. A new study, reported at ScienceDaily.com, found that high levels of carbon dioxide limited the availability of nitrogen to the plants, thus inhibiting their growth.
"We found that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels may rise even faster than anticipated, because ecosystems likely will not store as much carbon as had been predicted," said Peter Reich of the University of Minnesota, lead author of the study"

A Silver Lining to the Bush Administration?
Is there anything wrong with a little wishful thinking now and then? In a review of Francis Fukayama's new book "America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy" and Bruce Bartlett's "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy" Alan Wolfe, writing in the Chronicle Review indulges:
"some future president will be faced with undoing the damage of a man sufficiently lacking in intellectual curiosity to question the bad ideas upon which he built his administration. Academics and intellectuals with an independent cast of mind — whether liberal or conservative — have played little role in the Bush administration, given, as it is, to reiterating talking points and insisting on absolute loyalty to the man in charge. But that is all the more reason why academics and intellectuals will find themselves in great demand when the leaders of this country eventually decide that their foreign and domestic policies will have to confront the real world around them, not the imaginary one bequeathed to them by their ideology. When that happens, future historians will look back on the Bush years as paving the way for a golden age of intellectual inquiry."

Faster, please.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Scaremongering Headlines - Why?
A story in Bloomberg News, picked up on the Drudge Report, claims "Iran Could Produce Nuclear Bomb in 16 Days, U.S. Says".

The operative word is "could". As in - they could produce a bomb in 16 days if they ramped up their production facility to 300 times its present capacity. Read further into the story and you see the details. At present capacity, Iran could build a bomb in 13 years.

They currently have 164 centrifuges for enrcihing uranium. They would need 50,000 to get on a 16 day production cycle. It has taken their program 30 years to get to the point of enriching a miniscule amount of uranium to 3.5% - as opposed to the large amounts, at 90% used for a bomb.

So we have to ask...Why these headlines? Why did Stephen Rademaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, present these figures? Why did Bloomberg phrase the headline so? What is the motivation to hype this crisis, rather than deal with the reality of the situation?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Why Don't Spiders Twist at the End of Their Thread?
Researchers at the French CNRS (press release) have been investigating.

Iranian Dissident Free - For Now
Akbar Gangii, who was jailed for six years for accusing the Iranian government of assassinating political dissidents, has been released after completing his sentence.

He has apparently become a hero to the forces seeking democracy in Iran, and his release is cause for celebration. But his release does not seem to be indicative of any political movement in Iran, and he remains vulnerable to rearrest. See this report by Nazila Fathi at openDemocracy.

Voice of the People in the People's Republic!
An encouraging article in today's New York Times "Chinese Turn to Civic Power as a New Tool" tells of the recent rise of NGOs and other civic organizations that are demanding and, to some extent, receiving a voice in the Chinese political process.

The story focuses on a woman who contracted AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion given during childbirth, and how this has unexpectedly become a national scandal through the efforts of such organizations. There seems to be thousands, perhaps millions of such groups recently organized, focusing on a wide range of issues.

Monday, April 10, 2006
Global Warming Denial - Spinning the Scales
Climate change data can be analyzed at various time scales, opening up many possibilites for spinning out desired conclusions. In an opinion piece in the Sunday Telegraph, Bob Carter, an Australian geologist presents a surprising result gleaned from the record of temperature anomalies: "There IS a problem with global warming... it stopped in 1998".

Focusing only on the eight years since 1998 (the hottest year on record), Carter points out that there has been zero net increase in that time. Lets see how these data look in a slightly larger time scale (the scale actually used in the study he references):

Note the year 2000 on the x-axis. Look up to the temperature data and see the 1998 high point just to the left. Focus only on the time going forward from that point. Nothing to worry about, right?

Carter correctly points out that "Climate changes naturally all the time, partly in predictable cycles, and partly in unpredictable shorter rhythms and rapid episodic shifts...". Might this insight lead him to urge us to look to larger scale trends, like the one portrayed in the study he highlights? Well, not really.
"Two simple graphs provide needed context, and exemplify the dynamic,
fluctuating nature of climate change. The first is a temperature curve for the
last six million years, which shows a three-million year period when it was
several degrees warmer than today..... The second graph shows the average global
temperature over the last eight years, which has proved to be a period of
stasis. "

The past six million years is an irrelevant time span. Global climate concerns are not focused on the possibility that we might soon see the hottest temperatures in the history of Earth. The concern is that we will see human-caused (and thus potentially avoidable) warming of a magnitude that will be devastating to the ecosystem as it exists today, and to the infrastructure and social organization of human civilization as it has developed these past few thousand years.

And by focusing on only the past eight years we necessarily encounter the short-term noise around the trend lines that are so evident on the graph, and that Carter himself seems to acknowledge with his reference to "rapid episodic shifts".

The appropriate time scale would be one that plots the changes that have occurred since humans have had the power to affect the atmosphere in dramatic fashion - the industrial age. The graph above comes close to approximating that scale. Comparing these trends to historical changes, over similar scales, can indicate whether the magnitude of current changes is normal or not. But focusing only on the very short, or the very long time scale does nothing but avoid the real issues.

Saturday, April 08, 2006
Bush: Fighting For My Party More Important Than For My Policies
In his weekly radio address, reported here President Bush made a point of blaming Sen. Minority Leader Reid for the breakdown in the Senate deliberations over immigration. The fundamental dispute however, is between those who support the idea of a guest-worker provision (that would be Bush and the Democrats) vs. those who do not (conservative Republicans).

Once the issue of whether there should be such a program is resolved, negotiations would proceed over the details. But there is no resolution of this question in large part because of a lack of leadership by Bush himself - an unwillingness to defend and fight for his own policies in the face of opposition from his own base. Now he takes it a further step and tries to lay the blame on the Democrats.

It does strike me as gross political incompetence for a president to move an issue onto the front burner that divides his own party, and then to do next to nothing to resolve the dispute within his party that his proposal provokes. Surely he must have understood that merely attacking the other party would leave the proposal with only the partial support that it began with.

The bottom line - final vote was 38 dems in favor, 6 dems and all republicans opposed. And Bush blames the dems for its defeat!

Domesticated Viruses!
Researchers at MIT have engineered a virus so that proteins on its outer coat will bind to cobalt oxide. A paper in the journal Science, reported here describes how the viruses then arrange themselves in a linear fashion forming a wire 6 nanometers in diameter and 800 nanometers in length. With a little gold mixed in, the nanowires can function as conductors in miniature batteries.

Friday, April 07, 2006
Gonzales's Trial Balloon - Get Out the Pins
When one branch of the federal government launches a concerted effort to expand its power relative to the other two, it becomes the responsibility of those other branches to push back. For there is, ultimately, no other recourse against a determined effort at aggrandizement.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, reported by the Washington Post Attorney General Gonzales laid down a marker on the question of whether the administration would have the right to engage in warrantless wiretapping of purely domestic phone calls - "I'm not going to rule it out" he said.

This comment seems to take the form of a trial balloon - to stake a claim with ambiguous language that could, if necessary, be reeled back in. If left unchallenged however, it forms a base of precedent for a stronger argument in the future.

We all recall in weeks past, when Gonzales tried to justify the warrantless wiretapping of international calls to and from this country, that he, and the supporters of the administration, made valiant efforts to assure us that the issue was only one in which parties on American soil were (possibly) communicating with terrorists abroad. Even this, of course, is contrary to the clear dictates of the law (without a warrant), but we were constantly assured that our everyday communications were not subject to such intrusions.

Either these arguments were disingenuous, or we should soon be hearing some push-back, even from some Republicans - at least those who retain some reverence for the Fourth Amendment (breath-holding not advised). This is certainly a challenge that needs a response from the Democrats - but even more fundamentally, from the legislative and judicial branches as a whole.

Krauthammer Misses the Obvious on Immigration
One might imagine that conservatives would bring to the immigration debate a deep understanding of free markets, and the dynamics of our private-sector economy. That does seem to be an abiding concern of theirs. But for some reason, this does not seem to be the case.

Charles Krauthammer writes in the Washington Post that:

"Every sensible immigration policy has two objectives: (1) to regain control of our borders so that it is we who decide who enters and (2) to find a way to normalize and legalize the situation of the 11 million illegals among us."

But there is, of course, a third objective, one that is absolutely fundamental - to establish a mechanism that would allow future immigration to proceed in a legal manner at levels that meet the needs of our economy.

Most of the illegal immigrants in this country are working - they do not, and cannot simply come here to stand in unemployment lines. There is a need for them, a need generated by the dynamism of our economy. These needs tend to be met, through a process that could be easily explained by anyone who understands the operation of markets.

If we are to have a rational immigration policy, the opportunities for legal immigration must be aligned with the needs of the economy. But immigration quotas are established by the political process, where they are prey to all manner of irrational political concerns. If there is no political will to establish quotas at realistic levels, then extra-legal immigration will happen - and it is damn good that it does, lest our economic prosperity suffer.

Krauthammer recommends that we build a wall, like the Israelis have, to stop the flow in its tracks. Then we can regularize the immigrants who are already here. But any such barrier to further immigration would either be ineffective, or, if it worked, would seriously damage the growth of our economy, especially for small businesses - unless we find some way to guarantee that legal mechanisms are put in place to supply our economy with the workers that it needs.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Fish Evolution - the transition to land
A new fossil has been discovered on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic that illustrates one of the transitional forms of sarcopterygian fishes as they evolved into land-dwellers. A report in the current issue of Nature, reported by the New York Times (Fossil Fish Sheds Light on Transition), describes adaptations to the neck and pectoral fin skeletal elements that allow for flexibility and weight-bearing.

The new fossil, named Tiktaalik roseae, also had overlapping ribs, which could have helped support the internal organs, but relatively unmodified jaws. Specimens ranged in size from 4 to 9 feet long, and its age was estimated at 375 million years, a time when that region experienced a subtropical climate.
Captain Ed's Standard: Support for Iraq War, Gay Marriage - extremist fringe positions?
Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters, a very popular right-wing blog expressing very typical right-wing views, reacts today to Sen. Russ Feingold's announcement of support for gay marriage in a post entitled Feingold Claims The Fringe Left. His argument is that Feingold is trying to "embrace the far-left fever swamp" in an attempt to gain the Democratic presidential nomination, but thereby "threatens to drag his party into electoral suicide ". The reason, of course, is that gay marriage is so far out of the mainstream of American politics. In a recent Pew poll, support for gay marriage was measured at 39%, with 51% opposed.

If this is how we are to define the political fringes, it would be instructive to see how this standard applies to another issue, one of even greater import. A recent Gallup / CNN / USAToday poll of support for the Iraq war found 40% in favor, 56 % opposed.

Assuming that the Captain and his colleagues are interested in seeing the Republicans do well in upcoming elections, it will be interesting to note the advice they give their candidates about how to position themselves on the war issue.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
The Promise of Citizenship
Fareed Zakaria has an interesting column on immigration in today's Washington Post "To Become an American" in which he makes the point that America has done a much better job at integrating immigrants (the legal ones at least) than has Europe, because attaining citizenship is relatively easy and straightforward for American green-card holders, whereas in Europe, attaining citizenship is discouraged. The social ramifications of having a class of guest-workers who will probably never become citizens is not hard to predict, and are on display in Europe today.

It is a good point to keep in mind in light of Bush's impractical plan to allow illegal immigrants a six-year window in which to work, followed by a forced repatriation, or the absurd Republican House plan to define illegal immigrants as felons, making their eventual integration impossible.
Now this is gonna really make you laugh!
Are you ready to really let it rip?

Actually, I just wanted to point you to a recent paper, reported here that finds increased blood endorphin and growth hormone levels in subjects who have the expectation of imminent laughter. Its the "anticipatory mirthful laughter experience", leading to long-lasting positive effects on stress reduction and immune responses.

Did you feel the rush?
Sperm or Egg - a simple switch?
Germ cells are identical in males and females. So what is the mechanism that leads germ cells in males to become sperm, and in females to become eggs? In a report "One big biology question solved" on a recent paper that will be published in Science, we see that the key factor seems to be the timing of when germ cell meiosis begins - before birth in females, after birth in males. And the trigger for meiosis is retinoic acid - a derivative of vitamin A. Male embryos show expression of a particular enzyme that obliterates retinoic acid, thereby suppressing meiosis until after birth.
Monday, April 03, 2006
Let Wiser Heads Prevail
George Will writes a profoundly silly column in today's Washington Post, Let Cooler Heads Prevail - in which he argues that Americans have been reluctant to take global warming seriously because journalists have been telling them that they should take it seriously. Since the journalists are merely reporting on the actual results of scientific investigation, Will's argument boils down to an appeal to ignore the science. Sound familiar?

Being skeptical about scientific findings is crucial to science itself, of course, so we should always welcome a strong, detailed critique of any set of findings. But not only does Will not offer any such critique, he can't point to any scientists who question the findings either.

He makes the valid, but trivial point, that none of us can feel the one degree increase in global temperature that has occurred in the past century, although he ignores the fact that we can see the effects in the icepacks, and in the distribution of temperature-sensitive species.

He asks us to consider that one degree may be within the margin of error of global temperature data, but it isn't. Two minutes on Google will find explanations of the climate models that describe the accuracy of the measurements to one one-hundredth of a degree.

Will imagines that measuring global temperature must be very difficult because of the "molten core" on which the tectonic plates ride - they don't of course, ride on the core, as any high-school textbook could show. And he doesn't explain why the existence of any molten material under the plates would make air, sea or land temperatures difficult to measure.

Finally he asks whether we can be certain that dramatic climate change would be a bad thing - "remember, a thick sheet of ice once covered the Midwest" (yes George, and it wasn't all that hospitable to life back then).

And he asks if we can be certain that slowing economic growth and spending trillions will yield proportionate benefits. But this is, of course, a wholly separate issue. What exactly we should do in the face of global warming can only be seriously argued once the participants in the debate agree to accept the reality of the temperature data. It is pretty clear that Will's strategy is to pretend that this first step is in dispute, so that the further debate over what to do about it never happens. I wonder what the motivation behind that is.
Sunday, April 02, 2006
Positioning a "Straight Shooter"
There seems to be a hunger in America for politicians who fearlessly express a unique and coherent vision, and who seem to have little regard for how their vision may contradict the standard positions of their own party. This speaks to a general dissatisfaction, broadly felt in both parties, with the compromises that are necessary to hold together diverse coalitions. Even if such a politician's vision does not match one's own, the voter often finds it attractive to see that particular positions need not be captives of general orthodoxies.

Whether deserved or not, Sen. John McCain was acknowledged as one such politician in the course of his doomed 2000 presidential run, and it generated great excitement amongst independent voters and many Democrats as well. The glow from that campaign continued down through the years to such an extent that John Kerry seemed to seriously consider asking McCain to be his running mate in 2004, despite the fact that McCain's vision was and is actually quite conservative, and not at all supportive of the basic principles of the Democratic party.

The problem for such maverick candidates, of course, is that what appeals to the independents, or to some part of the opposition party, is seen as treachery by the base of one's own party - and it is the base of the party that effectively controls the nomination process.

Which brings us to the John McCain of today. No doubt he sees the polls that show that he maintains considerable support from across the political spectrum, that he leads the presidential polls amongst Republicans, and that he is well ahead of any Democratic rival in general election match-ups. He could actually win this thing. But can he do so as a maverick, a straight shooter? What price will he have to pay in terms of his reputation in order to win the allegiance of the Republican base, or at the very least, to defuse their animus toward him so that they might come to accept him, however begrudgingly?

On Meet the Press today (video here), McCain has disavowed his previous characterization of Jerry Falwell as being an "agent of intolerance". There seems no change in Falwell's positions or his character. He is still a man who sees America as deserving of a god's blessings only to the extent that Americans live by his (Falwell's) fundamentalist conception of what the christian god demands. That ain't tolerance.

In a recent column, E.J. Dionne has made some of these points, as well as discussing McCain's changing views on tax cuts. Joe Gandleman at The Moderate Voice walks through more examples of McCain on the political tightrope. Steven Taylor at Poliblog has analysis of '08 implications from a republican-friendly point of view.

A great danger for McCain arising from today's interview relates to the specific issue he addressed - tolerance. One of the virtues of being a maverick is the implied acceptance of the notion that not all wisdom lies in one particular party - that the candidate is open to hearing different voices, no matter their source, and will arrive at positions after due deliberation. This may not, in fact, be the case - one can certainly be an arrogant, close minded maverick, but the promise of such tolerance does tend to come with the maverick package. If McCain now is willing to define Falwell as a tolerant sort, then the McCain definition is emptied of most of its meaning. Without such meaning, without some sense of tolerance of diverse views, McCain's maverick appeal will be seriously degraded.
Saturday, April 01, 2006
Microchips and Neurons
Here is an appropriate story for the first day of a blog -
An article in LiveScience reports that researchers in Italy have managed to fuse a neuron to a microchip, using a brain protein as glue, and succeeded in passing an electrical signal from the ion channels of the neuron to the chip. Maybe I won't be needing those Ginko pills after all...
Beginner's Mind, Skeptical Mind
It's April Fools' Day, and Skeptipundit steps out into the blogosphere to play with the memes of our times. I'll be exploring and sharing some of the interesting ideas to be found in the political and scientific worlds, but also poking and probing, turning over some rocks, finding connections or trying to make some connections that don't yet exist. I'll bring to this an appreciation of shoshin - the beginners mind that is open to many possibilities, and of the standards of science - that ideas gain value only through their survival of testing, and deep criticism. I'll be on the lookout for two pernicious tendencies that we all share to some extent - attachments to dogma or ideology, as magic templates that promise easy answers to difficult problems, and yielding to the seduction of ideas that we wish to be true. We wont be doing rants here, but I invite all those of curious mind and good will to join in the fun.
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