“Just the Facts, Ma’am”

February 27, 2010 at 11:30 pm (By Randy)

Those of a certain age will remember Jack Webb and Dragnet. This skit with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show was tongue-twisting at its best.

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Transformer

February 27, 2010 at 11:23 pm (By Randy)

Can your Mac do this?

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Dawn Brancheau Died for Our Sins.

February 27, 2010 at 2:16 pm (By Amba)

If a tiger or a lion in a zoo killed one human, that big cat would be dead before it hit the ground.  (No “dead cat bounce” jokes, please.)  Tillicum, the bull orca that drowned its trainer at SeaWorld on Wednesday, has now killed three. Yet he will live on at SeaWorld and will even continue to perform for the public.  Why the double standard?

One reason is money.  I heard them say on TV that a captive orca is worth 2 million dollars, and Tillicum breeds them, so he’s like a valued stud in horse racing.  He’s reportedly insured for $5 million.

But I wonder if there isn’t another reason:  dolphins, of which the killer whale is the largest, have a special status with us.  With their uncanny, sociable intelligence, so alien and yet so kindred (they’re the only nonprimate that can recognize itself in a mirror), they’re the objects not only of curiosity and wonder, but of . . . there’s no avoiding the word . . . reverence.  (Silly-ass reverence as it may be.)

I would propose that the Delphinidae are the gods, or embodiments of the gods, of the new nature worship.  Gods aren’t gods unless they deal out power and danger along with spiritual benevolence.  How convenient then that the smiling dolphin family also features the orca, a multiton ball of muscle with a fin like a church steeple and the coloring of a yin-yang symbol.  Here’s a god even the less sentimental can relate to:  a predator, like us.  Just as Zeus took the form of a bull, Gaia’s avenging consort might feel comfortable in the skin of a bull killer whale.  And when such a god claims a human sacrifice, do we turn on the god, or do we grovel and figure we’ve got it coming?

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AIDS

February 26, 2010 at 7:43 pm (By Realpc) ()

In the 1980s, an AIDS diagnosis meant death within one or two years. But after HIV was discovered and antiretroviral drugs were developed, AIDS mortality dramatically decreased. AZT was the first antiretroviral, and it was approved as the standard AIDS treatment, after effectiveness was demonstrated in placebo-controlled trials. Subsequent drugs, often used in combination, were shown to be even more effective than AZT (the newer drugs were compared against AZT, not placebo, since AZT had already been proven effective).

Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has been the standard AIDS treatment for the past 10 years, and now AIDS patients can expect to live almost normal lives.

So things are going quite well with respect to AIDS, aren’t they? Well yes, if you believe the mainstream AIDS propaganda. But I have found what appear to be some weird problems with the mainstream reasoning.

For example: Early in the AIDS epidemic, patients who were diagnosed were very sick. Later on, after the discovery of HIV, diagnoses could be made earlier. And the diagnostic criteria were expanded, so that AIDS patients were diagnosed who were not as likely to die within a year or two. In fact, a patient with a positive HIV test might remain free of AIDS symptoms for 10 years or more.

So did the dramatic decrease in AIDS mortality result from the antiretroviral drugs, or from the earlier and expanded diagnoses of AIDS? Or both?

The AIDs Truth website claims that AZT was shown, in controlled experimental studies, to prolong life and improve health, and it cites a meta-analysis. But the meta-analyss says that, although AZT was effective in studies lasting less than 3 years, it had NO effect in studies lasting 3 years or more. AIDS Truth leaves that part out.

And AIDS Truth says that newer drugs, and combinations of drugs, were shown to be even more effective than AZT. But AZT was not effective, except in short term studies.

So what is really going on? I don’t know. I do know that people who are pro-mainstream medicine can get very angry at anyone who questions the current theories and treatments. Anyone who questions or wonders is called a “denier.”

About the drugs: Even mainstream AIDS researchers acknowledge that antiretroviral drugs are toxic and can cause heart disease, cancer, liver failure, kidney failure, premature aging, etc., etc. But if the drugs save lives, it’s better to suffer from “side effects” than to die.

And furthermore, the AIDS mainstream claims that these “side effects” are only occurring because AIDS patients are now surviving much longer, thanks to the drugs. Cancer, heart disease, etc., are a sign of the effectiveness of the drugs, not of their toxicity.

And there is confusion about which symptoms and diseases are caused by AIDS and which are caused by the treatments. No one really seems to know.

So what is true? Are the drugs prolonging lives and improving health, or are they killing and disabling and destroying health? Or both? I don’t know.

The very foundation of the current theories and treatments appears shaky. And the justifications are often baffling. HAART has been used for 10 years, and its proponents say it has extended the lives of AIDS patients by 45 years. How can they know that, if no one has taken the drugs more than 10 years?

They extrapolate based on 5-year survival. But 5-year survival for AIDS patients has been increasing because of earlier diagnosis, expanded diagnostic criteria, and more HIV testing. And maybe also because of HAART. But maybe not. Probably not, in my opinion.

Based on all the information I have been able to find so far — and it’s mostly confusing, confused, and possibly deceptive — I think HAART is lethal, and that its benefits are mostly illusory. I don’t know if HIV causes AIDS, but I think maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it does, but maybe there are other complicating factors involved.

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An Open Letter to Thomas Friedman

February 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm (Guest Post)

A Guest Post by Callimachus

answering Friedman’s 2/17 column “Global Weirding is Here.”

Quick credentials: I generally agree with you. I’m a historian/journalist, internationalist, lifelong secularist and apologist for the scientific method; I’ve gone to the mat nationally and locally in public in the ugly fights against creationism and bogus “Christian America” history texts. References supplied upon request.

And this misguided crusade over global warming compromises scientists as a class. Memories of this debate will be an obstacle to anyone who wishes to promote scientific methods. Science will seem to be no better than, no different than, ideology, theology, or political mania.

Look at the language. Skim the AP articles and see how often scientists defending the catastrophic global warming scenario cast their opponents as “the skeptics.” When scientists define themselves against “skeptics,” we’re no longer talking about science as I recognize it.

The “skeptics” may not have tenure, but they have something respectable the other side wants: Horse sense.

You lament the term “global warming” as a bad one — it’s been lamented as a bad one from the beginning by the sober heads who really understood the research. Why did it prevail anyhow, and what does that say about the movement?

You want to change it. It’s too late to change it, just as it’s too late to change “evolution,” a term Darwin lamented (and used only once), but which was thumbtacked to the public mind by Spencer and the social darwinists and eugenicists — the scientific enthusiasts who took it all too far in the name of a better tomorrow.

So if — as in your own recent column — widespread cooling is touted as evidence of “global warming” — you can’t be surprised that the common people increasingly are skeptics. To your credit, you make that point.

Yet the fault is deeper than a mischosen word. For years there had been evidence of a lack of warming in Antarctica. The “skeptics” sometimes noted that inconvenient fact. And the global warming enthusiasts found a way to claim that lack-of-warming in Antarctica was entirely consistent with — even predictable in — their global warming doomsday model. Then some zealous scientists found, in fact, evidence of warming in Antarctica. And that was brazenly welcomed as evidence of global warming.

When “X” and “not X” both prove theory Y, we are no longer talking about science as I recognize it. I go with the horse sense crowd. I’m with the skeptics.

The skeptics see a group of powerful and vocal people trying to ram through an agenda of massive societal and economic change (up to and including capping capitalism and redistributing wealth from rich nations to poor ones) on the plea that to do anything otherwise than exactly that is to deliberately let the planet burn.

And they remember that the same people were pushing the same agenda long before anyone coined the phrase “global warming.” They also remember the number of scientific certainties that have been upended in their lifetimes. Perhaps they even remember that a century ago the scientific consensus was that human races are biologically definable, rankable, would never be equal in their capabilities, and their birth rates ought to be controlled for the good of the species.

No corporate chicanery paid for those racist conclusions. They came out of the minds of scientists, who were products of their cultures and societies. Some of the best scientists of our times, Stephen Jay Gould, for example, devoted much of their work to warning us that scientists are as susceptible to self-delusion and groupthink as any other humans.

If you’re a scientist today researching this topic, what’s your incentive to publish honest results that fail to show evidence of imminent global warming catastrophe? What’s your likely penalty for doing so? You don’t have to be a scientist to ask that question and guess the answer.

The horse sense skeptics are mocked and humiliated for it by the eggheads. They not only insist on crying wolf, they will slap you if you don’t listen. Which is an awful mistake for eggheads to make, but they seem to have been carried away in this by their veteran leftish politician allies. The horse sense people are not dupes of the oil companies: They’re deeply suspicious of and hostile to them, too. Instead, they are approaching the global warming catastrophists with a skepticism I wish scientists used in choosing their allies.

Global warming scientists and their allies often equate global warming skeptics with creationists. Evolution is a statement about what happened in the past, based on millions of fossils and millions of living species, with a full set of subsidiary sciences (genetics, etc.) that can be tested daily in a middle school lab.

When people predict what species and ecosystems will look like in the future, that’s not evolutionary science, even if biologists do it (and generally they are smart enough not to). It’s whimsy, it’s science fiction.

Catastrophic global warming is a prediction about the future, based on computer models.

The scientific study of climate and how it changes didn’t even exist before about 1960. Those who study it still have no consensus about why it changed in the past.

The Earth’s climate changes over time. The change can be catastrophic. We still don’t know what makes it change. What we know for sure is the Earth has been much warmer in its recent past, and much cooler. There’s no guarantee on the climate you see around you.

Why were there Ice Ages after tens of millions of years without them? Why were there dramatic warm spikes in the middle of them? Why has world climate been relatively stable for the past 4,000 years? Nobody knows. No good scientific model of world climate change yet has been constructed.

One of the old books I like to take down and look at sometimes is a school geography text from 1876. I like to see the world as it looked to people then, the world that people learned about in school.

The book opens with the bland statement that the Earth is a sphere. But then it goes on to acknowledge that it doesn’t look this way to us who walk on it, and then the authors tell why geographers know it’s a sphere.

It only takes about two short paragraphs, but it’s something that dropped out of our way of learning. It acknowledges that even a child’s objection that “it doesn’t look that way to me” is worth answering, and that in fact this is a wise question, not a stupid one, and that any authority that makes a bald statement owes it to his students to produce evidence for it.

Nowadays, it’s supposed to be sufficient that an expert says something. Anyone who doesn’t accept the word of the expert, who even dares to ask “How do you think you know that,” is dismissed as a rube or worse. Ross Gelbspan decries “greenhouse skeptics” as “criminals against humanity.”

I wish the people who expect me to join this religion would take the time to make it palatable to common sense and to admit that intelligent people of good will might not be convinced by doomsday movies.

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J Is 82. [UPDATED]

February 22, 2010 at 3:38 am (By Amba)

From his birthday yesterday:

Axel, the "Perfect Match" (Duke Hospice volunteer)

“Wanna make something of it?”

UPDATE: In the 38 years I’ve known him, even when J was depressed or frustrated overall, I have never, ever known him to be down on his birthday.  In some periods I used to dread that another birthday would only remind him of the dreams that hadn’t come true, the fruitless time fleeting.  It never happened.  I learned to trust that I could look forward to his birthday as a sabbath from all that.  No matter what, it’s always a serene, happy, positive day for him.  Not excited or egotistical or demanding; just sunny and calm.  (I don’t want to wonder about his two birthdays in Russia, especially the first one, less than a month after he arrived.  He climbed out of a train engine coal bin on the free side of the Iron Curtain two days before the third one, February 19, 1947.)  Yesterday was no exception; Axel remarked on how “with it” and communicative he was.

That led me to wonder whether the way you feel about, and on, your birthday doesn’t say something about you — how you fundamentally feel about yourself, and life, and time.  (Maybe this is nonsense; to some people birthdays are simply no big deal.  I suspect it all goes back to your early family and how they felt about birthdays, and you.)

How do I feel on my birthday?  I always eagerly look forward to it, but then the day itself is a letdown, an emotional blank.  I can’t grasp that special whatever-it-was I was anticipating.  I do kind of feel that way about my life.

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On Global “Weirding” [UPDATED]

February 20, 2010 at 6:16 pm (By Amba)

Tom Friedman thinks he’s so clever, but in fact his coinage, “global weirding” — the weather isn’t getting uniformly warmer, it’s getting weirder — was anticipated and, to my mind, bested by an Inuit at Baker Lake, Nunavut, Canada named N. Attungala:

Inuit have a traditional juggling game. The weather is sort of like that now. The weather is being juggled; it is changing so quickly and drastically.

“The weather is being juggled.”  That’s usually what I quote to people when they remark on the apparent altering and intensification of weather patterns and extremes.

Friedman lets the climate-science establishment off the hook way, way too easily, implying that the end — fighting the oil-soaked Forces of Rogue Capitalist Evil — didn’t quite justify the means, but made the zeal touchingly forgivable.  Sort of like Al Pacino’s cop character in Insomnia, who falsified evidence to convict the really bad guy he knew was guilty.

The climate-science community is not blameless. It knew it was up against formidable forces — from the oil and coal companies that finance the studies skeptical of climate change to conservatives who hate anything that will lead to more government regulations to the Chamber of Commerce that will resist any energy taxes. Therefore, climate experts can’t leave themselves vulnerable by citing non-peer-reviewed research or failing to respond to legitimate questions, some of which happened with both the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It was better put by Icepick, with whom I occasionally correspond about such matters, and who’s been appalled by the revelations of politicized, if not religionized, scientific misconduct:

We’d better hope global warming isn’t real, because they’re never going to get anything done about it now.

I’ll leave you with a couple more provocative thoughts.

First, here’s proof that self-described “skeptics” are anything but skeptical about the poorly understood extent and nature of anthropogenic global whatever (AGW).  They’re skeptical only about the “supernatural,” but ironically they’ve invested in reverence for inviolate Nature the same credulity and sense of sin and exile that they ridicule in religious people.

Sometime I’ll try to write more about this, but this movement really does have the dimensions, functions, and emotional intensity of a replacement religion.  In the van, where I listen to NPR, I heard the music at the opening ceremony for the Copenhagen climate summit, and it was unabashedly religious music.  Avatar, from what I’ve heard (haven’t seen it yet), sounds like a pantheist passion play, a work of religious (popular) art.  What really makes the climate movement religious, to my mind, is the belief that WE are Bad.  We have fallen away, violated our Mother, and we must do penance.  There’s even a sacred number that people solemnly invoke — 350 — sort of like JN8:12 on those rifle sights.

What makes it doubly ironic is that we are actually a part of nature, and our wild success as a species and resultant disruption of preexisting balances is entirely in keeping with what nature does at random intervals:  change things suddenly and extremely, and the devil take the hindmost.  Our real concern is that we ourselves may suffer, are already suffering, from the blowback of our heedless success; our real desire to preserve and restore nature (which I share) comes from our own need for it, which is what we have violated.  More irony:  whether or not it is explainably derived from nature, our sense of wonder, protectiveness, and loss towards other species and intricate systems, which drives us to protect nature, is what makes us odd “Man” out in nature.  I suppose it can be viewed as nothing more ethereal than an extension of the survival instinct.  Conservationism is to ecology what conservatism is to society:  an awareness that rapid change is going to make us suffer.

Which brings me to a doubly contrarian take from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favorite living thinkers:

I  have been asked frequently on how to deal with climate change in connection with the Black Swan idea and my work on decision-making under opacity. The position I suggest should be based on both ignorance and the delegation to the wisdom of Mother Nature since it is older than us, hence wiser than us, and proven much smarter than scientists. We do not understand enough about Mother Nature to mess with her  –and I do not trust the models used to forecast climate change. Simply, we are facing nonlinearities and magnifications of errors coming from the so-called “butterfly effects” we saw in Chapter 11, actually discovered by Lorenz using weather forecasting models. Small changes in input, coming from measurement error, can lead to massively divergent projections –and that, very generously, assumes that we have the right equations.

We have polluted for years, causing much damage to the environment, while the scientists currently making these complicated forecasting models were not sticking their necks out and trying to stop us from building these risks (they resemble those “risk experts” in the economic domain who fight the previous war) –these are the ones now trying to impose the solutions on us. But the skepticism about models that I propose does not lead to the same conclusions as the ones endorsed by anti-environmentalists, pro-market fundamentalists, quite the contrary: we need to be hyper-conservationists ecologically, super-Green, since we do not know what we are harming with now. That’s the sound policy under ignorance and epistemic opacity. To those who say “we have no proof that we are harming nature”, a sound response is “we have no proof that we are not harming nature either” –the burden of the proof is not on the ecological conservationist, but on someone disrupting an old system. Furthermore we should not “try to correct” the harm done as we may be creating another problem we do not know much about currently.

UPDATE: Afterthoughts:

One way to look at it is that we’re just nature’s latest way of changing the climate.

The best representation in religion of the way nature works is the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.  Creation, maintenance, destruction.  Without maintenance, resistance to destruction — the astonishing homeostasis achieved by a healthy body or a mature ecosystem, with its remarkable ability to absorb shocks and restore itself — there would be no point in creation, no cumulation, no elaboration.  But homeostasis isn’t sacred (or no more so than the other two).  A big enough shock, or a series of small degradations, will ultimately overwhelm it.  Without destruction, also, there could be no creation.

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The purity of downhill racing

February 18, 2010 at 10:16 pm (By Rodjean)

While watching the womens’ downhill competition last night, it struck me that the medals for downhill racing are unequivocal in a way few human endeavors are. What constitutes the best in most activities is subjective. Who is the best lawyer in town or the best doctor amounts to a matter of opinion. Even when there seems to be a consensus, it is usually a consensus of opinions.

Even in many sports, we can argue about which is the best team. There is the subjectivity of judging figure skaters, and even speed skaters can complain about unfair pushes and shoves.

Not so in downhill skiing. The competitors each take their turn running down the same course. It is about who gets to the bottom of the hill fastest. Period. There is nobody else to blame if you fall – no intervening human contact.

I suppose weather conditions could change to someones advantage or disadvantage during a day of competition, but it is about as pure a meritocracy as you can find.

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State of Emergency

February 13, 2010 at 11:26 am (By Amba)

That’s what the State of North Carolina calls this:

Well, OK, I’m exaggerating.   But not by much.

Meet “my” new tree, the OctoBaum:

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facTotem lives!

February 13, 2010 at 12:36 am (By Amba) ()

The science blog I had the great fun of writing for a while on my employer Natural History magazine’s website is all archived here, thanks to my collaborator, the magazine’s longtime webmaster, Jim van Abbema.  He’s now moved on and the magazine, along with so many print media, is trying to keep its head above water, but in the meantime, Jim has kept the archive of our work together alive by hosting it on one of the domains he manages.

It was the magazine’s publisher, Charles Harris, who had the bright idea of giving me a place to stash the cool links and stories I was stumbling on in the process of fact checking (and overstuffing the footnotes with; they had to go somewhere!).  Since we didn’t yet have blogging software on the website that I could use to post directly, I “had to” work through the webmaster:  I’d supply text, hunt down images, and he would compose and post them.  This apparent inconvenience turned out to be a godsend, as Jim had creative visual ideas (this is probably my favorite) and nifty scripts (click on the images here and see what happens) that I could never remotely have approached.  The arrangement evolved into a true collaboration, of which this extravaganza on the Hubble Space Telescope was undoubtedly the pièce de résistance.

I’ve put a permanent link to the archive into the blogroll here in case you want to poke around in it.

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