Tag Archives: Ronald Bailey

“The ‘Tribe-Moral Community’ United By ‘Sacred Values'”

John Tierney at NYT:

Some of the world’s pre-eminent experts on bias discovered an unexpected form of it at their annual meeting.

Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

Instapundit

Ann Althouse:

But let’s skip into the middle of the piece and think about the mechanisms of exclusion, these “sacred values” that displace scientific thinking. Haidt notes the example of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, back in 1965, who “warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks” and “was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist.”

Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). “This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”

According to Tierney, Haidt’s audience of social psychologists “seemed refreshingly receptive to his argument.”

A few even endorsed his call for a new affirmative-action goal: a membership that’s 10 percent conservative by 2020.

Affirmative action? Why not just stop giving affirmative action to liberals? I think that would get you way above the 10% quota… if you could do it. Ironically, talking “affirmative action” is inherently off-putting to conservatives. It’s more of those sacred values from the tribal-moral community that ward off outsiders.

Steven Hayward at Powerline:

I have a good friend–I won’t name out him here though–who is a tenured faculty member in a premier humanities department at a leading east coast university, and he’s . . . a conservative! How did he slip by the PC police? Simple: he kept his head down in graduate school and as a junior faculty member, practicing self-censorship and publishing boring journal articles that said little or nothing. When he finally got tenure review, he told his closest friend on the faculty, sotto voce, that “Actually I’m a Republican.” His faculty friend, similarly sotto voce, said, “Really? I’m a Republican, too!”

That’s the scandalous state of things in American universities today. Here and there–Hillsdale College, George Mason Law School, Ashland University come to mind–the administration is able to hire first rate conservative scholars at below market rates because they are actively discriminated against at probably 90 percent of American colleges and universities. Other universities will tolerate a token conservative, but having a second conservative in a department is beyond the pale.

John Derbyshire at The Corner:

What’s to be done? Get ’em reading National Review!

To overcome taboos, he advised them to subscribe to National Review and to read Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions.

By a friendly little coincidence, the current issue of National Review contains a feature article on Prof. Sowell.

Some said [Haidt] overstated how liberal the field is, but many agreed it should welcome more ideological diversity. A few even endorsed his call for a new affirmative-action goal: a membership that’s 10 percent conservative by 2020.

Ten percent by 2020? Hey, let’s not go overboard here, guys.

[And never mind Queer Literary Theory: If I’d been writing a few days later I could have cited Gay Math.]

[And-and, I should qualify having said “the New York Times of all places” with a word of tribute to their excellent Science section, which routinely publishes results from the human sciences that would cause apoplexy among the newspaper’s op-ed writers, if they bothered to read them.]

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

Haidt has given me a look at a good bit of the manuscript of his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (January, 2012), and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about it.

I earlier wrote about some of the recent research that Haidt and his colleagues have done on The Science of Libertarian Morality. If interested, see how liberal social science bias works when it comes to demonizing conservatives in my 2004 column, Pathologizing Conservatism.

One more story, I was invited to speak at a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship seminar at MIT a few years ago. After I gave my spiel, we got to talking about for whom the 12 or so journalists were planning to vote in the upcoming 2000 election. As I remember it, the vote split 9 for Gore and 3 for Nader. I joked that perhaps the Knight program should invite me to join it for reasons of diversity. The puzzled head of program blurted out, “But you’re a white male!” I gently explained that I meant ideological diversity. He (also a white male) had the grace to look chagrined.

Megan McArdle

James Joyner:

That the university professoriate, particularly at elite institutions, is radically more liberal than the society at large is undisputed. The causes for the phenomenon are hotly debated.

Presumably, Haidt’s assertion that this lack of diversity skews research findings — and even acceptable topics for research — is more controversial. But it shouldn’t be. After all, it’s widely accepted within the academy, particularly the social sciences, that the longtime domination of the field by white males had that effect.

But it’s far from clear what to do about it. Women and racial minorities were actively discriminated against while the bias against conservatives is subtle and largely unconscious. Indeed, the fact that their professors are liberals who show disdain for conservative values doubtless discourages conservatives from pursuing the academic career path.

Should there be active outreach to conservatives? Maybe, although I’m dubious. Should liberal professors undergo sensitivity training in order to learn not to offend conservative students? Probably not.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Politics

They’ve Got No Energy For It

David Herszenhorn at NYT:

After a meeting of Senate Democrats, party leaders on Thursday said they had abandoned hope of passing a comprehensive energy bill this summer and would pursue a more limited measure focused on responding to the gulf oil spill and tightening  energy efficiency standards.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a champion of comprehensive climate change legislation, called the new goal “admittedly narrow.”

At a news conference, the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, blamed Republicans for refusing to cooperate. “We don’t have a single Republican to work with us,” Mr. Reid said.

Democrats said they would continue to pursue broader climate change legislation.

“This is not the only energy legislation we are going to do,” Mr. Reid said. “This is what we can do now.”

Allah Pundit:

Supposedly it’s merely a scheduling move, aimed at pushing the C&T debate into the fall when the Senate calendar is less crowded.

Really, though? Democrats, who are already terrified of losing Congress, are going to surf into the midterms with an eleventh-hour push for a hugely expensive new bill related to … global warming? With the GOP already armed with ad-ready video of Obama talking about how it’ll make energy prices “skyrocket”? Radical prediction: Reid’s going to end up deciding in September that the schedule’s still a little too “crowded” to take this up.

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

Instead, according to Politico, the Democratic leadership will attempt to pass a more limited energy bill in the fall that will have:

…low-hanging-fruit provisions dealing with the oil spill, Home Star energy efficiency upgrades, incentives for the conversion of trucking fleet to natural gas and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The death of the expensive and pork-laden carbon rationing scheme is good news for now. However, it is widely expected that the Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives and reduce their membership in the Senate in the upcoming mid-term elections. Some commentators fear that defeated Democrats who are no longer beholden to their constituents will use the lame duck session in December to ram through carbon rationing (and much else).

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

That hasn’t and won’t stop Reid and the White House from blaming Republican lawmakers. But this is one accusation to which Republicans should be glad to plead guilty. If Reid wants to accuse them of stopping another job-killing, tax-hiking, mammoth piece of legislation, I don’t think Republicans will mind.

Andrew Restuccia at The Washington Independent:

Just got a readout of what’s likely to be included in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) scaled-down energy bill. According to an environmentalist source with close ties to the discussions, the bill will likely include:

– An oil spill response title based on the bill passed by the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee and the bill lifting the liability cap for economic damages in the event of a spill passed by the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, both passed out of committee last month.

– A title on energy efficiency that will be based on the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, which gives homeowners incentives to make their homes more efficient.

Significantly, the source says the bill might not include a renewable energy standard, which environmentalists and other groups have been pushing aggressively.

A spokesperson for Reid, Regan Lachapelle, declined to comment on the bill, saying more information will be available after a caucus lunch being held today on the issue.

More to come…

Steve Benen:

The “admittedly narrow” legislation won’t be completely useless; it just won’t do what we need it to do. The plan is to have this bill include new oil company regulations, cover spill liability issues, reinvest in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, put some money into manufacturing of natural gas vehicles, and create some jobs through Home Star (the program formally known as Cash for Caulkers).

The list of key provisions that aren’t in this bill isn’t short — any kind of cap-and-trade, renewable energy standards, etc. — but the leadership is convinced it just doesn’t have a choice. “We know where we are,” Reid told reporters. “We don’t have the votes.”

So, is that it? Is the congressional effort to combat global warming dead? Probably.

Brad Plumer at The New Republic:

This would be a no-brainer energy bill that should easily get 60 votes. The oil-spill response provisions largely entail reforming the Interior Department and tightening regulations for rigs. The only controversial section is the bit about lifting the cap on liabilities for oil spills. (At the moment, oil companies have to pay to clean up their messes, but they’re only on the hook for the first $75 million in indirect damages.) Even Home Star, which I wrote about recently, picked up a number of Republican votes in the House.

Trouble is, this bill won’t do much to address climate change. It doesn’t have a renewable standard for electric utilities. There’s no cap on carbon emissions. There isn’t a broader suite of efficiency measures that could really start chipping away at all the energy bloat and waste in the economy. Democratic staffers say that most of those measures will have to be brought up in a separate bill, after the August recess. Although then we get into the question of whether there will even be time to consider the climate provisions. Possibly not.

And there’s another question: Is it a smart strategy to separate the oil-spill provisions from everything else? The thing about the spill-response legislation was that it was popular. Moderate Republicans were relatively nervous about opposing it—who wants to be seen as protecting BP? Including rig regulations in a broader energy/climate bill might have improved the chances of passing the whole thing. But what happens if the two are split apart? The odds of a climate bill plummet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Energy, Legislation Pending

So Easy A Caveman Can Do It

Science Magazine:

The morphological features typical of Neandertals first appear in the European fossil record about 400,000 years ago (13). Progressively more distinctive Neandertal forms subsequently evolved until Neandertals disappeared from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago (4). During the later part of their history, Neandertals lived in Europe and Western Asia as far east as Southern Siberia (5) and as far south as the Middle East. During that time, Neandertals presumably came into contact with anatomically modern humans in the Middle East from at least 80,000 years ago (6, 7) and subsequently in Europe and Asia.

Neandertals are the sister group of all present-day humans. Thus, comparisons of the human genome to the genomes of Neandertals and apes allow features that set fully anatomically modern humans apart from other hominin forms to be identified. In particular, a Neandertal genome sequence provides a catalog of changes that have become fixed or have risen to high frequency in modern humans during the last few hundred thousand years and should be informative for identifying genes affected by positive selection since humans diverged from Neandertals.

Substantial controversy surrounds the question of whether Neandertals interbred with anatomically modern humans. Morphological features of present-day humans and early anatomically modern human fossils have been interpreted as evidence both for (8, 9) and against (10, 11) genetic exchange between Neandertals and the presumed ancestors of present-day Europeans. Similarly, analysis of DNA sequence data from present-day humans has been interpreted as evidence both for (12, 13) and against (14) a genetic contribution by Neandertals to present-day humans. The only part of the genome that has been examined from multiple Neandertals, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genome, consistently falls outside the variation found in present-day humans and thus provides no evidence for interbreeding (1519). However, this observation does not preclude some amount of interbreeding (14, 19) or the possibility that Neandertals contributed other parts of their genomes to present-day humans (16). In contrast, the nuclear genome is composed of tens of thousands of recombining, and hence independently evolving, DNA segments that provide an opportunity to obtain a clearer picture of the relationship between Neandertals and present-day humans.

A challenge in detecting signals of gene flow between Neandertals and modern human ancestors is that the two groups share common ancestors within the last 500,000 years, which is no deeper than the nuclear DNA sequence variation within present-day humans. Thus, even if no gene flow occurred, in many segments of the genome, Neandertals are expected to be more closely related to some present-day humans than they are to each other (20). However, if Neandertals are, on average across many independent regions of the genome, more closely related to present-day humans in certain parts of the world than in others, this would strongly suggest that Neandertals exchanged parts of their genome with the ancestors of these groups.

Several features of DNA extracted from Late Pleistocene remains make its study challenging. The DNA is invariably degraded to a small average size of less than 200 base pairs (bp) (21, 22), it is chemically modified (21, 2326), and extracts almost always contain only small amounts of endogenous DNA but large amounts of DNA from microbial organisms that colonized the specimens after death. Over the past 20 years, methods for ancient DNA retrieval have been developed (21, 22), largely based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) (27). In the case of the nuclear genome of Neandertals, four short gene sequences have been determined by PCR: fragments of the MC1R gene involved in skin pigmentation (28), a segment of the FOXP2 gene involved in speech and language (29), parts of the ABO blood group locus (30), and a taste receptor gene (31). However, although PCR of ancient DNA can be multiplexed (32), it does not allow the retrieval of a large proportion of the genome of an organism.

The development of high-throughput DNA sequencing technologies (33, 34) allows large-scale, genome-wide sequencing of random pieces of DNA extracted from ancient specimens (3537) and has recently made it feasible to sequence genomes from late Pleistocene species (38). However, because a large proportion of the DNA present in most fossils is of microbial origin, comparison to genome sequences of closely related organisms is necessary to identify the DNA molecules that derive from the organism under study (39). In the case of Neandertals, the finished human genome sequence and the chimpanzee genome offer the opportunity to identify Neandertal DNA sequences (39, 40).

A special challenge in analyzing DNA sequences from the Neandertal nuclear genome is that most DNA fragments in a Neandertal are expected to be identical to present-day humans (41). Thus, contamination of the experiments with DNA from present-day humans may be mistaken for endogenous DNA. We first applied high-throughput sequencing to Neandertal specimens from Vindija Cave in Croatia (40, 42), a site from which cave bear remains yielded some of the first nuclear DNA sequences from the late Pleistocene in 1999 (43). Close to one million bp of nuclear DNA sequences from one bone were directly determined by high-throughput sequencing on the 454 platform (40), whereas DNA fragments from another extract from the same bone were cloned in a plasmid vector and used to sequence ~65,000 bp (42). These experiments, while demonstrating the feasibility of generating a Neandertal genome sequence, were preliminary in that they involved the transfer of DNA extracts prepared in a clean-room environment to conventional laboratories for processing and sequencing, creating an opportunity for contamination by present-day human DNA. Further analysis of the larger of these data sets (40) showed that it was contaminated with modern human DNA (44) to an extent of 11 to 40% (41). We employed a number of technical improvements, including the attachment of tagged sequence adaptors in the clean-room environment (23), to minimize the risk of contamination and determine about 4 billion bp from the Neandertal genome.

Eliza Strickland at Discover:

Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology first sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome from powdered bone fragments found in Europe and dating from 40,000 years ago–a marvelous accomplishment in itself. Then, they compared the Neanderthal genome to that of five modern humans, including Africans, Europeans, and Asians. The researchers found that between 1 percent and 4 percent of the DNA in modern Europeans and Asians was inherited from Neanderthals, which suggests that the interbreeding took place after the first groups of humans left Africa.

Anthropologists have long speculated that early humans may have mated with Neanderthals, but the latest study provides the strongest evidence so far, suggesting that such encounters took place around 60,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East [The Guardian].

The study, published in Science and made available to the public for free, opens up new areas for research. Geneticists will now probe the function of the Neanderthal genes that humans have hung on to, and can also look for human genes that may have given us a competitive edge over Neanderthals.

Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has long argued that Neanderthals contributed to the human genome, welcomed the study, commenting that now researchers “can get on to other things than who was having sex with who in the Pleistocene”

Science Blog:

Neanderthals lived in much of Europe and western Asia before dying out 30,000 years ago. They coexisted with humans in Europe for thousands of years, and fossil evidence led some scientists to speculate that interbreeding may have occurred there. But the Neanderthal DNA signal shows up not only in the genomes of Europeans, but also in people from East Asia and Papua New Guinea, where Neanderthals never lived.

“The scenario is not what most people had envisioned,” Green said. “We found the genetic signal of Neanderthals in all the non-African genomes, meaning that the admixture occurred early on, probably in the Middle East, and is shared with all descendants of the early humans who migrated out of Africa.”

The study did not address the functional significance of the finding that between 1 and 4 percent of the genomes of non-Africans is derived from Neanderthals. But Green said there is no evidence that anything genetically important came over from Neanderthals. “The signal is sparsely distributed across the genome, just a ‘bread crumbs’ clue of what happened in the past,” he said. “If there was something that conferred a fitness advantage, we probably would have found it already by comparing human genomes.”

The draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome is composed of more than 3 billion nucleotides–the “letters” of the genetic code (A, C, T, and G) that are strung together in DNA. The sequence was derived from DNA extracted from three Neanderthal bones found in the Vindiga Cave in Croatia; smaller amounts of sequence data were also obtained from three bones from other sites. Two of the Vindiga bones could be dated by carbon-dating of collagen and were found to be about 38,000 and 44,000 years old.

Deriving a genome sequence–representing the genetic code on all of an organism’s chromosomes–from such ancient DNA is a remarkable technological feat. The Neanderthal bones were not well preserved, and more than 95 percent of the DNA extracted from them came from bacteria and other organisms that had colonized the bone. The DNA itself was degraded into small fragments and had been chemically modified in many places.

Carl Zimmer at Discover:

Ideas about our own kinship to Neanderthals have swung dramatically over the years. For many decades after their initial discovery, paleoanthropologists only found Neanderthal bones in Europe. Many researchers decided, like Schaafhausen, that Neanderthals were the ancestors of living Europeans. But they were also part of a much larger lineage of humans that spanned the Old World. Their peculiar features, like the heavy brow, were just a local variation. Over the past million years, the linked populations of humans in Africa, Europe, and Asia all evolved together into modern humans.

In the 1980s, a different view emerged. All living humans could trace their ancestry to a small population in Africa perhaps 150,000 years ago. They spread out across all of Africa, and then moved into Europe and Asia about 50,000 years ago. If they encountered other hominins in their way, such as the Neanderthals, they did not interbreed. Eventually, only our own species, the African-originating Homo sapiens, was left.

The evidence scientists marshalled for this “Out of Africa” view of human evolution took the form of both fossils and genes. The stocky, heavy browed Neanderthals did not evolve smoothly into slender, flat-faced Europeans, scientists argued. Instead, modern-looking Europeans just popped up about 40,000 years ago. What’s more, they argued, those modern-looking Europeans resembled older humans from Africa.

At the time, geneticists were learning how to sequence genes and compare different versions of the same genes among individuals. Some of the first genes that scientists sequenced were in the mitochondria, little blobs in our cells that generate energy. Mitochondria also carry DNA, and they have the added attraction of being passed down only from mothers to their children. The mitochondrial DNA of Europeans was much closer to that of Asians than either was to Africans. What’s more, the diversity of mitochondrial DNA among Africans was huge compared to the rest of the world. These sorts of results suggested that living humans shared a common ancestor in Africa. And the amount of mutations in each branch of the human tree suggested that that common ancestor lived about 150,000 years ago, not a million years ago.

Over the past 30 years, scientists have battled over which of these views–multi-regionalism versus Out of Africa–is right. And along the way, they’ve also developed more complex variations that fall in between the two extremes. Some have suggested, for example, that modern humans emerged out of Africa in a series of waves. Some have suggested that modern humans and other hominins interbred, leaving us with a mix of genetic material.

Reconstructing this history is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that scientists can use it to plot out the rise of the human mind. If Neanderthals could make their own jewelry 50,000 years ago, for example, they might well have had brains capable of recognizing themselves as both individuals and as members of a group. Humans are the only living animals with that package of cognitive skills. Perhaps that package had already evolved in the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals. Or perhaps it evolved independently in both lineages.

Razib Khan at Discover

John Hawks:

If you had to sum up in a few words, what does this mean for paleoanthropology?

These scientists have given an immense gift to humanity.

I’ve been comparing it to the pictures of Earth that came back from Apollo 8. The Neandertal genome gives us a picture of ourselves, from the outside looking in. We can see, and now learn about, the essential genetic changes that make us human — the things that made our emergence as a global species possible.

And in doing so, they’ve taken a forgotten group of people — whom even most anthropologists had given up on — and they’ve restored them to their rightful place in our heritage.

Beyond that, they’ve taken all of their data and deposited it in a public database, so that the rest of us can inspect them, replicate results, and learn new things from them. High school kids can download this stuff and do science fair projects on Neandertal genomics.

This is what anthropology ought to be.

What did they sequence?

The Max Planck group obtained most of their genomic sequence from three specimens from Vindija — Vi33.16, Vi33.25, and Vi33.26. These are all postcranial fragments with minimal anatomical information. Green and colleagues were able to establish that the three bones represent different women, and that Vi33.16 and Vi33.26 may represent maternal relatives.

From these skeletons they got 5.3 billion bases of sequence. All this from an amount of bone powder about equal in mass to an aspirin pill.

Amazing. I mean, I know the folks at Max Planck are reading this. It’s inspiring to see what they’ve been able to do. These are three pieces of barely diagnostic hominin bone, and they’ve obtained literally hundreds of times more information than we have ever gotten from the fossil record of Neandertals.

I’ll describe the analyses of genetic similarity with humans in more detail below. As a brief summary, of those positions where the human genome differs from chimpanzees, Neandertals have the chimpanzee version around 12.7 percent of the time — meaning that across the genome, a Neandertal and a human will share a genetic ancestor an average of around 800,000 years ago. This is a couple hundred thousand years higher than the same number if we compare two humans to each other. The higher age of genetic common ancestors reflects partial isolation between the Neandertal population and the African populations that gave rise to most of our current genetic variation.

The team were able to identify 111 candidate duplications, almost all of which have some evidence of copy number variation in humans or other primates. They tentatively show that Neandertals have a bit more copy number variation than present-day humans, and identify a few loci with substantially higher copy numbers in one group or the other.

Jules Crittenden:

I recall in my own nathro days in college that was more of an open question … species or subpopulation, than it seems to have been more recently. Hawks holds puts us biologically in the same column. They are Homo sapiens, though he allows some paleontologists will disagree, based on morphological distinctions. But that, he notes, would make all non-Africans interspecies hybrids.

I kind of like the interspecies hybrid idea. It’s got an edgy sound to it. But Hawks also suggests that the 1 to 4 percent is only the currently discernable proportion. It could be higher, and sub-Saharan Africans could have some as yet undetected because it shows no variation from what we all have, part of the baseline, so to speak. I especially like his observation that genetically speaking, a minimum 1 percent Neanderthal genes in 5 billion people is the equivalent of 50 million Neanderthals “yawping from the rooftops,” which he suggests is not a bad genetic success rate for the Neanderthals. They weren’t evolutionary failures after all. Propagation of genetic material being the ultimate point of all our endeavors. Absent as yet is any indication of what discernable traits we might have inherited from them.

A lot of mind-bending aspects to this news. I’m good with it. I accepted being descended from slithering primodial bog sludge a long time ago. I mean one of those moments when you consider that, yeah, we have some successful molluscs and pretty nasty lizards to thank that we’re here, enjoying the good stuff. They lived and breathed, or whatever, just like us. More recent descent from thickset hairy low brows, that’s neither such a big surprise nor anything to sneer at. A delight that the mysterious, exotic strain known only through science and maybe vague mythic memory turns out, as Hawks says, not to have been a complete deadend. They live in us.

In fact, I was deliriously happy driving home tonight, thinking about all that grand and terrible prehistory. It’s not like anything’s changed with this news. It’s like a few years ago, when I was able to identify a location I had wondered about. The forgotten village in Kent where my father’s people … our Y chromosome … dwelt for centuries, down to the pub where they lived and poured beer, and the names of about 10 generations of them. It was like figuring out there are Saxons, Vikings, Celts and Picts up the line, and the ones who built Stonehenge, learning a little about who and what those direct barbarian forebears were. None of this past is that far in the past, after all. It all happened yesterday. And whenyou start to zero in on them, it’s a homecoming feeling: “There you are. I knew it.”

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

I will mention that my 23andMe genotype scan indicates my maternal haplogroup is U5a2a which arose some 40,000 years ago and were among the first homo sapiens colonizers of ice age Europe.

If you’re interested, go here for my column on what rights Neanderthals might claim should we ever succeed in using cloning technologies to bring them back.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Science

How Did John Kerry Find Time To Write A Bill With All The Blogging He’s Been Doing?

John Kerry at Huffington Post:

I don’t think there are many people left who really question that we need a major transformation in the way we produce power, the disaster in the Gulf being the latest wakeup call for anyone who was still sleeping. It was the most recent reminder that 40 years after Richard Nixon started talking about “energy independence,” we’re still stuck or moving backwards — our economy constantly rattled by the volatile price of oil, our planet’s climate increasingly unstable thanks to the pollution we’re pumping into the atmosphere.

And, oh yes, we’re sending billions of dollars a day overseas, with the global oil market enriching some of the most autocratic and anti-American regimes around the world. Here’s one fact to stiffen the spine: as my friend Jon Powers and his band of veterans remind me, every day we keep going with what we’re doing makes Iran $100 million richer and takes over a billion dollars out of our economy. Every single day.

That’s why I’m doubling down on the proposal I’m rolling out today with Senator Lieberman, a work product that reflects six months of contribution from Lindsey Graham, and hundreds of meetings with our colleagues: major energy and comprehensive climate change legislation that meets this big challenge. It’s a practical pathway to finally end our addiction to oil, put Americans back in control of our own power production, and release the innovation and ingenuity of Americans to build the clean energy economy we need to build prosperity in the 21st century.

It’ll help us create nearly 2 million new jobs, develop new products, and support the research and development to help us maintain leadership in the global economy. And it’ll even reduce the deficit by about $21 billion in nine years.

And we’ve got to pass it this year.

I’m asking you to look at it on the merits, but also knowing that we have to find 60 votes in a tough atmosphere in Washington, on an issue where even a lot of good Democrats have been reluctant to act over the years.

The big details:

In the bill, we finally start to bring down carbon pollution by sending a clear price signal on that pollution. This market is tightly controlled, with only folks who need the permits able to buy the permits in the initial auction. No Wild West of speculation, no big banks coming in to buy up permits. Then the corporations who buy those permits can trade among themselves, so if a company makes great strides in bringing down their carbon pollution, they get the benefit of being able to sell off their permits, and if they don’t, they need to buy more. It’s simple, fair, and rewards those American companies who work hard to bring down their emissions of carbon pollution. And much of the proceeds of that carbon auction get sent straight to the American people, helping out consumers with their energy bills. Bottom line: it does what President Obama told the world we’d do — it reduces greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 2005 levels at 2050.

We also set up a tough, WTO-consistent border adjustment mechanism so that there won’t be any “carbon leakage” of companies manufacturing things overseas in countries that don’t manage their emissions. Imports from those countries will have to pay a fee at the border. This will protect American industry and make sure jobs stay here at home. And we threaded that needle in a way that President Obama can support — you’ll remember he was concerned about the way it’s been handled in previous bills.

Next, we know we’re in the middle of a major catastrophe in the Gulf, and we need to learn all the right lessons. The big lesson? Get us to the day when oil spills are infinitely less likely because we’re not scrambling to pump every last barrel of oil out of every inch of the earth. You do that by transforming energy in America.

But there’s more we do in the short term. This bill starts tightening up federal law around offshore drilling, adding two major reforms. First, any state can veto drilling less than 75 miles off their coast. Second, each new rig needs to be studied for the effects of any potential spill, and any state that could be affected has the right to call a halt to the project. This creates important local control over the beaches and waterways of our country.

More John Kerry at Grist:

Busy day here — started early with some curtain-raising morning television to kick off the discussion a bit about the American Power Act that Joe Lieberman [I-Conn.] and a unique coalition are talking about later today.

But sometimes those morning-show interviews are a bit of a reminder of how much detailed discussion we lose when we’re crammed into a two- or three- or five-minute back-and-forth, which is especially tough on an issue like a comprehensive approach to climate and energy.

Which brings me to why I wanted to come by Grist — because of the in-depth discussions you’ve already had here again and again on this issue.

But — and here’s the but — I don’t want to swing by and just sort of preach to the choir. We’re true believers — we already get the imperative of the threat our addiction to carbon-emitting energy poses. You know the science, you know the reality, and so do I.

So, what I do want to talk about is this: We need to take a deep dive together on the Senate strategy, and on the real details of the bill that make it important for the things you and I care about. So, I hope I bring something new to that discussion that we can use as a jumping-off point.

First, the Senate dynamic — the politics of this place. I want to be candid about this, and I do so with a record on this issue that I think earned me the spurs to say this. We’ve been at this a long time. Al Gore and I held the Senate’s first climate-change hearings in the Commerce Committee way back in 1988. Since then, precious little progress has been made and ground has been lost internationally, all while the science has grown more compelling. I can barely even count any more the number of international summits I’ve attended, or press conferences we’ve held after losing climate-change votes in the Senate where our message was, “Next year, we can get this done — don’t give up on the United States or the Senate.” Two Congresses ago, we had 38 votes for a bill. Last Congress, we had 54 votes for cloture out of 60 needed — and we said then — me, Joe, Barbara Boxer [D-Calif.] — that this Congress we could get to 60 and pass a bill.

So what have we done? A lot of meeting and listening — between me, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.], hundreds of meetings one-on-one with our colleagues to find out what they needed to support a bill. And I absolutely believe we’re closer than ever to getting across the finish line — but make no mistake, it remains difficult, even with President Obama in the White House, and even with the House of Representatives having passed their bill by the slimmest of margins last summer. But we’re going full-steam ahead because, in my judgment, this may be the last and certainly the best chance for the Senate to act, especially with the fact that I think the next Senate — given a 2012 presidential campaign added to the dynamic and a lot of new senators — is going to be less likely than this one to find a path to the 60 votes needed for passage. So we’ve got to get it done this year.

Hear me out on this one — you know where I’ve been and continue to be on all the major environmental fights since even before I became a senator. As a lieutenant governor, I focused on acid rain and we laid the groundwork for the successful fight on the Clean Air Act in 1990, with the support of the first President Bush and bipartisan support from Congress. In stark contrast to that effort to find a bipartisan way forward, I led the successful filibuster — against the urging of many in our Democratic caucus — to defeat the second President Bush’s plan to drill in and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I point to these twin examples because I think they’re evidence that I know when to dig in and fight, and I also know when and how to find the path to getting something done across the aisle.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress, yesterday:

You can read the leaked 21-page draft Section-by-Section description of the American Power Act here (big PDF).  You can read the leaked 4-page “draft short summary” by clicking here.

Before offering my thoughts on individual sections, here’s Dan Weiss, CAPAF’s Director of Climate Strategy:

“The Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act jump starts efforts to adopt comprehensive clean energy and climate polices that would cut oil use, increase security, reduce pollution and create jobs.  The BP oil disaster is like a signal flare warning us that we must reduce our oil use via investments in more efficient, cleaner energy technologies.  President Obama and Senate leaders must work together to craft a comprehensive program that achieves these goals.”

Many analysis have shown how clean energy legislation will create 1.7 million jobs and opportunities for low-income families, including lower energy bills.

So let’s go through this, starting with the summary.

“From day one, two-thirds of revenues not dedicated to reducing our deficit are rebated back to consumers.”  The rest goes to low-carbon energy development and deployment along with things to aid industries in transition to a low carbon economy.

In the later years, every penny not spent to reduce the deficit will go directly back to consumers.

You might call it cap-and-dividend, were the name not taken.

Yes, much of this money goes back to consumers through the local regulated utilities, but that was not only inevitable from a political perspective — to keep utilities and Senators from the mid-west and south from immediately bolting — it’s actually a good idea from the perspective of regional equity (see here and here).  There’s just no other way to construct a bill that could have any chance whatsoever in either house of Congress.

The auctioning is done along the lines I suggested here:  How the Senate can fix cost containment in the climate bill with ‘price collar plus’.  The floor price starts at $12 in 2013 and rises 3% plus inflation each year.  The ceiling starts at $25 increasing 5% plus inflation annually.

The bad news is that, after the regular allowances are auctioned off — and then after the strategic reserve is auctioned off (explained here) — the hard ceiling is maintained by providing unlimited new allowances.  The “good news” is that I can’t see us getting near the ceiling price until well into the 2020s since  the emissions targets are so weak compared to where we are today — EIA Stunner: Energy-related CO2 emissions are now down nearly 10% from 2005 levels — and since there are so many low-cost clean energy strategies available, many of which are directly incentivized by this bill (see “Game changer part 2: Unconventional gas makes the 2020 target of a 17% reduction so damn easy and cheap to meet).”

I will do a post soon on why these floor and ceiling prices are sufficient to drive significant clean energy into the marketplace, including fuel switching from coal to natural gas.

Yes, there are still 2 billion offsets, but they won’t vitiate the 2020 target because, again, it’s too easy to meet with efficiency, conservation, renewables, and natural gas fuel switching.  Large quantities of offsets aren’t gonna be cheaper those solutions.  As I wrote here, I doubt offsets will comprise even 3% out of the 17% target achieved by emitters in 2020.  And yes, I would take a bet on that.  The oversight provision seems pretty solid to me.

Moreover, I expect most of the offsets sold will be domestic ones — if we get an international deal (which is really only possible if we can pass a climate bill), then I expect international offsets will be fairly pricey by 2020.  And CBO said half of the domestic offsets are actual emission reductions in uncovered sectors.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

The perversely-named “American Power Act” retains the cap on carbon emissions “credits” and a tax of at least $12-per-ton on carbon produced by large emitters, while imposes broad new regulations on industrial, transportation, and energy infrastructure. It aims to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent over 10 years and 83 percent over 40 years. The tax “floor” of $12 would indexed at inflation plus 3 percent, while the tax “ceiling” would be set at $25 and be indexed to inflation plus 5 percent. The proposed federal cap-and-tax system would eliminate existing state-run efforts, and pay off those states for lost revenue.

At the same time, the bill includes a grab-bag of costly subsidies to affected industries, including billions in cash subsidies and tax credits to the transportation industry, loan guarantees for nuclear plant builders, and a number of exemptions from emissions caps and other protections for favored industries like steel and Big Ag. The bill also appears to contain a plethora of government-funded “pilot programs” for the green tech sector in which so many high-profile supporters of cap-and-trade hold large financial stakes.

In light of the Gulf spill, Kerry-Lieberman makes a complete 180 on offshore drilling. While earlier drafts of the bill were aimed at expanding offshore drilling, the released version makes it more difficult — if not impossible — for the federal government to pursue such efforts, allowing states to opt out of drilling up to 75 miles off their coasts. States will also be able to veto any drilling efforts that would have a major adverse impact in the event of a drilling accident.

Reactions from usual-suspect stakeholders have been slow to come in, as their lobbying and policy arms are no doubt balancing the bevy of direct and indirect taxes against the dollar-value of the subsidies and giveaways.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

Basically, the bill bribes just about every player in the energy sector in the hopes that they will set a price for carbon and allow a cap. It’s nearly impossible to see how this cap would be enforced, however, given all the allowances and exemptions and giveaways. Over time, this may push us toward a new regime of cleaner energy. In the near term, it kind of looks like a mess. And because the other two major planks, energy efficiency and renewable energy standards, are so poor in this bill, it makes it much harder to say that it will usher in a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. If those pieces were significantly strengthened, those willing to lay down for this bill would at least have an argument.

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

Not having had time yet to analyze 987 pages of proposed legislation, it is still the case that what government is likely to do about global warming will be worse than global warming.

Steve Benen:

As for the APA’s prospects, as we’ve discussed before, getting a climate/energy bill through the Senate was going to be tough under normal circumstances. Now, the challenge is arguably even greater — Kerry and Lieberman have to find a way to break a Republican filibuster; they have to keep business interests on board; they have to keep Midwestern Dems from jumping ship; they have to thread a needle on increased oil drilling; and they have to consider what happens in the House in the event the Senate actually passes their bill. Oh, and they have to do it all rather quickly, while Republicans try to run out the clock, and with other agenda items battling for attention.

But I give Kerry and Lieberman credit for tackling this, despite the odds, because it’s absolutely necessary. Republicans will almost certainly make significant gains in the midterms, and much of the GOP considers climate science some kind of nefarious plot cooked up by communists. If the bill dies this year, after having already passed the House, we may not see another vote on the issue at all until 2013, at the earliest.

And we really can’t wait that long.

Leave a comment

Filed under Energy, Environment, Legislation Pending

Go Patent Yourself!

The Economist:

Since the decoding of the human genome, biotechnology companies have claimed that by matching a person’s genetic make-up with specialised treatments, they can tailor drugs to maximise benefits and minimise side effects. Alas, researchers have discovered that the link between a given person’s genetic make-up and specific diseases is much more complex than they had hoped. The tantalising vision remains out of reach.

A rare exception has been the success that Myriad Genetics, an American firm, has had with two genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Certain versions of these genes, it has been shown, are associated with a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The University of Utah has patented the genes and licenses them to Myriad. The firm uses that exclusivity to create expensive genetic tests for cancer risk which only it offers for sale (the patents and licensing conditions are different outside the United States).

The BRCA patents have long frustrated medical researchers, cancer lobbyists and legal activists. They claim that the firm’s grip on the two genes unlawfully stifles both innovation and basic science. Given the history of patent rulings in America, that has been a fringe argument—until now.

On March 29th the New York District Court made a ruling that, taken at face value, turns America’s approach to the patent protection of genes on its head. A coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had challenged the very basis of Myriad’s patents. The nub of the case was this question: “Are isolated human genes and the comparison of their sequences patentable things?”

Until now, the answer had been “Yes”. But Robert Sweet, the presiding judge, disagreed, at least as far as the BRCA genes are concerned. After weighing up Myriad’s arguments, he ruled: “It is concluded that DNA’s existence in an ‘isolated’ form alters neither this fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes. Therefore, the patents at issues directed to ‘isolated DNA’ containing sequences found in nature are unsustainable as a matter of law and are deemed unpatentable subject matter.” Mr Sweet reasoned that DNA represents the physical embodiment of biological information, and that such biological information is a natural phenomenon.

Genome Web:

The ACLU’s and PUBPAT’s lawsuit against Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which hold the patents on the BRCA genes, as well the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), charged that the challenged patents are illegal and restrict both scientific research and patients’ access to medical care, and that patents on human genes violate the First Amendment and patent law because genes are “products of nature.”

The specific patents that the ACLU had challenged are on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations along the BRCA1 and 2 genes are responsible for most cases of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. The patents granted to Myriad give the company the exclusive right to perform diagnostic tests on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

William L. Warren, partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, believes this is a “poor decision that may have negative short-term implications for financing in the biotechnology sector, and hence the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics, until it is overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in the next one to two years. Certainly, the sequencing of genes and disease-associated mutations for use in developing diagnostic probes and assays provides useful nonnaturally occurring subject matter that should qualify for patentability under the statute.

“While native genes in the body are originally products of nature, isolating portions of the DNA in order to perform a diagnosis transforms the DNA structurally and functionally into patentable subject matter,” he continues. “The isolated DNA has been markedly changed to become a useful product, even though it carries some of the same information as the native gene.

“Whether through the progress of scientific knowledge and techniques the isolation of such DNA fragments becomes routine or obvious is a separate question, which was not at issue in this case.”

Megan Carpentier at The Washington Independent

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

GenomeWeb quotes ACLU attorney Chris Hansen as saying:

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the free flow of ideas in scientific research. The human genome, like the structure of blood, air or water, was discovered, not created. There is an endless amount of information on genes that begs for further discovery, and gene patents put up unacceptable barriers to the free exchange of ideas.”

Hansen is making the argument that gene patents have created an anti-commons that is impeding important research. But is that so? I looked into the issue three years ago and could find little empirical support for the …

… concern that the over-proliferation of patents, instead of encouraging innovation, is stifling it. This argument achieved prominence in an influential 1998 article published in Science by two University of Michigan law professors, Michael A. Heller and Rebecca S. Eisenberg. Heller and Eisenberg worried that the privatization of biomedical research “promises to spur private investment but risks creating a tragedy of the anticommons through a proliferation of fragmented and overlapping intellectual property rights.”

By “anticommons,” they meant a situation in which the existence of a large number of intellectual property rights applicable to a single good or service unduly retards or even prevents its provision. The blockage to innovation would occur because of high transaction costs, the conflicting goals of various intellectual property owners, and cognitive biases in which owners overvalue their own patents, undervalue others’ patents, and reject reasonable offers.

As evidence for a biomedical anticommons, analysts regularly cite the high profile case of “probably the most hated diagnostics company,” Myriad Genetics.

As evidence against the existence of a research anti-commons, I cited a number of studies by the National Academy of Sciences and I further noted that …

… in 2006, Nature Biotechnology published a review (free registration required) of the academic literature on the existence of a research anticommons. The review concluded that “among academic biomedical researchers in the United States, only one percent report having had to delay a project and none having abandoned a project as a result of others’ patents, suggesting that neither anticommons nor restrictions on access were seriously limiting academic research.” Worryingly, the review noted there was evidence that secrecy was growing among academic researchers. However, patent issues do not seem to be fueling this secrecy. One study suggested that increased academic research secrecy arises chiefly from concerns about securing scientific priority (scientific competition) and the high cost and effort involved in sharing scientific materials and data.

In 2007, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report, International Intellectual Property Experiences: A Report of Four Countries, which surveyed thousands of scientists in the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and Japan to assess their experiences in acquiring, using, or creating intellectual property. The AAAS study found “very little evidence of an ‘anticommons problem.'” As Stephen Hansen, the director of the AAAS study, noted in a press release, “All four studies suggest that intellectual property rights had little negative impact on the practice of science.”

Perhaps there is newer and better evidence for a research anti-commons. I will look into it again and report back.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

Biotech businesses and their scientists say the decision will stifle research, destroy incentives for product development, and grow government by leaving federally supported universities as the only institutions willing to undertake further genetic studies. None of this rings true. No doubt holding legal monopoly over a part of a human being is more lucrative for any firm than having to compete with other companies in developing biotechnology, but it is not necessarily best for patients. Other industries do just fine in terms of innovation, and much better in terms of cost control, without being able to patent their consumers.

I think this paragraph from the New York Times‘ story gets at the nub of the matter:

[The company] sells a test costing more than $3,000 that looks for mutations in the two genes to determine if a woman is at a high risk of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs in the case had said Myriad’s monopoly on the test, conferred by the gene patents, kept prices high and prevented women from getting a confirmatory test from another laboratory.

Considering the amounts of money at stake in the principle, we’ll be hearing much more about this in months to come.

Josh Rosenau at Science Blogs:

This does not invalidate patents on organisms with modified genes or genomes, nor does it invalidate the act of modifying a gene in order to insert it into an organism. This does not, by my reading, set up Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready crops to lose patent protection, though it may free up competitors to develop similar genes, and may give farmers an easier way to protect themselves against a claim when Monsanto asserts patent violations because of crosspollination.

The court was asked to consider the chilling effect on research produced by patents for naturally occurring genes. Fortunately, the decision seems to have avoided that line of argument, as it opens a massive can of worms. In general, I’m inclined to oppose patents and copyright laws that restrict research, artistic development, medical care, or other humanitarian services. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s a call judges ought to be making. I’d rather see the laws themselves fixed when such chilling effects are seen. This judge’s ruling fired a shot across the bow of lawmakers about the abuses of genetic patents, and one hopes lawmakers will listen.

Given the sweeping victory on a summary judgment motion, the ACLU is understandably elated. “We are extremely gratified by this groundbreaking decision,” said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “This is the beginning of the end to patents that restrict women’s access to their own genetic information and interfere with their medical care.” We can hope so. The appeals are inevitable, and are headed toward a notably pro-corporate and anti-woman Supreme Court, so there’s no guarantee that this ruling will hold up, but it’s a good first step.

As John Ball, executive vice president of the American Society for Clinical Pathology put it: “It’s good for patients and patient care, it’s good for science and scientists. It really opens up things.”

Katherine Harmon at Scientific American

Ashby Jones at WSJ Law Blog:

Peter Meldrum, Myriad’s chief executive, said the company will appeal. “I don’t believe that the final outcome of this litigation will have a material impact on Myriad’s operations,” he said. “We have 23 patents relating to BRCA genes, and this litigation only involves seven of those 23 patents.

Leave a comment

Filed under Health Care, Science, The Constitution

Reuters Isn’t The Only Organization Pulling Stories

Monica Potts at Tapped:

The Lancet has finally, finally withdrawn a long-discredited study linking autism to vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella.

The ethical problems behind the research have long been noted, and other studies have failed to repeat the findings. But the retraction comes too late to stop the 1998 study from doing damage. Money is diverted to studying vaccines rather than finding the real causes of and solutions to autism, and parents are refusing to get their children vaccinated. That’s led to an increase in diseases we know definitely hurt children, like measles, in developed countries that had long seen them disappear.

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

Since its publication, study after study could find no such correlation between vaccination and the development of autism. The immediate reason for this long overdue retraction is that the U.K.’s General Medical Council just sanctioned lead researcher on that study, Canadian gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, for acting unethically. The retraction should end this harmful controversy, but I fear that the Wall Street Journal is right when it suggests:

… while the withdrawal supports the scientific evidence that vaccinations don’t cause autism, it isn’t likely to persuade advocacy groups who still believe in the link.

In fact, the anti-vaccine group SafeMinds has already jumped to the defense of Wakefield, declaring:

SafeMinds is very disappointed by the GMC’s [General Medical Council] findings  The false testimony and the ensuing GMC FTP hearing have had the effect of delaying necessary research into cause and treatment for autism, and dissuading scientists from pursuing research relating to vaccines as a cause of chronic disease.

Sigh.

Chris Mooney at Science Progress:

On a scientific level, the most severe undermining of Wakefield’s study came in the form of a 2004 analysis by the Institute of Medicine, one wing of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The IOM examined no less than 16 separate studies on the purported dangers of the MMR vaccine, in addition to Wakefield’s. The latter they found “uninformative with respect to causality”; overall, they concluded that “the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between MMR vaccine and autism.”

Even prior to that, ten of Wakefield’s original coauthors (out of twelve in total) had backed away from the work in a 2004 letter to The Lancet. “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient,” they wrote. “However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health.”

Meanwhile, a series of investigative stories published in The Times of London unearthed Wakefield’s undisclosed ties to vaccine litigation in the U.K. The full Lancet retraction that occurred yesterday builds on all of these developments, including, most recently, an investigation into Wakefield by the U.K.’s General Medical Council which declared him “irresponsible” and questioned, among other matters, the risks imposed upon children in the original study.

Let’s pause for a moment here. We’re talking about a single, small study—on just 12 children—that stirred a mass anti-vaccine movement and a trend away from vaccination that threatens public health in some wealthy counties. Already, you should be wondering how it could be possible to build so much upon such a slender reed. But if you then consider the subsequent fate of the study, and the scandal that has attended it, a reasonable person would surely conclude that the original scare about the MMR vaccine and autism had no serious foundation whatsoever.

Here’s the thing, though. It seems obvious to all recent commentators—myself included—that the latest Wakefield news will have virtually no impact on Wakefield’s passionate followers, the anti-vaccine ideologues in the UK and United States who have long cheered him on, and will continue to do so. If anything, it will probably only make them still stronger in their convictions.

David Kirby at Huffington Post:

Wakefield’s critics can condemn, retract, decry and de-license all they want, but that does nothing to stop or alter the march of science, which has come a long way over the past 12 years, and especially in the last year or two. The evidence that autism is increasing at alarming rates, and that some thing (or things) in our environment is wreaking havoc on a vulnerable one-percent of all US children is now so irrefutable that, finally, the federal government is climbing aboard the environmental research bandwagon – way late, but better than never.

This long-overdue paradigm shift will leave many in the scientific community with some proverbial but nonetheless uncomfortable egg on their increasingly irrelevant faces: Those who have protested with shrill certainty that autism is almost purely genetic, and not environmental in nature, and therefore not really increasing at all, will hopefully recede from the debate.

And that begs a nagging question: If those people were dead wrong about environmental factors in autism, could they also be mistaken in their equally heated denials about a possible vaccine-autism link? More bluntly, why should we heed them any longer?

We need to examine a host of environmental factors (air, water, food, medicine, household products and social factors) and how they might interact with vulnerable genes to create the varying collection of symptoms we call “autism.” But these triggers almost have to be found in every town of every county of every state in the land – from Maine to Maui.

Are vaccines the only contributing factors to autism? Of course not. Other pharmaceutical products like thalidomide and valporic acid, as well as live mumps virus, have been associated with increased autism risk in prenatal exposures, so we already know that a variety of drugs and bugs can likely make a child autistic.

But, there are now at least six published legal or scientific cases of children regressing into ASD following vaccination – and many more will be revealed in due time.

There was the case of Hannah Poling, in federal vaccine court, in which the government conceded that Hannah’s autism was caused by vaccine-induced fever and overstimulation of the immune system that aggravated an asymptomatic and previously undetected dysfunction of her mitochondria. Hannah received nine vaccines in one day, including MMR.

Then there was the Bailey Banks case, in which the court ruled that Petitioners had proven that MMR had directly caused a brain inflammation illness called “acute disseminated encephalomyelitis” (ADEM) which, in turn, had caused PDD-NOS, an autism spectrum disorder, in Bailey.

And last September, a chart review of children with autism and mitochondrial disease, published in the Journal of Child Neurology, looked at 28 children with ASD and mitochondrial disease and found that 17 of them (60.7%) had gone through autistic regression, and 12 of the regressive cases had followed a fever. Among the 12 children who regressed after fever, a third (4) had fever associated with vaccination, just like Hannah Poling.

Wesley Smith at First Things:

I post this not to get into the vaccine controversy.  Rather, if the article is as deficient in veritas as the Lancet states, I wonder if the article was more an “advocacy” piece than a “science” study. As I have noted repeatedly before, the scientific paper has become a powerful method of promoting ideological/political agendas. That has to stop, because it not only distorts politics but undermines science itself.

Jonathan Adler

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner

2 Comments

Filed under Health Care, Public Health, Science

Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock

Huffington Post:

The “Doomsday Clock” has been reset by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to six minutes to midnight, from five minutes to midnight.

A “more hopeful state of affairs” determined the movement of the clock one minute further away from midnight–or slightly further away from “total destruction.”

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists board explained the decision in a statement:

It is 6 minutes to midnight. We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons. For the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material. And for the first time ever, industrialized and developing countries alike are pledging to limit climate-changing gas emissions that could render our planet nearly uninhabitable. These unprecedented steps are signs of a growing political will to tackle the two gravest threats to civilization — the terror of nuclear weapons and runaway climate change.The BAS also cited the election of Barack Obama in moving the clock backward:

A key to the new era of cooperation is a change in the U.S. government’s orientation toward international affairs brought about in part by the election of Obama. With a more pragmatic, problem-solving approach, not only has Obama initiated new arms reduction talks with Russia, he has started negotiations with Iran to close its nuclear enrichment program, and directed the U.S. government to lead a global effort to secure loose fissile material in four years. He also presided over the U.N. Security Council last September where he supported a fissile material cutoff treaty and encouraged all countries to live up to their disarmament and nonproliferation obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty…Watch a replay of the Doomsday Clock news even at TurnBackTheClock.

Max Bergmann at Think Progress:

Progress has definitely been made, but before we pat ourselves on the back it is worth noting that in 1947 the clock was set at 7 minutes to midnight, therefore, according to the clock, the times we live in now are more dangerous than they were 60 years ago. On the face of it this doesn’t make much sense. In 1947 nuclear weapons had been used just two years earlier, norms against their use did not exist, the Soviets were determined to develop nukes, the US was determined to build more, and tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were escalating. In other words, things were pretty scary.

While today there is no superpower arms race (in fact the US and Russia are on the cusp of further nuclear cuts), tensions between superpowers are minimal by comparison, and strong norms have developed against the use of nuclear weapons, the depressing reality is that a nuclear incident is perhaps more likely today. As President Obama explained in Prague last spring:

Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.

Today we are confronted by new nuclear dangers, stemming from the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the dangers of illicit terrorist groups gaining access to nuclear materials. The congressionally mandated bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism concluded in a report published two years ago that a nuclear terror attack was likely within the next five years if nothing was done:

Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

Combating proliferation and nuclear terrorism is a real and serious problem and has been set at the top of the Obama foreign policy agenda, which is largely why the clock has been moved back. However, to move the clock back further the coming six months will be crucial.

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

Yesterday, I, in my gloomster mode, predicted that the hands of fate would be moved closer toward doom. I evidently misunderestimated the Obama Effect on the course of future history.

Daniel at Discover:

There’s no real metric with which to judge the “time”. The clock has an hour and minute hand, but no am/pm indicator, so in principle it can represent a total of twelve hours of unique settings. [For the sticklers, the clock in some sense lacks a unit of time; we need some other information to interpret what one of its minutes represents.] If we assume noon is “zero risk of annihilation”, and midnight is 100%, one approach would be to assume each advancing minute brings us 1/720 closer to our doom. This would mean that we presently have just under a 1% chance of ending it all. If we were to run through the last decade 200 times in a row, would we completely screw ourselves at least one time? This doesn’t sound all that unreasonable to me. Surely the odds were comparable to this during the Cuban missile crisis? (Although then the clock was at 11:53pm; it reacts to events on a relatively long timescale). The closest we’ve ever come to midnight was in the period 1953–1960, when both the US and the USSR were busy testing Hydrogen bombs. It was 11:58 pm. You might think we’re easily ten minutes earlier now, but the clock presently stands at 11:55pm. We’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough. In all likelihood, the clock was meant to be symbolic. And the main message is that we are minutes away from catastrophe, so let’s all shape it up.

Noel Sheppard at Newsbusters:

Readers are reminded that this clock was moved closer to midnight — meaning the end of the world — when Ronald Reagan was President (h/t Reason and NBer Jack Coleman)

Leave a comment

Filed under Military Issues, Political Figures