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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The prehistory of cartoons

Today on Science's Origins blog, I write about an exhibit at the prehistory museum of the Pech-Merle Cave, in France's Lot Valley, that traces the [pre]history of cartoons back to the Stone Age (more precisely, the Upper Paleolithic period.) Check it out at the link.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's too soon for health care reform

I'm going to put this as simply as I can: Americans will not have serious health care reform until there is a major mass movement behind it. Since when can we expect the politicians in Washington to enact something that would endanger or put of business entirely a multi-billion dollar industry like private health care? Just because it's the right thing to do? Just because it is what the country desperately needs?

Dream on. It's time for health care activists to get into the streets and show the politicians they mean business. Otherwise prepare to lose this round of the fight.

Whatever legislation is enacted by Congress will be far short of what is really needed. As I said in an earlier post, quoting former New England Journal of Medicine editor Arnold Relman, it is going to have to get worse before it gets better. Isn't that always the way?

Update: A Senate panel is close to coming up with a plan... that won't change much of anything.

More thoughts. As many here know, all of this talk about how much health care reform is going to "cost" is a total distraction from the truth of the matter. The answer is that a health care plan that included a public option would save Americans on the average a great deal of money, not cost them anything more. That's because wage earners and their employers would no longer be obliged to hand over the huge amount of money now given to profit-driven health insurance companies, which rake off huge administrative costs and profits.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Yes Men are back--in prime time!

First of all, for those who have never seen it, let's start off by watching one of the greatest, most brilliant, most successful, and most well deserved hoaxes in the history of political activism: On the 20th anniversary of the chemical disaster caused by Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, BBC World was taken in by a member of the Yes Men posing as a spokesman for Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide. The spokesman, "Jude Finisterra" (actually Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum), announced that Dow Chemical was taking full responsibility for the disaster and allotting $12 billion of corporate money to compensate the victims.



I saw this live when it happened, my mouth dropped open, and even though I knew something was terribly wrong (for Dow and the BBC, that is) I wanted to believe it. Audacious, breathtaking, stunning political satire--so right on that it will bring tears to your eyes.

Now, the good news: The Yes Men are premiering a new movie, "The Yes Men Fix the World," on HBO beginning Monday evening July 27, and the film will go into U.S. theatrical release on October 7 (click on the links for full details.) Many of you may know this already from listening to Democracy Now last Thursday, or perhaps you just know because you are sharp and paying attention to what goes on around you. Whatever, be sure to see it either on television or in the cinema when it comes out, buy the DVD when it is available, and support these brilliant pranksters. We need them desperately.

PS--One of the Yes Men's most elaborate hoaxes was a special issue of the New York Times.

Science Monday. Must reading for human evolution fans is University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne's review of "The Link," the book about Ida, the most hyped primate fossil in scientific history. Coyne's bottom line: "The Link fails the very first requirement of science journalism: the need to go beyond the claims of enthusiasts and look at the evidence objectively." Interestingly, the review is on the Barnes and Noble site, which gives you the opportunity to buy it anyway with just a couple of clicks. (With thanks to AG for the tip.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Maybe health care needs to get worse before it gets better?

I wonder if it might not turn out to be a good thing in the end that Congress will not come up with a health care plan before its summer recess. Perhaps Congress, Obama, and the American people need to think a little bit more what they are doing before real health care reform is possible. Congress needs to realize that continuing to suck at the campaign contribution teat of the health insurance industry is ultimately going to backfire on it; Obama needs to realize that he can't enact real health care reform without aggressively taking on the health insurance industry, rather than try to make a deal with it--the strategy that already failed 15 years ago in the hands of the Clinton administration; and Americans need to wake up and stop being suckers for every stupid piece of propaganda they are being fed by that self-same industry.

As many readers of this blog may already know, one of the most sensible and cogent analyses of what is wrong and what needs to be done was offered earlier this month in the New York Review of Books by Arnold Relman, former Editor in Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. If you have not already read it, please do so. His message is summed up in the last paragraph, and it is one that I fully agree with:

As bad as they already are, things will have to get still worse before major reform becomes politically possible. The legislation likely to emerge from this Congress will not control—and will probably even exacerbate—the inflation of costs. But sometime in the not-too- distant future, health expenditures will become intolerable and fundamental change will at last be accepted as the only way to avoid disaster. When that time arrives, the opportunity to enact real health reform will finally be at hand.

The hospital lobby.The president of the American Hospital Association made nine trips to the White House in the first six months of Obama's presidency, the Washington Post reports.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

No evidence against Mohammed Jawad, judge says, but that won't stop the government from trying to keep him locked up

Today's New York Times reports that federal Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle has given the U.S. government until Friday to put up or shut up in the case of Mohammed Jawad, an Afghani who was arrested as a young teenager and has been in U.S. custody for seven years, most of that time at Guantanamo. The case against Jawad, as the judge pointed out in her comments yesterday, is based almost entirely on confessions that were exacted through torture by both Afghan and American interrogators. For months, lawyers for the Obama administration's Department of Justice continued to rely on those coerced statements as the backbone of its case.

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with this notorious affair. But be sure to read the entire transcript of the judge's conversation with the government attorney, Kristina Wolfe (note that you can open the transcript in pdf format, see upper left section of the page.) Print it out, and if you are a teacher, assign it to your class and have your students read the entire thing. There is a whole education here about what the U.S. Constitution requires when somebody is accused of a crime. And, in reference to the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings, there is a lesson about the kind of "judicial temperament" that is appropriate when the government has been holding a prisoner for seven years despite major indications that they are not guilty--and is now trying to pull rabbits out of hats in order to keep him locked up.

Sadly, the Obama administration has tried to defend and uphold nearly every unconstitutional act committed by the Bush administration, for reasons that can only range from political expediency to political cowardice. And what will the Obama Justice Department do if the judge rules that Jawad must be set free? Read this segment from the Times story:

Jonathan Hafetz, Mr. Jawad’s lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, said Judge Huvelle’s comments were an indication that judges were growing uneasy about many of the government’s claims.

“It reflects the pent-up frustration among judges who have seen first hand the government’s lack of evidence,” Mr. Hafetz said.

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, did not respond to that assertion. But he said, “We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security.”

Even if a judge orders it? And by the way, how is releasing a man who is innocent in the eyes of the law a threat to national security? Oh, yes, this is the adminstration that is still considering a program of "preventive detention" of terrorist suspects. We are a nation of laws, until, that is, the law decrees something we don't like.

Addendum. Bob Herbert provided a lot of the background to the case in an earlier column. Since that column was written, the government has belatedly agreed that Jawad's statements during torture cannot be used in the habeas corpus proceeding (after maintaining just the opposite for many months.) As the judge herself put it, the government's case is now “riddled with holes.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cell phones in cars = death

A few years ago one of my best friends, a single mother of two sons, was driving near her home in New York state when another woman ran a red light and hit her broadside. The woman was talking on her cell phone and didn't see the red light nor my friend's car in the intersection.

My friend told me that she remembers thinking just before the impact, "My boys won't have a mother." Fortunately, although the driver squarely hit her side of the car and spun it around, my friend escaped with only minor injuries. Her car was totaled.

Today the New York Times reports that the U.S. government not only suppressed the carrying out of a proposed study into the risks of cell phone use while driving, but also suppressed releasing data from already conducted studies that clearly show how dangerous such behavior is. Notes the Times:

...the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.

On Tuesday, the full body of research is being made public for the first time by two consumer advocacy groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents. The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen provided a copy to The New York Times, which is publishing the documents on its Web site.

In interviews, the officials who withheld the research offered their fullest explanation to date.

The former head of the highway safety agency said he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states.

There's more:

The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002.

The researchers also shelved a draft letter they had prepared for Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to send, warning states that hands-free laws might not solve the problem.

That letter said that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason: a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers’ focus off the road, studies showed.

Psychologists who have studied multitasking are well aware of the reasons for this. Conscious activities such as talking on a cell phone require us to use our brain's working memory, a sort of mental blackboard that we use to carry out conscious tasks. But our working memory capacity is very limited, and it is very difficult for us to do more than one thing at a time--especially tasks that require conscious attention, such as driving.

But really, pretty much everyone knows this intuitively. That's why those people who insist on their right to talk on cell phones while driving are engaging in highly irresponsible behavior, to the point that it becomes disregard for human life. Such people may be perfectly nice in other aspects of their lives, but on the road they are potential killers. All cell phone use while driving, including hands free use, must be banned. Like smoking in public places, eventually it will be. The only question is how many people have to die in the meantime.

Photo: The automobile of Joan D. Skupien, 40, killed in Suffolk, Virginia while apparently talking on her cell phone. Fortunately, she was the only victim./City of Suffolk

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paris City of Night

I blogged sometime back about this thriller by my friend and colleague David Downie, and now it is out. Here is my Amazon review:

"Okay, this book's hero, Jay Grant, whose father was a CIA man, has got two women in his life although only one of them really has his best interests at heart. It takes Jay quite a while to figure that out, however, as he is pursued from one end of Paris to another trying to figure out why both the CIA and a bunch of bad guys are after some daguerreotypes--could it be they contain the codes needed to blow up the city? Or to stop the city from being blown up? Only a longtime Paris resident writer like David Downie could weave City of Light street scenes so integrally into a fast-paced thriller like this and not lose the plot thread. And talk about your celebrity cameos! Adolph Eichmann, Jim Morrison--never mind that they are dead, they both play key roles. Downie brings both Paris and his characters alive with an economical but richly descriptive prose style reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler. A must read!"

Need I say more?

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind



I hate to be a spoilsport, but is anybody else as ready to scream as I am if I hear this phrase one more time? (Oh, the BBC just did it again--aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhhhhh!)

If NASA really wants to impress us, perhaps they could come up with a Space Shuttle that does not endanger the lives of its astronauts every time it is launched (falling debris again this time), and oh, how about putting a woman on the moon? "One small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind." I wouldn't mind hearing that for the next 40 years if I didn't have to hear about the guy ever again.

Thanks for letting me get that out of my system. What are blogs for if not for bloviating and ventilating? (um, I mean, democratically expressing our viewpoints as citizens.)

Credit & Copyright: Stefan Seip

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Breaking the silence: Israeli soldiers speak out about war crimes in Gaza

The Israeli group Breaking the Silence today publishes the testimony of 26 Israeli soldiers deployed in Gaza. The BBC has details here, including this video:



More on this... from Gershom Gorenberg's SouthJerusalem blog.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bringing our ancestors back to life

Last week I blogged my article in Science about the paleoartists who recreate hominins for museums and magazine covers; today, on Science's Origins blog, I give more details about how the paleoartists work with researchers to make their creations scientifically correct. Check it out.

Photo: Elisabeth Daynès pus the finishing touches on an australopithecine in her Paris studio/ Copyright 2007 Photo P. Plailly Eurelios - Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Statement by Physicians for Human Rights in Response to Comments by Obama Administration Officials

Physicians for Human Rights Statement

July 10, 2009

For Immediate Release

Statement by Physicians for Human Rights in Response to Comments by Obama Administration Officials

Cambridge, MA – Obama Administration officials stated Friday, as reported by Lara Jakes of the Associated Press, that they had no grounds to investigate the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners of war who allegedly were killed by U.S.-backed forces. In their statement, these officials claim that they lack legal grounds to probe these alleged war crimes because "only foreigners were involved and the alleged killings occurred in a foreign country."

The officials' comments came in response to a New York Times report by James Risen that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into an alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 prisoners in Afghanistan.

"For US Government officials to claim that there is no legal basis to investigate this well-documented mass atrocity is absurd," stated Physicians for Human Rights Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin. "US military and intelligence personnel were operating jointly and accepted the surrender of the prisoners jointly with General Dostum's forces in northern Afghanistan. The Obama Administration has a legal obligation to determine what US officials knew, where US personnel were, what involvement they had, and the actions of US allies during and after the massacre. These questions, nearly eight years later, remain unanswered."

"Furthermore," added Nathaniel Raymond, PHR's lead researcher on the Dasht-e-Leili case, "The New York Times has shown that the Bush Administration engaged in a coordinated effort to prevent this alleged war crime from ever being investigated. Under the Geneva Conventions, the cover-up of a war crime can itself constitute a war crime."

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. PHR was founded in 1986 on the idea that health professionals, with their specialized skills, ethical commitments, and credible voices, are uniquely positioned to investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them. PHR mobilizes health professionals to advance health, dignity and justice and promotes the right to health for all. PHR has documented the systematic use of psychological and physical torture by US personnel against detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram airbase and elsewhere.

PHR's International Forensic Program (IFP) has conducted forensic assessments and investigations of human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide in many countries. IFP is dedicated to providing independent forensic expertise to document and collect evidence of human rights violations and of violations of international humanitarian law. Since the 1980s, PHR has mobilized forensic scientists and other experts worldwide to respond to inquiries by governments, organizations, families and individuals.

Jonathan Hutson

Chief Communications Officer

Physicians for Human Rights

2 Arrow St., Ste. 301

Cambridge, MA 02138




Update. Over the weekend Obama said that he would order an investigation into the Afghan massacre.

Showdown on Sotomayer. If the Republicans want to go on record opposing the first Hispanic Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, shouldn't we see that as a good thing? And just in time for the 2010 Congressional elections, too.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bringing hominins back to life





Today's issue of Science features a four-page article by yours truly about the "paleoartists" who create lifelike, three-dimensional models of human ancestors for museums, magazines, and documentaries. The story, which unfortunately is available only to paying subscribers, is chocked full of great photos provided by several of the artists whose work we profile. You can, however, click on this free link and listen to a Podcast in which I talk about the paleoartists and what they do.

Here are a few excerpts from the story that I hope will get you interested:

The interplay between art and science makes reconstruction "a two-way street," says Gary Sawyer, who has been reconstructing hominins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City for more than 30 years. The artists must track researchers' latest anatomical interpretations, and reconstruction helps scientists think about issues such as "what kind of muscles a hominin had and how it walked on the landscape," says Alemseged. "But the end product should be seen as an artistic creation."

Some researchers argue that reconstructions influence how scientists view ancient hominins and interpret their behavior. "The scientific community requires a lengthy period of time to absorb and adapt to new ideas, and these illustrations are often part of the process by which you see the change," says Stephanie Moser, an archaeologist at Southampton University in the United Kingdom. "These artistic representations are part of the knowledge cycle and not outside it."

And how are they made?

Whether the art influences the science, the artists work hard to insure that science drives their creations. Each job is unique, but paleoartists usually start with plaster or urethane skull casts of a hominin; for fragile or incomplete skulls, they use computed tomography scans to create a "virtual" plastic cast. Then the artists painstakingly model the muscles, glands, and fat tissues of the face with clay, making educated guesses about how thick each tissue should be and guided by dissections of primates and forensic anthropology techniques. After making a new cast in urethane or acrylic plastic, the paleoartist then painstakingly inserts individual hairs, often from humans, and paints and makes up the face. A similar process is followed with the rest of the body, for which the thickness of skeletal bones and the depth of muscle insertions guide the artists as they decide how slim or stocky to craft the body.

But the paleoartists often have to cross the line between art and science:

Adrie Kennis, who with Alfons has created many hominin reconstructions for European museums, says such compromises are necessary. "If only the scientists made the reconstructions, they would be dull. ... We have to put a character on the face." For example, one key decision paleoartists face is whether to color the sclera of hominin eyes white, as in modern humans, or dark, as in many primates. In modern humans, eye whites make it easier for us to see where our fellow humans are gazing, thus enhancing social communication. But researchers know nothing about the sclera of earlier hominins. "It's a soft tissue we have no data on," says Potts, who adds that he and Gurche discussed at length how to handle the eyes of Gurche's sculptures for the human evolution hall.

Another issue is whether to put smiles on the ancient faces. "The fear muscles in great apes were coopted for smile muscles in humans. We've gone back and forth, how much should they grimace and how much should they smile." In the end, Potts says, they have often gone for a neutral, "almost Mona Lisa kind of effect."

By the way, you might notice that at Science we have begun using the newer and more scientifically correct name for humans and their ancestors, hominin, rather than the older word hominid, which actually refers to humans and great apes.

Photos: A female Neandertal, nicknamed "Wilma," created by Adrie and Alfons Kennis for the cover of National Geographic; Elisabeth Daynès in her Paris studio; John Gurche working on a model of Homo erectus for the Museum of the Earth outside Ithaca, New York.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Question for Radovan Karadzic

If Karadzic really thought all these years that he had been promised immunity from war crimes prosecution in The Hague if he left politics, as he now claims that Richard Holbrooke had told him, why was he in hiding?

No matter, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has now rejected the claim. On with the trial, expected to begin in September.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Leonard Cohen in Paris

Leonard Cohen is on the European stretch of his world tour, and of course Balter's Blog was on the scene when he played at Bercy in Paris last night. A perfect concert, really, Cohen in great voice and spirits, not to mention physically in great shape (prancing on and off the stage as he made his entries and exits), great musicians and backup singers (including his collaborator Sharon Robinson), and a great choice of songs (well, with the generous three hours he gave the wildly appreciative audience, Cohen had time to sing a lot of them.)

If you have the chance to see Cohen on this tour, please be sure you do. It may be his last one ever, the man is nearly 75 years old and would probably not be on the road were it not for his current financial troubles, which I won't get into here. But every cloud has a silver lining, and for his fans, getting a chance to see and hear him in person one last time has got to be it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Run Sarah run!

I was down in the Lot Valley (southern France) the past few days, so lagging behind--as this blog often does--the 24 hour news cycle. But I have been amused by the frenzied attempts by commentators to "analyze" Sarah Palin's announced resignation as governor of Alaska: Is it an inspired strategic coup designed to prepare her candidacy for president in 2012, or just another example of her erratic and incompetent behavior?

The New York Times' Sam Tanenhaus took a crack at it a few days ago, and I can't help but laugh at this excerpt from his News Analysis:

Still, Ms. Palin was a galvanizing force and continues to outdo all other Republicans in exciting the party’s base. On Friday, it was even possible to see how her decision to exit the governorship could actually strengthen her populist, anti-government theme — and place her in the tradition of previous conservative leaders who have presented themselves not merely as professional politicians but as leaders of a movement.

I'm not laughing at Sam, mind you, because this graf does indeed reflect current wisdom. But let's reflect on it further. "Exciting the party's base" might sound like a real plus for a presidential candidate, and once it became clear how unqualified Palin was to be either vice-president or president this became the the fall back talking point for McCain campaign flaks who immediately realized what a huge mistake they had made. But when all of the other news analysis is telling us how much the party's base has shrunk, getting what remains "excited" conjures up images of yapping dogs getting excited over being tossed chunks of meant. Not a nice image.

Then there is the notion, as Tanenhaus puts it, that resigning as governor of Alaska strengthens Palin's "anti-government theme"--which sounds like wisdom until you realize that Palin is supposedly going for the biggest government job of all, the presidency. If she really wants to strike an anti-government pose, she should refuse to run for president, hole up in a cabin in the woods with a rifle and cans of beans, and shoot the hats off of any federal agents who approach the area.

But really, I wish Sarah well, and hope with all my heart that she grabs the Republican nomination in 2012. That, after all, is our best guarantee that Barack Obama will have a second term.

Wheeling and dealing on health care. A story in Wednesday's New York Times has got to make anyone who seriously cares about health care reform (ie, reform that actually helps the people) sick to their stomach. Basically, the Obama administration is getting the industry players on board (health insurance companies, hospitals, doctors) by promising them things they have long wanted--things that will undermine the reforms and the possibility of a public plan. The Clinton administration's big mistake back in the 1990s was thinking that it could really play ball with the health care industry, and then the industry took the ball and went home. They are still holding it. If the industry isn't screaming, the plan isn't good enough. Hard but true.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mike Davis, Marc Cooper, James Rainey, Michael Lacey, Jill Stewart, the L.A. Weekly, and the lies that liars tell

A friend of mine in Los Angeles has just brought to my attention a scurrilous column published in the L.A. Weekly late last month, authored by Michael Lacey, executive editor of the Weekly's owner Village Voice Media. The column is, for the most part, an attack on former Weekly staffer Marc Cooper, a good friend and colleague of mine, for his criticisms of the paper. Lacey also took on L.A. Times columnist James Rainey for his own belated story about the troubles at the newspaper (a story only published after Marc chastised the Times for ignoring the dramas that have swirled around the Weekly in recent years, especially after it was purchased by Village Voice Meda.)

Marc is a big boy and can stick up for himself, but what drew my attention was Lacey's statements about Mike Davis, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, the author of numerous books about Los Angeles, and perhaps the most insightful writer about my hometown since Reyner Banham. Lacey describes an episode in which Marc took Davis's side against Jill Stewart, now the Weekly's news editor, who had made a number of accusations against Davis. Here is how Lacey describes it:

What was Stewart’s offense?

She had dared to expose the fabrications, exaggerations and falsehoods of Los Angeles author Mike Davis, Cooper’s soul mate.

Davis is a self-described “Marxist environmentalist,” a political identity in Russia, by the way, more endangered than a Chernobyl titmouse.

Frankly, unmasking Davis’ reliance upon whoppers to manufacture an apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles was hardly Stewart’s most difficult challenge. Davis once published in the long-ago Weekly his interview with a prominent environmentalist, which was entirely made up.

Davis later admitted the con job and alibied that he was only attempting to learn how to do journalism.

There are several serious problems with this diatribe, but most egregious is the statement that Davis made up an interview. The charge that Davis made up his interview with Lewis McAdams either originated or was repeated in a 1999 New York Times story about Davis by Todd Purdum. It is a gross distortion of what really happened.

For a more accurate story, try Jon Wiener's account in The Nation later that year in which he explains the background to the hatred that many in L.A.'s power elite have for Davis, and the real story behind Davis's interview with McAdams--which really did happen, although Davis admitted to some mistakes in the way he reported it.

In fact, Lacey's version of events is so off base that it is either sloppy journalism or an all-out lie.

As a former writer for the Weekly (my heyday there was the 1980s, when Marc Cooper first came on board as news editor, the job that Stewart now holds) I can only lament the limp rag that the Weekly has become under its new owners. And this column by Lacey is a good example of their mindset. Los Angeles deserves better.

PS--Those interested in Marc Cooper's own autopsy report on the L.A. Weekly's demise can click here.

Photo: Mike Davis


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Workers wrung out

This drawing accompanies an article in today's issue of Le Monde (dated 3 July) relating how employers in the U.S. are lowering salaries to deal with the financial crisis. As the article points out, stricter job protection legislation in France makes this much more difficult to do (also very difficult is firing or laying off workers with permanent jobs without a very good reason.)

Of course, the current crisis has become an excellent excuse for those holding the purse strings to do what they have always wanted to do anyway. We all have to make sacrifices, just some of us more than others, it would appear.

Drawing by Sardon.

New York Times' Gina Kolata fails to do her homework

A couple of days ago, Times science writer Gina Kolata, who was filling in for John Tierney on his blog TiernyLab, linked to a report by the organization STATS which argues that the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, which is used to make plastic bottles and other products, is not as harmful to health as numerous scientific studies have found. Kolata described STATS as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit group," which indeed is how the organization describes itself on its Website.

Far from it. STATS is affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia, and its president is S. Robert Lichter, a professor at George Mason and also president of the university's Center for Media and Public Affairs, which also describes itself as "nonpartisan." The Center has long been supported by funds from numerous right-wing donors, particularly the Scaife Foundation and the Olin Foundation. Some of the background to this is provided in the Center's Wikipedia entry, which is a good place to get started, as well as Sourcewatch's profile of the organization; other background was provided by Michael Massing in a 2005 article in the New York Review of Books and a letter exchange with Lichter, who had written to criticize Massing's characterization of CMPA. As Massing put it in that exchange:

In my article, I described how the Center for Media and Public Affairs was set up with conservative foundation money in the mid-1980s as part of a growing effort by the right to portray the American press as liberal and out of touch with mainstream America. In a phone conversation, Robert Lichter acknowledged to me that the center's funding in its initial years came almost entirely from conservative sources, with Olin and Smith Richardson in the lead. Beginning in 1991, the center became a regular beneficiary of two foundations controlled by the very conservative Scaife family. According to mediatransparency.org, CMPA since 1986 has received $1,172,000 from Scaife, $730,000 from Olin, and $417,000 from Smith Richardson. The other institutions Lichter cites became supporters much later, and their contributions have been dwarfed by those from these highly conservative groups. It's also worth noting that, at the time Lichter was setting up CMPA, he was a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Furthermore, a survey of the articles that Lichter wrote in the period under discussion shows that they were overwhelmingly—indeed, almost exclusively—conservative in orientation. In contributions to The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, for instance, Lichter condemned the press for writing too negatively about nuclear energy, too favorably about Anita Hill (a reflection of "the growing influence of feminists at major media outlets"), too critically about Dan Quayle, and too much about the homeless (a "blueprint of advocacy journalism".)

(Back in the early 1990s, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting--full disclosure, it has a left bias--published its own analysis of Richter's criticisms of PBS for being too liberal.)

The STATS report on BPA begins with the disclaimer that "Neither STATS.org nor the author [of the report, Trevor Butterworth, editor of Stats.org and a senior fellow at the organization] received any payment from any industry or other source associated with the manufacture, use, or distribution of bisphenol a." But that statement is an obfuscation, because both Butterworth and Lichter have taken a strong advocacy position against BPA's critics.

Kolata could have found all this out for herself in a matter of minutes, and she owed it to her readers to do so. Indeed, any time an organization calls itself "nonprofit and nonpartisan," as so many chemical industry and other corporate groups do--often hiding behind names that obscure the organization's true motives and identity--the first instinct of a journalist should be to ask whether or not that is really true.

I personally have no strong views on whether BPA is dangerous or not, because I have not studied the matter. But I do know that given the source of the STATS report, I should read it skeptically. It's just too bad that I had to figure that out on my own.

Followup. Please see the comments section below for an exchange with Trevor Butterworth about this blog post. Criticisms of Gina Kolata's sometimes problematic science journalism have a very long history. For more details, please see this entry at SourceWatch.

More on missing the Madoff machinations. If you get a chance to read today's story in the Washington Post about SEC lawyer Genevievette Walker-Lightfoot, who was suspicious of Madoff back in 2004 but told to investigate something else, be sure to get as far as this part:

Walker-Lightfoot's supervisors on the case were Mark Donohue, then a branch chief in her department, and his boss, Eric Swanson, an assistant director of the department, said two people familiar with the investigation. Swanson later married Madoff's niece, and their relationship is now under review by the agency's inspector general, who is examining the SEC's handling of the Madoff case.

And also to this part:

At least five times over nearly 20 years, the SEC has investigated Madoff's business, but it never discovered the tremendous fraud. In 2007, for instance, the agency reviewed his activities after warnings from a one-time rival, Harry Markopolos, that Madoff was probably running a Ponzi scheme.

Actually Markopolos was warning the SEC about Madoff long before 2007, as those who have followed the case closely know (I know it and I am not following it all that closely.)

Israeli war crimes. Amnesty International is the latest human rights group to weigh in with an investigation into Israel's actions in Gaza. The report also condemns Hamas for firing rockets into Israel and killing civilians.