Archive for: September, 2008

Technical Difficulties

Sep 30 2008 Published by under The Blog

Just so you know, I haven't forgotten about this blog. My laptop suffered a major hard drive failure a few days ago, and my internet access has been limited by the need to share the desktop with my wife and my daughter, both of whom need to use the computer for educational purposes.
Things should be back to normal shortly.

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The subprime mortgage crisis and the Community Reinvestment Act

Apparently undeterred by last week's marijuana misadventure, DaveScot just decided to add another topic to the growing list of things he has absolutely no understanding of but writes about anyway. In today's installment, he joins the growing list of right-wingers who have decided to blame the current subprime mortgage crisis on the Democrats who passed the Community Reinvestment Act of 1975. Predictably enough, it doesn't take much effort or research to figure out that this claim has very, very little resemblance to the truth.

The basis behind the claim that the CRA caused the subprime crisis is relatively simple. The Community Reinvestment Act requires banks to make loans in the low- and moderate-income areas that they serve. Everyone knows that low- and moderate-income families are going to be bad risks, so this means that the banks are being forced to make subprime loans. Therefore, the CRA is the cause of the current problem.

The thing is, very little of this is true.

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Hurricane Ike Storm Surge in Pensacola

If you have any doubt about how dangerous Hurricane Ike is likely to be, I've got some pictures for you. These pictures were taken within the past two hours, on the shoreline along the grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola.

This is a sheltered shoreline, protected by both barrier islands and sandbars, and typical wave heights run under one foot. Currently, they're running at about 3 feet, on top of a water level that looks to be at least 3-5 feet above where it should be. So far, this storm has done more to reshape the beaches I looked at than Gustav did, and Gustav came closer and was moving toward us.

The conditions I was looking at were taking place at a time when the storm center was more than 350 miles to the south, and moving more or less parallel to the shoreline. This storm is moving a hell of a lot of water around. You do not want to be in front of it. If you've been told to get out of the way, get out of the way.

The pictures can be found below the fold.

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Cause, Effect, and Cannabis.

Sep 10 2008 Published by under Accidental, Medicine, Science

You have to give Uncommon Descent poster DaveScot credit. He's not one of life's overly specialized intellects. He's a good, old fashioned generalist, able to talk about absolutely any area of science with exactly the same degree of spectacular incompetence. Today, he's turned his attention to the intersection of mental health and substance abuse.

DaveScot's uninformed ire was sparked, in this particular case, by a news report discussing a paper that recently appeared in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. According to the report, the researchers found a strong association between cannabis use and an earlier age for the onset of psychosis:

The results showed a significant gradual reduction in the age at which psychosis began that correlated with an increased dependence on cannabis. Compared with nonusers, age at onset was reduced by 7, 8.5, and 12 years among users, abusers and dependents, respectively, the researchers report.

In further analysis, the effect of cannabis on age at onset "was not explained by the use of other drugs or by gender," they also note. The finding was similar in the youngest patients, suggesting that this effect was not due to chance.

These results "point to cannabis as a dangerous drug in young people at risk of developing psychosis," Gonzalez-Pinto and colleagues conclude.

DaveScot, in his infinite wisdom, read this news report and immediately concluded that the research article is, "a wonderful demonstration of how crap science that supports something politically correct is used and abused all the time". I'm really not sure why Dave thinks that it's "politically correct" to believe that marijuana is potentially a dangerous drug, but that particular question is best left for another occasion. Instead, let's see why he thinks that this is "crap science":

Immediately obvious to me is the possibility that voluntary marijuana use is a symptom of an underlying problem that has nothing to do with marijuana use. People often resort to recreational drug use to escape and/or ameliorate some underlying problem. Alcohol abuse is a classic case of being symptomatic of some other problem. These researchers had no control group to rule out the very likely possibility that people who tend toward psychosis are unconsciously or consciously attempting to self-medicate. The medication isn't the cause, in other words, its a symptom. . . .

But no, the researchers in fact did nothing at all to discriminate between cause and symptom and it's obvious in seconds to even a casual observer such as myself that the study and its conclusions are flawed. Where was the peer review that should have prevented this junk science from reaching the pages of the Journal of Clinical Psychology without correction of obvious flaws?

If you actually take the time to read the research article itself, and not just the Reuters piece, you'll find that the authors of the paper wrote the following:

One explanation for this possible link is that the illness is precipitated by substance use, although it remains uncertain whether this effect is limited to people with a predisposition to psychosis. Another possible explanation is that the early onset of symptoms is a risk factor for substance use. The experience of symptoms could make patients vulnerable to substance use, perhaps in an attempt to cope with the illness or to self-medicate.

Would anyone like to guess how much of the actual paper DaveScot would have had to read to learn that the researchers were in fact aware of the possibility of self-medication as an explanation for the relationship? The answer is right below the fold

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More new uses for technology.

Sep 10 2008 Published by under Misc

Somehow, though, I doubt that there are going to be a lot of scientists who are thrilled with the latest use Henry's found for his iPhone.

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Community Organizing and the Scientific Community: A Challenge.

Sep 08 2008 Published by under Do Something, Public Perception of Science

Last week, right around the time that Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin were mocking community organizers at the Republican Convention, I found myself talking about how community organizing can help us become more effective when it comes to dealing with issues where science and politics intersect.

I think this is something that we really need to do. The political groups that are opposed to science are typically very well organized. This is true for the anti-evolutionists, it's true for the global warming denialists, it's true for the anti-vaccinationists, and it's true for the anti-reproductive rights lobby. All of these groups have been extraordinarily effective when it comes to bringing people together around a common cause.

The members of the scientific community, on the other hand, typically belong to many organizations. Sadly, this is not the same as being well-organized.

During my childhood, I had many opportunities to see what community organizing can do. My mother is a professional organizer, and I started going to meetings with her when I was about two. This was in the Bronx, somewhere around thirty years ago. It's really no exaggeration to say that without the community groups, the Bronx would not have managed to do anywhere near as well as it has during that time.

That's because there is real power in numbers. When a single tenant in a slum building tries to do something about the conditions they're living in, progress is (at best) slow. The landlord is never in the office. The buildings department loses the complaints. Local legislators are friendly and courteous, but the matter isn't high on their list of priorities. The tenant who is trying to work on the problem is going to spend a lot of time and effort, and will be rewarded with a lot of frustration.

The same thing is probably going to happen to any other tenant who tries to do it alone - even if they're going through the same steps right around the same time as their neighbor.

When all the tenants in the building band together and refuse to pay rent until the landlord makes the building livable, things are different. The landlord is definitely going to take notice. The city inspectors find it much more difficult to avoid taking action. Elected officials take things very seriously when they know that the issue involves a number of constituents, not just one.

History shows that the organized approach works. It works when it's applied to slumlords and their unlivable buildings. It works when it comes to long-neglected public parks. It works when it comes to getting the local police precinct to pay more attention to neighborhood concerns. Similar approaches have also worked when it came to getting workplace safety and child labor legislation passed. It's also worked in places like Dover, Pennsylvania, when local citizens banded together, ran for office, and got rid of the nincompoops who got the school district into so much trouble.

I doubt that much of what I've said so far is controversial. I've had conversations about this sort of thing with some of before. Every time I've brought up the idea of trying to see if we can make community organizing work for us, the consensus has been that it's an idea worth trying. The problem is that so far, I've never made it past the "talk" point. And it's definitely going to take a lot more than talk for us to get organized.

As my mother has pointed out to me now and again (more or less weekly, over a period of at least a decade), there are professional organizers out there, they've been doing it for a long time, and they've gotten pretty good at it. They've had time to learn what techniques work, which ones don't, and how to modify the basic tools to handle different situations.

Fortunately for us, some of them have actually written some of this stuff down. And that's where my challenge to you comes in.

If there's one person who gets most of the credit for developing community organizing as a profession, it's Saul Alinski. Alinski started out organizing in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago in the 1930s. In the early 1970s, he published his second book, Rules for Radicals. Alinski was mostly interested in bringing about social and political change, but that doesn't mean that the strategies and tactics he outlines are necessarily going to be inapplicable in our own lives and interests. At the least, I think its worth looking at.

Starting on October 1st, I'm going to begin reading and blogging about "Rules for Radicals" at a pace of one chapter per week. I'm willing to do this by myself, but I think we'll all get a lot more out of it if I'm not the only one reading it. Which brings us to the challenge.

If you think that we (however you define we) need to do a better job when it comes to making the case for the role of good science in any aspect of public policy, read this book with me - especially if you're skeptical that tools developed to help deal with social problems can be used in the field of science communications. It's not a thick book, we're not going to be going through it quickly, and you've got plenty of time to get your hands on a copy.

I'll post on the first chapter four weeks from today - on October 6th. Is anyone else going to read it with me?

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Some London Thank Yous

Sep 07 2008 Published by under The Blog, Travel

As I write this, I'm sitting bouncing up and down in a sardine can high above the Atlantic Ocean. If I'm lucky, this state of affairs will continue for another few hours, and be followed in rapid succession by two repeats of the experience, a car ride home, and re-familiarization with my own bed.

The last week has been absolutely fantastic, and there are quite a few people that I'd like to thank for contributing to the experience.

In no particular order:

Matt Brown for composing and conducting two spectacular tours of London - one that focused on pubs, and a second that took us to quite a few sites that are really, really cool if you're remotely interested in science. I'll have more on both of those later in the week.

Karen James of The Beagle Project for helping to contribute to both the science sites tour and the liver damage I sustained over the course of the week.

Maxine Clarke for giving us the grand tour of Nature, and all of the employees there for putting up with the flock of cats bloggers as we spread chaos quietly meandered through their workspace.

Simon Frantz of the Nobel Foundation for several intoxicateding conversations, one of which apparently included the phrase "we should do this as an unconference session". I'd also like to thank Simon for his role in the frantic last second efforts to come up with any sort of unconference plan putting the finishing touches on the unconference, and for running around the lecture theatre with the microphone facilitating the ensuing discussion. More on the unconference session will also follow shortly.

Matt Brown (again), Corrie Lok, Anna Kushnir, the people at The Royal Institution, and all the folks at Nature Network who put the conference together. They did a huge amount of work, and produced an outstanding conference.

David McOrmish and David Field of English Heritage, as well as their two colleagues whose names I never got, for allowing a random tourist to tag along with them as they toured the archaeological digs around Stonehenge. More on that at some point, too.

Mo Costandi, Grrlscientist, and Bob O'Hara for spending time hanging around and touring things after the conference ended.

Henry Gee for introducing me to the wonderful world of unicycling girrafes, and for helping to remind me that everyone can fit in somewhere - it's just a matter of finding it.

And, of course, my wife and children for their extreme kindness in letting me have the time away from them, and for (presumably) taking me back afterward.

Pre-posting update: The problem with foreign places is that they're all so damn far away. I finished writing this thing hours ago, and I've still got something like another two hours left in this winged tin can. I really hate daytime long-distance flights. Sleeping too much makes the jet lag worse. The movies are boring, the seats are small, the food marginal, and as it turns out I'm actually not very excited about the books that I stuck in the carry-on.

Of course, I hate nighttime long-distance flights, too. The seats have all the sleepability of your typical concrete block. There's always someone who snores, and by the time you nod off it's time to wake up and land. It's very rare that you don't wind up walking around like a zombie for most of the day you arrive.

And, yes, I would like some cheese with that whine. Thanks for asking.

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In the face of the ancient.

Sep 04 2008 Published by under Misc Science, Picture Posts, Science

Ozymandias was a piker.

He left us his legs, most of his face, and a clear statement of what he wanted to achieve. When you get right down to it, he's not much of an enigma.


The people who built this left an enigma. Stonehenge was constructed to stand proudly forever, a monument to the greater glory of something, but we don't know what. Their engineering withstood the test of time. They - and their cultures - did not.

Stonehenge stands today, on a plane covered with the barrows of the unknown lords of long forgotten peoples. It reminds us, far more than Shelley's statue ever could, of just how fragile all of our hopes and dreams really are.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,

The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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Framing Lieberman

Sep 03 2008 Published by under Politics

Matt "Framing Science" Nisbit has a post up that asks a somewhat very loaded question: "Did the Far Left Blogs Turn Lieberman Into a Republican?" In fact, now that I look more closely at the question, I'm starting to notice that the question isn't just loaded; it's loaded on multiple levels. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Matt is a communications guy, and he knows what to do to shape a message (even if he doesn't always manage to do it successfully).

Matt seems to see part of his mission in life as a voice in the wilderness, pointing out all the ways we communicate wrong, and all the ways the Republicans do it right. One of the things that he thinks Republicans do right is "mobilizing" or "activating" their base. One of the things that he thinks we do wrong is in failing to "mobilize" or "activate" the Republican base. Given that, I suppose I should have guessed that he'd find some way to try and saddle us with all of the blame for a situation that many, many other people contributed to.

It's probably a good idea to start things off with a really quick review of the events that took lead us from having Lieberman on the Democratic ticket eight years ago to having him speaking at this year's Republican convention, and shortlisted for their Vice-Presidential nomination. None of this is new, but it does provide the context we need if we want to look at Nisbit's nonsense objectively.

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