Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Sea Launch explosion footage

Someone posted online the chilling footage of the SeaLaunch rocket that exploded at launch earlier this week. Scary stuff. (Via Bad Astronomy: 1, 2.)


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Sunday, 25 December 2005

Misguided Balance

Matthew Nisbet asks an important question over at his new blog, Framing Science. The post in question is "MISGUIDED BALANCE: The Question of the Day." His question and the articles he links to are highly recommended reading.

If Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative, a lifelong Republican activist, an assistant Scout Master, appointed by George W. Bush, close friends with Rick Santorum, and with aspirations to be Governor of Pennsylvania, can weigh the evidence for and against intelligent design and conclude that it is perhaps the most one-sided policy debate in history, a "slam dunk," why couldn't many political reporters do the same in their coverage leading up to the trial?

In other words, why did reporters in so many cases resort to an artificial "he said, she said" balancing in their coverage of intelligent design when there was an *OVERWHELMINGLY* clear basis by which to evaluate claims?

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Thursday, 1 December 2005

First Amendment analysis of Berkeley evolution web site

A lawsuit filed by Jeanne and Larry Caldwell against the operators of an educational web site about evolution (called "Understanding Evolution"), hosted by the University of California at Berkeley, has received international attention. Apparently, they claim that the use of public funds (a National Science Foundation grant) to write and publish documents that promote belief in evolution (which the Caldwells appear to believe contradicts their religion) violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.[FN1] This is my "quick and dirty" First Amendment analysis.[FN2]

In general, the Berkeley site seems, to me, to be on solid ground, although the First Amendment establishment caselaw sometimes requires a very narrow focus on the particular statements at issue, as opposed to on the web site in general. From what I gather from news reports, only one element (or a small number of elements) of the site appears to be under attack. I think that element will survive First Amendment scrutiny, although, personally, I think it was a bonehead thing to publish in the first place. The statements being attacked are pretty foolish.

Some news articles report that the suit seeks to force the site operators not to "mention" religion. I doubt those reports are accurate, since a prohibition on "mentioning" religion would clearly be too broad. The courts have upheld or favorably discussed many government mentionings of or references to (1) religion generally, (2) particular religions, and (3) religious doctrines. For example: "In God We Trust" printed on money, presidential proclamations declaring a national day of prayer and thanksgiving, public offices closing on "Christmas Day," prohibitions on selling alcohol on Sundays, and the recitation of a prayer at the beginning of each session of Congress and of the Supreme Court.

The First Amendment analysis most often used by federal courts is the "Lemon test," named for the Supreme Court decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The original Lemon test had three prongs: (1) whether the state action (or law) has a religious purpose, (2) whether the state action has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3) whether the state action excessively entangles the government and religion. In more recent cases, the last two prongs have been merged (or at least brought close together), so today there are really two prongs: a "purpose" prong and an "effects" prong. The prongs were further muddied in the late 1990s when one of the Justices wrote in Agostini v. Felton that excessive entanglement is one factor to consider in determining whether a state action's primary effect is religious (the other two factors being government indoctrination and defining the recipients of government aid based on religious criteria).

Courts also sometimes use the so-called "endorsement test" when the government is engaged in expressive activities like publishing documents or sponsoring speakers (such as commencement speakers at public schools). The endorsement test asks whether the state action somehow endorses a particular religious viewpoint. The rationale, according to Justice O'Connor, is that such endorsement can make some people appear to be favored and others appear to be outsiders in the political community on the basis of whether they share the religious belief endorsed by the government. (Justice O'Connor urged adoption of this test in 1984, in a concurring opinion in Lynch v. Donelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). I am not sure if the Supreme Court has ever expressly adopted it, but the Court does now use it as part of the Lemon test, as a factor to consider in determining if the state action has the purpose or effect of advancing religion.)

Finally, where the use of public funds is concerned, the Supreme Court applies the "neutrality" test, which asks whether the state action treats religious groups in the same manner as other similarly-situated groups. Use of the neutrality test is a more recent trend, and it has been applied most often in cases involving government aid to schools that are affiliated with religious entities (e.g., vouchers, textbook handouts, and E-Rate).

That is a nutshell of the law. Now for some facts about the Understanding Evolution site.

The site's search engine returns three hits for "religion." One is the particular FAQ (frequently asked question) that is receiving all the attention. It is only one FAQ among many. That FAQ also provides a link to a web page of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) which contains statements about evolution from religious organizations. The second hit contains the site credits, where a biographical blurb for Alan D. Gishlick states that Dr. Gishlick is interested in "the interface between science and religion, especially as it relates to biological evolution." The third hit is a list of FAQs on the controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution, which mentions the word religion solely in the context of a link to the same NCSE web page mentioned above. The rest of the FAQ answers on that page appear to be external links to other web sites with a terse description of what is on each external page.

Looking at the Understanding Evolution site as a whole, its mentionings of religion seem, to me, to be tangential and incidental to its main focus. The main focus appears, to me, to be just what is set forth in the site's "About" page: "Understanding Evolution is a non-commercial, education website, teaching the science and history of evolutionary biology. This site is here to help you understand what evolution is, how it works, how it factors into your life, how research in evolutionary biology is performed, and how ideas in this area have changed over time." That seems, to me, to be a good faith description of the contents of the site.

In the framework of existing caselaw, I doubt a court would rule any part of the site unconstitutional. It would be hard to construct a convincing argument that the site's primary purpose is other than scientific and educational. The site's primary effect is to disseminate facts about evolution and explanations of related concepts, with the intent of helping educators teach. I doubt anyone can plausibly argue that the site excessively entangles the government in any church or religious doctrine. The mere mention of a handful of religious entities and providing links to copies of their public statements hosted elsewhere does not seem, to me, to be particularly entangling or to endorse those particular religions over others.

Under the neutrality test, I think the proper question is whether the National Science Foundation (NSF) would, under the right circumstances, give a grant similar to the one it gave to Berkeley to a church if the church had submitted a proposal to create an educational web site about evolution that meets the same criteria as the Berkeley site — i.e., that it disseminates valid scientific information, that it is helpful to teachers, etc.

On the other hand, the particular FAQ that mentions religion does have some endorsement problems. It makes specific, declarative statements that evolution and "religion" are not incompatible and states that many religious groups accept evolution as fact. Those statements clearly have the effects of inhibiting (however slightly) religions which purport to be incompatible with evolution and of endorsing or advancing (however slightly) religions which purport to be compatible with evolution. They also have the effect (however slight) of making some people (e.g., fundamentalist protestants?) feel like outsiders.

Just how slight or not-slight those effects are is debatable — hence the endorsement problem and the need for good lawyers.

On the whole, I think the operators of the site have little to worry about. They might be ordered to revise or remove that particular FAQ. Rewording it in terms of particular religious groups rather than "religion" would make it more likely to survive First Amendment scrutiny. The site's controversy FAQs are instructive: they address much narrower concepts than "religion" (e.g., "What is Creationism?" and "What is intelligent Design?"), and they simply provide links to other web sites with terse introductions, without editorializing.

Believe it or not, that is the "quick" analysis.



Footnotes:

  1. I have not read the Complaint; if anyone can provide a link to it, please email me.


  2. I originally wrote this essay as an email to a friend who had asked me about the Caldwell suit over dinner. The result was a very long email, so I decided to post it here. Please note one caveat: I wrote the caselaw summary almost entirely from memory which is now 2+ years old, so a mistake or two is possible. I will correct any errors brought to my attention.

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Wednesday, 23 February 2005

Iceman Curse?

CNN ran a Reuters article yesterday on the discoveries made surrounding Ötzi the Iceman ("Alpine iceman reveals Stone Age secrets"). The discoveries reviewed were no surprise to anyone following this story, but the article ended with an interesting section on the alleged "Iceman Curse."

The article makes a big deal of the deaths (or near-deaths) of a small handful of researchers who have studied Ötzi, from cancer, car crashes, avalanches, and severe weather. Typically, the article fails to mention — let alone examine — the expected incidence of deaths by such causes before resorting to the paranormal explanation of a curse.

In our everyday, ordinary experience, we expect various percentages of the population to die from various causes each year. In the years since Ötzi's discovery, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people have studied his preserved body, either through direct contact and examination or through materials produced by others (e.g., X-Ray films, photographs, etc.). It is perfectly normal and expected that some of those people would die over time from cancer, car crashes, avalanches, or severe weather. It would be unusual, and fairly interesting, if nobody in that group had died.

We should always examine probable natural causes first.

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Saturday, 30 October 2004

Grand Canyon: A Questionless Inquiry

Last year, the National Park Service began distributing a book by Tom Vail, a veteran tour guide at Grand Canyon National Park and head of Canyon Ministries. The book, Grand Canyon: A Different View (available online at the Institute for Creation Research) argues that the eponymous gorge was formed quickly — Diluvially, in the Noachian flood — and not gradually, by millennia of erosion.

After a (relatively anemic) public outcry, President Bush promised that his administration would "review" the sale of the book at national park gift shops. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the review was discarded the moment the public had turned its attention elsewhere. The book is still on sale at the park, where the administration has also reinstalled bronze plaques bearing bible verses at scenic overlooks (from which they had previously been removed, on the advice of Interior Department lawyers). PEER's press release has more details. PEER also claims to have compiled numerous other examples of what it has dubbed Bush's "faith-based parks" agenda.

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Thursday, 28 October 2004

"Hobbits" in Indonesia

This week excavators announced they had found human ancestor remains on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 and dated them to 18,000 years ago. The adult female, nicknamed Hobbit, was about three feet tall and had a skull about the size of a grapefruit. The working theory is that it descended from homo erectus, which is known to have inhabited the region. News reports: Wired, ABC, Illawarra Mercury. Read on.

This is being hailed as the most exciting anthropological discovery in 50 years. It is fascinating: human ancestors this short and with such small brain cases were believed to have died off about 3 million years ago. This find shows how bizarre-seeming evolutionary effects can occur when an island separates from larger land masses and its ecosystem is "suddenly" isolated for a long time. Australia's marsupials teach the same lesson, but they have become cliché.

Despite the mistreatment I am sure this discovery will receive in the Bible Belt, it reinforces the theory of evolution and highlights one of the key shortcomings of creationism and intelligent design. Evolution describes a process of mutation, adaptation, and natural selection and does not, under any circumstances, predict what morphologies should result from isolating an ecosystem for a long time. Sometimes it can, however, predict what morphologies can result from this kind of isolation.

To the extent that evolutionary theory does predict the future or posdict the past, it does so by examining a known starting point, the constraints within which change is possible, and the relevant environmental pressures. Contrast this with creationism, which states its conclusion before hearing evidence from more than one source and leaves no room for new data. Intelligent design similarly states its conclusion in advance, but at least it attempts to predict and postdict. However, its predictions and postdictions have been, thus far, uniformly wrong.

Notice that the "hobbit" skeleton looks pretty much like what you would expect of a humanlike creature of small size. From what little of the remains we have to examine, its features appear to have generally humanlike proportions. As the theory of evolution would predict, the creature does not have wings, fins, gills, or other features radically different from its close evolutionary relatives. Nothing about this find suggests supernatural or alien influence. (Although archaeologist Peter Brown joked, "I would have been less surprised if my colleagues had found an alien spacecraft.") This creature is simply an animal that was genetically isolated from its closest relatives for a few hundred thousand years. As the Wired article explains, isolation on an island like Flores typically puts selective pressure on human-sized animals to grow smaller — which is exactly what appears to have occurred in this instance. The too-common refrain from the creationist camps that evolution fails to make falsifiable predictions is, again, demonstrably wrong.

Correction (29 Oct.): The remains have been dated to sometime between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago. I stated the latter as if it were firmly established. Fortunately, however, this gives me an excuse to link to more news and commentary coverage: Nature's Special Report, Tech Central Station, The Australian

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Saturday, 9 October 2004

Political Science II

Anyone who reads DTM :<| knows what I think about President Bush's manipulation of science for political and religious ends (see, e.g., 1, 2, 3) and John Marburger's sale of his professional soul. (To be fair, there have been occassional, but unfortunately small, bright spots.) In this week's e-Skeptic, the editors of Skeptic Magazine have put together a summary of major events in this saga. See: "The Politicization Of Science in the Bush Administration: Science-As-Public Relations" and "'Political' Science."

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Sunday, 19 September 2004

Ancient Trademarks

I just stumbled across this month-old news item in Payvand, describing an achaeological find of ancient trademarks: "Sassanids Used Commercial Labels."

The latest excavations at the northern gate of the Takht-e Suleiman historical site show that during the reign of the Sassanid dynasty (224–642 A.D.), Iranians used special labels on goods as a way of promoting their brands.

Since late July archeologists have been conducting concerted excavations in the site northwest of Iran. "These labels served different functions. On one of them, you could see two abstract figures from the Sassanid court, indicating the goods were dedicated to the royal family," said Yussef Moradi, head of the excavation team.

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Friday, 13 August 2004

Why I love Bob Park

Bob who, you say? That is a shame.

Bob Park is a University of Maryland physicst, publicist of the American Physical Society, and author of Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud. In addition to being one of the clearest thinkers on the politics of science it has ever been my pleasure to read, he is also one of the best sarcastic writers alive today.

Take, for example, the current edition of What's New, his weekly APS newsletter. In one article, he takes humorous bites at topics as wide-ranging as the thermodynamics diet, astrobots, computer disks missing on paper, lazy monkeys, and newks.

(If you have trouble following item #2, I suggest reading the 7 Feb. 2003 issue — published in the wake of the Columbia tragedy. The man has no fear.)

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Saturday, 10 July 2004

Political Science

How often does a soundbite elegantly summarize a complex problem? Rarely. But Dr. Kurt Gottfried, an emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University, did just that in a recent interview (as reported in the New York Times).

Speaking of President Bush's manhandling of the scientific method, Dr. Gottfried said, "You can destroy that in a matter of years and then it can take another generation or two to get back to where you were in the first place."

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Sunday, 16 May 2004

Stem Cell Halfspeak

The Bush administration has started an interesting tango on the issue of therapeutic stem cell research. Since announcing his initial policy decision on 9 August 2001, Bush has clung to the false premise that already-existing stem cell lines are sufficiently numerous to support appropriate levels of scientific research. Until now.

Yesterday, Reuters reported that Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) penned a letter to members of Congress, responding to a letter signed by 206 Congressmen last month. (Links: letter, news coverage) According to Reuters, Zerhouni wrote that "the president's position is still predicated on his belief that taxpayer funds should not 'sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.'" However, Zerhouni admitted that "it is fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research."

The New York Times reports today that proponents of loosening the Bush policy are saying that this does not portend a policy shift but that it does indicate Bush's willingness to begin discussing the issue again. I am not so sure of Zerhouni's message. If they are right, this development may be the ticket for John Marburger to save his soul (to borrow from Bush's moralistic rhetoric).

I think this letter represents a shift in the articulation of Bush's position, but I do not see where it says anything about openness to change. It is refreshing, however, to see Bush move away from scientific doublespeak — even if it is to equally incomprehensible halfspeak.

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Wednesday, 5 May 2004

Would-be Marburger critic

I am just getting back into blogging after taking a few weeks off. I set aside two hours this evening to write a long post on John Marburger's testament to dogma, only to find that someone had already made my argument for me. I speak, of course, of Marburger's now-infamous "rebuttal" to the increasingly-frequent charge that President Bush has beaten science to a bloody pulp. Specifically, he purported to respond to a report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Chris Mooney did such a good job stealing my thunder in his April "Doubt and About" column over at CSICOP that I cannot do the same to him. And since I now have a free hour and fifty minutes, I think I'll go watch TV.

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Friday, 5 March 2004

Bush "answers" criticism from scientists

Bob Park, the persistent physicist behind What's New (the weekly newsletter of the American Physical Society), has frequently blasted President Bush for his handling of science and technology issues. Today, in his usual sardonic style, Park points out a particularly egregious example:

Barely a week after 60 prominent scientists issued a statement charging the Bush administration with manipulating the science advisory process (WN 20 Feb 04), the White House delivered an eloquent response — two advocates of stem cell research were abruptly ejected from the Council on Bioethics, and replaced on the panel by three appointees whose opposition to stem cell research is solidly faith-based. Anybody else want to speak up? John Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has apparently been assigned the task of belittling the scientist’s statement, but the 60 prominent scientists who signed aren’t backing down.

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Wednesday, 7 January 2004

Grand Canyon: An Evidenceless View

Tom Vail, a veteran tour guide at Grand Canyon National Park has written a new book called Grand Canyon: A Different View (on sale at the Institute for Creation Research). This book encapsulates everything that is wrong with the creation "science" movement, and Vail's own words in the introduction summarize the main problem nicely, despite his obvious contrary intention:

For years, as a Colorado River guide I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time scale of millions of years. Then I met the Lord. Now, I have a different view of the Canyon, which according to a biblical time scale, can't possibly be more than a few thousand years old.

In other words, Vail once held a scientifically-justifiable opinion as to the Grand Canyon's origin. Then he underwent a religious conversion and decided that his prior conclusion was inaccurate — without having seen any evidence contradicting it. Finally, he set out to collect evidence supporting his new conclusion. This last step would be a good thing (having more evidence to evaluate is almost always a good thing), except that Vail has decided to cherry-pick the evidence he wants to believe. The geological evidence surrounding the Grand Canyon's formation points overwhelmingly to a slow formation over millions of years, but Vail refuses to give the evidence a fair shake.

The book is currently on sale at the Grand Canyon National Park gift shop, among many other places. It is a small consolation that "the book was moved from the natural sciences section to the inspirational reading section of park bookstores" after the park's irate staff complained, according to the Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times (via Arizona Republic). At the same time, President Bush's faith-based National Park Service has blocked the distribution of informational pamphlets to park rangers and guides that would allow them to answer visitors' questions on the subject. (Source)

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Saturday, 13 December 2003

Stomachion found?

Dr. Reviel Netz of Stanford, a renowned Archimedes scholar, recently announced the discovery of an ancient text once thought to be lost — Archimedes' Stomachion. Historians and mathematicians once dismissed Stomachion as a minor work, but the newly-discovered fragment of its text suggests that it founded the branch of mathematics known as combinatorics. Combinatorics is concerned with finding "how many ways a given problem can be solved," in the words of an article in today's New York Times ("In Archimedes' Puzzle, a New Eureka Moment").

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Sunday, 30 November 2003

Freaky food or biotech bounty?

A special report in today's Washington Post examines the science and politics of "biotech" food. ("Debate Grows Over Biotech Food") A very brief excerpt:

The debate over this technology has become a leading issue in international relations, subject of a huge trade battle. Wall Street is watching anxiously as it presses companies to recoup their massive biotech investments by selling more seeds. Environmental advocates are marching in the streets to oppose the crops. Even the Vatican is weighing the issue, recently opening a debate about which is the moral course.

The fight has turned into an intense, emotional struggle over the very nature of food and the future of agriculture. And it is a fight now playing out in the capitals and remotest villages of Africa, the continent with the most difficulty in supplying food for all citizens. As European resistance stiffened in recent years, the biotech industry began to argue that genetically altered crops offer a prime hope for helping Africa solve its agricultural problems and feed itself.

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Thursday, 27 November 2003

Scientific inertia

Aaron Swartz has an amusing commentary on the role of preconceptions in science. I agree in general, but I would put more emphasis on the difference between science and scientists. See a shining example of this in tomorrow's Washington Post (article: "Monkeys, Dolphin Say 'I Don't Know'"). Note especially the comments of Clive D.L. Wynne (who "dismissed the study as one more unsuccessful effort to bestow greater significance on actions that simply result from environment and training") and Charles Shimp ("I don't think [this experiment] will change the minds of those who are dead set against this proposition.").

Thanks go to Donna over at Copyfight for the heads up.

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Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Voyager I may have reached heliopause

Voyager I, a 26-year-old NASA probe and the most distant man-made object from Earth, may have reached the heliopause just over a year ago. The heliopause is the region of space where the dominant substance is the cool gas and dust left over from ancient supernova. In the words of an Associated Press article published today ("Voyager May Be at End of Solar System"), every star "sends out a stream of highly charged particles, called the solar wind, that carves out a vast bubble around the solar system. Beyond the bubble's ever-shifting boundary, called the termination shock, lies a region where particles cast off by dying stars begin to hold sway."

So how would we know if Voyager has reached the heliopause?

Scientists have long theorized that a shock wave exists where the hot solar wind bumps up against the thin gas of the interstellar medium. A similar shock wave precedes aircraft flying faster than the speed of sound, causing a sonic boom.

In space, the violent encounter slows the solar wind from supersonic velocity to subsonic speed, and causes a pileup of particles.

As they accumulate, the particles increase in temperature. Also, as they skip back and forth across the shock boundary, they are accelerated and energized. Id.


Two groups of scientists are pouring over the stream of data that the spacecraft sends back to Earth, and they disagree on whether it indicates that Voyager has reached this uncharted region of space. Unfortunately, "[t]he one instrument that could measure the solar wind velocity [directly] and give somewhat of a definitive answer ceased working years ago." Id.

The precise location of the heliopause has long been a subject of speculation. As the first spacecraft to reach the region, Voyager I and its younger brother, Voyager II, are expected to provide valuable data. Measurements taken by the robotic vehicles and sent back to Earth will go a long way toward resolving this particular mystery. This may be the last major scientific contribution by this pair of probes — a fine cap to two stellar scientific careers.

By the way, NASA reminds us this week that Voyager I reached a distance from Earth today of 90 AU. AU stands for "astronomical unit," and it is defined as the average distance of Earth from the sun — or approximately 8.4 billion miles or 13.5 billion kilometers.

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Sunday, 2 November 2003

Scientific freedom in the age of bioterrorism

The Washington Post reports a sterling example of how scientific freedom should be preserved in this age of bioterrism. (Article: Engineered Virus Related to Smallpox Evades Vaccine) President Bush has categorized large swaths of research as either classified or "sensitive but unclassified" with the intent of controlling the direction of research and restricting the dissemination of knowledge gained therefrom. For all the reasons already argued in the two-year-old debate on these restrictions, this purported secrecy is doomed to fail and will retard responses to bioterror attacks. The research reported in this article, however, was conducted and disseminated scientifically, without any attempt at secrecy — yet also without compromising national security.

No, I do not suggest that an altered smallpox virus is without national security implications. The lead researcher, virologist Mark Buller of Saint Louis University, explains why he has "absolutely no biosafety issues" with his work:

Although he acknowledged that someone could, in theory, apply similar techniques to smallpox, he said he had no qualms about presenting his data at the Geneva meeting because his team had found two different ways of countering the enhanced virulence with drugs and vaccines, and is close to perfecting a third way.

This is precisely the sort of security disclosure (simultaneous exposure of problems and solutions) that has served the IT industry for decades.

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Ötzi's Origin

Work on Ötzi the Iceman has apparently proceeded at a fair pace. Scientists at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology announced this week that they have narrowed the copper-age man's home territory to a 60-kilometer (37 mile) radius in what is now southern Austria and northern Italy. By examining the minerals deposited in Ötzi's teeth and bones and comparing that data with samples collected throughout Europe, they could determine with impressive precision where the man lived during childhood and adulthood. See press clippings: BBC and National Geographic. This National Geographic article addresses the speculation (which looks increasingly like fact, as more work is done) that Ötzi died in battle.

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Saturday, 1 November 2003

Park mixes it up at Senate CS&T

Bob Park, the University of Maryland physicist and publicist for the American Physical Society, got snarky this week in his testimony [pdf] before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Expressing his concern that protein crystal research is still on the International Space Station (ISS) agenda despite a bounty of research suggesting that the crystals grow identically in microgravity and at 1g (on Earth) — not to mention the Australian crystal fraud [see item 3] — Park was interrupted by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) for a question. "And they still haven't grown one crystal that hasn't been grown on Earth?" the Senator asked. "Not one," the physicist replied.

How much of my money are they going to spend chasing leprechauns?

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Tuesday, 28 October 2003

Columbia astronaughts might have inspected wing in spacewalk

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) officially released volumes II-IV of its Final Report. Today's releases contain one tidbit that compels me to acknowledge that a public statement I made last February was partially wrong. With the benefit of eight months' hindsight, CAIB has concluded that the Columbia astronaughts might have undertaken a highly risky two-man spacewalk to inspect the damage to the spacecraft's left wing — "if one of them had used the other as a ladder," in the words of one New York Times article (Reports Detail a Hypothetical Shuttle Rescue).

In a post to CTY-L on 11 February 2003, I stated (wrongly, it turns out) that the Columbia astronaughts could not have inspected or repaired the damage. While CAIB concluded that the astronaughts might have inspected the damage, the report does not suggest they could have repaired it in space, or that they should have attempted to do so. Indeed, the shuttle did not have the appropriate materials or tools on board to carry out such a repair. See, e.g., this Washington Post article: "Astronauts on Columbia and engineers in Mission Control were not aware of the extent of damage to the shuttle wing. But officials said that, in any case, there was no equipment on the shuttle to patch the wing even if the problem were recognized." (Article: Paint Brush May Aid in Repair of Shuttle)

Posted at 10:25:07 PM | Permalink

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Law driving innovation

The government should occassionally drive innovation. This is especially true when the potential benefits of a new science or technology are great but the probability of developing products based on them within a reasonable time is small. This is an obtuse reference to the old argument that the government should, in some cases, support "pure" research. In most cases, however, government intervention in the market for research and development (R&D) is unwarranted and even destructive. The case for government intervention absolutely breaks down when market forces have already produced the first viable product. Where multiple products compete, there is no plausible argument yet-made for government intervention.

Sometimes, however, government actions shape innovation as the unintended consequence of legitimate actions taken in another sphere. This is happening right now in the area of copyright law. Since the first Congress enacted the first American copyright act in 1789, copyright law has grown in two directions: more complex and more protective of copyright owners' interests. Both trends have deeply affected copyright markets in the last two centuries. Since the 1976 copyright act — the most recent major overhaul to copyright law in this country — the complexity of the law has had a disproportionate impact on the technologies developed to serve the copyright industry. My theoretical opinion and this practical reality collide in the project of two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students.

The New York Times reported yesterday that MIT students Keith Winstein and Josh Mandel have developed a system for distributing music via campus information networks that appears to comply with copyright law and partially render moot the grand public debate over file sharing. (Article: With Cable TV at M.I.T., Who Needs Napster?) The project transmits music over MIT's cable television infrastructure in analog form — thereby taking advantage of the bulk licenses that copyright producers routinely grant to television and radio operators and avoiding digital transmission, which triggers the nastier niceties of the copyright act. This new technology adds precisely zero end-user functionality to existing distribution systems (namely, file sharing networks and radio). Its sole purpose was to formally circumvent a distribution mechanism that copyright producers find objectionable. John Schwartz of the NYT writes that "some legal experts say the M.I.T. system mainly demonstrates how unwieldy copyright laws have become." Mike Godwin, senior technology counsel to Public Knowledge, says the students have "sidestepped the stonewall that the music companies have tried to put up between campus users and music sharing."

Copyright law's burgeoning complexity may be the lifeblood of intellectual property lawyers, but it is bad social policy. I admit this as someone currently aspiring to become an IP and cyberlaw lawyer. Another prime example of complexity breeding bad results lies in the recent episode where the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) tried regulate Vonage and other VoIP providers as telephone service providers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) long ago penned the legal distinction between "telecommuniction services," which states may regulate, and "information services," which they may not regulate (because such regulations are preempted by federal law. Vonage and other VoIP providers offer consumers and businesses a method of conducting voice communication, which we would ordinarily recognize as "phone calls." The only difference, from the end-user's perspective, is that his phone is plugged into a black box which, in turn, is plugged into the wall, instead of the phone being plugged directly into the wall. The user still dials a number, talks, and listens just as he would with an ordinary telephone. The problem is that the law created two legal categories and treated them differently. As technology allowed, the market made this distinction spurious at best by offering products that straddled the line between the two categories.

In both cases, the complexities of the law drove technology and they way we use it. In the former, copyright law inspired wasteful development of a system that is, at best, as efficient as preexisting systems. In the latter, the law held up development of a highly efficient technology (compared to what it would replace) with wasteful litigation that sought to resolve whether it was really the old technology or something new. The commonality is the resources consumed by the attempt to apply overly complicated laws to new facts. These examples are drawn from this and last week's headlines. I could probably select one example per week over the last five years, with some effort. I think, however, that my point is made.

Posted at 11:19:08 AM | Permalink

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Saturday, 25 October 2003

Pious Fraud?

Pope John Paul II's beatification of Mother Teresa last week brought the expected outpouring from international journalists and political leaders, who competed to produce the glurgiest fawning over this "icon of the Good Samaritan." It is fair to ask why.

Since the 1930s, Teresa's missionary order has preached in the bowels of society, and the world has heaped upon her the accolades she proved so adept at attracting. After her death, the world — and particularly the Vatican — has had less interest than ever in examining her deeds. John Paul II, who counted Teresa among his confidants, has canonized several times more saints than any other Pope in history. It is no accident that this occurred under the first Pope to reign in the era of global instant news. So why stop now? Teresa's beatification was as much a media event as a religious rite.

As is well known in the skeptical community (but largely ignored elsewhere), the alleged miracle performed by Teresa is likely a fraud. As Bob Park succintly explains:

This tiny woman had devoted her life to caring for "the poorest of the poor," built a charity network that spans 120 countries, and was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, but no miracle, no sainthood. It was easy in the middle ages; you could whip up a miracle or two before breakfast, but this is the age of science. So the Vatican sent a crack team of investigators to India, where a woman said a beam of light from a picture of Mother Teresa had cured her of cancer. The team pronounced it a genuine miracle. But her doctor says no one asked him. He insists it was a cyst, not cancer, and he cured it with medicine. Who's right? I asked an old classmate, Dom Credulo, who knows a lot about miracles. "Do you think this is a miracle?" I asked. "Of course it's a miracle," Dom snapped, "how many times have you seen a picture emit light and cure cancer?" He had me there.

Accounts published on behalf of the cured woman's husband confirm the doctor's objection, especially the fact that she was treated with modern medicine. He details the regimen of medication she followed, side effects she experienced, and the timeline of her recovery. All are in perfect accord with the generally-prescribed course of treatment in conventional (western) medicine in the region.

Why must we debunk Teresa's supposed miracles? First, because skepticism is a virtue. Second, because Teresa's accolades, and even her Nobel prize, were almost certainly acquired through fraud. Aroup Chatterjee, who grew up in Calcutta, has spent the last decade conducting an exhaustive investigation of Teresa's life, ministry, and reputation. The result of this research is his book Mother Teresa The Final Verdict, published this year. I could not do justice to Chatterjee's 400+ pages in this space, so I will let a recent book review by Krishna Dutta speak for me. This article is reprinted from the Time Higher Education Supplement. The book itself is available online at Meteor Books.


"Saint of the gutters with friends in high places"
Krishna Dutta
Published 16 May 2003

Title: Mother Teresa The Final Verdict
Author: Aroup Chatterjee
Reviewer: Krishna Dutta
Publisher: Meteor Books, Calcutta (www.meteorbooks.com)
ISBN: 81 88248 00 2
Pages: 427
Price: £9.99

When Mother Teresa of Calcutta died on September 5 1997, a few days after Princess Diana, a Calcutta daily carried the headline "Numbed by Diana's death, Calcutta fails to mourn for Teresa." For two days her body remained in the room of her house while few people, poor or rich, came to pay their respects. But by the time that the worldwide order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, had moved her remains to St Thomas' Church in central Calcutta and put her body on view in a glass box, India had decided on a state funeral for its Nobel peace prize laureate. Foreign dignitaries, including Hillary Clinton, US senators and congressmen and Vatican representatives, as well as India's prime minister, state governors and other celebrities came to her funeral. Teresa's body was carried on a gun carriage through Calcutta's streets to a ceremony at an indoor stadium before 6,000 invited guests, most of whom were nuns, clerics and Indian and foreign officials; only about 100 poor people attended. Despite her wish to be buried in the grounds of her church, the city's Catholic establishment decided to bury her in Mother House, apparently for fear of desecration of the grave. Today it is mostly foreign tourists who visit her grave. Her halo has considerably faded since her death, though the pope seems determined to make her a saint.

The western media, beginning with Malcolm Muggeridge's starry-eyed BBC television programme in 1968, built Teresa up as the world's kindest and most honourable soul — overlooking the fact that her mission in life, unlike Gandhi's, was more to promote religion than to improve the lot of the poor. Her call to thousands of pregnant Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers during the liberation war in East Bengal to have their babies was definitely prompted by her Catholic faith. But she never said a word against the widespread abortion of female foetuses practised in India because she knew that to speak out would damage the Missionaries of Charity in India. When in 1980 one of her order's homes in north London caught fire as a result of insufficient precautions, nine women burnt to death. But such was the aura of its reputation in the West that there was no proper investigation into the incident.

During the 1990s, Aroup Chatterjee, a self-proclaimed atheist, began a crusade to expose Mother Teresa. Chatterjee, who was born and educated in Calcutta, is a doctor who now lives and works in Britain. In 1994 he prompted Channel 4 to probe Teresa's reputation, and the result was the controversial television documentary, Hell's Angel , presented by Christopher Hitchens, who subsequently published a polemic against her, The Missionary Position. Chatterjee's Mother Teresa The Final Verdict is the product of his decade-long research into the Mother Teresa phenomenon.

From the evidence he documents, it is clear that Teresa often deliberately misled journalists with spurious statistics about her charitable work. Even in her Nobel acceptance speech in 1979, she falsely claimed to have picked up 36,000 destitutes from the streets of Calcutta, knowing that no western journalist would attempt to verify the statement of a pious and fragile nun. According to Chatterjee's estimate, the real figure is between 500 and 700 destitutes for the entire period of her operation in Calcutta since the 1930s, during which time there were a number of catastrophic natural and political disasters, such as the famine of 1943-44, the partition of Bengal in 1947 and the refugee influx from East Pakistan in 1971. The fact is that the Missionaries of Charity generally do not pick up the destitutes, they refer them to Calcutta Corporation's ambulance service. Only when no city hospital will take the dying are they brought to the Missionaries of Charity. Mostly, the order's ambulances are used as taxis by the nuns.

The special friendship between Teresa and Pope John Paul II naturally receives much attention in the book. They were bound together by their stance against contraception and abortion. Teresa also supported the pope's opposition to women priests and was regarded as "an honorary man by the Vatican inner circle." She became the Vatican's ideal missionary to the Islamic world and the Communist bloc by promoting "spiritual work" for the poor, travelling to Libya and Iraq, opening a convent in Tunis, and even working for her order in Cuba and Moscow. As she gleefully told an interviewer "Castro asked me, 'Why do you want to come to Cuba?' As you know the church was completely closed then — no priests, no nuns. We have five houses there now. In Russia we have ten houses." Her lifelong regret was that she could not open an institution in China.

Her order had limited success in South America because she did not approve of "liberation theology" and priests who involved themselves in community work in opposition to dictatorial governments. Neither she nor the pope openly condemned the 1980 killing by a CIA-sponsored death squad of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador while he was conducting mass.

The chapter on Mother Teresa's financial affairs is disconcerting. Her order has never properly disclosed its income except in Britain. In 1981 it was due to be investigated following a Vatican money-laundering scandal but for mysterious reasons the investigation stalled. Chatterjee favours reopening it and maintains that Mother Teresa kept her accounts secret because most charitable donations went to religious activity. In the most notorious episode, the money she received from Charles Keating, who was then convicted and imprisoned for fraud in the Savings and Loan scandal, was never returned despite an official request to her from the deputy district attorney of Los Angeles County. Certainly, many donations were not spent on the poor of Calcutta as Mother Teresa would have the outside world believe; they were deposited in the Vatican Bank. If they had been, why did the medical facilities in her home for destitutes remain so rudimentary?

As someone, like Chatterjee, born and brought up in Calcutta and now living in Britain, I can vouch for Calcutta's limited relationship with Teresa.

She hardly connected herself with the city she lived in for more than six decades — and completely neglected its cultural and intellectual life. She knew very little Bengali and had little contact with the masses, though she was friendly with the city's charity-giving rich and influential. I became aware of her celebrity status only when I moved to England in the late 1960s. On a visit to Calcutta much later, I noticed that in her tiny home for the dying in Kalighat, which thrived on designer gloom, the patients were identified by serial numbers and were not allowed to walk about. Nor were they given intelligent medical attention or care — just a plastic-covered mattress and a frugal meal of rice and lentils. When their final hour came, the nuns, who came mainly from impoverished Bihar and spoke very basic Bengali, secretly converted the dying to Catholicism by promising eternal life. But if Teresa deprived her departing souls of medical support, she never denied herself the city's best medical treatment, offered for free, at the exclusive Woodlands Clinic and Birla Heart Institute.

In sum, Teresa used Calcutta's decaying environment to enhance her global image as "the saint of the gutters." No other city of India would have been as suitable for her teleology that Calcutta's abject poverty was divinely ordained to prove the spiritual value of her mission. She knew that horrendous images from a city of bygone colonial wealth and power would make a strong impact on a guilty western psyche. Like Christ washing the feet of the poor, she would become an icon. The more sensitive Calcuttans were aware of her calumny but chose to remain quiet partly because she was marginal to the main life of the city and partly because they knew that their criticism would be ignored by the politically powerful (Indira Gandhi was among her admirers, as was Ronald Reagan). Even now very few in Calcutta openly criticise her, although the opposition is becoming stronger. The mayor's lobbying to name a street after Mother Teresa has yet to meet general approval.

Probably the Catholic church will eventually canonise her-despite the lack of a credible miracle required for beatification. As discussed by Chatterjee, the Vatican inner circle has tried to keep secret the identity of a miraculously cured illiterate tribal girl from a remote village.

Although sceptical Indian journalists discovered that the girl's tumour was cured by orthodox medical intervention, the Catholic hierarchy has ratified it as an "objective and organic miracle." The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which await ambiguous discovery. This necessary, well-documented book — which could have been improved with editing — is further testimony to much of the western world's, and especially the present US's, cultural, moral and religious insensitivity towards the rest of the globe.

Krishna Dutta is the author of Calcutta A Cultural and Literary History.

Posted at 12:05:05 PM | Permalink

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Sunday, 12 October 2003

New Orleans meteorite causes craziness

An entertaining article in today's Washington Post describes the tribulations of Roy and Kay Fausset in the three weeks since a meteorite crashed through their home.

Posted at 11:54:33 AM | Permalink
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Why does China want to enter the space age?

What should we make of the international ballyhoo over China's first manned space flight, reportedly planned for next week? The Chinese apparently see manned space flight as a prestige thing — a hallmark of a technologically elite nation. Only two other nations, after all, have attempted manned space flight: The United States and the Soviet Union (whose successor, Russia, inherited its equipment and human capital).

Perhaps Beijing needs someone to point out that the nearly half-century of manned space flight has been an utter failure by all its stated metrics except for the development of technologies designed to send humans into space. Contrary to popular belief, only a few minor technologies owe their existence to manned space programs. The most famous examples of novel technologies that grew out of NASA's efforts to send humans into space and return them safely are myths or frauds (source: see item #3). See also.

So why has China cared so much about manned space flight for such a long time? My answer: Who cares? Let them waste their money sending people into orbit, so long as it prevents them from deploying more nukes.

Posted at 10:54:47 AM | Permalink

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