Archive for November 2011

In Which I Find Myself In Total (and Gobsmacked) Agreement With Jeffrey Goldberg

November 30, 2011

If you want to know why supporting Israel — in any meaningful sense of the term — has to be different from supporting Likud/Netanyahu, check this out from Goldberg.  (If you don’t think that supporting Israel in any context is a good idea — well, we disagree, but you can still marvel at the Netanyahu administration’s truly impressive, the-wheel-is-spinning-but-the-hamster’s-dead stupidity.)  Golberg’s concluding passage:

The idea, communicated in these ads [created by the Netanyahu govt. for American TV], that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

Let me go further:  not only is this latest absurdity proof that there is a vast gulf between a commitment to Israel and a defense of its current government — the two are actually in conflict.  Likud and Netanyahu and their further-right allies are doing lots of things that I think weigh down the long-term prospects for Israel’s survival.  But I have to say that if they want to make things worse much sooner, potentially alienating a significant  fraction of the most committed American supporters of Israel is a pretty good way to go about it.

To steal a term:  Morans!

Image: Jozef Israëls,A Jewish Wedding, 1903

For A Good Time In Cambridge: TNC on Tuesday edition

November 28, 2011

Just to add to Ta-Nehisi Coates day at the blog, one last reminder:  any Balloon Juicers in the greater Boston area are more than welcome at Ta-Nehisi’s reading/talk at MIT tomorrow night — Tuesday, 29 November.  The festivities start at 7 in MIT’s building/room 6-120.  (Interactive map here.)

Ta-Nehisi will be starting from his work-in-progress, a historical novel set before during and after the Civil War, told through multiple voices — of slaves and former slaves, slave-holders and more.  Readers of this blog will remember Ta-Nehisi’s exceptional work on recovering some of the willed forgetting that marks so much Civil War history during “Confederate History Month” a year or so ago – DennisG highlighted that work as he added his own contributions to the effort.  This latest work is the next iteration of that inquiry — and Ta-Nehisi will talk about some of the specific challenges he’s facing as he tries to write through facts into the sound and texture of the past.

Should be a great time. Come if you’ve the necessary proximity and the interest.  (BTW:  in response to a question on my earlier announcement of this event: it’s free and open to the public, no tickets required.)


“a bias toward knowing what I’m talking about”

November 28, 2011

That’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ credo as stated in the post disembowling Andrew Sullivan that John linked to below.

In that piece, Ta-Nehisi writes of his having mostly avoided the race-intelligence pit o’ fail, because he does not to his own satisfaction know enough about the technical arguments there.  As John says, that doesn’t prevent Ta-Nehisi from accurately diagnosing the moral bankruptcy of Sullivan’s thinking.

But his framing of the post did drive me back to one of the best web sources of insight on issues of method and meaning in statistical reasoning, the invaluable Cosma Shalizi, proprietor of the Three Toed Sloth blog.  Given that Ta-Nehisi provided an implicit shout out for such sources, I thought I’d dig back into Cosma’s work to provide some context.

Back in 2007, when William Saletan decided to trumpet the “work” of notorious race/IQ “scientist” J. Philippe Rushton, in seeming ignorance of Rushton’s long and well documented record as an associate and aider-and-abetter of overtly racist segregationists,* Cosma wrote a series of long and very carefully reasoned posts explaining what’s goes terribly wrong with most writing about IQ and anything — not just race.  For an overview of the problems with concept of “g” — a general intelligence trait — see this honking elephant of a post.  I can recommend two much shorter and nicely wicked dialogues on the question of intelligence and plasticity — or, really, on the ease with which really bad thinking slips into such questions.

The point of all this, worked through in some detail in the third of his four posts on the subject, is that studies of intelligence that assert “truths” about connections between some conception of the heritability of IQ and race do so from a position of what may most kindly be assumed to be simple incompetence — though in some cases a presumption of malice seems justified.

As Cosma himself warned his readers, any honest confrontation with the methodological hell that is IQ research leads one into a quagmire.  I think I’ve pointed you towards close to 20,000 words (and figures) of his attempt to navigate the mire.  So, if you want to skip the some thousands of words towards which I’ve pointed you, here are his conclusions in nice, compact form:

  1. The most common formulae used to estimate heritability are wrong, either for trivial mathematical reasons (such as the upward bias in the difference between monozygotic and dizygotic twins’ correlations), or for substantive ones (the covariance of monozygotic twins raised apart neglects shared environments other than the family, such as maternal and community effects).
  2. The best estimate I can find puts the narrow heritability of IQ at around 0.34 and the broad heritability at 0.48.
  3. Even this estimate neglected heteroskedasticity, gene-environment interactions, gene-environment covariance, the existence of shared environment beyond the family, and the possibility that the samples being used are not representative of the broader population.
  4. Now that people are finally beginning to model gene-environment interactions, even in very crude ways, they find it matters a lot. Recall that Turkheimer et al. found a heritability which rose monotonically with socioeconomic status, starting around zero at low status and going up to around 0.8 at high status. Even this is probably an over-estimate, since it neglected maternal effects and other shared non-familial environment, correlations between variance components, etc. Under such circumstances, talking about “the” heritability of IQ is nonsense. Actual geneticists have been saying as much since Dobzhansky at least.
  5. Applying the usual heritability estimators to traits which are shaped at least in part by cultural transmission, a.k.a. traditions, is very apt to confuse tradition with genetics. The usual twin studies do not solve this problem. Studies which could don’t seem to have been done.
  6. Heritability is completely irrelevant to malleability or plasticity; every possible combination of high and low heritability, and high and low malleability, is not only logically possible but also observed.
  7. Randomized experiments, natural experiments and the Flynn Effect all show what competent regressions also suggest, namely that IQ is, indeed, responsive to purely environmental interventions.

In other words:  Sullivan is not just wrong; he is not only trafficking in just the all-dressed-up-for-the-21st-century version of the slave-holder’s self justification — as Ta-Nehisi so clearly demonstrated; he is not playing the honest broker, merely seeking research to settle vexing questions; he is writing in what can at this point only be chosen ignorance of what those with actual understanding of the methods and pitfalls of social science have been trying to tell him for lo-these-many years.

I know that I sometimes praise Sullivan for his moral acuities:  his strong stand against torture, his long advocacy of civil equality in the GBLT arena, his belated and partial recognition of the flaws of the Republican party.  But when you stack up his role in creating myths about health care in the Clinton years, and his championing of this kind of stuff, I don’t see how you can count his career as a net positive for the society.

*My only Rushton story:  I was in the room at a mid-’80s AAAS meeting when Rushton was just breaking on the scene with his attention grabbing assertion that intelligence was inversely correlated with penis size, which was in turn specifically correlated with particular races.  It was a day that made me proud to be a science writer, as the great SF Chronicle¹ science editor David Perlman got up in that session and just roasted Rushton.  None of this, “some say, others disagree” transcription-monkey reporting.  Just a thing of beauty and a great lesson in the need to build and pay attention to one’s bullship filter.  That is, of course, exactly what Saletan failed to do.

¹Yes. That paper, which, like lots of Bay Area folk, we regularly referred to as the SF Comical, did/does have some truly first class writers and   reporters, among whom Perlman is one of the best.

Image: Adriaen Pietersz.van de Venne, Fools Have the Most Fun, 1661

Mnookin and Me

November 16, 2011

Hey, all:

This is just a reminder of tonight’s internet radio and/or Second Life* farrago, me and Panic Virus author Seth Mnookin in conversation.  Here’s Seth’s take on what we’ll be doing.

For my part, the first goal is to get some distance into why it’s so hard to get scientific thinking — and not just results — into the civic conversation.  Seth’s work on autism/vaccine tribulations is a path into that question that starts us off outside of politics, which I think is important.  That is: it’s not just overt malign interest that makes people reject settled conclusions and resist arguments that would seem (to folks already inside the tent) to be persuasive to anyone who just doesn’t know the details of this or that yet.

As commenter Linnaeus on the last thread I posted on tonight’s conversation pointed out, the Science Studies gang has in fact developed a name for the problem: agnotology.  We live in a culture that has taken the genuine scientific value of skepticism, and has turned it into a rhetorical tool to frame public attitudes towards and constrain access to knowledge about science.

It’s my view that as the weapons used are those of rhetoric, the counter will have to come from some understanding of what it takes to persuade (and move) people, given our current media landscape.

A big job and question, and one to which I doubt either Seth or I will have any conclusive answers — but worth thinking about.  Come along, shoot some questions at us, and have a good time.  Plus, we’ll probably say some stuff about Jenny McCarthy.  I mean, how not?

*Second Life venue:

Image: Jan Steen, The Crowned Orator, before 1675.

By The Way, David Brooks Is Still Always Wrong

November 13, 2011

I know this is already long since fishwrap, but amidst the many disembowelings of David Brooks discovery that he has always been at war with Eurasia   always  loved Mittens, I have to rage, rage, at the relentless, endless, fetishization of the deepest, most degrading fantasy of the right.  No, not that one.  Nor that one either.  Nor this.

No it’s the almost touching faith evinced by Mr. Brooks and the entire GOP presidential field in the existence of a free market in health care.  So, just to flagellate a truly dead horse, let’s take a look at one specific passage from Our Lady of Perpetual Broderism’s Romney tongue-bath:

True Medicare reform replaces the fee-for-service system with premium support. Government gives people money, rising slowly over time, to shop around for their own private insurance plans. The system would reward efficiency and quality, not just quantity. Competition between providers would unleash a wave of innovation.

The only problem is that the marketplace for health care that exists in the world real people inhabit bears little or no resemblance to Brooks’ pleasant vision of informed consumers, with full information in hand, shopping around for the perfect combination of benefits and price they need — not just now, but through the life (and death) cycle all of us endure.


That is: most evocations of the free market in just about anything call up spherical cows, simplified (and dangerously convincing) models of what actually happens in the world.  But to imagine a genuine Ec. 101 free market in health care — and to praise someone as “serious” for building policy on the assumed reality of such delusion — that takes real effort, a true commitment to avoid knowing inconvenient facts.

At least, so says such a DFH as Daniel McFadden.  That would be the 2000 Nobel laureate in economics who has taught at such dens of raving lefty lunacy as USC, UC Berkley, and (ahem) MIT.  And that would be the same fellow who has spent quite a bit of time analyzing the notion of consumer driven health care.  Here’s what he had to say in 2008 in a working paper co-authored with Joachim Winter and Florian Heiss:

Most, but not all, consumers are able to make health care choices consistent with their self-interest, even in the face of novel, complex, ambiguous alternatives. However, certain predictable irrationalities appear – excessive discounting of future health risks, and too much concentration on dimensions that allow easy comparisons, such as current cost and immediate net benefit. Some consumers are inattentive, particularly when prior choices or circumstances identify a default “Status quo” alternative.

These behavioral shortcomings imply that some degree of paternalism is essential if Consumer Directed Health Care is to allocate resources satisfactorily. Health care markets need to be regulated to keep out bad, deceptive products, particularly those that offer “teaser” current benefits but poor longer-run benefits. Consumers need good comparative information on products, and they need to have this information brought to their attention. Consumers appear to underestimate the probabilities of future health events, [or] anticipate the resulting disutility, and as a result they systematically underspend on preventative or chronic care. Socially optimality will require that these services be subsidized, or choices regarding them be framed, to induce desired levels of utilization.

[From the second paper listed on McFadden's website, linked above: "Consumer-Directed Health Care: Can Consumers Look After Themselves?" pp. 19-20]

Note what McFadden et al. do not say.  They don’t say market mechanisms can’t work.

They do say that human beings display predictable behavior that makes it impossible to rely on an unregulated market to deliver health care.  They point out that those irrationalities fall most heavily in the area of guessing what you or I might need some years down the road…i.e. when we are likely to need good care the most.*

Hence, the need for what the authors above call “paternalism,” and what I would term the normal function of the concept of universal insurance — mandated if necessary under the particular policy choice — against risks all members of a society face.

McFadden and his colleagues are hardly the only ones who get this.  This paper is exemplary, not determinative.  And again, it’s not that these writers represent some radical wing of anti-classical economics clinging to the margins of the profession.  In fact, McFadden and his co-authors display some familiar, reflexive thinking.  I’d argue with the Nobel laureate in his offhand dismissal of a different approach, what he terms “a government single payer/single provider program.”

Partly, the difficulty I have with the expert here is that single payer is not the same as single provider.  Conflating the two allows one to damn one with the flaws of the other — which is hardly cricket in a serious policy discussion.  And when anyone — even a distinguished fellow like McFadden — says that he “believes” the problems of such a system will be the same as for private plans, then I become an honorary Missourian: “Show me.”

But that’s an aside.  The core point is that even folks with a deep institutional and disciplinary engagement with the idea of markets understand that you can’t run health care on the principle that the customer knows best.  We don’t — we can’t, really.  And that’s why Romney, and Ryan, and all the other GOPsters trying to transfer risk to the American people and profits to American insurers are never, ever “serious.”

Which is just another long way round to repeating the obvious. David Brooks is always wrong.  He kind of has to be, given how he has dedicated his career to the notion that Republicans belong in power, no matter what.

*Brooks — like the GOP candidates — might argue at this point that they never have contemplated an unregulated private market in health care.  Which may be accurate, but not true (to channel my inner Sally Field).  That is — the degree of regulation in the market to which all calls to repeal Obamacare would return us was the one in which a host of problems along the lines McFadden et al. point out, and many more besides.  More broadly — even if you take the GOP as sincere in its stated principles, they oppose “paternalism” in individual decisions.  Which means they oppose exactly what is needed in the delivery of health care.

Images:  Edouard Manet, The Dead Bullfighter, 1864-1865

Pompeo Batoni, Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, c. 1746

A Thought I Wish I Could Get Out Of My Head

November 12, 2011

I read in TPM that Herman Cain said this in the debate tonight:

“I do not agree with torture, period,” Cain said to start the exchange. “However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration.”

Asked specifically about waterboarding, Cain tipped his hand. “I don’t see it as torture,” he said. “I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.”


I hear that, and I find mindself performing a thought experiment that leaves my stomach in knots.  What if someone in State College had said something like this:

“I don’t see it as molestation….I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.”

The moral catastrophe speaks for itself, right?

That’s the problem with the failure to call things by their right name.  No one in the Penn State scandal has tried to term what happened there as anything other than the misery it was, child rape and a fundamental betrayal.  We aren’t that far gone yet.

But the repeated use — and the authorization at the highest level — of acts we hanged people for after World War II?  Those are just “enhanced techniques.”  To this day even the liberal New York Times can’t bring itself to say that inconvenient word “torture.”

That Herman Cain is no fit president is hardly news.  I just wish this particular pathology were confined to him.  It’s not.

Image:  Dieric Bouts, The Martyrdom of St. Hippolytus,1470-1475.

The Political Folly of the Middle

November 12, 2011

Jim Bales here, with my thanks to Tom for the loan of his soapbox.

Megan McArdle has a new post up at The Atlantic, entitled “The Financial Folly of Fairness” that makes some important points, including:

The solution to the problem [of the Great Depression] turned out to be throwing money at it: going off the gold standard, devaluing, and guaranteeing everyone’s bank accounts. Oh, yes, there was moral hazard. There still is. What there aren’t, is bank runs that wipe out peoples’ life savings overnight, or an unemployment rate of 25%.

One can name dozens of examples of things that violate our sense of fairness and obligation, and thereby make us all richer, from limited liability to bankruptcy.

The “just world” described above is not some bourgeois paradise; it is the western world during the Great Depression. It was not a better world for everybody; it wasn’t even a better world for anybody that I can think of. After it had finished punishing people who made stupid decisions, it went on to wreak brutal vengeance on a lot of people who had been quietly minding their own business.

Sadly, she then tries to position this as steering between the Scylla of the Left and the Charibdys of the Right. She tries to contrast herself with most people (who are of one of the two extremes), claiming that they “may believe the part of it that supports some larger “fairness” agenda they’re committed to. But their support is almost always piecemeal: try getting a liberal who loves easy bankruptcy to give a second chance to bankers who made a few stupid money decisions, or convincing conservatives …” [Emphasis in the original]

Now, if anything constitutes giving a second chance to bankers who made many massively stupid money decisions, it is TARP. TARP didn’t just give banks a second chance; it gave bankers a second chance by leaving the leadership and ownership of participating banks in the hands of those whose actions caused the crisis.

If Ms McArdle is correct in characterizing liberals as unwilling to “give a second chance to bankers who made a few stupid money decisions”, then TARP must have passed with overwhelming Republican support and despite determined Democratic opposition.*

The final vote on TARP? In the House 73% of Democrats voted for the bill compared to 46% of Republicans. In the Senate 80% of Democrats voted for the bill compared to 69% of Republicans.

So, when the chips were down, liberals quite literally gave a second chance to bankers despite their massively stupid money decisions, decisions that damaged our economy and put millions out of work. Utterly unfair, but necessary, as the liberals recognized!

Ms McArdle does us all a service in reminding us to place the well being of our people ahead of our desire for fairness. However, she does us a disservice in pretending that there are two extreme views in our discourse.

For, in addition to the “folly of fairness” there is the “folly of the middle” — the belief that the safe course is the always the one between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. In today’s America, one can embrace the middle only by twisting oneself into a pretzel. One must simply believe that liberals would never give a second chance to bankers who made stupid money decision, and not actually look at the evidence.

In today’s America, there is only one extreme view of import, the view embraced by the Republican Party. This is the belief that defeating Obama in 2012 is “the single most important thing we want to achieve”, far more important than creating jobs for those who wish to work but cannot find employment.

The moderate position in today’s America is the Democratic position. Today’s Democratic party has been — and is even now — striving to protect “people who had been quietly minding their own business” from having “brutal vengeance” wrecked upon them. They are not succeeding because of the consistent and systematic obstruction of the Republican Party.

It is not enough to reject the “folly of fairness”. We must also reject the “folly of the middle”. The two parties are not cut from the same cloth, and we cannot pretend otherwise.


Jim Bales

[*] One might claim that Democrat is not synonymous with “liberal”. I will simply note that Democrats in White House and Congress are actually in a position to change people’s lives, while the extreme liberals who might otherwise fit Ms McArdle’s description lack that power. To ignoring Democrats while fretting about the out-of-power hyper-liberals is another contortion required to embrace the folly of the middle.

Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Folies Bergere: The Brothers Marco, c. 1895

The Apostasy of Jennifer Rubin

November 9, 2011

Jennifer Rubin is one of those people one simply doesn’t need to read.  Not, or not simply because she’s never right; but rather because, almost always, she is boringly, predictably wrong –  in prose that saps one’s will to live, strung together into simulations of argument that one could lay out in advance  like squares for hopscotch.

But every now and then she rouses herself from her mission — the ongoing erosion of what remains of The Washington Post’s reasons to exist — to achieve true grotesquerie.

So it goes in the affair TBogg has already chronicled, in which Rubin retweeted this message of sweetness and light; the link there leads to a blog post that Der Stürmer would have been pleased to publish (Proper names changed, of course, though the message would have stayed the same.)

Nothing to see here, really — Rubin is simply one of many shills for the peculiar notion that to love Israel obligates one to revere every last folly and viciousness of its worst elements. That she would endorse/direct readers to a steaming heap of murderous racism seems merely to be part of her brief as she sees it.

TBogg focuses on the Post’s blithe defense of the whole affair, with its ombudsman trotting the old “it’s just an opinion” fig leaf.  (Does the Post require its ombudspeople to undergo chemical sterilization, or do they just recommend it?)  For me, I’m going to trot a bit of stuff I don’t usually draw upon, science writer that I am.

That is — atheist though I  also am, I’m one of the commitedly Jewish variety, and I’m not going to let Rubin’s “opinion” pass as anything like an acceptable statement from within the tradition.  I recall what my rabbi and friend pointed out to me one time when we were discussing the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.  He opened the Tanakh, found Isiah, chapter 19, and he read out these verses:

19:24 In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: 19:25 Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.

In the context of our conversation, the exegisis is, I think, pretty damn obvious.  That Rabbi — Ben-Zion Gold, for those of you who may have encountered him — survived the Holocaust, the only member of his family to do so.  He knows from hatred, and the way verbal violence — the rhetoric that describes the subhuman, vicious other — leads to physical destruction, murder in the land.

Rubin’s Ombudsman, and her editors at the Post, may give her a pass. They shouldn’t.  This stuff kills, or at least makes such disasters that much more likely.

But whatever (lack of) consequences Rubin may face in her professional setting, it seems to me that if she is going to purport to speak for anything remotely resembling Jews or Judaism, she has a lot of ‘splainin, or rather learning to do that I strongly doubt will ever take place.  And as for the Post …  I channel my inner Brad Delong:  Why, oh why can’t we have a better press corps.

Image:  Leonardo da Vinci, Study of five grotesque heads, c. 1494

I’m Shocked! Shocked To Find That There Are Neutrinos Going On Here

November 4, 2011

[Disclaimer -- sort of: I've been feeling the increasing need to think past the seeping pustule that is our media/politics fail lately, so I've been getting my head back to the stuff of my day job, science writing.  Of course, it's impossible to think about science in the US today without drifting onto political territory, so we get there in the end.  But most of what follows looks at what one of the truly hot stories in the physical sciences tells us about the way we figure things out about the world.  This post, by the way, here slightly edited, was  originally published at Scientific American.  It was wicked long there too.]


I’ve been doing a little poking around the matter of the Italian Grand Prix (neutrino division).  Plenty has been written about this already, of course, but what strikes me a few weeks into the story is how effectively the response to the announcement of a possible detection of faster-than-light neutrinos illustrates what actually goes into the making of a piece of science.  That, of course, also sheds light on,what it looks like when the intention is not to create understanding, but to obscure it.

First, to the neutrinos themselves.  For many of the actually knowledgeable folks I talk to (i.e., not me) the question about infamous Faster Than Light gang of neutrinos is not if they’ll be found out, but when.

That is:  while the experimental technique reported in the OPERA measurement is good enough to be taken seriously, many physicists note that challenges to special relativity have a very poor track record.  A number of other observations would have to be radically reinterpreted for the measurement of the travel time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso to stand up as an authentic discovery of faster than light travel.  See my earlier post on this subject for a bit of background and some useful links.

An example:  the OPERA result, if it holds up, would complicate (to say the least) the interpretation of the hugely wonderful detection of neutrinos emitted in the stellar collapse that produced  Supernova 1987a.  As the parent star of the supernova collapsed, the catastrophe produced 1058 neutrinos, give or take a couple.  In what was dubbed the  first triumph of neutrino astronomy, three detectors at widely separated locations detected a grand total of 24 of those (anti)neutrinos, all arriving within 13 seconds of each other.

Those neutrinos did reach planet earth before light from the supernova blast arrived. But that quirk of timing has nothing to do with faster than light travel.  Rather, it turns on the details of supernova physics.  Neutrinos are produced in the initial stellar collapse, and because neutrinos interact with basically nothing — they are untouched by either the strong nuclear force or electromagnetism  — the supernova-neutrinos sped out from the dying star more or less at the moment of the blast.  Light, by contrast is electromagnetic radiation – and readily interacts with charged particles.

That property caused the light of the supernova to crash around the interior of the evolving supernova explosion as photons interacted with all the extremely electromagnetically energetic matter at hand – a dance that held them up for a time.  After a few hours, that light escaped from the interior of the supernova blast and could begin an uninterrupted journey our way. But by that time, it lagged behind the neutrino signal, which is what produced the gap between the neutrino and optical detections of the event.

Think of it as gridlock in the midst of a stellar rush hour — an obstruction 1987a’s neutrinos, riding on (highly metaphoric) rails, were able to avoid.  The fact that the two signals arrived only hours apart simply means that the neutrinos travelled at or very close to the speed of light — not faster than.  If the neutrinos traveled faster than light – even at the rather small excess suggested by the OPERA experiment — they should have arrived much earlier than they did – four years or so before the light from the explosion.

Now there is a way out of this seeming contradiction, because the supernova neutrinos were significantly less energetic than the ones measured in the OPERA experiment — so it’s not accurate to say that both results can’t be true.  But even so, were superluminal neutrinos to prove to be real, then whatever new physics that might be invented to explain the result would have to do so in a way that still allowed Supernova 1987a’s neutrinos to behave as observed.

That’s the problem for any challenge to a fundamental pillar of knowledge:  if the new observation is correct, it must be understood in a way that accommodates all the prior work consistent with the older view that is under scrutiny.  As physics popularizers always note:  Einstein’s account of gravity — the General Theory of Relativity — delivers results that collapse into those of Newton’s earlier theory through the range of scales for which Newtonian physics works just fine.  If it didn’t, then that would be a signal that there was something wrong with the newer theory.

Hence the stakes here.  Given that special relativity — the concept at risk if superluminal neutrinos turn out to  exist — has been described to me by a physicist friend as more a property of the universe than a “mere” law of nature, it becomes clear, I think why this result is so fascinating.  If neutrinos really do go faster than light, then there’s a huge challenge to come up with a theoretical account of what’s going on that allows OPERA’s neutrinos the ability to race whilst Supernova 1987a’s crew dawdled along at mere light speed — to name just one issue that would need resolution.

That is:  facts on their own are orphans. They require a conscious act of decision on the part of their interrogator to gain meaning.  In an essay published the same year Einstein proposed special relativity, the great mathematician and physicist Henri Poincareasked “who shall choose the facts which…are worthy of freedom of the city in science.”  For Poincare, the answer was obvious:  that choice “is the free activity of the scientist” — which is to say that it falls to a theorist to think through how one fact, placed next to another, fits into a coherent framework that can survive the test of yet more facts, those already known and those to be discovered.

All of which is to say that even before the Italian observations stand or fall on attempts to replicate the finding, theoretical analyses — thinking hard — can go a some distance in determining whether superluminal neutrinos prove “worthy” of a place in science’s city.

And that’s the long way round to commend a really excellent piece by Matt Strassler, an old friend whose day job as a theoretical particle physicist at Rutgers informs his recently acquired mantle as a physics blogger.  Check him out — not just this post — because, IMHO, he’s very rapidly proving himself to be in the first rank of popular translators of some really deep stuff.

In the linked piece, Matt writes about an argument put forward by Andrew Cohen and Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow, both theoreticians at Boston University.  To gloss Matt’s explication: Cohen and Glashow have developed some earlier thinking that originally focused on the phenomenon called Cerenkov radiation.  Matt discusses Cerenkov radiation here — basically it’s electromagnetic radiation emitted by  energetic particles going faster than the speed of light in a medium (water, or air, for example, rather than a vacuum) — which, as Matt explains, does not violate special relativity.

Neutrinos do emit such radiation, very weakly, but that’s not the key to the argument; the effect is too small to matter for the OPERA result.  Rather, Cohen and Glashow point out that superluminal neutrinos should have produced a different kind of emission that is roughly analogous to the Cerenkov effect — and that each time one of OPERA’s neutrinos did so, it would have lost a lot of energy — enough to register on OPERA instruments.  Which means, as Matt puts it, that

… the claim of Cohen and Glashow is that OPERA is inconsistent with itself — that it could not have seen a speed excess without an energy distortion, the latter being easier to measure than the former, but not observed. The upshot, then, is that OPERA’s finding that its neutrinos arrived earlier than expected cannot be due to their traveling faster than the speed of light in vacuum. Something is probably wrong with OPERA’s expectation, not the neutrinos.

Now this is a theoretical argument and it could be wrong in a variety of ways.  In the comment thread to Matt’s post, the very clever physicist Lee Smolin​ points to one possible physical case in which Cohen and Glashow’s proposition would not hold.  Theory, interpretation, decides what facts are worthy of being known — but theories are subject to revision, of course, and never more so on those occasions when one fact or another stubbornly refuses to submit to judgment.

But what I find so pleasing about this whole sequence of thought is the way it illustrates what actually happens in science, as opposed to the parody of scientific process you see in a lot of public accounts — especially when politically contentious research is involved.

The OPERA team made the best measurement they could; when it refused to succumb to their search for some alternative explanation, they published the result, no doubt reasonably certain that it would be subject to relentless examination — under which there was (and remains) a very good chance this work will be shown to be wrong.  Cohen and Glashow have now offered a formal structure that suggests that what we know of the way the universe actually works presents a major logical challenge to the validity of the OPERA claim of discovery.  The ultimate resolution will turn both on continuing experimental work and on the kind of effort Glashow and Cohen offer:  the hard work of figuring out what it would mean if the result were true — or perhaps better: what understanding do we possess now that suggests the OPERA result is either real or an error.

Contrast that process with the critique of climate science that comes from the Right, as I discussed briefly in my post on Eric Stieg’s rather blistering review of the recent announcement of a study affirming (yet again) mainstream climate research.  Stieg wrote, in effect, that the attacks on climate science turn on a refusal to engage one blunt fact:   there is an underlying physical understanding of the basic theory of the system under study:  climate change driven by changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere.  That theoretical framework determines the course of empirical research, the search for facts worthy of being known:

…the reason for concern about increasing CO2 comes from the basic physics and chemistry, which was elucidated long before the warming trend was actually observable…The warming trend is something that climate physicists saw coming many decades before it was observed. [Italics in the original.] The reason for interest in the details of the observed trend is to get a better idea of the things we don’t know the magnitude of (e.g. cloud feedbacks), not as a test of the basic theory. If we didn’t know about the CO2-climate connection from physics, then no observation of a warming trend, however accurate, would by itself tell us that anthropogenic global warming is “real,” or (more importantly) that it is going to persist and probably increase.

Which is another way of saying that most of the noise from those who both deny  the reality of climate change and would impugn the honor of climate researchers misses the point.  Not because there isn’t reason to test the reliability of any measurement — of a fast neutrino or a tree ring sequence, either one — but because the issue in either case is understanding what we do know, and then engaging the challenge of a new result in that context.

Hence the (perhaps meta-) value of the faster-than-light neutrino story.  This experiment will have to overcome the hurdles thrown up by special relativity’s ubiquitous influence, by the physics of high energy phenomena and so on.  That’s how the process of discovery moves from tantalizing initial impressions to settled knowledge.  Understanding that process illuminates the hurdles facing climate science denialists:  to advance their case, they must reconcile their criticisms of mainstream climate research with the exceptionally well understood basic physics of radiative transfer and the thermal properties of different gases — as well as streams of evidence flowing from direct observations and from the ongoing inquiry into the correlation between evolving climate models and what we can see of the climate itself.

By contrast: cherry-picking dishonestly-excerpted emails is not science.

Oh — and as long as we’ve come this far, let me add a note about another challenge to the faster-than-light neutrino claim that’s come up over the time I’ve been working on this post.

In one of dozens, at least, of efforts to pry apart the actual workings of the OPERA experiment, University of Groningen Ronald van Elburg, has offered his candidate for the (by-many) expected systematic error that could have tricked the OPERA researchers into believing they had observed an effect that is not there.

Elburg has zeroed in on one of the obviously critical elements of the measurement, the calibration of the clocks that timed the neutrinos on their journey.  To make that observation, the team relied on the atomic clocks used to synchronize the signals from Global Positioning Satellites — GPS.  The tricky part is that the satellites that house the clocks are in motion — pretty fast too — relative to the labs on the ground and the neutrinos traveling between the source and the detector.

When one object is in motion, travelling in a different reference frame than that of some measuring apparatus, then special relativity comes into play.  As the TechReview’s Physics ArXiv blog describes the issue, this means

[that] from the point of view of a clock on board a GPS satellite, the positions of the neutrino source and detector are changing. “From the perspective of the clock, the detector is moving towards the source and consequently the distance travelled by the particles as observed from the clock is shorter,” says van Elburg.

The correction needed to account for this relativistic shrinking of the path as seen from the point of view of the measuring device in space is almost exactly the same size as the seeming excess speed of the neutrinos the OPERA team believes they’ve detected.  And that would mean that…

far from breaking Einstein’s theory of relatively, the faster-than-light measurement will turn out to be another confirmation of it.

It’s not as open and shut as all that.  Elburg’s argument makes the assumption that the OPERA team failed to account for the quite well-known special relativistic effects on GPS signals — and while they may have, we don’t know that yet.  At the same time the original OPERA paper reports some checks on the timekeeping essential to the experiment.  I understand that the group is working through the long list of necessary responses to specific suggestions like this one — while at the same time preparing for a yet higher precision measurement of the effect they think they have seen.

But the broader point remains:  experimental physics is (and has always been) very, very hard to do, involving an effort to push the limits of precision beyond any current standard.  Because the effects sought are at the limits of our capacity to detect them (necessarily; if it were easy, we’d have seen whatever it was already) there is an enormous amount of subtle knowledge that goes into constructing the framework of each experiment.  The machines don’t just have to work; you have to understand in detail how quantum mechanics and relativity and all the increasingly subtle applications of the broad ideas play out at the speeds and energies and distances involved. Understanding what’s actually happening at the subtle edges of experiments — even seemingly simply ones — turns out to be very difficult to do.

How difficult? So much so that Albert Einstein himself made an error that is quite similar in some ways to the mistake Elburg suggests could have happend here.  In 1930, in one his famous arguments with Niels Bohr,  Einstein devised a thought experiment to show that it would be possible to measure a quantity to a finer level of accuracy than Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle permits.  Einstein’s argument seemed airtight, and according to an observer at the scene,

It was a real shock for Bohr…who, at first, could not think of a solution. For the entire evening he was extremely agitated, and he continued passing from one scientist to another, seeking to persuade them that it could not be the case, that it would have been the end of physics if Einstein were right; but he couldn’t come up with any way to resolve the paradox. I will never forget the image of the two antagonists as they left the club: Einstein, with his tall and commanding figure, who walked tranquilly, with a mildly ironic smile, and Bohr who trotted along beside him, full of excitement…The morning after saw the triumph of Bohr.

It turned out that Einstein had left one crucial physical idea out of his analysis;  he did not account for the effects of his own discovery, the general theory of relativity, on the behavior of the experimental procedure.  Once gravity was factored into the argument, the violation of quantum indeterminancy vanished.

That is simply to say that the neutrino experimentalists may well have made what seems from the sidelines like an obvious mistake.  But if Albert Einstein could fall prey to a similar kind of error, that should tell us all we need to know about how hard it is for any one person, or even one group, to think through the full subtlety of experience. Which is why science works the way it does, by continuous criticism and self-criticism.  As the neutrino story plays out, we’re watching how science ought to work.

Which, and finally we complete the long road home, is why science honestly done and described is vastly different as both a practical and a moral matter than the masked-as-science attacks on this mode of discovery that now dominate the thinking of one of the two major American political parties.

Images:  William Blake, When the Morning Stars Sang Together, 1820.

Jan Vermeer, The Astronomer, c. 1668

Creeping Soshalism Watch, or Another Blow to the “Let Them Die” Approach to Health Care

November 3, 2011

First, the good news:

President Obama will issue [has issued] an executive order on Monday that the administration hopes will help resolve a growing number of critical shortages of vital medicines used to treat life-threatening illnesses, among them several forms of cancer and bacterial infections.

The order offers drug manufacturers and wholesalers both a helping hand and a gloved fist in efforts to prevent or resolve shortages that have worsened greatly in recent years, endangering thousands of lives.

It instructs the F.D.A. to do three things: broaden reporting of potential shortages of certain prescription drugs; speed reviews of applications to begin or alter production of these drugs; and provide more information to the Justice Department about possible instances of collusion or price gouging.

That would be the shortages of at least 180 drugs, with consequences that include at least 15 deaths over the last year and a bit, including these nine:

In the worst known case linked to the shortages, Alabama’s public health department this spring reported nine deaths and 10 patients harmed due to bacterial contamination of a hand-mixed batch of liquid nutrition given via feeding tubes because the sterile pre-mixed liquid wasn’t available.

The President’s response to this crisis is hardly perfect, as the administration admits:

The president’s order is a modest effort that, while possibly helpful, is unlikely to resolve the problem soon or entirely. Administration officials characterized it as one step in a long and complicated effort. Indeed, Mr. Obama eschewed more ambitious proposals — like government drug stockpiling or manufacturing — that would have injected the government more directly into the nation’s drug market and cost more but that might have been more effective.

Why might the administration have foregone such more potent responses to the crisis?


Such efforts [as those in the executive order] are included in proposed legislation that has been pending in Congress since February despite bipartisan support for its provisions.

That is:  we can’t even get through Congress a bill that requires only an improved warning system for drug shortages.  Not even one with bipartisan sponsorhsip in both houses.  Why not?  Nothin’ personal — nothing to do with this legislation, cause all this is just business.  By which I mean, given that the Republican leadership in Congress had decided that they will succeed if the President fails, (see also this chart on filibusters), even the most obvious and necessary of ideas can’t get through.  More money to place the government in the drug business — notgonnahappen, and President Obama cares enough about actually improving policy outcomes sufficiently to grab what he can.

So let me go all Michael Moore on you here:  on the evidence, your contemporary Republican party would rather Americans die for want of drugs and/or the distribution of dangerously improperly prepared pharmaceuticals than allow even the most modest positive move to be chalked up on Obama’s watch.

And, of course, when Obama demurs, it’s the jackboot coming down  [warning:  Fox News link] on the necks of the defenseless (sick) American people.

Oh — and the reason for the shortages? As summarized by the Times, report from the FDA and more information from HHS suggest the primary cause would be

…a dysfunctional marketplace for drug shortages, directly contradicting assertions by some commentators that government rules are to blame. The analyses found that 74 percent of the medicines in short supply in 2010 were sterile injectibles, the kind of drugs delivered in hospitals or clinics to treat cancer or anesthetize patients before surgery.

The economic and technical hurdles to participating in this market have made it exceedingly inflexible, the analyses found. Just five large hospital buying groups purchase nearly 90 percent of the needed medicines, and only seven companies manufacture the vast majority of supply. In most cases, one company produces at least 90 percent of a drug’s supply, and crucial ingredients — many of them made in mammoth plants in India and China — are often difficult to find, verify and approve, so years are needed to create new capacity. While demand has grown steadily in recent years, supply capacity has remained largely unchanged.

With so much supply dependent on so few companies and facilities, safety problems that arise anywhere in the system can result in enormous disruptions. Nearly half of the shortages followed inspections that found serious quality problems, including injectibles that had glass shards, metal filings and bacterial and fungal contamination, the reports found.

How bad is it?  Bad enough that the market players understand what’s at stake.  The Times again:

Even the generic drug industry is calling for more regulation. The industry recently agreed to provide the F.D.A. with nearly $300 million annually to bolster inspections and speed drug applications. That amounts to about 1 percent of the industry’s revenues and about 5 percent of its profits in the United States, an extraordinary vote of confidence in the government’s ability to improve the situation.

So there you have it.  Wingnuts want the market to be free to kill us.  The drug companies want the government to do what most sane people thinks is its appropriate role:  addressing market failures that threaten grievous harm.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the 2012 election in a nutshell.

Image:  James Gillray, The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!  the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society, 1802.


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