Archive for January 2008

Missed Opportunity: NY Times edition

January 29, 2008

Not consequential — but didn’t anybody else think that the Grey Lady 0f 43rd St. missed an easy one with this headline:

Bush Speech Focuses on War and Taxes

Now we all know that there are only two things certain, in life and in a Bush SOTU speech.

That’s Death and Taxes, man.

How could any headline writer worth their salt miss this one?…..

Image:  Nicholas Poussin, “The Burial of Phocion,” 1648.   Source:  Wikipedia Commons.

Bad Science Kills People: Bush administration/heroin edition.

January 27, 2008

I don’t know how much attention this post by Mark Kleiman is getting around the blogosphere, but it should be getting more. (h/t Kevin Drum in this post.)

Kleiman picked up on this story from NPR, which reported two facts:

Fact 1: public health officials around the country, including those in Cambridge, MA, the city where I now sit, are distributing rescue kits that save heroin users from overdoses. The kits cost $9.50, and they are credited with reversing 2,600 overdoses in 16 such local programs around the country. For context: NPR reports that “overdoses of heroin and opiates, such as Oxycontin, kill more drug users than AIDS, hepatitis or homicide.”

Most people would think that a cheap, simple tool that allows those on the sharp end of the drug wars to save lives would be an unalloyed good.

But then there’s fact 2: I’m just going to quote here the same comments Kleiman cites:

Dr. Bertha Madras, deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, opposes the use of Narcan in overdose-rescue programs.

“First of all, I don’t agree with giving an opioid antidote to non-medical professionals. That’s No. 1,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s good public health policy.”

Madras says drug users aren’t likely to be competent to deal with an overdose emergency. More importantly, she says, Narcan kits may actually encourage drug abusers to keep using heroin because they know overdosing isn’t as likely.

Madras says the rescue programs might take away the drug user’s motivation to get into detoxification and drug treatment.

“Sometimes having an overdose, being in an emergency room, having that contact with a health care professional is enough to make a person snap into the reality of the situation and snap into having someone give them services,” Madras says.

Read that again.

People in dire straits should not be empowered to help themselves (in a way shown to work). Instead, a dying person should hope to have the luck to make it to the E.R.

It gets worse. The essential claim Madras makes is that improving a user’s chance of surviving an overdose will encourage further drug use, while avoiding death under the care of medical professional will induce the lucky survivors to seek drug treatment.

These are at least nominally empirical claims. They can and should be tested. But as far as we can tell, Madras pulls these statements out of her gut (I’m trying to be polite here). To the extent that there is any real data, NPR’s story also reports that “one small study suggests that overdose-rescue programs reduce heroin use and get some people into treatment.”

That is, the Bush Administration’s point person on drug policy simply ignores the inconvenient knowledge that exists about the effect of this cheap, life saving program.



Why doesn’t the fact that readily available cheap (and cheaper-for-the-state) alternatives to life-destroying events exist affect this view? Because of a commitment to an unexamined assumption: Exemplary suffering helps focus one’s mind, it is claimed (how else can you read Madras’s comments) and so anything that might defuse the power of the demonstration is to be avoided. Science be damned.

This is, of course, precisely why the idea of good science matters. I’m going to post later on the debate at the Science Blogging Conference about why science has such problems articulating itself in the public square (see this post at Terra Sigillata for a run down of the state of play in that conversation.) But this story tells us why the issue is vital. Real science demands that theory be ratified by observation and defensible interpretation of the data. Bad science allows ideology to determine what facts, if any, are admitted into the conversation. Right now, bad science is winning.

I’ll stop here. I’m trying to stay reasoned in the face of my own mounting rage.

Update: A commenter over at Matthew Yglesias’s thread on this topic points out that the same reasoning that Madras uses above to reject distribution of overdose rescue kits applies to the right wing orthodoxy’s opposition to giving HPV vaccines to pre-sexually active girls. (See this or read this analysis for a more comprehensive public health introduction to the question.)

Update 2: See also this post and embedded link at commenter Lovable Liberal’s blog: he’s right — this whole thing is disgraceful, but unsurprising — which is, of course, the point. If repeated blows can overwhelm the public’s capacity for outrage, then the unforgivable becomes routine.

Update 3: Drug Monkey has taken this story and run with it here. Aside from the kind comments about this blog, the key idea I drew out of the post is what happens even to good scientists when they get absorbed into an institutional culture of politicized bad science. Madras is hardly the first scientist to face the worse-or-worser fate that comes whenever you have to weigh personal reputation vs. your job of putting makeup on ever uglier pigs. But she does provide one more object lesson in why an understanding of real science at the very top actually matters.

See also Tara C. Smith’s writing at Aetiology. She sees the Narcan/HPV vaccine connection and raises it by the anti-needle exchange folly. The take home from all of the above: this story cannot be read as single outrage. It is one more thread that leads into a much larger scandal, one that should be treated as such by both the science and the political blogosphere/press.

Update 4:  Click on this link to commenter Elizabeth Pisani’s blog for an amplification of her remarks below.  She’s been on the front line.  Reality does make a difference to one’s outlook, no?

Images: “Opium Smokers in the East End of London” Illustrated London News, 1874.

Franz-Eugen Koehler, “Opium Poppy” in Koehler’s Medicinal Plants, 183-1914. Both sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

Not very helpful but kind of fun anyway.

January 26, 2008

Thanks to my first trip to Gawker in a few years, I stumbled upon this, a somewhat difficult to read graphic depiction of a correlation between particular books, colleges that list favorite books and SAT scores — or, as its creator called the work, “Books that make you dumb.”

The books that seem to make you smartest (i.e., correlate with the taste at colleges with the highest SAT scores) are Lolita and 100 Years of Solitude. At the other end, lie the works of Zane.

There’s grist for all here. I won’t make some of the obvious comments/snarks, but I must say I’m surprised that Coehlo’s The Alchemist ranked as high as it did. Plenty more fun to be had here, though.

Meanwhile, boys and girls: do remember that this a truly naive study. It’s a fun picture, but not much more, IMHO.

Image:  Abraham van Strij, “Merchant.” Source:  Wikipedia Commons.

True Friday blog material: Nature red in tooth and claw

January 25, 2008

Deepest thanks to Tim F. over at Balloon Juice for resurrecting one of the first truly absurdist pleasures of my childhood.

He’s posted an indispensable YouTube clip here.

Now, having properly acknowledged source and debt, I’ll shamelessly appropriate the good stuff.

Here is one of the few true masterpieces in — how to justify this on a nominally science-y blog? –natural history film making….

I cannot begin to describe how shockingly wonderful this was to a boy in the midst of high teen-age contempt for all and everything, sitting in the dark in a theater on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, back in the day.

On Being The Right Size (Hollywood edition).

January 25, 2008

I can’t believe it, but I am going to link to Gregg Easterbrook twice in one day without (too much) snark.

So, while his TMQ column for Monday (sic) did contain an elementary error (the planets move against a background of the “fixed” stars, not the other way round — which Easterbrook honorably corrected at the top of his next column) he gets something else quite right.

In a ramble through absurdities in the movie Cloverfield, he and his correspondents pause for moment on the issue of the monster’s size:

TMQ’s estimate of 100,000 tons for the Cloverfield monster was based on the Empire State Building weighing 340,000 tons; TMQ assumed a biological object the size of that building might weigh less, containing no steel. Kendal Stitzel of Fort Collins, Colo.,, countered, “Therein lies the rub, for there is no known bony material that could support the weight of something that large without collapsing under the creature’s own mass. This is the famous square-cube problem: when a creature gets larger, its weight (which increases in proportion to volume) increases as the cube of the increased dimensions. The animal’s strength, however, can only increase in proportion to the square of the increase in dimension. Just as the Empire State is not supported by its masonry but by the steel and concrete structures inside, you would need some kind of similarly strong biological material to support any giant monster, be [it] Godzilla, Mothra or Cloverfield. There have been giant critters in the past, but no land mammal larger than the woolly mammoth. Whales are big, but their bodies are supported by water. Dinosaurs grew to be perfectly enormous; some were an order of magnitude larger than any other land creature since. Skeletal adaptations let them do this — but they were near the limit of what is possible for critters on our planet, and the largest dinosaurs reached only a fraction of the size of many movie monsters.”

Readers with a taste for both great science writing and the history of modern biology probably know the ur-form of this idea as expressed by the great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, in his classic essay, “On Being the Right Size.

Read the whole thing. It’s smart, witty, elegantly written, and it contains one of the earliest popular accounts of perhaps the most important single change in the practice of biology in the last century. Haldane himself was one of the pioneers in the mathematical treatment of natural selection and evolutionary theory, and he introduced the general public to the virtues of applying even the simplest quantitative ideas in “On Being the Right Size,” a simple, virtuouso tour through the implications of scale for everything an organism might want to do.

And in making the point that Easterbrook’s correspondent, Kendal Stitzel picks up, Haldane produced one of the truly great passages in all of science writing — the quotation of which is the reason for this entire post:

You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.


That’s real writing. Once read, it is impossible to forget the idea within the image.

Image: The Darley Arabian (one of the three founding horses of English thoroughbred brood stock. After 1704. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Vow kept…

January 25, 2008

As promised, I let a week go by without mentioning Mike Huckabee. Now what?

Image: Jacques-Louis David, “The Oath of the Horatii” 1784. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Update: More on Huckabee’s 100 mpg car (he wishes).

January 25, 2008

In this post I ridiculed Mike Huckabee’s pulled-out-of-some-orifice energy independence “plan” — the one where he proposed a one billion dollar prize (that’s right — a billion with a “b”) for someone who could come up with a 100 mile per gallon car.

Now, this idea is fatuous on many levels, anathema, I think from both right and left perspectives. Mostly it is a loser because it misses the point: energy indpendence depends on much more than increased efficiency in a use that accounts for something under one quarter of all energy use in the country. Getting there wouldn’t hurt — to the contrary — but it wouldn’t solve the problem, or even come close. (For many reasons — supply issues, oil being a resource that will begin to decline and has already been doing so for a long time from domestic sources; demand issues, given that a couple of billion folks in Asia want more of the stuff and so on; and more demand issues, given the fact that efficiency allows more people into the game, thus reducing the impact of gains on overall consumption; and so on.)

For more on energy use by sector, browse through the tables here for some interesting/depressing reading. Two things do stand out. Huckabee is right this far fuel efficiency is a problem, however feckless his solution might be. Efficiency totals for the American fleet of cars topped 20 mpg in 1990. As of 2005, total fleet efficiency had reached only 22.9. And second the SUV plague is a national security issue: over those same years, SUV efficiency went from 16.1 mpg in 1990 to a high of 17.6 mpg in 2001, and then back down to 16.2 mpg by 2003, where it has stayed. That’s a drop of about 9 % in just two years. All those Hummers and Porsche Cayennes take their toll, I guess. Given that SUVs and light trucks account for over half of domestic car/truck sales that’s just bad news. All numbers from the link above: the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Review for 2006.

All that said, the bottom line is that if you want to increase the efficiency of US ground transportation the fastest way is through regulation: increased CAFE standards, applied to all light transport, with no distinction made between cars and light trucks. That’s something everyone knows, and no one –especially amongst the GOP orthodoxy — wants to admit.

But this post is not about the “I don’t wanna” idiocies of US energy/transportation policy. It’s about 100 mpg cars. The reason Huckabee’s offhand comment in a debate was not just stupid, but silly was that, of course, the technology to produce 100mpg cars does not need some Manhattan Project to generate breakthroughs to a brave new energy future. It’s already here, and, as I pointed out in my original post — there is one production >100 mpg sports car, the Tesla Roadster, about to be delivered to customers.

In that earlier post I noted that the 2008 model year is sold out. Since then, Tesla Motors has opened the waiting list for 2009 — so if $5,000 (against a base price of $98,000) is burning a hole in your pocket, go for it.

But I must say that I was perhaps too triumphalist in my crowing over Huckabee’s so-yesterday grasp of the technological possible. Tesla Motors has just deeply disappointed me. As the Wired’s Autopia blog reported yesterday, the high performance engine, capable of propelling the two-seater from 0-60 in 4.0 seconds, overwhelmed two different transmission designs. So when the car actually ships in March (promises, promises) it will come with a temporary fix, a beast of a transmission that can handle all the power generated, but that cuts acceleration to a mere 5.7 seconds for the 0-60 run. A newly designed transmission to restore the promised performance is promised for later model run cars (and as a retrofit to the tortoises off the line first).

All together now: awwww.

Now, its true that cars that cost less than $30,000 — the Nissan 350 ZX and the Ford Mustang GT for two — could smoke the transmission hobbled Tesla on the flat. But loathe as I am to agree with Gregg Easterbrook on anything, he’s right in the item in this column that ridicules the need for speed that is safe (and legal) only on the track.

Meanwhile Mike Huckabee’s naive paean to salvation by the technological deus ex machina (two dead languages in the same sentence — I’m cooking now) is simply a distraction from the real business of using policy incentives to change energy behavior. The big problem is not going to go away in the flash of a speeding Tesla, however delicious its technology may be.

And if you think that this was all an excuse to put up another couple of pictures of the car…you’re right.

(And if you think that I, c. 50 y. 0. want to live my second childhood in one, you’re right again.)

Images: Lesser Ury: “Paris, Sonnenaufgang,” 1928. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Tesla Roadster, taken Sept. 27, 2006, licensed under Creative CommonsAttribution ShareAlike 2.0. Source: Wikipedia Commons.