Archive for February 2008

A self referential post, and thanks

February 20, 2008

The invaluable Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock has just done this blog the kindness of posting an online interview he conducted with me in the aftermath of the NC Science Blogging Conference.

He’s done the same for a lot of new and established bloggers who attended the conference. You can see all of the interviews here. It’s a great cross section of the science blogosphere, the hows and whys a very diverse group of people have gotten into this strange business.

All of which is to enable this shout-out. My thanks to Bora, not for his interest in what goes on at Inverse Square, but much more for what he does daily on his blog to build the kinds of connections that turn a gaggle into a community. It’s essential work, and he does it seemingly tirelessly, with grace and evident pleasure. I and everyone reading this are in his debt.

Bad Science Kills, take two: Bush admin. fears sex, other people die edition.

February 19, 2008

From via No Capital by way of Eschaton comes this reminder why it really hurts when we are led by those who fear not just sex, but facts.

The Bush administration and Congress are arguing about the renewal of the African Aids initiative. At issue: whether or not to preserve the rigid requirement that one third of the funding must go to abstinence programs.

Bush argues (Sunday, February 16, in Tanzania) that there should be no problem with his approach. Why, says he? Because

My attitude toward Congress is, see what works…PEPFAR is working. It is a balanced program. It is an ABC program – abstinence, be faithful and condoms. It is a program that’s been proven effective.

Except, of course, that it is not, for two reasons — both captured in (let’s be kind) two mistatements in the brief quote above.

Does abstinence education work? Not in this country. See this post for my earlier take on that issue. In Africa? Not so much there either. From Britain’s The Independent comes a report from Uganda, once the poster child for successful government-led HIV/AIDS prevention policy.

Aids activists and development officials point to the 130,000 Ugandans infected with HIV last year alone – up from 70,000 in 2002 – and say the recent obsession with abstinence is handicapping the country’s once-successful fight against the virus.

How successful was that earlier approach? Try this:

Under the previous “balanced” strategy, condom distribution grew from four million a year to 118 million by 2001. Thanks to the abstinence message, teenagers lost their virginity about 18 months later than before. People with several partners realised they needed to stop sleeping around so much. In 1992, one in five Ugandans had Aids. By 2001 that dropped to one in 20.

Not bad. Damn good, in fact. To take the Talmud’s view that to save one life is to save a world, here’ s a public health intervention that has preserved a human multiverse.

But what of the claim that Bush’s policy is balanced? Not so much there, either. On the ground where services are actually delivered, the mandated requirement to promote abstinence has squeezed the condom message out of what was supposed to be a program that worked by enabling individuals to exercise choice and responsibility for their own actions. Instead…

What has changed in Uganda is that condoms are no longer promoted to the general population. In line with US Aids policy under Mr Bush, condoms should be promoted exclusively to high-risk groups such as truck drivers, soldiers and “discordant” couples (where just one of the partners is HIV-positive). Everyone else should hear the rubber-free virtues of abstinence and fidelity only. Yoweri Museveni’s government hungrily devoured the American abstinence policy and the attached cash. It is dependent on foreign donors for half its budget.

“We have worked so hard to get people to understand HIV and that there are three options open to them: A, B or C,” says Dr Henry Katamba. “That’s Abstain from sex, Be faithful or use a Condom, whichever is the one for you. That’s what our government used to say – and everyone understood. The message recognised that it wasn’t realistic to ask for abstinence from everyone who’s not married.” Dr Katamba is health co-ordinator of the Uganda Protestant Medical Bureau, an umbrella of churches providing clinical help in the absence of government hospitals.

“Because of the US, our government now says Abstain and Be faithful only,” says Dr Katamba. “So people stop trusting our advice. They think we were lying about how condoms can stop Aids. Confusion is deadly.”

“Deadly.” Let that word sink in.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the way that some of our leaders, at least, choose death before dishonor, as long as it is someone else — someone negligible, like an anonymous heroin addict, or some distant African at risk for HIV/AIDS — who actually does the dying.

The usual analysis of this disgraceful division of labor turns on the political calculus of interest groups and the Rovian tactic of keeping the literalist evangelical “base” calm and happy. But whatever the truth of that argument (and who knows whether Bush argues for abstinence out of calculation or genuine belief), such mind reading misses the larger point.

Scientific illiteracy is not ignorance of any given fact. George Bush does not need to know the curve that fits the data on the rates of infection in different sub-Saharan countries. He does need to pay attention, though, to the fact that such knowledge exists, and says something important about the world and the consequences of US action.

Instead, in the government we have now, facts and the process of inference from facts are subordinate to pre-existing certainties.

Among them: Sex is bad in and of itself, except in certain, tightly defined circumstances. If you choose to go ahead and do the nasty in defiance of that moral “truth,” then be prepared to take the consequences. (Even if you didn’t choose – of course, but I’m not even going to go down that sewer just now). You made your bed, man or woman (or unborn child) … now die in it.

This is how science matters in public life. It’s not, to my mind, the question of funding choices – should physics get more than chemistry; neuro more than endocrine biology or what have you. It’s not about Obama liking NASA and the manned space mission less than Clinton. It’s whether or not our leaders understand the idea that facts have consequences.

When someone makes a claim about material events in the world, scientific thinking provides the only reliable method to test that claim. You have to get the data, analyze it, and expose the tools of your analysis to scrutiny as well. If you don’t you get what we have: policies that defend ideological purity, literally to the death.

I’ve written this before; I’m sure it’ll come up again. That’s what makes the practical consequences of bad science not just tragic, but criminal.

Images: Nicholas Poussin, “The Plague of Ashdod.” 1630-31. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Special costume to be worn by medical men confronting the plague. Germany 17th century.  Licensed under a GNU free documentation license Ver. 1.2 or any later version published bythe Free Software Foundation.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

A Milestone…

February 18, 2008

…in the ongoing tribulations of old media.

Just past 10,000 page views today on this occasionally humble blog. Thanks to all. Keep coming, and when something strikes you right or wrong, stop a while and keep the argument going.

(The WordPress stat counter that does not, apparently, include RSS feed views — but redoubled thanks to all of you. May your tribe ever increase).

The blog has been going since early December, 2007. Over the next couple of weeks, it will compete for brain and keyboard space with the last seven or eight thousand words of my book on Isaac Newton as a cop/hanging prosecutor. But I promise something at least a bit substantive later today, and much more to come.

Thanks again — and stay tuned.

Image: F Train, Manhattan-bound, 17 May 2005 9:25am. Copyright Travis Ruse. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Valentine’s Day edition.

February 15, 2008

Sir Isaac Newton lived a prodigiously long life for his day — not bad for ours either. He died in 1827, 1727 (oops) not quite three months past his eighty-fourth birthday.

To the limits of historical knowledge, he went to his grave a virgin.

That fits one of the popular images of Newton, and by extension, the genius scientist in general. Truly deep penetration into the secrets of nature is presumed to consume such reserves of spirit and attention so as to leave little energy or opportunity for penetration of any other sort.

That notion attached to Newton very early on. You can hear it in the question the French mathematician the Marquis de Hopital put to Dr. John Arbuthnot, who showed him a copy of the great book. The Marquis was astounded, Arbuthnot reported, and pressed him for “every particular about Sr I., even to the colour of his hair and said does he eat & drink & sleep. is he like other men? (italics added)

Hopital was surprised, Arbuthnot added, when told that Newton “conversed chearfully with his friends assumed nothing & put himself upon a level with all mankind.”

The Marquis was naive. The history of physics — the history of science in general — has plenty of examples of genuine brilliance accompanied by an enormous range of styles of love, lust and all the rest of the experiences the human senses afford.

Albert Einstein enjoyed the company of women — perhaps rather more than their conversation. Erwin Schroedinger did him several better — or worse — housing his mistress with his wife in his wartime bolt-hole in Dublin. (See this novel for a wonderful treatment of that episode.) Niels Bohr was a contented family man and Georges Lemaitre was a priest.

And in that company, as Arbuthnot told the startled Marquis, even Newton, was a man in the world, open to — even eager for — conversation, friendship, companions. He was certainly capable of passion, even if many of the major episodes of strong emotion on record are passionate hatreds rather than loves. See for example, his scorn for the unusually short Robert Hooke, expressed in the carefully constructed taunt that Newton saw further because “I stood on the shoulders of giants;” or else track his sustained campaign against Gottfried Leibniz over the little matter of who could claim credit for inventing calculus.

But Newton was not merely a great hater. His capacity for friendship is often overlooked, but it was there. John Locke esteemed and trusted him and remained his good friend through some rough times. Samuel Pepys the same. He was no hermit, however cloistered especially his years in Cambridge may seem from this distance in time.

But this is supposed to be a Valentine’s day post, and mere friendship is perhaps more water than wine. Newton was capable of affection for certain of his fellow creatures. Could he love any of them?

The evidence here is ambiguous. But there is one encounter on record that suggests a deeper bond.

On June 12, 1689, a young, reputedly brilliant and beautiful Swiss mathematician named Nicholas Fatio de Duillier attended a meeting Royal Society. Isaac Newton was almost certainly there, and the two men met, if not that evening then within a few days of the date.

Over the next several years, the letters between Fatio and Newton contain both the conventional forms of affection and regard common to correspondence of the day — and richer, more personal claims of affection and hope.

Several times Newton suggested they visit, lodge in adjoining rooms, meet in either Cambridge or London. They dealt in secrets — especially around the subject of alchemy, in which Newton acted as Fatio’s hermetical master, introducing a disciple into the inner circles of that special knowledge.

Later, Newton took alarm when Fatio reported falling ill, telling his confidante that “how much I was affected I cannot express,” and offering whatever money Fatio might need for physicians and his cure.

And then, in the spring of 1693 the tone of the letters changed…then stopped. Fatio retreated from Newton’s attention; found another alchemist to follow, albeit briefly; and then disappeared from sight in June.

Shortly after Newton lost track of his friend, he suffered what appears to have been an episode of deep depression that lasted into the autumn. Other events in his life at the time had powerful emotional resonance as well — but the sequence of events is there.

Was Newton gay? Not in any modern sense of the term. Mostly, he seems not to have experienced much in the way of sexual desire of any kind. But it is true that the closest one can find to an expression of need for another human being anywhere in his personal correspondence comes in his exchanges with Fatio. Newton was moved by this man, and he suffered as anyone suffers when a close connection sunders.

So: if in this Valentine’s season, I may take a moderately expansive view of what it is to love, then I will say that Newton was not a loveless man.

Images: William Blake, “Newton” 1795. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unknown artist, “Nicholas Fatio de Duillier.” Location: Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire de Geneve. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Well Dressed Professor…

February 13, 2008

…has an agenda.

Foolishness abounds here. Brad DeLong takes down one Professor Erik Jensen’s suggestion that as a matter of community mores and taboos,

“faculty members shall, when on college grounds or on college business, dress in a way that would not embarrass their mothers, unless their mothers are under age 50 and are therefore likely to be immune to embarrassment from scruffy dressing, in which case faculty members shall dress in a way that would not embarrass my mother.”

DeLong gives this claptrap the sustained ridicule it deserves, while citing Cosma Shalizi — one writer whose scorn I would not wish to brave — as his inspiration.

I got two reactions. Hearing such nonesense, my mother, born in 1927, would have had its feckless author’s innards rendered into inferior violin strings.

Mum knew from proper dress, being as she was the daughter of the Colonel and niece of the Bishop of Birmingham (strange, for a nice Jewish girl, but there it was). Growing up, her set was rich in those who knew when morning suits gave way to the appropriate dress for dinner, and the circumstances in which decorations should or should not be worn.

And she got out as early as she could, a journey that took her into the American professoriat by way of marriage. xShe developed enormous gratitude for an institutional culture that rewarded, however imperfectly, accomplishment over appearance and the inbred knowledge of the correct fork and the four-in-hand. She certainly would know a pseud when she heard one.

And now I, happily resident at MIT, feel satisfaction that mine is an ecumenical institution. The brass wear their glad rags, but the rest of us do as we choose.

And most of us choose functional approaches, as defined by our particular interests — you can see my approach here, if you care. A lot of folks around campus do stuff, you know, and ties neither improve blood flow to the brain during a calculation, nor have we forgotten the hazards of dangling clothing around heavy machinery.

And in any event, I don’t need no stinking badge to remind me or my students that I profess. Nor do I need any help from Mr. Jensen, either, whose attempted light touch does little to obscure the deeper pathology involved here.

It’s not just the usual conservative faux nostalgia for a better, more golden age. This is an attempt to defend a particular vision of academic privilege from hoi polloi — and not just any polloi at that. If you read the dreary passages of his essay one thing becomes clear pretty quickly. The professoriat that needs to dress well shares a certain property — their Y chromosome.

To be sure, Jensen has noticed the presence of the odd strangely Y-less person who has somehow gained access to the Faculty Club. But those few misgendered anomalies are not, in his peculiar vision, required to dress well.

Rather, they must dress to emphasize their desexed condition, the better to preserve the fantasy of the way things ought to be. Jensen commands the rare woman brave enough to enter his strange world to attire herself thusly:

1. Avoid poufy sleeves.
2. Dress frumpily.
3. Act like an old fart.

All good advice, and about all you need to know.

To be fair to Jensen — actually, to hell with fairness — to tar Jensen with a gross generalization and the infamy of association, this seems to me to be part of a broader pathology, one that may have something to do with the dawning realization that the next president of the United States may very likely be either a charismatic African American or formidably efficient woman, two collections of attributes that folks in certain quarters still think are better seen and not heard.

Consider the nonsense John Cole ridiculed yesterday, (gruesomely illustrated just below on this blog). And then there is the roiling, can’t-keep-it-in racialism (that’s the nice word, and it is truly a euphemism in this case) of the National Review that Roy Edoroso mocks over at Alicublog.

The connection between all this and the science-public-square beat of this blog is the same one I’ve hit before: one of the things thinking about science even a little does for you is to enforce some rigor on your arguments.

By contrast, these guys aren’t thinking. They’re feeling, and they’re feeling kind of bad right now. Such painful experiences must be someone’s fault (that’s my seven year old’s interpretation, at least) and so we get demands like Mr. Jensen’s. He’d be happy if only we all wore patched tween and narrow ties, and if we don’t, his misery is our fault.


Image: Fashion plate, caption: “1912. Costumes Parisiens. 2. Habit de soiree. Gilet de pique blanc. Chaussettes de soie blanche.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A Modest Proposal: Red State Edition

February 13, 2008

John Cole and his ever-retiring community of commenters is having a lot of fun with the latest from Erick over at Red State.

Now I don’t intend to skew this blog towards politics, or even the theater of the absurd performance under review at Balloon Juice. But you have to admire the sheer joy with which the comment thread threw itself into the assigned role.

Check out especially the intriguing recipe offered by C. Bear about 4/5ths of the way down the thread (stamped 2/13 2:21 a.m. I do believe that some folks have got to get lives.)

Johnathan Swift would be proud.

Update: Link to Balloon Juice fixed.

Image: Francisco de Goya, “Saturn devouring his child,” 1819. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darwin Day: A portrait of the naturalist at home

February 12, 2008

February 12 is an auspicious day, at least by my lights — birthday to two of my heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Much is being made of Darwin day around the science blogosphere — for a start you can search out Science Blogs and check Darwin Day under hot topics. I’ll leave the heavy lifting to those more knowledgable than I — but I couldn’t let the day pass by without any kind of mention

Much of Darwin’s writing is available online. My favorite way to pass (waste?) a little time is to look through the enormous correspondence now up at the site — 5000 letters, up to about 1868. In honor of the great man’s birthday, (199 — next up is the big year), I looked for what something that might give us a clue as to what he was thinking about 150 years ago today.

There’s no letter from the 12th, but on February 11, 1858, Charles did write to his son, William. It’s a nice little note, ordinary family news — mixed in with just a hint of what made Darwin, Darwin.

We learn that William has been at least acceptably conscientious about writing home from a visit to Norfolk. We find that Darwin doesn’t think much of that county, though he admits he’s never been there. (That’s a reminder, for those of you keeping score, of the peculiar Darwin fact that after the extraordinary adventure of the voyage of the Beagle, Charles remained just about as stationary as it was possible to be — the more so after he, Emma and the children moved from London to Down House in Kent in 1842.)

The older Darwin tells his son of some minor matters of family business: their gray mare has turned out to be too skittish — nearly overturning the cart a few days earlier — so off she must go for 25 quid to the local horse dealer. Darwin grumbles a bit — “indeed it is very inconvenient for us being with only one horse,” but tells William that he will not replace the ill-favored mare until the summer holidays.

And then, with no change in tone, Charles sets William to work:

As Norfolk is near Suffolk, look out for me, whether there are near you any Suffolk Punches or large Cart-Horses of a Chesnut colour; if so please observe whether they have a dark stripe or band down the spine to root of tail; also for mere chance, whether any trace of a cross stripe on the shoulder, where the Donkey has, & any cross-stripes on the legs.

Darwin, of course, had already written about the significance of stripes and other markings on horses. He had already written a brief essay on the significance of the striped markings of horses and their relatives the year before as part of what would become the “Laws of Variation” chapter of The Origin of Species (pp 127-131 in this online version of the 6th edition). The Origin would not be published until 1859, though, (making next year both Darwin’s bicentennial and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the most important book since Newton’s Principia).

In other words: if you read the Origin, and even more if you dive into the long slog that is The Descent of Man you quickly come under the spell of Darwin’s gentle but relentless accumulation of facts, organized around one never-wavering thread of argument.

Darwin did not triumph by direct, exuberant attack — that was Huxley’s job, ably taken up these days by all the usual suspects. Instead, he lulled friend and foe alike with observation after observation, striped horse after barred donkey. You come out the other side enmeshed — not in the grandeur of this view of the world — but in its accuracy, the coherence in which Darwin has organized all his disparate knowledge into a single convincing whole.

And in this one letter, written the day before his birthday 150 years ago, you can see Darwin in his gentle way storing up yet more ammunition in an arsenal he never ceased to accumulate. The passage was already written — but the book was not yet in print. Do be a good boy, William, and just take a look at a couple of Suffolk horses for me…

And then it’s back to the family — a trip to London in the offing, a vase to be sold to pay for some new watercolors that will, Charles promises William, “make the new Drawing Room look stunning”– after, that is, Darwin pays the surveyor for the work done on the house. Charles, in full parental mode, asks for reports on school work, and then says good bye:

–“My dear old fellow | Yours affect | C. Darwin”

There it is:  Charles at home.

How did Darwin do his great work?  This is how:  through his own observations; through years of thought; and through the community of affection and interest he created around him — the family, friends and strangers who supplied him with the knowledge he could not discover himself.  At the heart of the whole enterprise:  the fact that Darwin always, in any circumstance, even in a casual note to his son, found his way to one more fact.

Images:  Charles Darwin with his son William, 1842.  Daguerrotype

Gong Kai, “Emaciated Horse” after 1279.  Location:  Osaka Municipal Museum.  Source for both images:  Wikimedia Commons.