Archive for the ‘Science Policy’ category

Do Not Be Distracted By What The Shitgibbon Says. Pay Attention To What His People Do

November 28, 2016

One of the signal failures of the media throughout the Trump dumpster fire of a campaign was to focus on his words — parsing, shifts in terminology, trying to distinguish between lies and hyperbole, or simply providing theater criticism on his performances, connections to audience and so on.  All the while, the critical information: what the combination of his ample history, the (few) clear positions he staked, and the people he hired revealed about what Trump would actually do as President.

That basic error is still with us, nicely diagnosed in this post by Robinson Meyer over at The Atlantic:

It works like this: Donald Trump, the president-elect himself, says something that sounds like he might be moderating on the issue. Then, his staff takes a radical action in the other direction.

Last week, Trump told the staff of The New York Times that he was keeping an open mind about the existence of climate change.

This was, as Meyer notes, treated as a major shift, given Trump’s earlier claim that global warming was a Chinese hoax.  As a result, many slow learners touted this story (Meyer self-indicts here.) But, of course, Trump’s almost certainly intentionally vague statement —

“I think there is some connectivity” between human activity and the warming climate, Trump said. “There is some, something. It depends on how much.”…

both grants him almost unlimited freedom of maneuver and was almost immediately belied by what his transition team is actually doing:

A day after Trump talked to the Times, The Guardian reported that the Trump administration plans could cut all of NASA’s Earth science research….

…which, as many have already noted, is vital for ongoing climate monitoring and ongoing attempts to study the implications of human – driven global warming with the resolution needed to inform action.


Then there’s this:

Politico reports that the Heritage Foundation senior research fellow, Steven Groves, has been added to Trump’s State Department transition team. Just last week, Groves called for the United States to leave the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the overarching treaty that governs how the world organizes itself to address global warming. Groves also said the U.S. should move to “dismantle” domestic climate regulations.

Thus, a picture of a Trump administration policy on climate change: destroy the research infrastructure needed to study climate, and wreck both national and international prospects for action to address what a true existential crisis.

The moral, to use Meyer’s phrase, is that Trump is a master of the two-step, baffling the unwary (aka, seemingly, the entire New York Times staff) while proceeding behind that verbal smokescreen towards the worst possible choices.  We need a much more vigilant press, and a brave one.

Image: Hieronymous Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (left panel detail), 1495-1515.  Not an exact match to the post, but I’m kinda just looking for apocalyptic images these days, and this certainly works for that.


WASF, Part ∞

November 23, 2016

If we can’t see it, it won’t happen, climate change edition:

Donald Trump is poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by Nasa as part of a crackdown on “politicized science”, his senior adviser on issues relating to the space agency has said.

Nasa’s Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space.

After all, we can’t have any of that nasty left wing bias that reality imposes:

There is overwhelming and long-established evidence that burning fossil fuels and deforestation causes the release of heat-trapping gases, therefore causing the warming experienced in recent decades.

[Trump campaign advisor Bob] Walker, however, claimed that doubt over the role of human activity in climate change “is a view shared by half the climatologists in the world. We need good science to tell us what the reality is and science could do that if politicians didn’t interfere with it.”

Walker is, as one expects from Trumpistas, simply lying. Half of the world’s climatologists do not doubt the fact of human-driven climate change, unless you include those who got their advanced degrees at the University of Exxon’s Koch School of Science.  Ostriches and sand ain’t in it.


This is a hugely consequential move.  There are two technologies that are essential to modern climate science: large scale numerical modelling made possible by the insane advances in computing power and associated computer science over the last several decades…and remote sensing, the ability to monitor earth systems on a planetary scale.  That’s what NASA — and for the forseeable future, no one else, brings with its earth science programs.  Kill that and we not only lose data going forward, we degrade a capability in an intellectual infrastructure that will take a long time indeed to restore:

Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said as Nasa provides the scientific community with new instruments and techniques, the elimination of Earth sciences would be “a major setback if not devastating”.

“It could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era,” he said. “It would be extremely short sighted.

“We live on planet Earth and there is much to discover, and it is essential to track and monitor many things from space. Information on planet Earth and its atmosphere and oceans is essential for our way of life. Space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential.”

This is a call your representative kind of issue.  It’s going to be difficult, certainly, if Trump really does go down this path, but NASA is enough of a pork barrel, and some GOP senators, at least, are not wholly clueless on this issue, so it might be possible to avoid the worst outcome.  It’s necessary to try.  If and as I hear of organized campaigns on this, I’ll bring the news  here.


PS: that laser like media focus during the campaign on issues like climate change sure was impressive, wasn’t it?

C. C. Pierce, Carl Eytel and George Wharton James in a horse-drawn wagon on the Butterfield Stage Road in the Colorado Desert, c.1903. (Eytel was a painter associated with the “smoketree school” of artists working on desert subjects; James was a journalist and photographer.)

We All Know (Own) Our ACGTs

June 13, 2013

This is more a “hey, look at this” post than any considered analysis, but the Supremes just handed down what will probably be the biggest non-politics-centered decision of this or many sessions: you can’t patent genes.


Interestingly, this result was apparently not even close as a matter of law, as the decision, written by Clarence Thomas, was unanimous:

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” he said. “It is undisputed that Myriad did not create or alter any of the genetic information encoded in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.”

The case concerned Myriad Genetics which holds (held!) the patents on the BRCA 1 and 2 genes hat — as the Angelina Jolie story recently made famous — are in some variant (mutant) forms highly correlated with very nasty strains of breast and ovarian cancer.  The life and death stakes involved in access to the genetic diagnostics that could run $3,000 per test that Myriad controlled through its patents certainly frame this case — but the implications of this ruling are, simply, huge, as much biotech investment has chased sequences in a strategy that bears some resemblance to classic patent trolling.

The ruling did preserve what seems to me to be the original intent of patent law (see Lewis Hyde’s excellent Common as Air for an account of the origins of intellectual property ideas in the thinking of the American founding fathers).  You can still patent modifications and applications of technology to the raw material of nature that a mere sequence represents.

I really am just digesting this.  I’ve talked to people over the years who have been mournfully horrified by the constraints on research and the discovery of real public goods imposed by a too permissive patent regime — Jim Watson told me the same story that he’s repeated in public many times of being asked by Leo Szilard if he and Crick thought about patenting the double helix.  When Watson replied that he didn’t think it was (or should be) patentable, Szilard then said (Watson recalls) that maybe he could copyright it.  Watson and Crick’s incredulity at thought was typical for the time, but we’ve drifted far, far away from that now…and it’s good to see the pendulum swinging back.

But as I say, first, fast reactions here. This is a decisions that’s going to ring out for a while, and it will be fascinating to see what comes.

Image: John Everett Millais, Twins, 1876.

Programming Note, Naomi Oreskes edition

October 19, 2011

Shuffling my feet a bit at the self-promotion involved, I’d like to invite anyone interested to tune in to a conversation I’m going to have with Naomi Oreskes tonight.

Oreskes, for those of you who may not know, is a professor of history and science studies at UC San Diego.  Our chat will center on her recent book, Merchants of Doubt co-authored with Erik Conway.

I think I’ve mentioned that book more than once here.  IMHO, it’s one of the most important works published in America in the last several years.  In it, Oreskes and Conway document how a clutch of cold-war scientists, many of them physicists, transformed the truth of scientific uncertainty and incompleteness into hugely damaging lies, first about the (lack of) risk associated with cigarettes, and then on just about every other major science/policy issue of the last several decades.

We’re going to talk about how these ego-ideology-and-money driven figures did that, and how their actions shaped the specific stories of tobacco, acid rain, climate change and the like.

But to me the larger story — and here’s where I think our exchange will go over the course of the hour — is the way that these self-styled iconoclasts have managed to undermine the whole idea of science as a way to gain real insight into critical policy issues.  If you want to know why the GOP candidates can get away with denying climate change, it is at least in part because staged controversies about scientific “doubt” have undercut the whole idea of technical expertise or knowledge gained through specialized skills and methods.

To me that sets up an enormous personal and professional question:  as a science writer and teacher of incredibly idealistic and hopeful aspiring science writers one of the goals has always been to tell stories that help to inform our civic conversation.  But on the evidence that Oreskes and Conway bring to bear, we’ve lost ground on that hope over every year of my career.  So one question I’ll have tonight is what can be done that will take public engagement with science beyond the cool story and into some usable appreciation of scientific habits of thought.

I do have some notions of my own on that  — but these are matters Oreskes knows well and has considered deeply.  So check out what she has to say.

Which means, I suppose, I should link to the venue!

That would be Virtually Speaking Science, and new weekly feature of/spin off from Jay Ackroyd’s Virtually Speaking empire. (Jay comments here, and FP’s over at Eschaton.)  I’m in the rota of hosts for the show, taking on the third Wednesday of every month.  You can listen to tonight’s program here Update:  at 9 p.m. EDT.   It’s also going to run live in Second Life, for those of you tired of your first one.  You can take part in live chat through the IRC servicee.  (Instructions below the fold.)

Image: George de la Tours, Cheater with the Ace of Diamonds, 1635

1. Connect to
2. Create a log-in name
3. Enter #vspeak into the channel field.
4. NOTE: ‘Relay Rinq’ is not a person but a bridge to IRC chat.
5. Type into the text field along the bottom of the screen.
6. Begin your question with ‘QUESTION’ so it’s easy to spot.

Annals of Stupidity Update–More on the GOP Hates Science beat

July 24, 2011

I didn’t get around to  flagging this on the day, but I’ve just arrived in Shanghai, and the China connection in the folly below reminded me I’d meant to write on this one.

I’m here to take part in a workshop for East Asian journalists on covering climate change, and for science journalism instructors to think about how to teach this odd craft.  This is exactly the kind of exchange IMHO, that might be kind of useful in a world in which a range of issues facing the public demand both knowledge and analytical skill manifest across society, if anything like democratic informed consent is ever to be achieved.

Sadly, this is not a priority for your modern GOP.  In fact, it is something that our empiricism-averse friends on the right actively seem to oppose.

That’s the conclusion I draw from this New York Times article, published just a little over a week ago:

A proposal by Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce critic of Beijing, would slash by 55 percent the $6.6 million budget of the White House’s science policy office. The measure was endorsed by a congressional committee this week, but faces more legislative hurdles, and its prospects are unclear.

IIRC, this blog (others) have been on aspects of the GOP fear of technical cooperation in any form with China.  Wolf in particular has sought to block US-China exchange of information about their space programs, which the GOP has already banned, despite

….one benefit of basic forms of cooperation, such as sharing data and basic design criteria, could be to learn a little more about China’s opaque space program. Since 1999, the U.S. effectively banned use of its space technology by China. That also has a commercial downside for American producers in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

“Renewing civil and commercial space cooperation with China … is not a blank check and need not provide China with sensitive technologies,” wrote James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School in testimony at a congressional hearing on China’s civilian and military space programs in May.

Economic and national security costs don’t seem to bother Wolf, who has already succeeded in attaching a ban on NASA-China Space Agency cooperation to a bill that made its way through committee in the House this month, (which is to say, fortunately, it’s still a long way from becoming law).

But that act against US interests is not sufficient to slake Wolf’s thirst for stupid.

Because of what he alleges to be Science Advisor John Holdren’s violation of the earlier rules on US-China contact on space, he now wants to crash the entire enterprise of providing high-level science advice to the President.  Holdren’s “crime”:

Meeting twice with China’s science minister in Washington during May.

Uhhh.  The top US science advisor meets with the relevant minister from, you know, the world’s most populous nation, one which is developing enormously rapidly, and oh, by the way, holds a gazillion or so in US government debt…and that great sin of conversation Wolf says, means that  “The Office of Science and Technology Policy is in violation of the law,”

Wolf’s remedy? Cut either 55% or all of the OSTP’s budget


Anyone who thinks that the Republican Party is actually a political institution capable of governing and suitable to be entrusted with a share of power is not paying attention.  They’re a cult.

That is all.

Image: Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.

I do believe I’ve used this one before.  But I just can’t quit it, because there are some motley characters out there who so fit the image.


Pigs Fly; Satan Cuts Ribbon on Hell’s Newest Ski Lift…

July 8, 2011

…and Bobo makes sense.

…in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits


People are complicated. We each have multiple selves, which emerge or don’t depending on context. If we’re going to address problems, we need to understand the contexts and how these tendencies emerge or don’t emerge. We need to design policies around that knowledge. Cutting off financing for this sort of research now is like cutting off navigation financing just as Christopher Columbus hit the shoreline of the New World.

Maybe this is just a case of a blind pig finding its once-a-year acorn…


…or perhaps (we live in hope) David Brooks has finally noticed that the party he’s been touting for years is on a catastrophic mission to destroy America, a quest that depends, in part, on ensuring we never, ever put ourselves in the way of learning inconvenient truths about the world.

I do hope it is the latter.  These are parlous times, and I’ll welcome even the latest of late-comers to the fray.  If I were a betting man, though, I’d guess we’ll see a reversion to the BoBo mean by early next week — but even so, we have a few days to bask at the glow of David Brooks saying something useful.

Image:  Gustave Courbet, Peasants from Flagey Returning from market, 1850

First They Came For The NSF…

January 3, 2011

Belatedly, for I posted this originally over at Balloon Juice some time ago — here’s a bit of justified (IMHO) Godwinization of our New GOPer Overlords for their disastrous approach to science policy:

We’ve seen this one before.

As gleefully announced by Eric Cantor (R – Faust) Congressman Adrian Smith, (R-Torquemada Nebraska), a member of the House Science and Technology is kicking off the GOP “YouCut Citizen Review” of federal agencies with an assault on that known threat to American values and good governance, the National Science Foundation. [Warning:  that link leads to Cantor’s website.]

In keeping with the tradition of both Joe McCarthy and that insufferable grandstander, William Proxmire, Smith and Cantor target the usual suspects.  Those dread “university academics” (Oh! the ignominy! — and for my part, I’d have to say: “it’s a fair cop, guv’nor”) who received $750K to work on computer models of what Smith called “the on-field contribution of soccer players.” (Say whut? A missing object, I fear — ed.)…


…  Or that wasted $1.2 * 10^6 (I write it that way just to piss Cantor and Smith off, of course) used to “model the sound of breaking objects for the video game and movie industries.”

If Smith leaves any doubt about what’s going on here in his video message, (I mean, he could be a Truman-esque patriot merely seeking to make government work better for all citizens, right? Right?), the text on Cantor’s site to GOP supporters removes that mite of ambiguity.

How should you identify suspect federally-funded science one may ask?  Well, writes Cantor (or rather, his web gnomes),

In the “Search Award For” field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants.

I guess I gotta fess up here.  If this witch hunt is retrospective, I’m in trouble.  My last NSF-funded project featured a collaboration with the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, which (as the proposal detailed) formed a network of science museums to help folks grasp ideas about the making of knowledge about phenomena removed from us by distance of space and/or time. So if they come for any of us, I guess they may come for me.

Seriously though, this is thought-police stuff.  Smith concedes that there is good science — physics, chemistry, the hard stuff — or rather, in this climate, the safe kind … for now.

But of course nothing is safe.  Cosmology gives us insight into deep time, godless origins, and, more corrosive than any other thought, the realization that humankind does not occupy a privileged place in the universe.  That’s obviously not on.

And so on. When you get down to it, it’s not the funky, more-than-an-elevator-pitch-to-explain research that’s the problem.  It is, rather, that you can apply reason and formal methods to elicit facts from the material circumstances of our existence that puts the sand in the vaseline down at GOP HQ.  Independent authority is unacceptable.

I’m going to go somewhere a bit dangerous here.  Godwinizing is a touchy game, and calling examples down from between-the-wars-Germany down on someone named Cantor risks a predictable response.  But hell, I answer to Levenson so I’ll take the plunge.

Here’s the background:*

In 1920, just as he reached the first full rush of his fame, Albert Einstein attended a public meeting of the Arbeitgemeinshaft deutcher Naturforsher zur Erhaltung reiner Wissenshaft — the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science .

As he sat, silent, in the audience, he heard speaker after speaker denounce relativity as hostile to true Germans and true scientists.

One speaker termed relativity the scientific equivalent of Dada…

…while another, the experimentalist Ernst Gehrcke had already described the acquiescence of his fellow scientists in Einstein’s work was “an interesting case of mass suggestion in physics.”

Einstein laid low that evening, but he had no doubt about what was really being said.  He responded a few days later in one of Berlin’s dailies by writing, “I have good reason to believe that other motives besides a search for truth underlie this enterprise,”  he wrote, and it was clear what they were:  there would have been no problem,  “had I been a German national with or without swastika instead of a Jew with liberal international opinions then…

The controversy did not end there.  Later in 1920, the autumn meeting of the Society of Society of German Scientists and Physicians pitted Einstein against Philip Lenard, a Nobel laureate whose work, ironically, had led to Einstein’s early breakthrough on the quantum theory of light.

Lenard’s role in the ongoing reaction to Einstein was a critical feature of the debate, for at first he ignored the anti-Semitism of some of his allies and spoke simply as one who objected to the corrosive consequences of Einstein’s approach to physics.  Relativity theory, with its reckless assault of space, time and motion, “offended the common sense of a scientist.”

That is, relativity being counter-intuitive, ought to be false.  It would be more comfortable if it were not true, less troubling to the soul.

Put that way, Lenard’s was a pathetic argument but not an actually malicious one.  (After all, Einstein himself would experience the emotional cost that a radical discovery can impose on those who have lived happily with the older, outmoded set of ideas.)

But Lenard did not rest there.  By 1922, the grounds of his objection shifted; now, he denounced Einstein as a false German, decried Jewish habits of disputation, and called for the reassertion of a “sound German spirit” in science, whose revival would ensure the destruction of “the alien spirit…which is so clearly seen in anything that relates to the ‘relativity theory'”

Lenard’s justification for this claim went like this:   step one: Einstein’s science made no sense.  Step two:  therefore, it had to have been produced out of a malign desire to undermine the clarity of science and the certainty of its conclusions.  Finally, the ultimate step in this catechism, Einstein’s evil impulse here was born of the inherent Jewishness of relativity’s author.

The epilogue?  In 1932, Einstein left Germany, weeks ahead of Hitler’s ascension to power.  Lenard became one of the Nazi’s favorite physicists, with the title “chief of Deutche Physik.”

And how did the Nazi preference for allegiance and national origin over scientific competence work out for them?

Not so well, thankfully, as we know.

Leap now from 1922 to 2010:  are Smith and Cantor denouncing particular research grants because of the ethnic or religious affiliation of the researchers?


Are they setting up the conditions in which the question of whether or not a given piece of research is “American” enough?

Yes. They are.

Is this dangerous?

Well, duh.

A last note, just to make myself clear: I don’t think that this latest witch hunt is (yet) a direct threat to people interested in inappropriate ideas.  It does make us dumber, day by day.  Pace every invocation of American exceptionalism, there is no particular reason, as readers of this blog know better than most, that the US of A will remain the undisputed king of all disciplines forever.  There is some uncertainty, however, about how fast our competition will arrive, and how likely it will be that we slip beneath the top rank of scientific and technologically innovative national leaders.

And there, the answer is —  if Smith and Cantor have their way — sooner and more grievously than we think.

*The Einstein/”German physics” material is slightly edited from one of my earlier, published works.  No link-mongering here.  If you are interested in more, dig for it.

Images:  Sebastian Stoskopff Still-Life of Glasses in a Basket,” 1644.

Theo van Doesburg, Poster Small Dada Soiree, 1922.