Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Flu epidemics and pandemics

The word "pandemic" has a different formal definition when used by the World Health Organization, and when used in the popular press. Essentially, the restricted WHO definition is that a disease is pandemic when there is confirmed person to person transmission in at least two countries in one region and in a country in another region. Thus WHO may deem a pandemic exists even if there is a relatively narrow transmission of a relatively mild disease in only a few countries. By this definition there is a flu pandemic every year!

The more common usage of the term differentiates a situation in which there is a disease which affects a large number of people worldwide with a large number of people affected by very serious disease.

Incidentally, I wonder whether the effect of the demographic transition has been worked into our understanding of epidemiology. In flu, for example, the virus population drifts among closely related viruses during the year and from year to year, with an occasional introduction of a new strain that is significantly different than the existing strains. Immunizations and past exposure to the disease gives some protection as the existing resistance reduces the virulence of new infections.

There are a limited number of strains of flu that have caused epidemics in the human population. A "new" strain that is introduced often will not be entirely new, but rather a strain which was common at some time in the past, which disappeared when there was sufficient herd immunity, but which become epidemic again when the herd immunity has sufficiently decreased.

Where birthrates are high (and lives short) it takes a relatively short time for a large number of children never exposed to a viral strain to enter the population. When the birthrate is low, a large portion of the population has been present for decades and the level of herd immunity decays less rapidly. Thus the time between major epidemics and pandemics may increase as the demographic transition takes place.

So the reduction of birth rates that has occurred in the past half century may perhaps counteract in part the increase in human population and the increased urbanization that increases contact rates, and thus is likely to increase the the spread of infectious diseases.

More about swine flu

New Scientist has a number of articles about flu and swine flu in its current edition. One of those articles, by Debora MacKenzie, says that "this type" of swine flu (presumably H1N1) has been known to be circulating in pigs in the United States since 1998 and has been evolving rapidly in that population.

I have also read that the disease in affecting younger people rather than older ones, suggesting that there were in previous decades flu epidemic of a strain of flu, and that the antibodies left to the people infected by that virus provide some protection to the current virus,

"Study Examines Choice of Religion"

Subtitle: "Spiritual Attitudes, Not Church Policy, Cited as Reasons"
Jacqueline L. Salmon, The Washington Post, April 28, 2009.

Research sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has estimated that 56 percent of Americans have changed religion at some point in their lives.
They also found that up to one-third of people who have left their childhood faith have jumped around among three or more other faiths.
The article also states that
More Americans have given up their faith or changed religions because of a gradual spiritual drift than because of disillusionment over their churches' policies.
Comment: I guess it is not surprising that relatively few Americans choose churches based on an agreement with the details of the church's theological positions. I have read that American churches are very active in "recruiting" members, and I suppose that they do so offering ritual, community and ministerial services that members find attractive. I wish I had something more illuminating to offer on this interesting fact. JAD

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"The last great swine flu epidemic"

There is a good article by Patrick Di Justo on about the 1976 debacle when the Ford administration over reacted to an outbreak of swine flu (limited to one military base) and spent a ton of money immunizing tens of millions of people against a flu that never appeared, thereby assuring that Ford would lose the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

President Obama at the NAS

President Obama addressed the Annual Meeting of the National Academies yesterday. I quote from the transcript of the address:
Federal funding in the physical sciences as a portion of our gross domestic product has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter century. Time and again we've allowed the research and experimentation tax credit, which helps businesses grow and innovate, to lapse.

Our schools continue to trail other developed countries and, in some cases, developing countries. Our students are outperformed in math and science by their peers in Singapore, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Korea, among others. Another assessment shows American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to nations around the world. And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.

We know that our country is better than this.......

I'm here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.
The longest and loudest applause was for the President's statement:
On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. (Applause.) Our progress as a nation –- and our values as a nation –- are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy. It is contrary to our way of life.
Comment: The content of the speech was most encouraging, and the fact that Obama made time to give a major speech on science so early in his presidency and at a time that there are so many crises facing the country is even more so. JAD

You can watch a streaming video or listen to a streaming audio of the speech on the NAS website.

"Swine Flu: Mexico tries to focus on source of infection"

Source: Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sánchez, The Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2009

"With the death toll climbing, Mexican authorities at the center of an international swine flu epidemic struggled Monday to piece together its lethal march, with attention focusing on a 4-year-old boy and a pig farm.

"The boy, who survived the illness, has emerged as Mexico's earliest known case of the never-before-seen virus, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said Monday. It provides an important clue to the unique strain's path."

Comment: The good news is that if this kid was really the index case -- the person who contacted the virus from a pig and passed it on to one or more people -- then the world detected the outbreak early and has a fighting chance to contain it.

I would also suggest that the disease may become less virulent as it moves from Mexico to other places. Virus populations mutate very rapidly, and there is a theory that flu viruses that leave their victims well enough to walk around tend to disseminate farther and faster than those which cause graver illness.

The bad news is that this kid may not be the index case after all. JAD

Determinism and Foreign Policy

Robert Kaplan has an article in the current Foreign Policy recommending geographic determinism as a basis for understanding geopolitics. He recommends that we reject the theories of the NeoCons as simplistic, and revisit the theories of earlier writers who better understood the area from the Mediterranean to Bangladesh and China. He focuses on geographic determinism.

Perhaps it is a quibble, but he describes a change in the determining factor when Europeans successfully develop sea routes around Africa to Asia. It seems to me that the development of ships able to make the journey reliably might be better seen as a technological determinant of the following history, and indeed the development of an understanding of the African coast and the sea routes might be seen as a scientific accomplishment which also helped determine the future course of history.

Kaplan give attention to urbanization, which suggests demographic deterministic factors. Moreover, it would not have been possible to develop a world in which more than half the inhabitants live in urban areas without developing the technologies by which a minority of the population could feed all,-- another technological determinant.

I lean toward a multifactoral theory of the determinants of history,


Source: The World Bank via The Economist

"Just over a quarter of the world population, or 1.4 billion people, lived in extreme poverty in 2005, according to the World China.....the share of people below the threshold of $1.25 a day fell from 60.2% to 15.9% between 1990 and India, to 41.6% in 2005 from 51.3% in 1990."

Comment: The current economic crisis is surely going to increase the number of people falling below the poverty line.

Human Rights Pledges of the United States

On March 31, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice announced that the United States will seek a seat this year on the United Nations Human Rights Council with the goal of working to make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights.

As part of the process that will culminate in elections on May 12, each candidate country is asked to produce a pledge outlining its commitment to promoting human rights. This information is circulated among countries and posted on the UN Human Rights Council website. The United States has produced its pledge - Human Rights Commitments and Pledges of the United States of America.

Monday, April 27, 2009

This website provides a mobile applications database that contains details of projects from around the world which make social and environmental use of mobile technology in fields such as human health, economic empowerment, conservation, education, human rights and poverty alleviation.

Woops: The digital divide may be the ability to pay

The New York Times has an article today that points out a problem raised by the penetration of the Internet into poor countries. The economics of the Internet in rich countries has been largely based on providing free information to users and paying the costs by charging advertisers to send ads along with the requested information. The folk in poor countries are increasingly using bandwidth intensive services such as streaming video and streaming audio, services that require more server hardware and more transmission capacity. On the other hand, they are not an attractive market for advertisers. So the costs are growing faster than the income.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What should the government do about flu

ScienceInsider, the blog for Science magazine, has an interview with Edwin D. Kilbourne. He is an infectious disease specialist, now 88 years old, who was very much involved in the swine flu situation in the 1970s. Recall that there was an outbreak on a military base and the government immunized tens of millions of people with a vaccine which may or may not have caused a number of cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome. The decision making by the government in that situation was the case studied in The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-making on a Slippery Disease by Richard E. Neustadt and Harvey V. Fineberg.

Kilbourne recommends that we work to characterize the disease, to find a strain of the virus which is a good candidate for the development of a vaccine, and that we put a vaccine in production right away. But he also recommends that we refrain from mass immunizations until we know more about the epidemic. That sounds very appropriate.

There is a flu epidemic every year; more accurately there seem to be several epidemics each year of different strains of flu which overlap in time. Every once and a while a new strain of flu arises for which there is relatively little immunity in the population, which transmits easily and which results in serious illness and the world has a pandemic. Experience suggests that there is no question as to whether there will be another flu pandemic, but only questions of when it will occur and how bad it will be.

Remember, most respiratory infections are never diagnosed, and even when flu is diagnosed the strain of the virus causing the disease is seldom identified. Right now, because the world has been alerted, there will be a lot of epidemiological case finding and agent identification. It will be tempting to assume that the reports of increasing numbers of cases of swine flu signal a rapidly increasing epidemic, but the increase will be at least in part due to better case finding.

I have been posting for some time on flu. You can find my past posts by searching this blog using the term "flu", or by clicking on the "flu" tag below.

Some good places to get information on this and other flu epidemics are:
Source of graph: "Cold weather really does spread flu," Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist, 19 October 2007.

History suggests that this is not "the big one", the strain of flu that will create a pandemic. Even if it is, we in the United States may luck out if the summer weather keeps the swine flu away, and the public health officials have until next winter to develop a campaign

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A New and Interesting Book from the IDRC

Fred Carden

Sage/IDRC 2009
ISBN 978-81-7829-930-3
e-ISBN 978-1-55250-417-8
224 pp.

From the Summary: "Knowledge to Policy examines the consequences of 23 research projects funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre. Key findings and case studies from Asia, Africa, and Latin America are presented in a reader-friendly, journalistic style, giving the reader a deeper grasp and understanding of approaches, contexts, relationships, and events.

"The book will be useful to academics, researchers, and students of political science, public administration, development studies, and international affairs; professionals in donor and development organizations worldwide; policy- and decision-makers in government and international arenas; and development agencies and civil society organizations concerned with integrating the voice of citizens into policy- and decision-making processes."

World Malaria Day

Thursday was World Malaria Day and Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations issued a statement for the event calling for the eradication of Malaria. I quote (extensively):
For about half the world’s population, malaria remains one of the greatest threats to public health—a disease that plunges families into poverty, rattles shaky public health systems, and steals Africa’s children away from her.

Let us assume that today is an ordinary day in tropical Africa; that means it is also a day when nearly 3,000 people die of malaria. And to make that toll even harder to bear, nearly 90 percent of malaria’s victims are children under the age of 5. This is a human cost that we will never be able to fully tally. We will never be able to know whether an infant who died of malaria might have grown up to be the next Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka, Youssou N’Dour, or Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

The economic losses caused by malaria are staggering—an estimated annual toll of $12 billion. This puts a terrible burden on the most fragile economies and public health services. In Rwanda, for example, malaria is responsible for up to half of all outpatient visits to health facilities—and more than half of those visits are for children under 5.

This is a serious fight. But we have seen significant progress. And we have the tools to do even more.

We now have effective and increasingly affordable drugs to treat malaria and related illnesses. We now have reliable ways to prevent malaria—especially bed nets treated with insecticides, indoor spraying, and safe, inexpensive drugs that can be provided to ante-natal pregnant women.

Governments are working together with nonprofit groups, businesses, community leaders, priests, and imams. Community groups are teaching pregnant women to take anti-malarial drugs and helping mothers to get sick children the care they need.
Comment: I am very pleased that there has been a renovation in public health concern for malaria and that progress is being made against the disease.

I would caution, however, that we not become overconfident about the eradication of the disease to the point that we stop developing new techniques for its treatment, prevention and control.

Recall that based on the successful experience in developed nations, the World Health Organization embarked on a global campaign to eradicate malaria a half century ago, based on DDT and the then available case finding techniques and drugs. It turned out that many countries were unable to run malaria campaigns good enough and long enough to eradicate the disease, that mosquitoes developed resistance to pesticides and the malaria plasmodium developed resistance to the Chloroquine drugs. Combined those things resulted in a massive resurgence of a disease that was harder to control than the original one.

There is encouraging research that should lead to malaria vaccines and to better ways to control mosquitoes or to reduce their ability to transmit the disease. There is a lot that can be done to develop techniques to improve the management of malaria programs. I really hope that we continue to explore these and other alternatives that may be needed in the future.

Comments on Reading "Mayflower"

I recently posted on Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. I will sign off on the book with this posting. I should begin by saying the Philbrick writes well (as one might guess since he has won the Pulitzer Prize), and the book is quite readable, although it tells me more about a large cast of characters than I really want to know or am likely to long remember.

It is hard to pierce the myth and think about the Pilgrims as real people. To the extent that I can do so, I think I really would have disliked them individually and collectively. There lives revolved around a religious orientation which not only don't I share, but almost no one shares. I must conclude that they were deluded. I note that half the passengers on the Mayflower did not survive the initial colonization, and that many of the people who had thought to join the first wave of colonization wisely backed out. I must conclude that those who did not were foolish and unable to predict the short term future. Given the failure of the Plymouth Colony to live up to its religious purposes they were also unable to predict their long term future. Finally, many of them failed to treat the native Americans in a Christian manner.

It may be useful to put these people into a different historical perspective. The Mayflower landed in New England in 1620. Galileo got his telescope in 1609; Shakespeare and Cervantes both died on April 23, 1616.

The book, contrary to its title, is primarily about two small wars declared by the Puritans on the native Americans in the aftermath of the founding of the Plymouth. Philbrick suggests, and I find it credible, that the English systematically and deliberately invaded an already occupied land. Allying themselves with some tribes and taking advantage of the destruction of social systems and decimations of populations by epidemics of (European) diseases, they attacked and conquered the survivors, selling a significant portion of the survivors as slaves to pay for the wars of conquest. The end of the process was a New England populated almost entirely by the descendants of European immigrants with the few reminants of the native American population living in tiny reservations, their culture totally destroyed.

Were this version of the founding of the first of the colonies which succeeded and evenually became the United States to be widely understood, rather than the myths built around Plymouth Rock, John Alden speaking for himself, and the first Thanksgiving, then we might be less confident about the virtue of our American heritage and more worried about the our historical tendency to impose our will on the weak whenever we are strong enough to do so.

I guess this conclusion more than justifies the reading of the book!

You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The Athenians to the Melians
The Melian Dialog
in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars.

Good News on the Environment

Source: "G8, poor nations sign deal to halt biodiversity loss," Reuters via AlertNet, April 24, 2009.

Members of the G8 have just signed a deal to extend the 2002 deal to reduce the loss of biodiversity. They also negotiated on climate change, in preparation for the upcoming global meeting to develop a follow-on to the Kyoto accords.
The G8 meeting grouped for the first time nine developing economies, including Brazil, India and China -- by some calculations the world's largest carbon producer -- in an effort to forge a worldwide consensus.

Obama has pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, overturning his predecessor George W. Bush's refusal to take part in the Kyoto deal, but U.N. officials have called for more.

Mexico Closes Schools to Limit Flu Spread

The New York Times reports:
Mexican officials, scrambling to control a swine flu outbreak that has killed as many as 61 people and infected possibly hundreds more in recent weeks, closed museums and shuttered schools for millions of students in and around the capital on Friday, and urged people with flu symptoms to stay home from work.

This is one of a series on flu, and the possibilities of a serious flu epidemic or pandemic. Click on the "Flu" tag below to see more.

The U.S. Should Lead in the Protection of Human Rights reprints an article by SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM from the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Ibrahim was incarcerated by Egypt's Mubarak regime from 2000 to 2003. He is now a visiting professor at Harvard. I quote:
In 1948, the United Nations recognized the "inherent dignity" and "the equal and inalienable rights" of all human beings when it ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though this week's U.N. conference in Geneva claimed to stand for these noble values, the world's dictators were the real winners.

Too many official country delegates didn't come to Geneva to stand up for the oppressed. They came to condemn the "colonial powers" of the West and Israel. In so doing, they sought to guard against exposing their own regimes' human-rights records. While the delegates met in the official conference hall, the true defenders of human rights -- civil society organizations and dissidents -- gathered at their own conference where they examined today's most pressing human-rights issues.

Comment: Not only are human rights under attack in many places, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also under attack. The Universal Declaration was a great achievement of post World War II diplomacy, and particularly of Eleanor Roosevelt. While it is simply a declaration without force of treaty or law, it is the basis for a whole flock of treaties that implement its sentiments.

One attack is coming from religious leaders who feel that the freedom of expression should not extend to criticism of (their) religion. Certainly rights also imply responsibilities. I would say that the right to criticize religious beliefs demands responsibility to do so with care and concern for the feelings of others. It is, however, an important right. Think of the tragedy of Jonestown and other abuses of cults, not to mention the Inquisition and the Crusades. If we are not allowed to criticize that which is done in the name of religion, and indeed the beliefs of members of religions, how can we protect society from such abuses?

Now that the Obama administration is reversing Bush administration policies on torture and treatment of prisoners, and now that the Obama administration has announced that we are running for a seat on the United Nations Council on Human Rights, perhaps this country can again legitimately lead an international effort to protect the Universal Declaration and to promote respect for human rights. JAD

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Created by Seth Brau Produced by Amy Poncher Music by Rumspringa courtesy Cantora Records

Friday, April 24, 2009

"Deadly new flu strain erupts in Mexico, U.S,"

Reuters has a news alert about the emerging evidence of an H1N1 flu epidemic (i.e. swine flu).
A strain of flu never seen before has killed up to 60 people in Mexico and has also appeared in the United States, where eight people were infected but recovered, health officials said on Friday.

Mexico's government said at least 20 people have died of the disease in central Mexico and that it may also have been responsible for 40 other deaths.

Mexico reported more than 1,000 suspected cases and four possible cases were also seen in Mexicali, right on the border with California.
Comment: The bad news is that this might be the first report of the start of the next flu pandemic. The good news is that the public health officials are now on the alert.

It is really too bad that this problem is occurring on a border that is seeing high levels of illegal immigration and drug traffic. How does one control the importation of a disease when the potential carriers are hiding from the government?

I will point out that there is a very long history of U.S.-Mexican cooperation on border health problems. JAD

UNESCO and the International Year of Astonomy

2009 is being celebrated, including by UNESCO, as the International Year of Astronomy. This is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's obtaining a telescope and beginning to observe the heavens.

One of my students pointed out that one of the goals of the organizers of the celebrations is to renew peoples wonder at the heavens. Great point, great idea! For millennia people observed the night sky with wonder, a wonder we have largely lost in our light polluted urban skys. But today we know that there are somewhere between 100 and 1000 billion stars in our galaxy, and somewhere between 100 and 1000 billion galaxies in the universe; scientists are beginning to wonder whether there are other universes. That is a reality really worthy of wonder.

Another of the goals is to relate astronomy to development. My student focused on the role of astronomy in energizing the natural sciences which in turn energize technological advance. True. Think about atomic energy and the stimulus of atomic physics from the study of processes of the stars.

It may be more important to think about what we can learn from astronomy about climate. Climate is variable, and some climate phases are more inimical to civilization than others. It is now believed that many cultures have gone into decline during extended droughts or that the Norse expansion was enabled by an unusually warm climatic period. It turns out that some of these major climatic changes are best understood through astronomy, and the eccentricity of the earth's orbit, the shifts in the earths magnetic poles, and solar cycles. These are long term cycles, but we have been enjoying a very favorable climate for many decades and the bad times will come again; astronomy may help us to prepare for when they do.

The cultural impact of astronomy is enormous. Galileo, by demonstrating that the heavens were not perfect and that the not everything revolved around the earth or even the sun, had a dramatic impact on the credibility of the pronouncements of the church and on the need to observe nature. I think the revelations of modern astronomy will have equally profound effects in challenging the beliefs of biblical fundamentalists. It seems to me that the cultural attitudes engendered by an understanding of astronomy are much more conducive to social and economic development than are more traditional cultural attitudes.

"lifelong learning" and other paradigms used by educators

Last night students in my class on UNESCO described the projects that they had been working on during the semester. The combination of two of the presentations joined in my consciousness to provoke this posting:
  • One student focused on non-formal education. Of course there are many kinds of educational services that fall under this category, but I think they all share the characteristic in the mind of the education system that they involve educators who facilitate learning.
  • The other student spoke dealt with special needs education. This seems to be a euphemism for the the provision of educational services to kids with some kind of physical, mental or social problem.
I think the semantics here are natural. Educators have to talk about what they do, and they utilize words from their general cultural surroundings to do so, modifying the meanings of those words and turning them into jargon. Of course other professions do the same thing.

Still, think of Lincoln and Franklin, both people who attained both considerable knowledge of the world and considerable wisdom with very little schooling nor input of "educators". It is hard not to conclude that they merited the title of, educated people, but their educations were anything but the formal processes of their times.

Thinking of my own experience, I had 20 years of classroom instruction, but most of what I have learned, and most that it important to me, I learned outside of the classroom.

It also occurred to me that I spent a lot of time in this very class trying to recognize the special circumstances of each student (background, interests, portfolio of abilities, and goals) in order to tailor the course experience to suit that student. I tried to treat each student as having specific needs from that class, and to treat each of those needs as "special".

As I understand it, the Education For All movement that was catalyzed by world conferences in Jontiem and Dakar sought to revolutionize the paradigm of education, substituting facilitation of "lifelong learning" for "schooling" as the theme about which educators would conceptualize their professional work.

Such a new paradigm would link to the increasing interests in learning organizations, especially since the most important way for an organization to learn is for its members to learn as individuals. It would also link to the opportunities for learning provided by the Information Revolution, both in the sense of the automation of information functions and to the increase in information available to the individual via information and communication technology.

Not surprisingly, as I understand it, with the Millennium Development Goals initiative, the emphasis in international educational services went to the provision of basic schooling to everyone. That was an objective that donors could invest in -- more schools, more teachers, more materials. Not a bad objective, especially since even that objective was too ambitious to be achieved by 2015. I expect that the next generation of Development Goals will look not only to getting the rest of the kids to school for at least the primary grades, but to seeing that those schools at least meet basic quality standards.

Still, I love the metaphor of the "knowledge society", and I would love to see an educational paradigm defined that encouraged competency based, individual learning for everyone during their entire lives.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Two Cases of Swine Flu Reported in California

According to Medscape Today:
H1N1 swine influenza A infection has been reported in 2 children living in southern California. No direct contact with swine was reported in either case, suggesting that the virus may have spread directly among humans.

The cases were reported online April 21 in a special dispatch of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The swine viruses detected contain combinations of DNA segments not previously observed in influenza virus, and the seasonal influenza vaccine H1N1 strain is unlikely to provide protection, according to the report.
The threat here is that a new strain of flu has emerged that can be transmitted from human to human. As a new strain, there may be little herd immunity and there is always the chance of such a strain proving to be especially virulent.

On the other hand, I don't think anyone knows how often such new strains arise, infect a few people and then disappear.

During the Carter administration there was a swine flu panic in response to a few reported cases, analogous to the panic created in/by the Bush administration about the H1N5 flu. Both cited the flu pandemic that struck during World War II.

Of course the global public health community should maintain surveillance to identify new strains of flu to give as early a warning as possible of shifts in the disease characteristics. Given the serious annual epidemics and extremely serious pandemics that occur every decade or two, of course public health officials should prepare to respond to flu season.

On the other hand, we have lived with flu epidemics and flu pandemics for a long time, and we should refrain from panic. Two cases don't make an epidemic.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Knowledge versus Morality

There is a lot in the papers these days about the possibility (probability?) that the Bush administration sponsored the torture of prisoners. My son has been angry that the question of whether torture works has been confounded with the question of whether it is morally acceptable to torture prisoners. I see his point, in that there will be people who cloud the moral clarity of the propositions that:
  • Americans don't torture because it is wrong to do so,
  • Torturing people is contrary to both American law and America's international treaty obligations.
It seems to me that there are interesting questions as to:
  • Government lawyers who wrote opinions as to what interrogation practices were and were not legal.
  • Government scientists who summarized the evidence as to the efficacy of different interrogation processes on different kinds of subjects.
I think that such studies may be entirely appropriate. Think for example of the need to have knowledge about the interrogation techniques that may be used by others on American citizens who are held prisoners. Certainly, also one wants to allow such "knowledge workers" to provide their best judgments on the questions that are asked of them without fear of adverse consequences if their conclusions prove not to have been true or if they are misused by others.

Certainly the people who actually inflict torture are guilty, and as I understand our justice system, one who refuses to obey illegal instructions is in theory safe from retaliation.

We know enough about the willingness of people to carry out unethical orders to understand that the people who give those orders have to be held responsible.

It would seem that people who seek to provide cover for torture by producing false findings on the legality and necessity of torture are also guilty, but how do you understand the intentions of the authors of reports written in the past? How do you determine whether erroneous conclusions are deliberate falsifications or honest mistakes?

The Obama administration may be well advised to refrain from proceedings against knowledge workers. On the other hand, I hope they will proceed against those who ordered torture and those who tortured.


I have been reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. I plan to write more about that later, but I started thinking about how hard it is to avoid thinking in today's categories.

I have been reading about the episode called "King Phillips War". The "war" apparently started as a result of conflict between one group of Indians and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Bay, but came to involve people over a large area.

Philbrick thinks in terms of two major categories: Europeans and Native Americans, each divided into subcategories of nationalities and tribes. I have read that Europeans did not think in terms of "race" until the voyages of discovery. Traveling by land from Europe to Asia there there were no apparent shift from race to race, but rather a blending of people's appearances. When one sailed from Europe to Asia, however, the people at the end of the voyage appeared quite different from those at the beginning of the voyage.

It made me wonder whether the native Americans had a concept of race before they acquired it from Europeans. How did the native Americans in what is now New England perceive the situation? Did they have a category of "Europeans"? Did they expect the immigrants from Europe to form coalitions, and did they feel the need for the native Americans to form coalitions? Or did they see the different communities of immigrants to be comparable to different tribes?

And how and when did they understand the differences among the categories of European nations? And how did the colonists understand their affiliation with the colony in which they lived versis the affiliation with a government in Europe or with an ethnic culture?

How did the Europeans understand the differences among Native Americans? Why were they willing to accept some native American communities as allies but not to accept others as neutrals but rather to make them enemies.

The English in New England and the Hispanics a couple of centuries earlier colonizing seemed to distinguish more between converts to Christianity and non-converts in ways that are much stronger than the way in which we make such distinctions.

It rather seems that a great deal of the conflict involved in the English colonization of what became New England may have resulted from a dissonance between the ways in which the European immigrants classified groups of people and the way in which the native Americans did.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Development in the Americas

Beyond Facts: Understanding Quality of Life

This is the first in a series of major reports by the InterAmerican Development Bank:
The study reveals that the evaluation Latin American and Caribbean citizens make of their own well-being and of their countries does not depend on income alone, but that a host of factors influence their perceptions on quality of life. The study’s conclusions are based on the results of the Gallup World Poll. These results include the opinions of more than 40,000 people in 24 Latin American and the Caribbean countries concerning their level of satisfaction with government services such as health, education, and security, among others.

Digital Research Tools (DiRT)

Digital Research Tools (DiRT)

is a wiki for information about tools and resources that can help scholars (particularly in the humanities and social sciences) conduct research. It is intended to help them do so more efficiently and/or creatively.

It provides leads to software to help manage citations, author a multimedia work, or analyze texts. It provides a directory of tools organized by research activity, as well as reviews of select tools including description of the tool's features and discussion of how they may be employed most effectively by researchers.

"New formula for US-South research funding"

"North–South agricultural research partnerships will gain another source of funding thanks to a new partnership in which the United States' National Science Foundation (NSF) can get involved in collaboration with developing-country scientists.

"The NSF is mandated only to provide funding for research conducted within the United States but under the Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) programme it will join forces with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide US$48 million for international collaboration projects over five years."

Mercedes Sosa Sings "Todo Cambia"

Federal Public Health Service Standards Needed

Source of map: Wunderground using data from the CDC
How much of the pattern is due to the distribution of flu
and how much to the quality of the reporting?

Source article: "Ill From Food? Investigations Vary by State," GARDINER HARRIS, The New York Times, April 19, 2009.

We have a national Center for Disease Control, but we also have 3,000 federal, state and local health departments that are, for the most part, poorly financed, poorly trained and disconnected. As a result most communicable disease usually goes unreported, or reported only partially and often tardily.

I would not think that we should have a federal monopoly on public health programs nor a huge federal public health service. On the other hand, the federal government could define standards that state and local public health services would be required to meet.

The standards could be placed on public health service inputs, such as numbers of epidemiologists, public health physicians and public health nurses per 1000 population. Perhaps better would be standards of quality and service.

I suspect that epidemiological models could do a very good job of predicting the incidence of reportable disease problems now. Perhaps a system that required offices to defend apparent underreporting would work. The better the reporting became, the more accurate the predictive models would become.

The Internet and Susan Boyle

Before her April 11th appearance on TV's Britain's Got Talent, Susan Boyle -- a 47 year old spinster from a tiny village in Scotland with no job and no car -- was known only to her neighbors. Since her appearance, according to the Washington Post,
Boyle-oriented videos -- including clips of her television interviews and her recently released rendition of "Cry Me a River," recorded 10 years ago for a charity CD -- have generated a total of 85.2 million views. Nearly 20 million of those views came overnight.......

Her Wikipedia entry has attracted nearly 500,000 page views since it was created last Sunday. Over the weekend, her Facebook fan page was flooded with comments, at some points adding hundreds of new members every few minutes. The page listed 150,000 members at 1 p.m. Friday. By last night there were more than a million.
A week ago I even posted a link to her seven minute video clip. Now she is famous for being famous, with newspapers picking up the story of her exploding fame.

The Internet is only twenty years old and YouTube is a lot newer than that. It is hard to believe that the speed of dissemination of information can have increased so much in so short a time. On the other hand, the Washington Post, which was once one of the great newspapers in the world, has eliminated its Business section and its Sunday book section and is beginning to look like a small town paper. Who knows what the information systems of the world will be like by 2050.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

April 29: International Dance Day

International Dance Day is celebrated every year on the 29th of April. The date commemorates the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre, who was born in 1727 and was a great reformer of dance.

My experience with Social Networking

I started my involvement posting in Cyberspace with the Development Gateway, where for some years I have served as an editor of the facets of the DG portal serving several communities:
I also served as an editor for a Monitoring and Evaluation Community but it is no longer supported by the DG Foundation. I also post resources on a number of other community facets. The community facets of the DG had more than 67,000 visits over the last month, and I have probably contributed something like 20,000 postings of online resources, news, events, and even have written a fair number of short articles for DG highlights. Of course there are other editors and many other people posting information on the DG portal.

Early on, it occurred to me that blogging was an emerging means of networking and that I should try to create a blog. I created Thoughts About K4D at the end of 2002, and have been posting to it ever since. I find I have an archive of more than 4,000 postings, and the blog gets about 100 visits a day. Overall there have been more than 125,000 visits.

In 2004 I joined the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO and began to take a stronger interest in UNESCO. Since I was following UNESCO events and learning about its programs I thought I would share the information. I was especially hopeful that the other participants in Americans for UNESCO and the members of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO would find it interesting and useful. I work with two blogs:
These blogs together have more than 3000 postings, are now receiving slightly more than 100 visits per day, and have received more than 90,000 visits since I started keeping track of visitors. Several others have joined me in making occasional postings.

For the last three years I have taught a course titled UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century at George Washington University. The University makes the Blackboard Academic Suite available for students and faculty for each class, and I my students and I have used it extensively. This semester, for example, I have posted materials related to each week's class on the platform and my students have accessed the materials an average of 55 times per person. I have also been building an online bibliography on UNESCO which serves my students and others:
which has been viewed about 400 times since it was created. (I started another social bookmarking site related to the K4D blog which I have pretty much stopped adding to, which has been visited something over 100 times).

More recently I have experimented with LinkedIN and Facebook. I have been made the manager of the UNESCO Group on LinkedIN, which currently has 270 members and has been growing at 20 to 30 new members a week. That is a fairly active group, at least with the automated posting of news from various feeds.

Most recently I have been tweeting on two Twitter sites:
These have 106 and 27 followers respectively.

Of course, as a number of studies have postulated, the World Wide Web is the infrastructure on which a huge network has been created. While the studies of these networks have established interesting properties, the structures are among websites and webpages. The new social networking sites (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) are networking people. LinkedIn tells me that I have 158 connections, with indirect links to more than 1.6 million more.

I am an old guy, and not as networked as students seem to be these days, but modern networking connectivity seems really huge even to me. The Internet made a world of information available, and search engines made it possible to find useful information in that wealth of data. It also made email possible, which made it possible to communicate with people you know conveniently over distance. But social networking makes it possible to communicate with people you don't know when you have a reason to do so. Amazing!!

Image source: Indian LBS Insights

We Are Going to Have To Pay Our Way Sometimes

Source: "Sustainable Developments: Paying for What Government Should Do;" May 2009; Scientific American Magazine; by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

In this article, which will not be available free for another several weeks (due to the Scientific American policy of posting a month after the magazine appears on newsstands), is another example of Sachs' ability to write clear incisive prose. He points does several things:
  • He emphasizes that we should emphasize the combined federal, state and local budget and deficit in comparing countries rather than just federal data;
  • He points out that the United States government represents a smaller portion of the economy than is true in other developed nations;
  • He suggests that our persistent budget deficits are due to a political deadlock in which the Congress is both unable to raise taxes and unable to cut government spending.
Of course the government deficit will grow until the Congress does one or the other. The Obama administration is going to increase the deficit to a level not seen since World War II -- probably a necessary step. However, we are going to eventually have to reduce our national debt to a more reasonable portion of out national income. There is going to be (figurative) blood on the floor of Congress unless the electorate comes to its collective senses.

Watch Out for Brain Bubbles

Naomi Klein has a piece in today's Washington Post suggesting that we should get rid of Larry Summers as an economic guru (in the Obama administration). I don't know that I would agree with her criticism of Summers. I rather hope that Obama brings as many smart people to the table to deal with this crisis as possible. But I think her argument is fascinating.
And this brings us to a central and often overlooked cause of the global financial crisis: Brain Bubbles. This is the process wherein the intelligence of an inarguably intelligent person is inflated and valued beyond all reason, creating a dangerous accumulation of unhedged risk. Larry Summers is the biggest Brain Bubble we've got.

Brain Bubbles start with an innocuous "whiz kid" moniker in undergrad, which later escalates to "wunderkind." Next comes the requisite foray as an economic adviser to a small crisis-wracked country, where the kid is declared a "savior." By 30, our Bubble Boy is tenured and officially a "genius." By 40, he's a "guru," by 50 an "oracle." After a few drinks: "messiah."

The superhuman powers bestowed upon these men -- and yes, they are all men -- shield them from the scrutiny that might have prevented the current crisis. Alan Greenspan's Brain Bubble allowed him to put the economy at great risk: When he made no sense, people assumed that it was their own fault. Brain Bubbles also formed the key argument Greenspan and Summers used to explain why lawmakers couldn't regulate the derivatives market: The wizards on Wall Street were too brilliant, their models too complex, for mere mortals to understand.
I think she is has a good metaphor. The excessive prestige we assign/allocate to some people is comparable to the excessive faith we give to some stocks and investments. Both are the result from a failure of social construction of reality, and in both cases the fault stems from a willingness to go with the herd rather than think with independent skepticism.

Of course we make better, more rational decisions is we refrain from ascribing too much credibility to a famous "talking hear," even a very good one.

U.S. To Boycott UN Racism Conference

Source: "RACISM CONFERENCE: U.S. to Boycott U.N. Meeting," in the Nation Digest section, The Washington Post, April 19, 2009.
The Obama administration will, "with regret," boycott a U.N. conference on racism this week, the State Department said Saturday, because of objectionable language in the meeting's final document that could single out Israel for criticism and restrict free speech.

The decision came after weeks of internal debate and was likely to please Israel and Jewish groups that lobbied against U.S. participation.

But it upset human rights advocates and those who had hoped that President Obama would send an official delegation.

The administration had wanted to attend the April 20-25 meeting in Geneva, although it warned in late February that it would not go unless significant changes were made to the draft text.
The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is to be held in Durbin, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September, 2009.

The elements of the provisional agenda for this United Nations Conference are to be grouped under the following themes:

Theme 1: Sources, cause, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance;

Theme 2: Victims of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance;

Theme 3: Measures of prevention, education and protection aimed at the eradication of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance at the national, regional and international levels;

Theme 4: Provision for effective remedies, recourses, redress, [compensatory] and other measures at the national, regional and international levels;

Theme 5: Strategies to achieve full and effective equality, including international cooperation and enhancement of the United Nations and other international mechanisms in combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia.

Obama Picks Aneesh P. Chopra as Chief Technology Officer

Source: "Obama Picks Technology And Performance Officers," Michael D. Shear and Anita Kumar, The Washington Post, April 19, 2009.
President Obama has named Virginia Technology Secretary Aneesh P. Chopra to be the nation's first chief technology officer.

The president announced the choice yesterday in his weekly radio and Internet address, adding Chopra to a small group of advisers whose aim it is to enhance and modernize the delivery of government services.

"Aneesh will promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities -- from creating jobs and reducing health-care costs to keeping our nation secure," Obama said in the address.

Why the economy is in the mess it is in!

Source: "The Quiet Coup," Simon Johnson, The Atlantic, May 2009.
The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.
Comment: I seldom see a graph with as vivid a message as that above. The managers of financial organizations got rich as their companies did more and more business. Unfortunately, as we now know, they did more and more business by doing more and more risky business in an environment where the people of this country were encouraged by a wide variety of government policies to consume and consume rather than to seve and invest! Now the bill is due. Unfortunately I fear it is not the executives of the financial industry that will pay, but rather it will be future generations of Americans -- our children and grandchildren. JAD

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Elizabeth Warren on The Daily Show

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor
Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard Law Professor who heads the TARP oversight committee, serving as a watchdog for our bailout money. John Stewart said after hearing the material in this clip that for the first time in a year he felt better because of Elizabeth Warren's "Financial Chicken Soup" for our economic crisis. I felt better because Professor Warren is obviously the most articulate and smartest person I have seen in a long time, and she will probably be a great protector of our interests..

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Narrative Thinking and Decision Making"

My friend Julianne pointed out the website for this monograph by Lee Roy Beach. Beach writes in the Abstract:
Cognitive narratives are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience. They provide continuity between the past and present and allow us to make plausible forecasts about what the future will be if we do not intervene to change it. Decision making is the act of evaluating the desirability of the forecasted future and, when it falls short of our values and preferences, choosing appropriate interventions to ensure that the actual future is more desirable than the forecasted future. In short, decision making is the process through which we manage the development of our narratives and, in doing so, manage the progress of our lives.
He goes on in the long Abstract to build a strawman, the rational economic man of some aspects of Economics, against which to contrast his model of decision making in the context of narrative thinking. In so doing, he ignores a lot of modern economic thought and the literature on decision making in organizations.

Still, the idea of decision making as responsive to narrative is I think very interesting. It suggests concern on the individual's decision making with respect to a private narrative as well as concern for group decision making based on the groups socially constructed narrative.

The monography can be downloaded from the site in a PDF file.

Thanks to Julianne!

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I get up every morning determined to both change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.
-E.B. White

Election for a seat on the County Council

There is a special primary election next week to fill a vacancy on the Montgomery County (Maryland) Council. Last night I attended a forum to hear nine of the candidates for the job.

Clearly the key issue for the county is how to deal with increasing budget demands at a time that the economy is in recession, and especially how to deal with the decrease in county income that will result from the foreclosures and decreasing value of the property (and thus reduced property taxes). The question was asked, as to the second priority. I suppose that the issue is being faced all over the country.

This is a county that has the possibility of considerable economic growth in the future if it can translate its leadership in the biomedical sciences to the development of new high technology industries. Thus one priority should be to make the investments, even in a poor economy, that will help achieve that end -- education, appropriate infrastructure, zoning and other efforts to attract innovators and help them succeed when they are here.

This is also a county with a lot of people who are already suffering and who are especially vulnerable to the economic downturn, including the elderly, the poor, and indeed a large immigrant population. Ours is a liberal population, and clearly the protection of the most vulnerable is a priority for government.

It seems to me that the key issue is how to balance these two priorities.

I suspect we will have few voters in an election with no federal or state-wide offices at stake. On the other hand, there was a good turnout at the forum. We have some good candidates, and I hope the electorate chooses the best of them!

I suspect that I will follow the endorsements of my Congresswoman, Donna Edwards, the Sierra Club, and my union and vote for Nancy Navarro.

It is time for e-Government to do better with taxes

I am still feeling the pain not only of paying my taxes yesterday, but of doing the tax returns. The government knows how much income I have from various sources, but requires me to enter all that data. I find myself paying for tax preparation software, and dealing with impenetrable instructions and great complexity.

It is time for a simplified tax code. Most American families have computers and Internet connections, especially most Americans who would have complex tax returns. It is time for the government to have a simplified online tax return software that automates the calculations and presents the citizen with the data that the Government has already received for verification.

Note that it is costing us tax payers a lot to do otherwise. The costs of professional services for tax preparation and software are deductible. If we did not need these services, we would not deduct their costs from income, and we would pay more taxes.


NICHOLAS WADE has an article in the New York Times today titled "Genes Show Limited Value in Predicting Diseases". It seems pretty early in the understanding of the human genome to expect major advances. Lets see if we can find the right metaphor:
  • My grandniece had her second birthday this week, and she hasn't earned any money for her parents yet.
  • I am reading Mayflower, the history of the Pilgrim colony in Massachusetts. Half of them died in the first year and the company that financed the settlement went broke.
  • How about European exploration. The explorers that went down the coast of Africa found deserts and then insalubrious tropical climates. It took a very long time to find the end of Africa and a route to Asia. The sailors with Columbus wanted to turn around before they discovered America.
Of course, sometimes it when you don't succeed at first and try, try again, you keep failing.

It may take a while, but I can not help but believe that genetics will eventually lead to discoveries with great medical benefits. I suspect that they will be less un unraveling genetic causes of diseases and more in finding which remedies work best with patients with which genes.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Susan Boyle - Singer - Britains Got Talent 2009

I can't embed this in the blog, but it is worth clicking on through to hear and see this seven minute long video.

The Brits have come up with another Paul Potts!

"Science, Mythology, Hatred, and the Fate of the Gray Wolf"

I have been posting for some time about the need to protect wolves in the Rocky Mountains. Today VERLYN KLINKENBORG has an editorial in The New York Times challenging the recent federal government decision to leave the protection of wolves in Montana and Idaho to state regulation, withdrawing federal protection of the populations there.

Klinkenborg writes:
C. L. Otter, the Republican governor of Idaho, has pledged “to continue our policy of responsibly managing wolves for a viable, sustainable population that can coexist with our ungulate herds, our livestock and our people.” The very first step in “responsibly managing” wolves will be a wolf hunt.

And Mr. Otter’s idea of coexistence between wolves and humans doesn’t bear examination. He has said he’d be the first in line for a wolf hunting license, and he has also said he favors reducing the wolf population in Idaho to 100, way below the current level of more than 800 and well below the number required by the state management plan.

When it comes to wolves, federal law has been protecting what is, fundamentally, a mythic species. And when it ceases protecting them, they will be exposed to the worst aspects of that myth — a deep, ancestral hostility to wolves based on ... nothing.

Wolves do not kill humans. They are responsible for a minuscule number of livestock deaths in the West — less than domestic dogs — and there are federal and state programs specifically designed to compensate ranchers who lose stock to wolves.
Comment: Sounds like we are putting the fox in charge of guarding the chicken coop. JAD

"Conscience vs. Conscience"

Stanley Fish has an interesting piece in The New York Times today. In the final days of the Bush administration a regulation was put in place that allows health care providers to refuse to provide health services that would violate their consciences. One presumes that the intent of the conservative administration was to allow physicians to refuse to perform abortions or other contraceptive services. (Recall in the past that blacks died because they were refused services in "whites only" emergency rooms; would we really want to allow physicians to return to such practices on the claim that giving service to a people of a racial group would "violate their consciences"?) I hope, along with many others that the Obama administration will undo the regulation, providing more appropriate guidance to medical practioners.

Fish notes that Hobbs defined "conscience", based on its etiology, to be the following of socially agreed upon norms rather that listening to "one's inner voice" of conscience. In that definition, the problem goes away. The law and the regulations interpreting the law define the social consensus as to what is right, and the publicly licensed practitioners and facilities (especially those depending on public funds) would be required to provide the services for which they are licensed and for which resources are available.

It occurs to me that scientific understanding has advanced since Thomas Hobbs lived in the 17th century. It now seems likely that as humans evolved as social animals, there are some "hard wired" aspects of morality based in our genetic heritage. These may include some orientation towards fairness with others within our social groups as well as some orientation towards altruism towards family members.

It also seems clear that some aspects of morality are cultural. The definition of "us versus them" has clearly changed to include our larger communities and nations rather than simply our tribes.

I don't see how we could have evolved hard wired feelings towards abortion and contraception since these have become practicable technical alternatives only in the last couple of generations. Moreover, the social evolution of ethical concepts about reproductive biology is readily apparent.

I suspect we should leave room for adaptation of our regulations to our evolving scientific understanding of the biological and cultural roots of morality. I also suspect that we should recognize that there are different neural bases for attitudes towards abortion than towards contraception.

I suspect as a result that public policy should focus in some areas on aculturation of health care providers to accept commonly agreed upon standards for services, and in other cases should tend to accept that some moral attitudes of provides are scarcely malleable, and in these respects individual conscience may best be respected.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Those tech immigrants fuel our economy!

Source: "Tech Recruiting Clashes With Immigration Rules," MATT RICHTEL, The New York Times, April 11, 2009.

I quote:
Immigrants......are the lifeblood of Google and Silicon Valley, where half the engineers were born overseas, up from 10 percent in 1970. Google and other big companies say the Chinese, Indian, Russian and other immigrant technologists have transformed the industry, creating wealth and jobs.

Just over half the companies founded in Silicon Valley from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s had founders born abroad, according to Vivek Wadhwa, an immigration scholar working at Duke and Harvard.....

But technology executives say that byzantine and increasingly restrictive visa and immigration rules have imperiled their ability to hire more of the world’s best engineers.
Comment: Perhaps the Obama administration can undo the damage that was done in this respect by the Bush administration. It should be an easier job than the damage done to our economy, our military capacity, our safety, and our international influence. JAD

Check out the interactive maps of the places from which immigrant workers come to the United States. There are maps specific to scientists and engineers.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Climate Change and Argumentative Fallacies"

Julian Sanchez has posted on his blog an interesting piece on the logic of debate on climate change, taking off on an article in National Review by Jerry Taylor. The posts deal with how one judges the merit of an argument in public debate, when those arguments purport to be based on scientific evidence. As the title suggests, the specific issue of concern is whether there is scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change. It seems clear that most scientists studying the climate feel that there is such change, but there is a vocal minority arguing that the evidence of such change is not convincing.

Think about the problem of predicting the change in climate over the next century, and the portion of that change that will be due to the emissions of greenhouse gases and other actions by mankind. This is not like predicting the paths of the planets. Even figuring out the average temperature over the globe for the last few years is difficult with room for error, and figuring out an accurate value for the rate of change involves data collection problems and computer analysis about which experts can differ. Even more complex are the computer models that are used to study the links between emissions and climate, and those to extrapolate emissions and climate change.

Using a model of proof drawn from high school geometry is not helpful. Demonstrating that there is sufficient evidence of anthropogenic global warming is radically different than proving a theorum in geometry. Moreover, there are at least two different levels of demonstration going on:
  • that within the scientific community which I think of in terms of a paradigm change in which scientists debate the details (and in which we can only expect consensus when the most reactionary scientists die);
  • that of the public in which the issue is which scientists to believe.
Even within the scientific community, the questions faced in studying climate change involve so many disciplines that even were someone able to review all the data and check all the analyses (which are not possible) no one has the breadth of expert knowledge to do so alone. Thus everyone is in a possition of estimating the trustworthyness of scientists based on their actions and performance.

Note that this is not a scientific experiment. At some crazy level, it would be most interesting to continue on our current course of creating more and more greenhouse gas emissions and measure the results in temperature, sea level rise, etc. at the end of the century, comparing those results with the predictions made now. But of course, that is crazy.

Why Does the U.S. Government Fail to Ratify Human Rights Conventions

Image source: UNESCO

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first international declaration proclaiming that all people have certain inalienable rights. It was created in the aftermath of World War II by a committee headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, with the strong support of the United States, and accepted by the United Nations General Assembly.

It was the result of a long historical process:
The two documents most responsible for modern legal formulations of human rights are the American Bill of Rights and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Both of these documents were the result of various social movements in the pre-industrial era. When industrialization took over in Europe and America, becoming an all consuming process, these documents coupled with the previously secularized Judeo-Christian ethical thought became the guiding ideologies in human rights definitions.
The Universal declaration of Human Rights has been hugely influential but it does not have the force of a treaty. It has not been ratified by national governments. Indeed, it is currently under some attack from those who feel that the right to freedom of expression does not extend to the criticism of (their) religion.

There are a number of Covenants and Conventions negotiated under the umbrella of the United Nations that implement protections of rights declared in the Universal Declaration. Each, when ratified by enough nations, becomes international law. According to the United States Constitution, an international treaty that has been ratified by the United States government with the advice and consent of the Senate has the force of U.S. law.

Surprisingly, a number of these Human Rights Conventions have not been ratified by the United States, including:
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child and
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
It has been hard to argue that we as a people respect human rights even though we have not ratified these Conventions. Recall that this country was one of the last to execute minors for capital crimes, that we still enlist 17 year olds in the American military, and that we have a small percentage of women in our Congress than the average for developed nations. Still, I believe our human rights record is pretty good overall.

So why do we not ratify these Conventions? The Convention establishing the rights of children has been ratified by 192 other nations, leaving the United States with Somalia as a holdout; the Convention on the rights of women has been ratified by 179 nations. It is embarrassing that we are so isolated in our refusal to support international laws protecting human rights!

The difficulty is illustrated by the fact that Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) with 70 cosponsors has introduced legislation which would amend the U.S. Constitution specifically to prevent ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to Politico:
If there were a recipe for creating a new conservative culture-wars issue, it might look something like this: Start with the United Nations, fold in the prospect of an expanded role for government in children’s lives, add some unfortunate court decisions, then toss in Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton.

And indeed, when House Republicans recently found themselves with all these ingredients at hand, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) started pre-heating the oven.
Isolationists, devoted to protecting U.S. national sovereignty against any taint of internationalism, tend to join the Republican Party, as internationalists seeking to have the United States play the role of a good neighbor in the community of nations tend to join the Democratic Party. So the debate on ratification of human rights treaties tends to have a political aspect. Politico is right, however, that the issues are better understood within the context of the cultural wars plaguing the United States.

My own position is clear. The failure of the United States to ratify these conventions weakens the international law protecting children and women. That failure is an indication of a unilateralism that unnecessarily irritates our allies and empowers our adversaries. In general ratification would engender no changes in our domestic law, as we already have laws protecting human rights and indeed the Bill of Rights provides Constitutional protection for most, but were we to need to change domestic law to further guarantee rights seen by most of the world as fundamental, those changes would probably be worth making in their own right.