Holy cow, yet another conspiracy theory!

This has been a year of some wonderfully crazy new conspiracies. Birtherism is actually looking pretty banal next to the “Obama is gay-married to a Pakistani” conspiracy, the “Obama is a Jihadist sleeper agent conspiracy, the Aurora conspiracies, job numbers conspiracies, polling conspiracy theories from America’s least-accurate pollster Dick Morris, and, my former favorite, the Obama is buying bullets for the Social Security Administration to kill all Americans conspiracy theory.
Now the American Spectator is publishing a new crackpot conspiracy theory that I think rivals my former favorite. It’s “the media has a secret backchannel where they discuss their plans to get Obama re-elected conspiracy”. And who is the proof this conspiracy theory is at work? Candy Crowley!

Shortly after Obamacare was passed and signed by the President, Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute noted a sudden plethora of articles that had begun to appear in a wide variety of MSM outlets about the probable ill-effects of “reform.” This prompted him to ask, “Where were these reporters before the passage of the health care bill?” The answer to this question is now pretty obvious. They were colluding, via JournoList and other such forums that we don’t know about, to make sure that no one screwed up and told the truth before that morass of taxes and regulations became the law of the land. To the nation’s cost, their self-censorship succeeded.
Today, we face a similar but much more dangerous situation. The “reporters” of the establishment news media are engaged in a concerted campaign of misinformation to get Barack Obama re-elected. This has been evident for some time, but the breathtaking mendacity of this effort was writ large by Candy Crowley during last Tuesday’s presidential debate. Everyone has by now seen the video clip: the President made the preposterous claim that he had identified the attack on our Benghazi consulate as an act of terrorism as early as September 12. Then, when Romney called him on this egregious whopper, Crowley repeated the lie.

Wowzers. It’s hard to continue to debate with a conspiracy theory that is dependent on questioning such an easily verifiable fact. For the record, the transcript from Obama’s speech on the 12 reads:

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.

or you can watch the video:

To believe that Obama was talking about some other act of terror other than Benghazi is highly disingenuous as the very next sentence refers to “four more Americans” that died as a result of this “terrible act”. But I suppose it’s possible, if you are reading at a fifth grade level or something, you could think he was still referring to 9/11. That might make sense, and Romney then might have a valid claim about “14 days” until the relatively meaningless distinction is made, except the very next day Obama says it’s an act of terror again.

Let me say at the outset that obviously our hearts are heavy this week — we had a tough day a couple of days ago, for four Americans were killed in an attack on our diplomatic post in Libya. Yesterday I had a chance to go over to the State Department to talk to friends and colleagues of those who were killed. And these were Americans who, like so many others, both in uniform and civilians, who serve in difficult and dangerous places all around the world to advance the interests and the values that we hold dear as Americans.
And a lot of times their work goes unheralded, doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it is vitally important. We enjoy our security and our liberty because of the sacrifices that they make. And they do an outstanding job every single day without a lot of fanfare. (Applause.)
So what I want all of you to know is that we are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. (Applause.) I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.

Talking about these deaths he again describes it as an act of terror, unless of course, you think he just threw that in there as a red herring. He just randomly inserts “act of terror” into speeches about healthcare I’m sure. But why this is my favorite new conspiracy theory is because there actually are people who think a defunct online Google forum is evidence of left wing journalists’ attempts to rule the world.
For those that are interested, the reference to “journolist” is this now defunct chat group of which many prominent left-leaning journalists shared often impolitic statements about people in the news. Ezra Klein even tried to bring in Tucker Carlson just to allay the crank conspiracy fears about journalists *gasp* socializing online. We even used to have one here at scienceblogs where we would, yes, even coordinate posts, but mostly it was a forum for invective, like most online forums. Snore. Anyway, for the conspiratorial mind the existence of such a group combined with a few cherry-picked offensive statements is proof enough for an illuminati-style conspiracy of the MSM to rule the world. At worst, it seemed to include what I thought were appropriate reactions to the Jeremiah Wright story, which could be summed up by, “this is crap, we shouldn’t even cover it, it makes us all stupider.” The most obvious question raised by such a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory is do you really think that if journalists were engaged in a conspiracy to control the MSM, would the gateway to this super-secret and all powerful Google group be a mouse-click by Ezra Klein? And would Ezra Klein, being the mastermind of this great conspiracy, be exercising good judgment by inviting Tucker Carlson to join and telling him all about it?
I have something for people who think this is proof of a conspiracy:

The tinfoil hat!

Monckton goes birther – demonstrates crank magnetism

Via Ed I see that Christopher Monckton is expanding his crankery from denying global warming, claiming to be and MP despite cease and desist letters from parliament asking him to stop, curing HIV, the flu, MS and the common cold to now engaging in Birtherism. It’s pathetic when you’ve been pre-debunked by snopes, but there’s no stopping a crank like Monckton.
This reminds me of all the fuss last month over Lewandowsky’s study that basically demonstrated crank magnetism, that is, the tendency of those who believe in one kind of conspiratorial nonsense to believe all sorts of other conspiratorial nonsense if it fits with their ideological worldview. One of the major criticisms of his results was the idea that it was scammed by people trying to make global warming denialists look bad, because there were too many respondents who believed in all the conspiracies. Lewandowsky responded that even removing the “true nutters” did not affect his analysis, but I disagree with the move, and as he notes in the post, Christopher Monckton is an example of why such responses are likely real. This guy is convinced he’s an expert on global warming (and that it doesn’t exist), that he’s cured HIV, that he’s a member of Parliament (despite a cease-and-desist letter from Parliament), and now that Obama is Kenyan. Why anyone should have been surprised by Lewandowsky’s results is beyond me.

The Crackpot Caucus

Timothy Egan nails it, the Republican caucus is composed of crackpots and cranks.

Take a look around key committees of the House and you’ll find a governing body stocked with crackpots whose views on major issues are as removed from reality as Missouri’s Representative Todd Akin’s take on the sperm-killing powers of a woman who’s been raped.
On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.

He then goes on to cite multiple examples of what should be career-fatal stupidity that has been routinely ignored and inadequately mocked in the media. My favorite?

Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines. Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.” Clean energy, he said, “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter. You never know.
“You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.

I think we need to thank Akin again. He managed to say something so grotesquely stupid, so insanely backwards in terms of its scientific validity and misogyny that we’re actually seeing dialogue about scientific illiteracy in congress again. Perhaps his comments were the straw that broke the camel’s back?

The Privacy Competition Myth

In his non-book-review of Garret Keizer’s new book, Privacy, “Reason” Magazine correspondent includes this ill-informed quip on privacy:

With regard to modern commerce, Mr. Keizer grumps: “We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state.” Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.

There is almost no market for privacy among merchants. Companies learned long ago that raising privacy as an issue backfires–it causes consumers to worry about it rather than feel safe about an alternative product. Whether online or offline, going to a competitor doesn’t increase your privacy, in real or perceived terms. It’s simply too easy to hide invasive practices from consumers.
Our work at Berkeley shows the folly of simply going to a different site in order to have more privacy. Here’s just one example, in our Web Privacy Census, we did a large-scale survey of popular websites in order to assess mercantile snooping and excessive tracking. Of the most popular 1,000 websites, Google trackers are present on 712 of them. Good luck finding a competitor who is more respectful of your privacy.

Disinformation about Disinformation: L. Gordon Crovitz's Information Age

When one spouts disinformation about disinformation, does it make it information? No, it’s L. Gordon Crovitz’s “Information Age,” the weekly poorly informed and poorly reasoned blather about information policy in the Wall Street Journal.
Recall that Crovitz recently wrote about the invention of the Internet and online privacy. I wrote about these last two columns, and this week in the Journal Crovitz tries to backpedal, with the standard trope that his “Who Really Invented the Internet?” article was controversial—”It [became] for a time the most read, emailed and commented upon article on the Journal’s website, with more than 1,000 comments.” It was popular in the same way that reality stars enjoy popularity.
Crovitz tries to explain that he was reacting to President Obama’s recent speech about government and business. Crovitz responds that:

• Government alone didn’t create the Internet.
• Government didn’t help build the Internet in order to create commercial opportunities.
• Companies that succeed on the Internet do not succeed because of government.

Of course, this is not what Crovitz said last week. He said:

If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.
But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox.

Full credit. Not shared credit.
To Crovitz’s second point, government builds a lot of things that have secondary uses in the commercial market. The many inventions of NASA, for instance, were first developed to execute space travel, and these technologies find their way into the commercial sector.
To Crovitz’s third point, companies do succeed on the Internet because of government. There is plenty of interaction and cooperation between high tech companies and government, and that is why high tech companies are not libertarian. If high tech companies were severed from the government gravy train, innovation would suffer. We’d have fewer drones and other wonderful technologies.
More fundamentally, so many internet entrepreneurs came from America’s college and university system, where big government funding helps develop leaders like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak and others.
This tech libertarian “I am an island” meme is fully debunked by Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish. In that book, Borsook lampoons arguments of Crovitz’s sort: “The most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism is a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism. It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human. It’s an inability to reconcile the demands of being individual with the demands of participating in society, which coincides beautifully with a preference for, and glorification of, being the solo commander of one’s computer in lieu of any other economically viable behavior…”
But back to Crovitz:

Supporters of big government don’t want to hear about the private-sector contributions to the Internet…

What is Crovitz’s basis for this crazy talk? This is an unhinged straw man argument. Any sensible person recognizes that private-sector contributions are critical to all sorts of ventures.

…but today the Internet is defined by individuals using it for their own purposes—communicating, accessing social media—and critiquing opinion columns. Many innovations are via free, open-source software. Perhaps we can all at least agree that the Internet boom began in the mid-1990s when the government shut down its remaining role, leaving the Internet to the power of the people.

The government never shut down its role in the internet. Has this guy ever heard of the Department of Commerce and ICANN? Or the NSF?
How did this guy get this column and is there no one at the Journal that recognizes it for what it is, or is this a case of crank magnetism?

Louis Gordon Crovitz’s Disinformation Age

Imagine a newspaper oped with half a dozen fallacies. Such a thing could appear in any newspaper in the US. But now imagine that the author is a Rhodes Scholar and you’re left with the Wall Street Journal’s L. Gordon Crovitz.
For years I’ve followed the bizarre arguments of L. Gordon Crovitz, who has a weekly column on information policy in the Wall Street Journal. It’s part of my daily routine of reading the Journal, which is great for business news but something else for everything else.
Last week, Crovitz wrote a real howler, arguing that the Internet was really created by Xerox, not the government, because among Xerox’s many great inventions was Ethernet. Of course, the Internet is the world’s biggest copying machine, but Xerox itself doesn’t claim to have invented the Internet. A chorus of more well informed people attempted to correct Crovitz, including the author of the book Crovitz relied upon to support his argument, but the damage is already done. The libertarian claque is parroting Crovitz as part of its mission to undermine any of the good deeds done by the government.
Perhaps Crovitz was attempting to cure the largest source of cognitive dissonance for the libertarians: that the libertarians’ favorite invention, the Internet, was funded by the source of all evil, our federal government. This single unfortunate fact may be enough to cure the Manichean mind of the libertarian, and thus it must be attacked.
One column does not completely undermine one’s claim to be an expert in information issues. But Crovitz has a track record of reactionary, inaccurate, and incoherent essays on issues of importance. For example, just the week before, Crovitz made a series of disconnected arguments and inaccurate observations about privacy. Dear reader, let me guide you through the sad times of the Disinformation Age.

The Way the Digital Cookie Crumbles
If regulators and lawyers limit the use of data, advertising online will become less efficient.

Typically, editors write headlines, so we have to give Gordon a pass on this assertion.

For a measure of how technology is changing human expectations, consider the “cookies” on your computers. These invisible text files are how websites track activity, delivering to marketers detailed information about individual behavior and preferences. In exchange for data, we get highly personalized online services.

I’m not sure what an “invisible” text file is. One that is empty? One that your operating system does not allow you to see? In any case, cookies are not invisible to marketers, who are attempting to track our every move online. This fact has been detailed by Crovitz’s own paper in the What They Know series.
Crovitz also engages in a false analogy here, which is more fully developed later. Yes, cookies enable tracking, but what websites choose to do with that data is different based the business model of the site. Some tracking, such as when one shops on Amazon and receives product recommendations, are an example of a personalized service that individuals can choose to enjoy. Most tracking does not deliver personalized services—it attempts to deliver advertising of all sorts. My work shows that when asked, Internet users overwhelmingly reject the value proposition that Crovitz lionizes.
Crovitz goes on to describe an example of differential pricing on the web, where for instance, certain consumers were presented with more expensive products or services because they were Apple users.

When Orbitz used these data to feature higher-priced hotels more prominently in Apple users’ search results, privacy lobbyists claimed outrage. But even in the analog era, readers of this newspaper saw advertisements for different products and services than readers of less high-end papers.

Of course the analog and digital eras are completely different. Contextual advertising (the idea that one places ads consistent with the publication, such as ads for golf balls in a golf magazine) is not privacy invasive at all. In fact, in the analog era, the Journal could not tell whether you even read the newspaper at all—only that you were a subscriber or not. In the digital era, newspapers are designed specifically to encourage the user to click more, so that precise interests can be mapped and advertising dollars maximized. A change to a more information-rich medium may justify a change in privacy rules.

These uses of personal data can seem a bit creepy, but the evidence also shows how quickly consumers have gotten used to being tracked. When given the choice, few consumers opt out of cookies. People accept the benefits of more relevant ads and more personalized websites in exchange for letting marketers track their interests.

This single paragraph demonstrates a complete lack of familiarity with the research that has been done in privacy and is descriptively inaccurate. Marketers complain bitterly about consumers deleting cookies, and research has shown that even popular websites have resorted to hidden and nearly-impossible to avoid tracking to address this consumer rejection.
Crovitz’s larger point, that people do not opt out, is backwards as well. Consumers can get used to a lot of things if those things are hidden from them, and they are offered no real choice about the matter. In reality, consumers think that they are protected by strong privacy laws. My research has shown that consumers mistakenly believe that privacy policies impose strong, legally-enforceable limits on the use of data.

…Consumers are loyal to Amazon in part because of its recommendation tools—if you liked that book, you may like this one—which mine user data to determine relevancy…

Here again, Crovitz does not present an important wrinkle in the privacy debate: first party tracking may be a “feature” that consumers desire. Consumers may use Amazon.com specifically for its recommendations. Research shows that most cookies on popular websites are delivered by third parties, typically companies that track individuals for advertising purposes.

Left alone, people would continue to make their own evolving judgments about how much data to share. Instead, regulators issue edicts. The Federal Trade Commission has extracted 20-year consent decrees from Google, Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, giving regulators broad review over their privacy and data practices. This would be fine if the purpose were to ensure that companies comply with disclosures about how they use data, but the FTC wants to define privacy standards.

And here, the libertarian paranoia emerges in full–regulators have nothing better to do but issue edicts, which are fully untethered from consumers’ desires. Here again the Manichean nature of the libertarian is exposed—regulation is so evil that it has to be spawned by evil people with evil motives.
In reality, American consumers strongly support some definition of privacy standards. No Congressperson has ever lost office for passing a privacy law. The FTC, under Republican leadership, was in fact the progenitor of the most successful privacy edict of all—the Telemarketing Do-Not-Call Registry. The FTC predicted that only about 60 million numbers would be enrolled. Last I checked, over 200 million numbers were enrolled.
The FTC’s consent decrees all flowed from situations where companies made promises that were false or reneged upon. And in each case, the company agreed to the decree—making it a “consent decree.” If these were real edicts, these companies could have litigated them. They don’t litigate them because in the course of a typical investigation triggered by a misrepresentation, the FTC finds lots of other privacy problems.

One result of FTC meddling is that plaintiff lawyers have open invitations to file nuisance suits on behalf of supposed privacy victims. A federal judge is considering a $20 million settlement offer by Facebook, which has agreed to make its disclosures clearer that when users click “Like” to promote a product on Facebook, their names and photos can be used.

The paranoia continues. Plaintiff lawyers file suits regardless of what the government does or doesn’t do. And these cases often result in cy pres remedies, given to organizations (such as Berkeley Law) that work on privacy and information policy.

If regulators and lawyers push too hard to limit the use of cookie data, advertising online will become less efficient. This in turn will reduce the amount of free, advertising-supported services enjoyed by consumers, such as social media, entertainment and email.

I think this argument hints at a core problem in the cookie debate—a false dilemma between a completely unregulated and fully tracked world, and regulation, any of which would kill the golden goose. Of course, there are middle-way approaches.
Crovitz’s argument assumes that online advertising in its current form is the most efficient, but in fact, more privacy-friendly systems may be more efficient. For instance, the DMA claims that telemarketing is now more efficient, perhaps this is because those who didn’t want to buy can opt out.
Crovitz’s false dilemma also shows that he is committed to a certain business model. There are alternative methods for highly-tailored advertising that could be completely private. But these alternatives require more work, and the industry has settled on a lazy approach that prioritizes tracking everyone (even those who opt out) all the time.

…Each consumer should be able to decide how to make this trade-off between sharing data and getting advertising-supported services.

I wonder if Crovitz really means this, because the FTC is considering “Do-Not-Track,” a method that would allow each individual consumer to decide whether or not to be tracked online. So perhaps the FTC is good after all. The industry currently offers no way to take this decision (even if you opt out, they track you).

The privacy debate shows how naive Silicon Valley firms were to sign 20-year agreements granting Washington regulators broad authority over how they operate. Digital entrepreneurs should be allowed to innovate freely, with consumers also free to choose their individual trade-off between how their data are used and the benefits they get in return. Overregulation is the way the digital cookie crumbles.

In other words, Silicon Valley firms were naïve to agree to consent decrees on the advice of the most sophisticated, well-trained lawyers in the world. If they only had Louis Gordon Crovitz, they would have decided differently, and the market would be free at last.

Environmentalism and anti-science, how GMOs prove any ideological extremity leads to anti-science

Today I read about two individuals who decided on political defections over perceived anti-science amongst their former political allies- one due to climate change, the other for anti-GMO. From the right, we have Michael Fumento, who in Salon describes his break with the right, spurred by Heartland’s campaign comparing those who believe in climate change with the Unabomber, as well as a general atmosphere of conspiratorial crankery and incivility. And from the left, we have Stephen Sumpter of Latent Existence leaving the Greens over their support for the misguided anti-scientific campaign of “Take the Flour Back” to destroy a crop of GMO wheat at Rothamsted Research which carries a gene from another plant to make it aphid-resistant. Starting with the anti-GMO extremists (since I’ve been picking on right-wing denialism a lot lately), their movement is pretty classic anti-science and extreme. The Rothamsted Research program has been very forthright and clearly is trying to engage and communicate with the protestors, has released this video trying to engage them in a fruitful debate over their research:

and sent them a public appeal trying to explain their side and asking for dialogue rather than violence. I will quote most of it here.

We have learned that you are planning to attack our research test site on 27th May. Please read the
following in the spirit of openness and dialogue – we know we cannot stop you from taking the action you plan, nor would we wish to see force used against you. Therefore we can only appeal to your consciences, and ask you to reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever.
We appeal to you as environmentalists. We agree that agriculture should seek to work “with nature rather than against it” (to quote from our website), and that motivation underlies our work. We have developed a variety of wheat which does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Instead, we have identified a way of getting the plant to repel aphids, using a natural process that has evolved in mint and many other plants – and simply adding this into the wheat genome to enable it to do the samething.
So our GM wheat could, for future generations, substantially reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. Are you really against this? Or are you simply against it because it is “GMO” and you therefore think it is unnatural in some way? Remember – all plants in all types of agriculture are genetically modified to serve humanity’s needs, and the (E)-β-farnesene compound our wheat produces is already found in over 400 species of plant, many of which are consumed as food and drink on a daily basis (including the hops used in beer, to give just one example). To suggest that we have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality.
You seem to think, even before we have had a chance to test it, that our new wheat variety is bad. How do you know this? Clearly it is not through scientific enquiry, as the tests have not yet been performed. You state on your website: “There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work.” You could be right – but if you destroy our test, you and we will never know. Is that what you want? Our research is trying to shed light on questions about the safety and the usefulness of new varieties of the staple food crops on which all of us depend. As activists you might prefer never to know whether our new wheat variety would work, but we believe
you are in a minority – in a democratic society most people do value factual knowledge and understand that it is necessary for sensible decision making.
You have described genetically modified crops as “not properly tested”. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained. We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason – what you are planning to do is reminiscent of clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain. We remind you that such actions do not have a proud tradition.

Our work is publically funded, we have pledged that our results will not be patented and will not be owned by any private company – if our wheat proves to be beneficial we want it to be available to farmers around the world at minimum cost. If you destroy publicly funded research, you leave us in a situation where only the big corporations can afford the drastic security precautions needed to continue biotechnology research – and you therefore further promote a situation you say you are trying to avoid.
We end with a further concern. You may not know much about Rothamsted. You may not know that our institute is the site of perhaps the longest-running environmental experiment in the world, with plots testing different agricultural methods and their ecological consequences dating all the way back to 1843. Some of these plots are very close to the GM wheat test site, and we are extremely worried that anyone walking onto them would endanger a research programme that has been in operation for almost two centuries.
But we also see our newest tests as part of this unbroken line – research never ends, and technology never can nor should be frozen in time (as implied by the term ‘GM freeze’). Society didn’t stop with the horse-drawn plough because of fears that the tractor was ‘unnatural’. We didn’t refuse to develop better wheat varieties in the past – which keep us well-fed today – simply because they were different from what went before and therefore scary. The wheat that we consume today has had many genetic changes made to it – to make plants produce more grain, resist disease, avoid growing too tall and blow over in the wind, be suitable for different uses like pasta and bread, provide more nutrition and grow at the right time for farming seasons. These agricultural developments make it possible for the
same amount of food to be produced from a smaller area of land, meaning less necessity for farmers to convert wildlands to agriculture, surely we should work together in this?
When you visit us on 27 May we will be available to meet and talk to you. We would welcome the chance to show you our work and explain why we think it could benefit the environment in the future. But we must ask you to respect the need to gather knowledge unimpeded. Please do not come to damage and destroy.
As scientists we know only too well that we do not have all the answers. That is why we need to conduct experiments. And that is why you in turn must not destroy them.
Yours sincerely
J. A. PICKETT DSc, CBE, FRS (Professor)
Michael Elliott Distinguished Research Fellow and
Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology
Toby Bruce (Scientist specialising in plant-insect interactions, Team Leader)
Gia Aradottir (Insect Biology, Postdoc )
Huw Jones (Wheat Transformation, Coinvestigator)
Lesley Smart (Field Entomology)
Janet Martin (Field Entomology)
Johnathan Napier (Plant Science, Coinvestigator)
John Pickett (Chemical Ecology, Principal Investigator)

The protestors, thinking they’re attacking some Monsanto-like evil corporation, are so consumed with their hatred of GMO that they are spreading misinformation, refusing to allow scientists to even engage in the research into GMO, and rather than engaging the scientists in dialogue are threatening to just destroy their experiment. This is the worst kind of bullying, extremist, anti-science garbage out there. At least the creationists don’t show up in our labs and start spitting in our test tubes. The climate denialists might make a lot of noise but they aren’t threatening to blow up James Hansen’s computer. Finally the “take the flour back” justifications are terrible:

Rothamsted have planted a new GM wheat trial designed to repel aphids. It contains genes for antibiotic-resistance and an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’.

This sentence is so stupid I have trouble understanding how they wrote it for public consumption. A gene can not be “similar to a cow”. This makes no biological sense. We could have a gene that has similar sequence to that of a gene in a cow, but even that shouldn’t necessarily be threatening. After all, if you look at our genes you’d find most of them (80 percent) have significant homology to bos taurus. This claim despite being biologically silly, is refuted by the researchers who insist the gene being studied is (E)-β-farnesene, a protein that is in many plants we already consume, that transfers natural resistance to aphids.

Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports. There is no market for GM wheat anywhere in the world.

This is patently absurd, the absence of a market for a product that has not yet been brought to market is not an argument. Further, the evidence is that GM crops are readily adopted in the United States, and increasingly in China. The loss of millions has more to do with the unjustified panic over GM that has been created by Luddites in Europe, and finally, how is it possible to study the efficacy and safety of this technology if they’re just going to show up and destroy it? It would be better studied and the results will be more openly reported by the publicly funded Rothamsted researchers than if these experiments were done behind some fence in China by Monsanto.

This experiment is tax-payer funded, but Rothamsted hope to sell any patent it generates to an agro-chemical company.

The researchers deny this and have pledged not to patent the product. However, this might ultimately be an error that is ultimately harmful to the researchers’ attempts to distribute the technology. By patenting the product and licensing it, you will have a greater ability to convince an agricultural supplier to invest in, market and distribute the product. If you don’t patent it, and it becomes immediately public, the inability of a corporation to have exclusive use of the patent may discourage them generally from adopting the product. They’re out to make money, it’s true, and the sad thing is, even if you have the best product in the world, if they can just be copied by any competitor the appeal of investing in your product will be zero. It’s sad but true. I think they should patent it, and simply promise that licensing would require ethical provisions for its distribution to impoverished countries.

La Via Campesina, the world’s largest organisation of peasant farmers, believe GM is increasing world hunger. They have called for support resisting GM crops, and the control over agriculture that biotech gives to corporations.

The marketing practices of agri-business like Monsanto are extremely problematic, and it isn’t just peasant farmers in other countries but farmers here in the US that object to being strong-armed by big businesses, and seemingly extorted into using Monsanto seeds over reseeding their own fields. However, this is separate from the argument that GM crops are unsafe or increase world hunger. If anything, the experience of those such as Norman Borlaug and the creation of dwarf wheat varieties should demonstrate that modification of wheat can have a tremendous impact on world hunger. I have no doubt that GM technology might in the future generate similar advances in productivity as traditional methods. It’s also not the point of the research at Rothamsted which is to decrease the need for pesticide use. Yes, Monsanto sucks, what does that have to do with Rothamset? What does world hunger have to do with decreasing pesticide use? These are illogical arguments, that are a combination of appeals to consequence and straw men. Rothamsted is not Monsanto.

‘Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination. It’s for anyone who feels able to publically [sic] help remove this threat and those who want to show their support for them.

Decontamination, what an excellent euphemism for vandalism, destruction of property, and violence. They are going to destroy the research project of publicly-funded plant researchers who are trying to answer questions about safety and efficacy of a product that could decrease pesticide use. They have justified this based on false information, biological ignorance, and a Luddite attitude towards biological technology that if anything will improve the safety of our food supply.
People have bizarre ideas about genetic modification, that somehow, transferring a gene from one species will then confer the properties of that entire species to the plant (hence the senseless cow comparison above). This is absurd. The arguments against resistant organisms don’t make a lot of sense to me either, because the alternative – pesticides – share the same flaw – at the same time represent a health threat to humans as well. The idea of transferring a gene that makes a protein that we already eat in other plants hardly seems like it should even raise an eyebrow to me. I don’t get the paranoia from the environmentalists on this issue. The need to feed ourselves and wrest resources from the pests and bacteria that we compete with on this planet is not static. It is constantly changing and our strength is our ability to use technology and science to our benefit. We don’t refuse to research antibiotics because one day bacteria might become resistant. We develop new antibiotics.
This demonstrates though that any ideology is susceptible to anti-science when it becomes extreme and that includes environmentalism. Based on shoddy understanding of biology, paranoia about Monsanto, and misinformation about publicly-funded researchers, these morons are about to go out and destroy a scientific project. If there were a better description of a modern Luddite I haven’t heard one.
Anyway. Onto Michael Fumento’s article in Salon. Fumento is irritated with the right because he sees them as exhibiting the one characteristic that he has never been able to stand in anyone – hysteria.

Gosh! When did I end up in bed with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber? Could it be because I did specialize in blowing things up while serving my country for four years as an airborne combat engineer? I also watched human beings blown up. I had friends and Navy SEALs I was in battle with blown up. My own intestines exploded on the first of my four combat embeds, three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Took seven operations to fix the plumbing. I later suffered other permanent injuries.
Yet now I find myself linked not only with the Unabomber, but also Charles Manson and Fidel Castro. Or so says the Chicago-based think tank the Heartland Institute, for which I’ve done work. Heartland erected billboards depicting the above three declaring: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” Climate scientists now, evidently, share something in common with dictators and mass murderers. Reportedly bin Laden was scheduled to make such an appearance, too.

The HI and and Morano have been shrieking about how environmentalists are worse and that this was unfair targeting of what the enviros do all the time, but no, not really. Usually when they find some example of an environmentalist calling for consequences for global warming denialism it’s quoted out of context, and even if it does happen, despite being a tu quoque this was a pretty extreme campaign. Extreme enough to even turn Fumento against them. No small feat.
Now a brief interlude for Fumento to stroke his vast ego (just read his blog tagline):

This is nuts! Literally. As in “mass hysteria.” That’s a phenomenon I wrote about for a quarter-century, from the heterosexual AIDS “epidemic” to the swine flu “pandemic” that killed vastly fewer people than seasonal flu, to “runaway Toyotas.” Mass hysteria is when a large segment of society loses touch with reality, or goes bonkers, if you will, on a given issue – like believing that an incredibly mild strain of flu could kill eight times as many Americans as normal seasonal flu. (It killed about a third as many.)
I was always way ahead of the curve. And my exposés primarily appeared in right-wing publications. Back when they were interested in serious research. I also founded a conservative college newspaper, held positions in the Reagan administration and at several conservative think tanks, and published five books that conservatives applauded. I’ve written for umpteen major conservative publications – National Review, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, among them.

Fumento is a weird guy. He really doesn’t like it when people tell him he should be worried about something. To the point that he’ll deny things like that heterosexuals are at risk of spreading HIV, or at least diminish the heterosexual spread of the disease. This is despite the fact HIV is predominantly a heterosexual disease outside of the US. Similarly with other epidemic concerns, scientists make a big deal out of them, he usually says, “it’s no big deal”, and then by virtue of prevention programs, luck, or maybe even overestimation of the pathogenicity of the bug in question, he seems to come out on top. I don’t think it’s a good way to view the world, because when he’s wrong, he’s going to be really wrong. I tend towards to more cautious side of the spectrum based on historical events like the flu pandemic of 1918. We know it can happen, we should treat emerging diseases and severe flu strains seriously.
So now that he perceives the right is the hysterical bunch, screaming conspiracies about Obama ruining the entire capitalist western world, true to form he rejects the hysteria:

Nothing the new right does is evidently outrageous enough to receive more than a peep of indignation from the new right. Heartland pulled its billboards because of funder withdrawals, not because any conservatives spoke up and said it had crossed a line.
Last month U.S. Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican recently considered by some as vice-president material, insisted that there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party, again with little condemnation from the new right.
Mitt Romney took a question at a town hall meeting this month from a woman who insisted President Obama be “tried for treason,” without challenging, demurring from or even commenting on her assertion.
And then there’s the late Andrew Breitbart (assassinated on the orders of Obama, natch). A video from February shows him shrieking at peaceful protesters: “You’re freaks and animals! Stop raping people! Stop raping people! You freaks! You filthy freaks! You filthy, filthy, filthy raping, murdering freaks!” He went on for a minute-and-a-half like that. Speak not ill of the dead? Sen. Ted Kennedy’s body was barely cold when Breitbart labeled him “a big ass motherf@#$er,” a “duplicitous bastard” a “prick” and “a special pile of human excrement.”

Civility and respect for order – nay, demand for order – have always been tenets of conservatism. The most prominent work of history’s most prominent conservative, Edmund Burke, was a reaction to the anger and hatred that swept France during the revolution. It would eventually rip the country apart and plunge all of Europe into decades of war. Such is the rotted fruit of mass-produced hate and rage. Burke, not incidentally, was a true Tea Party supporter, risking everything as a member of Parliament to support the rebellion in the United States.
All of today’s right-wing darlings got there by mastering what Burke feared most: screaming “J’accuse! J’accuse!” Turning people against each other. Taking seeds of fear, anger and hatred and planting them to grow a new crop.

President Obama is regularly referred to as a Marxist/Socialist, Nazi, tyrant, Muslim terrorist supporter and – let me look this up, but I’ll bet probably the antichrist, too. Yup, there it is! Over 5 million Google references. There should be a contest to see if there’s anything for which Obama hasn’t been accused. Athlete’s foot? The “killer bees”? Maybe. In any case, the very people who coined and promoted such terms as “Bush Derangement Syndrome, Cheney Derangement Syndrome and Palin Derangement Syndrome” have been promoting hysterical attitudes toward Obama since before he was even sworn in.

Well at least he’s consistent. Although he once did send me an email comparing me to Hitler. I wish I’d kept it, it was pretty funny. I tend to agree with the characterization of this as hysteria, although to be fair I think Obama is getting it worse than Bush did. After all, the accusations against Bush were often true, including the worst one. His administration did deceive us into a war in Iraq. The weapons were not there, the intelligence was inflated, and either through incompetence or irrationality we ended up in a Middle-Eastern hellhole for 10 years. The evidence against Obama, who in reality is a rather milquetoast pragmatist, being Stalin/Hitler/Marx/The Antichrist is a bit weaker.
His call is for civility, which for some reason that eludes me, is often anathema to bloggers. Civility in some sense of the word is patriarchal oppression, or censorship, or something. I don’t know about that, but my general rule is I write like my mother is reading this (and she might be), so it’s best not to be an outrageous turd to other people.

No, I’m not cherry-picking. When I say “regularly referred to,” interpret literally. Polls show that about half of voting Republican buy into the birther nonsense (one of the more prominent hysterias within the hysteria). Only about a fourth seem truly sure that Obama was actually born here. In her nationally syndicated column Michelle Malkin wrote regarding Limbaugh’s slut remarks, that “I’m sorry the civility police now have an opening to demonize the entire right based on one radio comment.” In a stroke she’s expressed her disdain for civility and declared the new right’s sins can be dispatched as an itsy-bitsy little single faux pas, “one radio comment.”
No, Michelle, incivility – nay, outright meanness and puerility – rears its ugly head daily on your blog, which as I write this on May 23 has one item referring in the headline to “Pig Maher’s boy [Bill Maher]” and another to “Jaczko the Jerk,” [former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko]. She calls Limbaugh target Sandra Fluke a “femme-agogue” and her supporters “[George] Soros monkeys.” Pigs? Monkeys? Moonbats? It’s literal dehumanization.

And now I’m in the bizarre position of actually agreeing with Fumento. Never thought I’d say that. Somehow his protective “never panic” mantra has been protective against the panicky insanity over the Obama presidency coming from the left, and allowed him to hold onto some core of humanity. Maybe it’s an adaptive feature after all?

The new right cannot advance a conservative agenda precisely because, other than a few small holdouts like the American Conservative magazine or that battleship that refuses to become a museum, George Will, it is not itself conservative. Pod people are running the show. It has no such capability; no such desire. I find that disturbing for obvious reasons. But, based on my own conversations with liberals, I think – nay, I know – that if more of these allegedly godless, treasonous people understood real conservatism a lot would embrace many conservative positions.

And this is true. I have voted for Republicans in the past (Connie Morella was the first congresswoman I ever voted for when I was 18), and would like to be able to in the future. But I agree with Fumento (my fingers just went numb again), until they accept empiricism again, and stop pitting their ideology against science there is no way I would ever vote for one. It’s unfortunate, because in the old school/Rockefeller Republican/revenue generation isn’t anathema days they occasionally had good ideas to contribute, and a ideological view that was balanced by a tradition of civility and responsibility towards the country.

There is no There There — Ron Paul's Loud, Thin Base

Writing in today’s Times, Richard A. Oppel asks, “Whatever happened to Ron Paul?”
Ron Paul has fans, in the traditional sense of the word–fanatics. They foam over this small and strange man, whose career in Congress has largely been ineffectual. Thousands go to his rallies, but as Oppel observes, “A Feb. 27 event at Michigan State University drew 4,000 people. But at polling places the next day, Mr. Paul finished third — with 3,128 votes — in Ingham County, where the campus is. Mr. Romney got more than three times as many votes.” Paul’s supporters attribute this to a failure in conveying the urgency to vote.
Paul is emblematic of the larger libertarian movement, if it can even be called that. Paul’s supporters are loud and able to manipulate the levers of public spectacle and the media. They seem omnipresent in Washington, DC, on policy panels and the like, but support for their ideas is not widely shared. In general elections, libertarian candidates routinely capture less than 1 percent of the vote. Perhaps that is a reflection of the power of our two political parties. But Ralph Nader, representing the complete opposite of the libertarian canon, captured over 2% in 2000.
The Ron Paul people remind me of the Lyndon LaRouche supporters who used to plague the Berkeley campus. They typically were good looking young people who would accost others with a message that might be popular on the campus: “Impeach Dick Cheney.” That might be a conversation starter. But once one looks at the spectrum of where that conversation goes–in both LaRouche’s case and in the case of the libertarians–one might be turned off. All sorts of crazy is on parade, from years-long campaigns against global warming, bluster about the stimulus, and hysterical attacks on Obama’s healthcare plan.
One cannot just cause a spectacle and win an election. It takes people, investment, and time. Once one takes the time, invests in people, and actually organizes, one sees that the world is a complex place and perhaps is less likely to vote for the likes of Ron Paul.

Are Liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives Part II?

About a month ago I asked if denialism is truly more frequent on the right or is it that the issues of the day are ones that are more likely to be targets of right wing denialism? After all, one can think of slightly more left wing sources of denialism like GMO paranoia, 9/11 conspiracies, altie-meds, and toxin fear-mongering. The mental heuristics that cause people to believe, and then entrench themselves, in nonsense seem generalizable to humanity rather than just those attracted to conservative politics. Why should those who identify as liberal be any different? Wouldn’t they just believe in nonsense with a liberal bias?
Lately, Chris Mooney has been taking a different tact on explaining the apparent discrepancy between liberal vs conservative rejection of science with the suggestion the conservative brain is fundamentally different.
First of all, it’s not a matter of education. Whenever people complain that disbelief in evolution or climate change or whatever is a matter of education, they’re simply wrong. We can not educate our way out of this mess, and the problem isn’t that the Republicans arguing this nonsense are any less educated. Chris agrees and cites evidence:

Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.
For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science–among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.

And it’s not specifically education on or awareness of the specific topic, as self-reported knowledge of the topic resulted in opinions among conservatives more likely to be aligned against the scientific mainstream. Orac points out this is not an old phenomenon and maybe the Dunning-Kruger effect which we incorporated into our unified theory of the crank. This is the “incompetent but unaware of it” phenomenon, that the more incompetent people are, the more likely they are to be falsely confident of their own abilities and unable to recognize competence in others..
But the most fascinating part of this article is when Mooney mentions a study to see if liberals were comparatively incompetent in judging the science in an area of high liberal bias – Nuclear power. This would seem to provide an answer to the question from my earlier post, that is, are we missing an equivalent liberal tendency towards denialism because we’re not asking the right questions?
It looks like my hypothesis of possible equivalence might have to be rejected …
Continue reading “Are Liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives Part II?”

Rick Santorum: usually wrong, never in doubt

There is a joke expression about surgeons, “sometimes wrong, never in doubt.” Depending on how you feel about surgeons I’ve heard it begin “sometimes right” and “even when wrong.” Applied to Rick Santorum, I think it has to be “usually wrong” if not “always wrong” given the serious of ridiculous distortions, lies, and made up statistics in the last week.
Starting with his claim that 62% of people that go to college religious graduate without their faith. It seems plausible. College expands peoples experiences and exposes them to new ideas, and such experiences are not going to always mesh with fundamentalist writings of long dead priests. Well, while counterintuitive it actually turns out to be the opposite case. Those who do not attend college may be at higher risk of losing their religion.

“There is no statistical difference in the dropout rate among those who attended college and those that did not attend college,” said Thom Rainer, president of the Southern Baptists’ LifeWay Christian Resources research firm. “Going to college doesn’t make you a religious dropout.”
A 2007 LifeWay survey did find seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23.
The real causes: lack of “a robust faith,” strongly committed parents and an essential church connection, Rainer said.
“Higher education is not the villain,” said Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio. Since 1986, D’Antonio’s surveys of American Catholics have asked about Mass attendance, the importance of religion in people’s lives and whether they have considered leaving Catholicism.
The percentage of Catholics who scored low on all three points hovers between 18 percent in 1993 and 14 percent in 2011. But the percentage of people who are highly committed fell from 27 percent to 19 percent.
“Blame mortality,” D’Antonio said, “The most highly committed Catholics are seniors, and they’re dying out.”

Do colleges indoctrinate the young to turn on their parents and reject religion? Salon argues they do a little bit, but the indoctrination that tends to be found on college campuses is on pretty universally accepted issues like rejecting racism and homophobia, both of which a majority of Americans now believe are repellent. But to politicians like Santorum, teaching tolerance is a major drawback to college attendance. The claim that colleges engage in indoctrination against religion is bogus, however, unless one is referring to religious beliefs in discrimination against other races and homosexuals.
If anything the opposite is the case as studies have shown higher rates of religious “drop out” among the less-educated. Politifact also challenges his statement that Obama wants everyone to go to college cause he’s a snob.
And how about all his other wacky claims? That prenatal screening causes abortion? Or that JFK believed religious people shouldn’t serve in government?
Continue reading “Rick Santorum: usually wrong, never in doubt”