Refusing Victory

A few years ago, I traveled to Pisa.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts since I have always had a fascination with the cathedral’s belltower.  The tower is famous around the world because its construction was flawed almost from the moment it began in 1173 AD.  Even by the time the second floor was completed, it had already begun to sink.

Standing among the tourists, who endlessly posed friends so they would appear to be supporting the leaning tower in photographs, my mind could not help but reflect upon Galileo.  The steps up the tower are well worn from use over the centuries, and I was mindful that Galileo himself had walked them.  And when I was at the top of the tower, I moved to the edge so I could imagine dropping balls of different weights over the edge and watching as they hit the ground at precisely the same time.

The story of Galileo’s famous experiment, in which he was said to have dropped two balls of very different weights over the edge, was a decisive demonstration of the falseness of the Aristotelian theory of gravity, which held that objects would instead fall at a speed in proportion to their mass.  In August, 1971, the experiment was dramatically repeated on the moon by David Scott (the Commander of Apollo 15) using a hammer and a feather.  Video of that demonstration can be found here.  While many historians question whether Galileo ever actually performed the experiment himself, he remains forever associated with the fundamental commitment of science to the consequences of observable data.  He was the one, after all, who pointed his telescope towards Venus and Jupiter to confirm with the evidence of his own eyes that we do not live in a geocentric universe.  The fact that others refused even to do something so simple as to look for themselves could never change the reality of the structure of the solar system in which we exist.

Galileo is often elevated by scientists to the status of hero because his commitment to observation and his challenge to orthodoxy were made dramatically in the face of persecution by the Catholic Church.  The consequences of this status are at times inconvenient and frustrating — every crackpot who invents a perpetual-motion machine imagines himself to be another misunderstood Galileo.  Most of them are not, of course, but the status of hero for Galileo remains well-deserved as a reminder that science must always be prepared to accept challenges.  That is its very strength and is responsible for the amazing strides in knowledge that it has allowed.

Sometimes we forget this.

This week, the Tennessee Senate passed SB 893, a bill that has been widely characterized as allowing the teaching of creationism in schools.  A copy of the text of the bill can be found here.  While I have no doubt that passage of the bill is viewed as a success by the creationist movement — as a step consistent with its infamous “wedge strategy” to gain a small toehold in science classrooms that can grow in the future — I also think the reflexive condemnation of the bill by scientists is ill-advised.  I wrote about this bill a little over a year ago here.

The text of the bill itself is important and relevant.  There is little in it that is objectively troublesome.  It does not mandate that the teaching of creationism be given “equal time” with the teaching of evolution or make any statement that would improperly elevate creationism to the status of science.  Instead, it requires that teachers “be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories in the course being taught.”  It goes on to assert that it “only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”  Surely, any scientist must agree that these statements describe the process of scientific inquiry rather well.

Why do scientists not see this for the victory that it is?

Since 1925, when John Scopes was convicted of violating the Butler Act by teaching evolution in school, much has been achieved.  Not only is the teaching of evolution no longer prohibited — although even that was not repealed in Tennessee until 1967 — court decisions have consistently held that creationism is not science (no matter what name it attempts to go by) and that the government cannot compel the teaching of creationism as though it were.  Creationists have instead been reduced to needing to confront science on its own terms:  through objective analysis, critique, and review.

There is also a danger here that has not been fully recognized.  An attempt to suppress even any mention of creationism in school science classes has the potential to set up science as appearing doctrinaire — this is already happening in other areas that are of more direct policy relevance such as global climate change.  But science welcomes objective challenges to its ideas because addressing those challenges makes its ideas more robust.  Our heroes, like Galileo, are those who tenaciously confront orthodoxy.  Creationism remains so widespread a belief in the United States that students are still exposed to it outside a classroom.  Creationists have devised arguments that are sometimes clever and subtle, and that can superficially appear to present genuine scientific challenges to evolution; students deserve to have their questions about how science responds answered.  If those answers are not forthcoming in a science class, where do we expect students to become armed with the critical-thinking tools needed to identify and expose crafty but misleading pseudoscientific arguments?

The debate is no longer one in which we are confronted with legislation that attempts to portray creationism as though it were science.  If such legislation again rears its head in the future, it should be condemned and challenged, using the body of law that has now developed to oppose it.  Instead, the debate has shifted to one in which creationism is to be addressed in terms that science not only welcomes, but thrives on — objective analysis and criticism.  It is a mistake to be overly timid by appearing dogmatically to suppress any dissent to what is increasingly viewed as scientific orthodoxy.  Doing so puts us in the position of failing to exploit the real strength of science:  an acceptance that anything, on fair and objective grounds, can be challenged.

No Nation Was Ever Ruined By Trade

“Canada is a country whose main exports are hockey players and cold fronts.  Our main imports are baseball players and acid rain.”

                                                                                        Pierre Elliott Trudeau


One of the accusations frequently leveled at environmentalists is that they are, much like meteorologists, hopelessly fickle.  People remember widespread reports in the 1970’s about the possibility of global cooling and the potential imminent onset of another ice age, when now all the talk is about global warming.  Or they recall something of Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions that agricultural production would be incapable of supporting the world’s population, which they watched grow by more than a factor of two in concert with the development of an obesity epidemic.  Or they remember how the controversy over acid rain became such an issue between the United States and Canada, so jeopardizing the Canada – U.S. Free Trade Agreement that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney cynically wondered whether it would be necessary to go to war with the United States over the issue. 

No one talks about acid rain these days, at least not the way they used to.  But what changed? 

The impression that many in the public seem to have is that acid rain became an issue in the early 1980’s, when images of dying forests and lakes were widely circulated, and then withered away as climatologists shifted their focus to other issues.  The reality is, of course, very different.  Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the effects of acidity in precipitation have been noted, with the term “acid rain” being coined by Robert Angus Smith in 1872.  It is associated with the emission of sulfur-, nitrogen-, and carbon-containing gases as byproducts of industrial processes that produce acidic compounds when they react with water.  And the reason it is not discussed as widely as it once was is not because the issue mysteriously vanished or because climatologists are opportunistically fickle, but because actions were taken to reduce its impact.

It was George H. W. Bush who had pledged to become the “environmental president” and who in 1990 supported what was then an innovative approach to reducing targeted emissions.  The basic idea was one  that had been studied theoretically by economists and which attempted to adapt market mechanisms as an indirect form of regulation.  Rather than dictate through strict regulation how emissions should be reduced, the Clean Air Act was amended to put those market mechanisms in place by establishing what has since become known as a “cap and trade” system.  The basic idea was to limit the aggregate sulfur dioxide emissions from different sources, but to permit allowances to be traded so that the market would be involved in determining which sources were permitted to produce emissions within the limits and at what levels.  There were many criticisms of the approach, most notably from environmentalists who fretted that it allowed large polluters to flex their economic muscle in buying permission to pollute. 

But the program is largely acknowledged to have been a success, not only achieving full compliance in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions but actually resulting in emissions that were 22% lower than mandated levels during the first phase of the program.  This was also achieved at a significantly lower cost than had been estimated, with actual costs now determined to be about 20 – 30% of what had been forecast.  The annual cost of having companies figure out for themselves how to reduce acid-rain emissions has been estimated at about $3 billion, contrasted with an estimated benefit of about $122 billion in avoided death and illness, and healthier forests and lakes.  

The success of the acid-rain program is naturally being considered as a way of addressing carbon emissions that are associated with global climate change.  Thus far, the United States has rejected a national implementation of cap-and-trade for carbon emissions, causing California to decide to implement it itself in accordance with its Assembly Bill 32, a copy of which can be found here.  Signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006, the bill requires California to reduce that state’s carbon emissions by 2020 to levels that existed in 1990.  A copy of California’s plan to do so using an implementation of cap-and-trade can be found here

Part of what California seeks to do is to improve on a generally failed cap-and-trade program in Europe that began in 2005.  One of the more significant problems with the European implementation was that governments began the program with an inadequate understanding of the level of carbon emissions in their countries.  Too many allowances were issued, causing market forces quickly to force the price of carbon to zero by 2007.  In addition, a number of tax-fraud schemes and a recent theft of carbon credits stored in the Czech Republic registry have resulted in justifiable concern about the program that some worry will affect the California program. 

It is no surprise that the California program has been the subject of litigation, and last week a ruling was issued by the Superior Court in San Francisco agreeing that alternatives to a carbon-market program had not been sufficiently analyzed.  A copy of the ruling can be read here and a copy of the (much more informative) earlier Statement of Decision can be read here

There is considerable interest in the California program.  It is decidedly more ambitious than the more limited program implemented by ten states in the northeastern region of the United States and is being considered by some Canadian provinces as well as by some South American countries.  While last week’s decision certainly derails implementation of cap-and-trade in California temporarily, it is difficult to imagine that it will not ultimately be implemented after deficiencies in the studies have been addressed.  There is too much interest in it as a regulatory scheme that can have less adverse economic impact than other forms of regulation even while achieving the same overall objectives.

What is the Army Doing with your Baby’s Blood?

Like many, I used to love watching The X-Files. The appeal of the show was not just the intricacy of the plot, which had seemingly endless layers of conspiracy, but was also because of the clever way in which factual information was interleaved with fiction, almost making me “want to believe.” One of the most memorable scenes occurs in the show’s third season in an episode titled “Paper Clip,” an obvious reference to the post- World War II “Operation Paper Clip” program by the Office of Strategic Services to sanitize the histories of Nazi scientists so that they could obtain security clearances in the United States. Mulder and Scully find themselves in an abandoned mine in West Virginia. The cavern is filled with filing cabinets, housing “lots and lots of files,” as Scully so artfully described it. Inside the cabinets are smallpox vaccination records and tissue samples collected as part of the Smallpox Eradication Program, creating a comprehensive genetic database for every man, woman, and child born since the 1950’s.

It was creepy. And it made me think about the scar I have on my left shoulder from my own smallpox vaccination.

It is hard not to be reminded of that X-Files episode when reading the complaint in the case of Jeffrey Higgins v. Texas Department of State Health Services. Filed at the end of 2010, the case relates not to smallpox vaccination but to newborn blood screening. In an effort to aid parents in the identification of genetic disease of their newborn child, every state in the United States operates a newborn screening program, and many other countries have similar programs. Such programs began in the late 1960’s and have been expanded over the decades so that virtually all of the 4,000,000 infants born in the United States each year have their heel pricked to collect a few drops of blood around the second or third day of life. Exceptions are rare.

The screening is valuable and provides parents with important medical information that may allow infants born with genetic conditions to have those conditions addressed right from the beginning of their lives. But it is not much of a stretch to understand why medical researchers might have a broader interest in the collection of these samples. Rather than being concerned with a single infant’s condition, the availability of a comprehensive database of newborn blood samples would allow a wide variety of studies to be conducted, looking at patterns of disease that could have profound implications for addressing public-health objectives.

Indeed, in a report published this week in the journal Pediatrics, a copy of which can be found here (subscription required), the authors note the increasing research interest in newborn blood samples. A contract awarded by the National Institutes of Health in 2009 was specifically to develop a “repository of dried bloodspots that is either virtual or physical and comprised of those stored by state newborn screening programs and other resources.” There are certainly positive objectives that could only be reached with access to such blood databases. But the problem is that, in the same way that I found Mulder and Scully’s discovery creepy, many people are uncomfortable having their children’s blood stored in a government database.

This discomfort is justified. There are currently few laws that limit the type of research that may be conducted and most states have no requirement to notify parents that the blood samples may be retained and used for other purposes than the screening of their newborn children. It’s probably fair to say that most never even considered what happened to the blood after collection.

The Higgins case has its origins in an earlier case filed in 2009 when five families sued the Texas Department of State Health Services for the unauthorized storage and use of newborn blood spots. A settlement was negotiated in which Texas agreed to destroy some 5,000,000 newborn blood samples that had been collected and retained since 2002. The Texas legislature also acted — not to limit retention of samples but to provide express government authorization for future samples to be retained. Higgins was filed when it was later revealed that about 8800 samples had been turned over to an Armed Forces laboratory as part of an effort to build a national mitochondrial DNA registry. The stated purpose of the database is forensic, namely to provide a tool by which missing persons may be identified and to aid in the resolution of other difficult cases.

The complaint in Higgins, a copy of which can be found here, alleges that Texas has acted deceptively: “Defendants have knowingly, deceptively, routinely, unlawfully and without the knowledge or consent of the infants’ parents, sold, traded, bartered, and distributed blood samples … to private research companies, government agencies, and other third parties.” A report published by The Texas Tribune that can be found here seems to confirm that records now released by the state “show an effort to limit the public’s knowledge of aspects of the newborn blood program, and to manage the debate around it.” The Tribune skeptically describes “oversights” in response to its requests for information, a pattern of suppressing disclosure about activities related to the blood program, and efforts to “plant” information with sympathetic lawmakers.

I have no doubt that blood databases such as are envisaged have the potential for enormous public good by allowing researchers access to a body of information that is nowhere else available. But the privacy concerns are obvious. Of course people weigh these countervailing issues differently, but the only way to settle the tension between them is by discussing them openly and candidly. One benefit of cases like the one in Texas (and a similar one that failed in Minnesota in 2009) is that public visibility over blood programs is increasing so that that discussion can take place.

As Water Inures Its Strokes on the Stone (Part 2)

The standoff at Kennedy International Airport in July 2010 was not unexpected, but it did make a point.  The twenty-three members of the Iroquois Lacrosse team presented themselves, planning to take a flight from New York to London so they could participate in the World Lacrosse Championship.  It sounds routine.  But there was one problem. 

The documents the team members presented were traditional, partially hand-written, Haudenosaunee passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy.  U.S. officials refused to recognize the passports and even after intervention by the U.S. Department of State to make a one-time exception, British officials refused to issue visas.  Compromises were rejected, with the team members refusing to travel on both U.S. and Iroquois documents because they viewed the suggestion as an affront to their claim of sovereignty. 

While the incident highlighted the issue that exists with Haudenosaunee passports, the reality is that they have been used for decades.  Indeed, in 1923, the Cayuga Chief Levi General, more commonly known at the time as Deskaheh, traveled to Geneva on such a passport to address the League of Nations about perceived violations of Iroquois rights by the Canadian government.  The League refused to hear him and a year later when the U.S passed a law to make the Iroquois within its borders citizens and when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police invaded the Iroquois to overthrow its traditional government, those two countries were notified that the Iroquois refused citizenship in any nation other than the Haudenosaunee.  But that has not stopped those countries from claiming those indigenous people as their citizens. 

The refusal by the League of Nations to hear Deskaheh remains iconically at the heart of what many indigenous peoples around the world protest:  the refusal to involve them in decisions that set forth their rights.  There has been some improvement, and the 2007 adoption by the United Nations of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is illustrative.  Drafting of the Declaration took more than 20 years, but involved representatives from indigenous people from different parts of the world.  When it passed, there were only four votes against:  by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, all of which have substantial indigenous populations.  Since then, each of those four countries has made moves to endorse the Declaration.  A copy of it can be read here.  

In Part 1 of this post earlier this week, I commented briefly on another standoff between indigenous people and a government:  the Rapa Nui of Easter Island and the country of Chile.  The conflict began in August 2010 when members of the Hito clan occupied the Hanga Roa Hotel, which has for years been a de facto symbol of Chilean encroachment on the Rapa Nui’s perception of their rights.  It was not until 1966 that Chile stopped leasing the island as a sheep farm and granted Chilean citizenship to the Rapa Nui, precipitating a series of land-rights disputes in the 1970’s.  In 1979, Chile passed the Ley de Pasqua (“Law of Easter”), one effect of which was to prohibit the sale of land owned by a Rapa Nui to a non-Rapa Nui.  But in a move whose origins remain unclear, the land where the Hanga Roa hotel sits was conveyed to the German Schiess family.  The Rapa Nui claim the transaction was illegal and in violation of the Ley de Pasqua. 

In the several months since the Hito clan has occupied the hotel, there have been a number of confrontations, culminating in the removal of the Hito clan from the site by the Chilean Carabineros on February 7.  Later in that same month saw an agreement between Chile and the Schiess family for the land to continue to be used by the Schiess family for the next thirty years and then to be conveyed to a private Rapa Nui Foundation.  The problem is the age-old one:  the indigenous Rapa Nui were not involved in the decision and they remain suspicious. 

During the dispute, The Rapa Nui have pointed frequently to Chile’s acceptance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly those sections dealing with land.  For example, Art. 8(1)(b) requires that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for … redress for … [a]ny action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”  Art. 26 goes further, stating that “[i]ndigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use” and that “States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands … with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.”  The reality is that the Declaration lacks legal force.  It is relevant only to the extent that indigenous groups are able to embarrass governments by pointing out perceived inconsistencies between their endorsement of it and their actions. 

Today is “Free Rapa Nui Day of Action,” marked by a march and protest at the Chilean Consulate in San Francisco.  It is clearly timed to precede President Obama’s two-day trip to Chile next week, although the issue of the Easter Island dispute is not currently on the agenda. 

It is difficult to know what the outcome will ultimately be of the Rapa Nui efforts.  Some assert that they opportunistically squatted on private land and are abusing the generous intent of efforts like those embodied by the U.N. Declaration.  Others are more sympathetic, seeing the actions as a peaceful attempt to regain control of land that was swindled from them in the course of Easter Island’s turbulent history.  It is certain that those countries that already viewed the U.N. Declaration with suspicion and reluctance are watching, keen to understand the impact its full acceptance could have on their own treatment of indigenous peoples. 


Easter Island is a wonderfully unique part of the world that presents mysteries that still fascinate social scientists.  So much of its history has already been irrevocably lost.  Whatever the outcome, I hope its scientific wonder remains preserved so that future generations can enjoy the privilege of experiencing its mystique as fully as I have.

A Mere Heart of Stone

The fictional legal trials I watched on television as a boy were gripping drama.  It was almost a given that there would be some irregularity in procedure — a last-minute witness would be called out of order, perhaps, and give testimony that would give a completely new perspective on everything that had happened before.  Or a juror might be called to the witness stand and compelled to testify over the objections of the defendant’s attorneys.  Or maybe one of the attorneys himself might be called to the stand.  These events would always be accompanied by a sober judge intoning that it was highly irregular but that in the interests of justice — always in the interests of justice — he “would allow it.” 

Those sorts of things never happen in real-life trials.  At least not very often. 

One of the most dramatic events in a trial was surely when Clarence Darrow called prosecuting counsel William Jennings Bryan to the witness stand in the famous trial of State of Tennessee v. Scopes.  It was to be a battle of wits between two of the most famous of American attorneys as Darrow quizzed Bryan about his interpretation of the Bible and whether everything in it should be interpreted literally — they covered Jonah being swallowed by the whale (while disagreeing over whether it was a whale or a big fish), Joshua causing the sun to stand still at Jericho, and the date of the great flood.  Darrow pressed Bryan on the inconsistency between what is taught in the bible and the scientific discoveries of humanity.  It was truly gripping stuff and reports exist of people from miles around Dayton, Tennessee pressing into the courtroom to witness the drama. 

In the end, Judge John T. Raulston ordered the whole session — which had taken place outside the view of the jury — expunged from the record.  The result of the Scopes Monkey Trial is well known.  Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to schoolchildren in violation of the Butler Act and fined $100.  His conviction would ultimately be reversed and dismissed by the Tennessee Supreme Court on technical grounds — rather than constitutional grounds — with the weary comment that “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”  The Butler Act, forbidding the teaching that Man evolved from “lower orders of animals,” would remain valid law in Tennessee until it was repealed in 1967. 

It is interesting that Tennessee has again become a sort of battleground over the teaching of evolution to schoolchildren. It is being watched by those who take an interest in the teaching of evolution and creationism because of bills that are currently pending in that state’s legislature.  Those bills are similar to bills that have been defeated in other states like Oklahoma and New Mexico, and represent a new strategy by those who wish to have creationism taught as science to American schoolchildren.  Other tactics, such as directly challenging the exclusion of creationism from scientific curricula or couching creationism as “creation science” or “intelligent design” have failed. 

The new approach is to use scientists’ love of critical thinking as a wedge to insist that teachers not be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”  This is to be done to further the “purpose of science education … to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.”  All good stuff.  A copy of the house bill can be read here; the senate version is essentially identical.

Critics of the bill point to the fact that the examples of controversies given in the bill — namely “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” — are not, in fact, subject to significant scientific controversy.  This is certainly true at the level at which such subjects might be addressed to childen.  The bill is seen as dangerous to the integrity of scientific education because it may provide a license to creationist teachers to proselytize contrived and misleading criticisms of dominant scientific theories under the guise of science.  This is a legitimate concern. 

But is such a bill really so troublesome?  It includes provisions intended to appease scientists, such as by insisting that it “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.” 

It is possible that I am naïve, but I don’t particularly fear this type of legislation, even as I recognize the strategic and tactical motivations pressing for it.  It is clearly another attempt by creationists to infiltrate scientific teaching to children in accordance with the Discovery Institute’s infamous “wedge strategy.”  A copy of the leaked 1999 document describing that strategy is available here.  But it is not a deceptive “equal time” provision as has been attempted in the past to compel the teaching of nonscientific ideas in a science class.  And teachers already have a great deal of discretion and influence in classrooms.  Even with those parts of a curriculum they are mandated to teach, they undoubtedly affect students’ perceptions by their own demeanor and subtle expressions of opinion and skepticism.  It is unrealistic even to attempt to regulate every nuance of a teacher’s presentation. 

Doesn’t there come a point when scientists are ready to say “Bring it on”?  I have confidence in the scientific method and confidence that views developed using that method will prevail.  And part of the scientific method is to allow criticism so that it can be exposed and defeated when it is wrong.  There is no doubt that past strategies by creationists were antithetical to science; I just have trouble seeing exactly how this one is.