Monday, December 14, 2009

Circling the Wagons

One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives. -- Mark Twain

This week underlined a theme I wish more people understood: It's way easier to make stuff up than to do the research to explain what really happened and why. In the time it takes to debunk one lie, ten more can start circulating. So both main stories this week are about undoing the damage of bogus scandals.

In this week's Sift:
  • Playing Defense I: The Climategate Emails. AP went beyond he-said/she-said journalism and did some actual reporting on the content of the emails. They didn't find anything alarming. Meanwhile, a scientist blogging at the Economist addressed one data-manipulation charge, and gave us insight into the psychology of climate scientists. Also, WaPo consults its own climate-change expert: Sarah Palin.
  • Playing Defense II: ACORN. If you throw enough accusations at a group and if its political allies are wimpy enough not to say anything, the public will start to think the group did something wrong. Congress banned ACORN by name from any government contracts, based on baseless charges of vote fraud and an edited video. It turns out that's what a bill of attainder is, and Constitution doesn't allow them.
  • Short Notes. Stephen Colbert gives a remarkably cogent explanation of a corporate personhood case, and makes it funny too. I don't know what to tell you about healthcare, or about Uganda's kill-the-gays bill. Obama in Oslo. Republicans go both ways on impeachment. Gretchen Carlson is smarter than she tries to look. The War on Christmas vs. real religious discrimination. A very Brady apocalypse. And more.

Playing Defense I: The Climategate Emails
Associated Press outdid themselves this week. Instead of just repeating the press releases of anti-global-warming groups, five reporters read more than a thousand of the hacked "climategate" emails, and then sent a number of the key ones to "seven experts in research ethics, climate science and science policy" for analysis and comment.

Wow. That sounds like something real journalists would do. I didn't know you still had it in you, AP.

Conclusion: "the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked. ... the exchanges don't undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions." The scientists tried "to present the data as convincingly as possible," but were not part of a "culture of corruption" as some Republican politicians have charged. The article also quotes Mark Frankel, director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, saying that he saw "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data."

The article does criticize the scientists who wrote the emails for sometimes making "generous interpretations" of the data and resisting sharing their data with skeptics.

A scientist blogging at the Economist addressed one particular accusation of data manipulation: temperature adjustments at Darwin, Australia, which amateur global-warming skeptic Willis Eschenbach called a "smoking gun."

Here's what that's about: The people who collected temperature data decades ago had no idea anybody would ever look at their measurements as part of a long-term global pattern. So:
The early temperature measurements we have are a broken and incomplete record of more and less good data from instruments that were often changed, moved, or that found themselves in different settings over time. When scientists started putting together the vast library of the planet's temperature records in the 1980s in order to do climate-change assessment, they needed to be able to weed out these changes and errors.
So climate scientists have developed elaborate statistical methods to estimate how far off a given thermometer was at any particular time by comparing it to nearby weather stations, and checking the record for obvious explanations (like moving the thermometer). Papers on climate change then use the statistically adjusted data rather than the raw data.

Naturally, if you examine all the adjustments to all the weather stations in the whole world, there's bound to be one where they "adjust" a long-term cooling trend into a long-term warming trend. There is: Darwin. If you cherry-pick that one and present it as if it might be typical, then you have a "smoking gun" of data manipulation.

The Economist's blogger explains all this, concludes that the Darwin data is nothing to worry about, and then provides this revealing commentary:
So, after hours of research, I can dismiss Mr Eschenbach. But what am I supposed to do the next time I wake up and someone whose name I don't know has produced another plausible-seeming account of bias in the climate-change science? Am I supposed to invest another couple of hours in it? ... At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?
This is a point AP barely notices, and it explains something that bothered the AP reporters:
The e-mails show that several mainstream scientists repeatedly suggested keeping their research materials away from opponents who sought it under American and British public records law. It raises a science ethics question because free access to data is important so others can repeat experiments as part of the scientific method.
But that paragraph from the Economist points at an explanation: The scientists know what will happen after the data is released. Exxon-Mobil will pay somebody to go over it with a fine-tooth comb, looking for something like the Darwin adjustments that can be blown into an issue. Then the manufactured issue will be taken up by the conspiracy theorists (with some cheerleading by Glenn Beck and the rest of the right-wing noise machine), and the scientists will have to spend God-knows-how-much time responding. How will they get any work done?

This isn't the normal give-and-take of science. It's a campaign of harassment that makes use of amateurs, but is organized and funded at the top levels by corporate vested interests. No wonder independent scientists have a bad attitude about it.

The main denialist argument lately has been the spike of 1998. 1998 was such a hot year (warmer than this year, for example) that if you start drawing your graph there you can claim that there's no warming trend at all. OK, then why is the now-ending decade the hottest ever recorded?

The Washington Post editorial page continues to plumb new depths. (I stopped reading the Post regularly in June when they fired Dan Fromkin. Now I only go there when somebody else links to them.) In order to increase our understanding of the issue of climate change, they printed an op-ed by Sarah Palin -- just the person whose expert opinion I wanted to know.

FireDogLake predicts "Michele Bachman piece on quantum mechanics to follow." Foreign Policy focuses on Palin's long-standing misrepresentation of the polar bear issue, while the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder takes her Post op-ed apart line-by-line. On the science blog Deltoid, Tim Lambert compares her whoppers to similar nonsense published in the Post by George Will. He titles his piece "The Washington Post can't go out of business soon enough" and says that the Post
simply does not care about the accuracy of the columns it publishes. ... So what use is the Washington Post? If they are not going to do even the most perfunctory fact checking on the stuff they publish, what value do they add?

When global-warming denier Lord Monckton appears in friendly venues, he often doesn't sound quite as nutty as he really is. (Except maybe this time.) Here, his wiggy side comes out: "The number of people being killed by this misplaced belief in Climate Change, is if anything greater than the number of people killed by Hitler."

One of the more entertaining global-warming warnings comes from the Blue Man Group.

Playing Defense II: ACORN
When I first read the Constitution back In Civics class, one short line was particularly obtuse: "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."

My teacher easily explained ex post facto law: It declares something illegal after the fact -- easy to see why we don't want Congress passing such a thing. But bill of attainder remained mysterious to me. Well, it's a mystery no longer. According to federal judge Nina Gershon, this is a bill of attainder:
None of the funds made available by this joint resolution or any prior Act may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, or allied organizations.
It was part of the continuing resolution that has funded all government agencies since October 1.

A bill of attainder, it turns out, is "a law that legislatively determines guilt and inflicts punishment upon an identifiable individual without provision of the protections of a judicial trial." In other words, Congress couldn't pass a law saying, "Doug Muder is a traitor and shall spend 20 years in prison." It's a separation-of-powers thing. Congress can't circumvent the courts by handing out its own punishments.

Judge Gerson ruled that Congress passed this provision in order to punish ACORN without a trial. "I can discern no non-punitive rationale for Congressional preclusion of the plaintiffs, and the plaintiffs alone, from federal funding."

The Center for Constitutional Rights has a good summary of the finding, but avoids one important question: Given that the Republicans are badly outnumbered in both the House and Senate, how did they manage to get a bill passed punishing one of their enemies? I mean, sure, Fox News was 24/7 anti-ACORN for a week or two -- but how does that get written into law?

The answer is simple: Democrats are wimps. If the right-wing media can stir up enough nonsense about a Democratic ally, so that Democrats in Congress think they'll have trouble explaining their vote to the public, they'll abandon their ally, even if the attacks against it are more or less baseless.

Time named the ACORN sting video its #9 scandal of 2009, which shows just how far the nonsense went. Maybe it should have joined Death Panels on the Top 10 Untruths list.

Short Notes
I've been trying to figure out what to write about the Citizens United case now before the Supreme Court. It's a corporate personhood case, and threatens to undo all limits on what corporations can spend in political campaigns -- in the name of protecting corporations' "first amendment rights." The place to start is probably Stephen Colbert's discussion: Let Freedom Ka-Ching.

Hard to tell where we are on health care now. Senate Democrats came out of a meeting with an apparent agreement to replace the public option with an option for uninsured people over 55 to buy into Medicare. There was a lot of debate on the blogosphere about whether that plan was better or worse than the anemic public option that had been in the Senate bill. But it may all be moot, because Joe Lieberman has backed out.

I'm coming to think Harry Reid has three options for getting that last vote on the bill: (1) Let Republican Olympia Snowe dictate what it will take to get her vote. (2) Go over Lieberman's head and negotiate directly with his owners, the health insurance companies. (3) Change the Senate rules to break the filibuster.

Blackwater and the CIA had "a far deeper relationship ... than government officials had acknowledged." The NYT's James Risen tells us that the mercenary company was involved not just in protecting CIA and State Department personel in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in "snatch and grab" and other offensive operations. Risen and Eric Lichtblau are the reporters who got a Pulitzer for breaking the NSA warrantless wiretap story, and Risen is also the author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

If you want to see a vision of where this kind of thing can go, read the novel The Army of the Republic by Stuart Archer Cohen, which I reviewed a year ago. You can wind up with private contractors doing stuff government is forbidden to do, but working hand-in-glove with government agents who do things private contractors can't do. Between them, very little is forbidden.

Retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote a ten-page memo that (beginning on page 4) takes a short-notes approach to Afghanistan. I think it allows him to do more justice to the chaotic nature of the situation than if he had to assemble a single coherent narrative. Some of his notes are downbeat, some outright Pollyanna-ish. (Like when he says that released detainees at Baghram "invariably" thank the base commander and hug him good-bye.) Maybe that's really how it looks.
I can't figure out how much attention I ought to pay to what Rachel Maddow calls "the kill-the-gays bill" in Uganda. It's based on the theory (popularized by American evangelicals) that homosexuality is curable, and so anyone who remains gay does so by choice. So the Ugandan bill takes a carrot-and-stick approach, pushing "treatment" for homosexuality and ramping up punishment for gay activities -- up to and including execution.

What I haven't been able to figure out is how serious a proposal this is. Lots of outrageous bills get proposed in the parliaments of the world, and you can't get excited about all of them. If this is a serious threat to murder gays and lesbians, major protest is called for. But if it's just some Ugandan politician's posturing for the Ugandan equivalent of the religious right, I'm not interested.

Believe it or not, I don't have any trusted source on Ugandan politics. So I have no idea.

I do know that the idea of curing gays has been kicking around for a long time in this country, and it is almost entirely the result of wishful thinking on the part of evangelicals. I reviewed a book on the ex-gay movement for UU World several years ago.

Retail sales makes an interesting graph. It bottomed out last December and is starting to inch upward. Still well below the peak in December 2007. Calculated Risk comments.

We still don't know what to call these last ten years, but they're almost over. Best and worst lists of the year or decade are already starting to appear. Including: worst movies of the decade, the all-decade baseball team, the all-decade football team, and Time's Top 10 Everything of 2009.

A new study out of China says soy might actually benefit breast cancer survivors rather than increase recurrence risk, as was previously suspected.

Two reviews [NYT, WSJ] of Barnes & Noble's e-book reader, the Nook, claim that it was rushed out for Christmas. It has some features that the Kindle doesn't have, but the complete package isn't implemented right yet. If you're tempted, wait for them to iron out the bugs.

The Nook's most interesting feature could help sell a lot of pricy coffee drinks: You can read whatever you want if you're in a B&N store.

Gretchen Carlson plays a dimwitted blonde character on Fox News, but Jon Stewart outs her as a high school valedictorian, an honors graduate of Stanford, and a classically trained violinist. Take that, Gretchen. I can't wait to see how Fox strikes back.

Stewart also pointed out the symbiosis between Glenn Beck pushing paranoia on his show and Glenn Beck pushing gold on an infomercial.

Stephen Colbert was on a roll Tuesday night. In one show, he mocked the Fed on his own, mocked it further while talking to Senator Bernie Sanders, and then interviewed Andy Schlafly, the founder of the Conservative Bible Project.

As part of his annual War on the War on Christmas, Bill O'Reilly ordered an ambush interview of the superintendent of an elementary school in Chelmsford, Mass. -- because the school isn't allowing enough Christmas to suit a few of the parents, who say they're going to sue. I happen to know one cute little girl who goes to that school. Her mother reports the "general consensus of the parents I know" about the complaints and lawsuit threats: "Don't these people have anything to DO?"

You know where there's really a war on Christmas? Israel.

And here's what actual religious discrimination looks like: Article 6, Section 8 of the North Carolina Constitution disqualifies from elective office "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God." Based on that, at least one guy is threatening a lawsuit to block Cecil Bothwell from taking his newly-won seat on the Asheville City Council. Bothwell has described himself as an atheist or a post-theist, but denies that he denies the being of Almighty God: "I simply consider the question of denial or acceptance irrelevant."

Whatever he does or doesn't deny, a court will undoubtedly rule that the religious freedom Bothwell gets from the U.S. Constitution can't be invalidated by any state's constitution. Sooner or later, he'll take office.

I'm sure this will be news to Bill Clinton, but South Carolina Republicans don't believe illicit sex is grounds for impeachment -- at least not impeachment of Republicans. The constitutional laws subcommittee of the SC House has voted 6-1 against impeachment of Governor Mark Sanford, and the Republican House speaker praised the result. (Meanwhile, wife Jenny Sanford filed for divorce.)

I guess I praise the result too, because the normal way to get sleazeballs out of office should be to wait for their terms to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment should be reserved for situations where ongoing abuses of power make waiting too dangerous. (That's why the Constitution suggests treason and bribery as grounds -- if the President is working for somebody else, we need him gone.) As subcommittee Chair Jim Harrison (a Republican) said: "Impeachment is not akin to a recall. We can't impeach for hypocrisy. We can't impeach for arrogance." Why do I think he'll forget this principle the next time a Democrat has a sex scandal?

All four Democrats on the subcommittee voted against impeachment.

When it comes to President Obama, no sex scandal is necessary. A new poll by Public Policy Polling says that 35% of Republicans "support the impeachment of President Obama for his actions so far." PPP's Tom Jensen comments:
I’m not clear exactly what "high crimes and misdemeanors" they are using to justify that position, but there may be a certain segment of voters on both the right and the left these days that simply think the President doing things they don’t agree with is grounds for removal from office.

It's not news, but it's something I didn't know and just found out: The Green Bay Packers get their name from the Acme Packing Company that was their sponsor in the early days. Most football team names turn out to have dull histories, but the Baltimore Ravens honor local writer Edgar Allan Poe, and the Philadelphia Eagles are connected to the eagle symbol of FDR's National Recovery Administration. No wonder Rush Limbaugh was so hard on Donovan McNabb.

Gossip site Heckler Spray on the new baby of quarterback Tom Brady and supermodel Gisele Bundchen:
Let's pray that this little boy never meets and falls in love with Shiloh Nouvel Jolie Pitt. A baby that mixes the genetics of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Brady and Gisele would probably bring about the end of the world.

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